Name: Mee Moua
JSI Attended: Princeton University, 1991
Current Title: Executive Director
Current Employer: Asian Americans Advancing Justice | AAJC
This interview has been edited for clarity and length.
What was the most valuable lesson you learned from your Junior Summer Institute experience?
I first learned about the PPIA Fellowship Program when I was an undergraduate at Brown with a concentration in public policy. I came across the opportunity through a flyer when I was at the Taubman Center for Public Policy & American Institutions for a meeting, and at the time I didn’t know that the fellowship would lead to a graduate school fellowship. I thought it was an opportunity for students of color who are interested in public policy to come together and gain technical experience in the policy making process. I came to the public policy concentration late because I was a premed major. I was torn because I felt like political science was too theoretical in nature, and I was drawn to policy as being tangible and relevant. The JSI was my opportunity to deep dive into the process. I applied and was grateful to be able to spend a summer at Princeton.
One thing that has stuck with me is that I came into the experience lacking confidence in my statistical and mathematical abilities. The strong focus on analytical skills sent me back to finish my last year at Brown with a high level of confidence. I was blown away by the high-level, concrete, policy discussions we had. We had a conversation about health care policy and how to reach all sectors of the community. It was a philosophical debate about access and the difference between the poor and rich, and I remember being so inspired by the discussion. I was empowered by it and thought to myself, “Wow, here is a way I can make a difference.” We were just kids, but our life experiences enabled us to make meaningful contributions these discussions. That signaled to me that there was a need for me in this field and value in my experiences.
You’ve had an impressive career in public service, including being the first Hmong American elected to the Minnesota Legislature, serving three terms as a State Senator. What inspired you to pursue a career in public service?
I had been in private practice for almost four years, and in that time I moved around within the firm to different teams doing different government related work but never really landed anywhere that anchored me into a law career trajectory. That sense of a lack of an anchor led me to think about looking for what else might be out there. I was also starting to be active in the Ethnic Chamber of Commerce. I had clients who came to me to ask for help with strategic thinking but couldn’t pay corporate fees. They offered to create a consulting opportunity for me to help them. The incumbent senator got elected mayor, and for the first time in about twelve years there was a vacancy in my district. I remember not being impressed by other candidates, who weren’t willing to volunteer. Around that time, I had coffee with a state representative who was rumored to be interested in running for office, though he hadn’t announced plans to do so. I asked him about his possible candidacy, and it turned out that he was interested in asking me to be the candidate. He even said he would love to work with me. That was a little shocking to hear. Given those circumstances and my leave of absence from law firm, I began to think seriously about my next career move. I went home to talk it over with my husband and said, “Wouldn’t it be fun and different?” We made the decision to run because we felt like it was such a great opportunity to test our organizing skills and learn how to tap into community. It was total convergence of all the right things happening at the right moment.
I hadn’t thought I would win, so running didn’t seem like a big risk. We knew we were the underdog, and we focused on having fun with a good campaign. We looked to increase base of voters, and felt no fear, no sense of vulnerability.
What was the most rewarding part of being an elected official?
I felt like for the first time all the pieces of my life came together. I had a job that allowed me to dedicate my full self to the tasks at hand. As rewarding and intellectually stimulating as the work was, I was putting in 12-14 hour days and then doing another 6 hours of community organizing. Getting elected was an aha moment for me—the job was personally relevant and I felt that I could make a difference in peoples’ lives in a real way. At that moment in my life it was the perfect fit for me, and ironically enough all the schooling I had done, all the community organizing, my legal career—all those things—were assets that I had been collecting and provided me with skills I could use. I was put on the Tax Committee and Public Finance Subcommittee, and a lot of the work we did was related to things I had worked on as a young associate in the law firm.
All my experiences have built on each other to make me successful. There haven’t been any wasted experiences. My past has given me foundation I needed to be effective legislator.
What made you decide to transition to the non-profit sector?
Getting elected was a family effort and a community wide effort. My husband and I determined that we would be in politics for a limited amount of time and then move on to do other things. My mother-in-law had been living with us, and when she passed away, our need to stay in Minnesota shifted. We thought about where our kids were and what the best timing was for transitioning. We decided that it was better to make a change earlier in my third term rather than later, so I retired at end of my third term. I knew that I was interested in the non-profit sector or philanthropy. Having been a policy maker and a law maker, I knew that the skills I brought from the policy process would be critical for those two sectors in looking at their goal to take care of the most vulnerable. I knew I wanted to continue doing the work I had loved. I had had the chance to serve on the Judiciary Committee, which gave me a chance to expand my portfolio to include social justice. I wanted to be able to continue doing that same kind of work.
You’re currently serving as the Executive Director for Asian Americans Advancing Justice (AAJC). What drew you to this role and this organization?
After deciding to retire from being an elected official, I ended up working in Washington, DC. Within the first year, my friend and predecessor here at AAJC announced retirement. and I was approached about the position I hadn’t been looking for an opportunity like this but I also knew that AAJC is a critical organization for the Asian American community and the position could provide me with an interesting challenge so I decided to move forward with the interview and ended up being offered the role. Ultimately, the broad civil rights platform and the position within the Asian American community and broader cross-racial community convinced me it was the platform I had been looking for to continue the work I had started doing in the legislature.
