Voice for the Community: Steve Ly

On Tuesday, November 6th, 2012, Steve Ly became the first Asian American to be elected onto the Elk Grove Unified School District Board of Education, and the first Hmong elected official in Northern California. Ly won by a landslide with nearly 67% of the vote and more than 57,000 votes to defeat incumbent Jake Rambo, an administrative law judge. Elk Grove Unified School District is the fifth largest school district in California and the largest in Northern California serving more than 64,000 students. Ly is the fifth Hmong American elected official onto a school board or city council in California (Paul Lo, Dr. Tony Vang, Blong Xiong, and Noah Lor).

Ly was born in Laos and arrived in the United States in 1976 at the age of four. Ly’s family was first sponsored to Gardena near Los Angeles then relocated to Clovis. Ly grew up working in the fields of his family’s small farm like many other Hmong who resettled in the Central Valley. These experiences taught him the values of hard work and the importance of higher education. After graduating from Clovis High School Ly went to attend the University of California Davis and graduated with Bachelors in Political Science and Sociology. Ly later completed a Doctor of Jurisprudence from University of Northern California. Ly has worked for Sacramento County Office of Education since 1997. He is a parent in Elk Grove Unified School District and wife, Cua Lo-Ly works as a library media teacher in the District.

As a youth, Ly enjoyed reading about history.Ly recalls his father telling him stories about how Hmong soldiers rescued down U.S. pilots.Unsure if these stories were true, Ly was hungry to learn more.He conducted research about Hmong history in high school and organized an event at Clovis High School that invited Hmong veterans to come talk about their experiences during the Secret War. “Soon after I learned about these experiences, I felt a responsibility as a Hmong person, to educate others about the sacrifices and contributions the Hmong have made,” said Ly. “Telling our stories and fighting for our place in the U.S. became a lifelong cause. Everywhere I went, if I had the opportunity, I made it a priority.”

Some may not remember that Ly first ran for School Board ten years ago and was defeated in his first attempt. When asked about what motivated him to run again for Elk Grove Unified School Board, Ly replied, “I wanted to be a catalyst for change.” For Ly that change meant running for office to be in a position to influence policy. “My father passed away 11 years ago when I was in my second year of law school and did not finish,” shared Ly, “My family went through two deaths within the same year.” After going through that I wanted to do something bigger to inspire others so I ran for School Board but did not win. Ly strongly believe that if you are passionate about something you must keep going. He eventually went back and completed his law degree.

Ly cited Abraham Lincoln who is one of the most influential Presidents and role model in his life Ly learned about the many years Lincoln failed at running for elected offices in Congress and as a nominee for Vice President. The one key successful time that Lincoln did win was when he ran for President. Ly believes that the one who doesn’t give up will win in the end. “It’s about the journey that matters. There are lessons to be learned in your failures and when a second chance presents itself you apply those lessons to win,” stated Ly.

Steve Ly decided to run again when the opportunity presented itself this past fall. Ly states “We need to get involved in order to create change.” For who choose not to get involved it is difficult for decision makers to listen when they complain about issues affecting them. Ly knows that there can be different strategies to approach policy based on his community activism experience as a college student at demonstrations to demand for bilingual interpreters. He discovered that sometimes in order for decision makers to listen you need to be proactive and be at the table to influence the policy ahead of implementation. He understands that outcomes may not always be exactly what you want but as a compromise it is better than to be reactionary to how a policy affects the community.

Ly’s second campaign faced many challenges and to win a seat was exceptional for several reasons. First Ly was running as an underdog in an area considered “conservative” against incumbent, Jake Rambo. Second the campaign collaborated with several other school board candidates, Perez and Forcina in Elk Grove and also had the support of Elk Grove Mayor Jim Cooper and Mayor-elect Gray Davis. And lastly the campaign relied on the more than 250 youth and volunteers to get the word out which resulted in Ly winning the seat.

The campaign generated a lot interest from many youth, college students and young professionals and was able to utilize that energy from the volunteers. Mai Yang Vang, decided to volunteer as campaign coordinator for Steve’s campaign not because he was Hmong–but because she believed in his vision of equity. She shared “As the eldest of 16, I knew how important Steve’s win was to my family–we had a stake in this school board race because 7 of my siblings attend schools in the District. I wanted the best advocate for my siblings and I knew Steve was that candidate.” She states “This win could not have happened without the dedication and hard work from our volunteers. They phone banked, precinct walked and dropped campaign literature to over 12,000 homes–the youth and the Hmong community made this win a reality.” As a result of collaboration the campaign helped elect three new board members and changed the political dynamic of an entire school board. According to Vang, “Our campaign sent a positive statement, that the youth and the Hmong community is here to stay. We are making our mark and our voices will be heard.”

As the only Hmong American elected to office in Northern California with a seat at the table on the Elk Grove School Board, Ly understands the important role he will have in representing not just the District but also being a voice for the Hmong American community. Ly stresses that the community needs to stay civically engaged and visible to remind others who we are, why we are here and what issues are important to the community. Win or lose we need to voice our issues and continue to be part of the process. Being in a position of leadership does not mean that all the solutions to problems in the community will happen overnight but it’s a start to making meaningful changes. Ly is committed to a life in public service. His twenty years of work history, volunteering, and community activism experiences reflects that belief.

When asked what are some important issues Ly replied implementing AB78 which was a law passed to include the experiences of Southeast Asians into social studies curriculum. He is interested in the disaggregation of Asian Pacific Islander data in order to dispel the model minority myth. During his time at UC Davis in 1992, Ly was taught to be critical of data. He believes that disaggregating data will allow the School Board to see disparities and address inequities in the district.

“Education gave me a wealth of knowledge, early on, my parents didn’t get an education and they taught me that education will help you become a key player in making change, people will take you seriously,” stated Ly. “I know that public education is the key equalizing factor in America. In order for our community to become successful and move forward we need to educate every child.” He believes that the role of education is very important to children and the community. When Ly attended UC Davis twenty years ago, there were only about 25 Hmong students. The student group organized the Higher Education Conference every year to bring hundreds of high school students to campus and inspired a generation of college students to attend UC Davis. Today there are more than 300 Hmong students at Davis. Ly is convinced they so they made an impact in outreach to the community about the importance of higher education.

Ly’s message to the community is “don’t give up when you lose and everyday take the opportunity to learn something new.” The youth embodies the hopes of our communities and this successful campaign was about their future. No one thought we would win but we believed and this shows what can happen when people work together for a common good. With Ly’s recent win there is already a lot of excitement and interest about his future political plans among his constituents. Many community members have expressed that the total amount of votes is the most any Hmong candidate has ever received in the history of American politics. Ly won with more than 57,000 votes which is comparable to some California Assembly district or other state level races. This amount is also three times the number of votes Minnesota State Senator-elect Foung Heu or former Minnesota State Senator Mee Moua secured to win their campaigns. When asked about possibilities at the state level Ly replied “I will consider those opportunities if they present themselves.” Ly emphasized that not all issues may be resolved at the local level such as budget allocation but for now his is focused on the current office and plan on doing the best possible job for the students of Elk Grove Unified. On December 13th, 2012, Steve Ly will be officially inaugurated as a Trustee of the Elk Grove Unified School District Board of Education.