by Akemi Tamanaha, Associate Editor
Late Monday afternoon Sheng Thao was sworn in as mayor of Oakland, California. She is the first Hmong American woman mayor of a major U.S. city.
Thao’s parents came to the United States as refugees escaping the Hmong genocide in Laos. The 37-year-old mayor was one of ten children growing up in poverty in Stockton, California. According to the city of Oakland’s newsroom, she moved to Richmond at the age of 17 and began working at a Walgreens.
In her 20s, Thao was the victim of domestic violence. She experienced violent abuse from her boyfriend and her boyfriend’s father while pregnant with her son. Six months into her pregnancy she decided to leave her boyfriend. Thao and her son were homeless, living out of a car until a friend offered her a place to stay.
She enrolled at Merritt Community College ten months after giving birth and eventually graduated from UC Berkeley while raising her son. She worked for city council members before becoming the first Hmong American woman to be elected to the Oakland City Council in 2018. Then in 20
Around 3 p.m. on January 9, hundreds of people gathered at the Paramount theater for an inauguration ceremony for Thao, city council members and school board members. The ceremony opened with a dance presentation from Aztec dance ensemble Nahui Ehekatl and Co. Corrinna Gould also provided a land acknowledgment, remembering and honoring that Oakland was once the village of Huichin.
Several newly elected and re-elected school board members and city council members were sworn in before Thao, including two AAPI city council members newly-elected member Janani Ramachandran and re-elected member Nikki Fortunato Bas. Ramachandran is the youngest city council member to be elected in Oakland history.
Before Thao was sworn in, the audience honored Dr. Kimberly Mayfield who will serve as deputy mayor. Mayfield was raised and educated in the Bay Area. Since earning her doctorate and working as a Special Education teacher, she has become a fierce education advocate.
Thao’s son Benedict provided a musical prelude before his mother was officially sworn in. When Thao stepped up to the podium, she was given a standing ovation. California Attorney General Rob Bonta joined Thao onstage to swear the mayor in.
An emotional Thao began her remarks by tearfully thanking her mother who could not attend the ceremony because she is very ill. She also thanked her father who was present at the ceremony. She honored the city employees in attendance by asking them to stand so the audience could applaud them.
During her speech, she praised the cultural diversity of Oakland and the city’s shared values.
“We are a city that values equity, values diversity, opportunities. We are a birthplace of different movements for justice, for civil rights,” she said.
But Thao was also quick to remind the audience that Oakland didn’t always share those progressive values. She noted that the Oakland city council was dominated by Ku Klux Klan members. Many minority families in Oakland today live in neighborhoods that excluded non-Whites from homeownership.
Thao hopes to create a government that serves all of its people “not just the wealth or the well-connected.”
“Hmong people have a deep commitment to creating vibrant, connected communities. These are our values that I hold deep in my heart, values that drive my dedication to public service,” she said.
The mayor reiterated her commitment to championing the progressive policies she ran on during her campaign. She wants to build more affordable housing, expand violence prevention services, create programs to address drug addiction and provide BIPOC communities with more equitable access to capital. Thao is also still currently a renter and has vowed to protect renters in Oakland.
“This mission of the administration that I want to uplift and hold will be to build a safer Oakland, a more affordable Oakland, a more just Oakland for all. In Oakland that I know, and that we all know, is possible,” she said.
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