You’ve held a number of leadership positions throughout your career. In your experience, what do you think makes someone a good leader?
Different leadership opportunities are always revealing. There is a spectrum to leadership that always allows you room to grow. As an attorney in a hierarchical environment there were different demands for what qualities needed to be sharpened and honed. In a legislative setting it gave me a chance to think about leadership in a different way. I amassed a different set of leadership skills and discovered different facets of who I am as an individual. Now as a leader of a nonprofit organization, I face multi-faceted leadership demands. If I were to connect the dots I would say that each of those experiences have contributed to solidifying one pillar that I think is the evolving basis upon which I operate as a leader. I am still developing, but I think I have enough experience at this point to feel comfortable being a leading voice.
For me, I have always valued that it is better to lead from the heart rather than the head. Leading from the heart means that sometimes how you do something is equally as important as what gets done. The process is as important as the outcome. I really believe that it is really important to instill co-ownership among all the players in whatever we arrive at. This process allows me to feel comfortable making hard decisions. This is critical because at the end of the day I have to be able to make tough choices. Being comfortable with the process I use to reach those decisions makes it easier to know that they come from the right place.
You obtained a master’s degree from the Lyndon B. Johnson School of Public Affairs and a J.D. from the University of Minnesota Law School. What motivated you to pursue degrees in both public affairs and law?
I’ve always said that if I had a thoughtful mentor who had sat me down and pushed me to think about what I wanted to do, I don’t think I would have gone to law school. I decided to do both because I thought that I would do my first year at LBJ and then apply to UTA for a joint degree. I ended up wanting to go home and decided I would just go back home to do law school. I remember reading through local community newspapers during my first week of law school and seeing a number of position descriptions. I could have applied and been a good candidate for those jobs. I didn’t have anyone with who to talk those doubts through, and my immigrant background came out and said, “No you started this you should finish it.”
Afterwards I went to work for a law school, but the entire time I was in school I was operating as a community organizer working with the Asian American community to try and get people involved in the political process. Through a nonprofit organization I got an internship to run a precinct caucus outreach program to immigrant communities. I went to churches, community groups and distributed multi-lingual information. I thought that if I could get more turnout at elections they could have their voices heard in the process. I trace the inception of my political experience back to that internship. Even when I went on to work in corporate law, I still had that passion for social justice. At every turn, there were things helping me return to this path of public policy and policy making.
I remember having a conversation about career paths and I always saw myself as a wonk and not an elected official.
What is your proudest professional achievement?
At the end of the day, I am proud of the types of relationships I have created along the way. I’ve learned during my ten years in public life that sometimes without those meaningful relationships you can get lulled into an environment where all relationships become transactional. I’ve always felt like one of the reasons I can always feel proud that I was a successful legislator is that I always tended to relationships with an eye to making sure they would survive the transactional environment. That’s different than being opportunistic in relationships. Take care to build trust and create common set of purpose and identify a common set of values. Even two very different people can be operating in a same space towards a common end.
When I chaired the Judiciary Committee, I feel like I ran an inclusive committee that was really shaped by how I wanted to put an agenda together but didn’t sacrifice how we did the work to petty politics. I could have just pushed things through but I felt it was important to ensure that everyone, regardless of political identity, felt that they owned the outcome and that it was a senate product rather than a democratic or republican product. In the year I retired, the senate turned over and a representative I had worked with became chair of the committee and he asked me to spend a week helping him with the transition. He came to me and said, “It’s been great working with you, you never made me feel like I was a minority. You always consulted me and made sure I knew where something was coming from so I could cover myself. I wanted your advice on how to be that kind of leader for this committee.” I’ve had opportunities to reflect on that, and maybe I’m a little old fashioned in the way I approached the work but in this post 9/11 world facing budget deficits I don’t think I would have been as successful if that wasn’t my style.
Often, we hear about people entering public service careers and burning out, how do you stay motivated to continue fighting for social change?
For me I’ve been more motivated by the hope of the long term impact versus the short term gamesmanship. I don’t measure by what leg passes or doesn’t but rather by how the discussion that happened during that process helps to move the debate on that issue. I feel like I’m less susceptible to the high highs and the low lows that way. That’s how I’ve been able to sustain and maintain being intentional about how to do this work thoughtfully and pragmatically. Now that I’m no longer in that policy role, it’s not about the wins or the losses, although those are important. What energizes me now is that I recognize that in my youth I felt like I could slay dragons and I could do it by myself. The wisdom I’ve gained is that we can’t change things by having one charismatic person; we need to work to create champions across the spectrum and the conditions that externally that support actions internally.
What motivates me right now is my desire to use the AAJC platform to build a pipeline to contribute more voices and bodies to continue the work. I want to recruit and train top notch men and women that love this work, subscribe to same belief in our public institutions, and believe that there is good that can come about when the right conditions are in place. I want to pass that passion on to the next generation so the fight continues long after I am gone. I am looking to create a legacy. We need people who aren’t just passionate about the politics but have passion for the institutions and really believe that the public policy making arena makes a difference in people’s lives and that the reward they get is in contributing to the shaping of an environment that deeply cares about ensuring that the most vulnerable have a safety net.
Follow Ms. Moua on Twitter @Mee_Moua.