Advocacy on the Agenda

Former community organizer set to assume office as Michigan’s first Asian-American female state representative

As Stephanie Chang explored running for state rep of Michigan’s 6th District, she asked herself several questions.

“Am I qualified? Would I do a good job? … Could I win?” she says. And most importantly: “Would I be able to make an impact?” Another question: Would being Asian-American be an issue in a district that’s predominantly African-American?

It wasn’t. Chang easily won the August primary, beating out six other candidates in a crowded field en route to her inevitable victory in November.

“Most people [I talked to while exploring a run] were very much like it’s about whether or not you’ll do a good job. Ultimately people want someone who they trust and who shares their values and who will work really, really hard,” she says.

Chang is ready. She will assume office this month as the first Asian-American woman to be elected state rep to the Michigan Legislature, representing Detroit, River Rouge, and Ecorse.

Early on, the 31-year-old Lafayette Park resident became an advocate for issues affecting people of color. As a student at the University of Michigan, she worked on the campaign to keep affirmative action in Michigan. After college, she worked as Grace Lee Boggs’ assistant at the Boggs Center — years she says were the “best possible orientation to the history of Detroit and grassroots organizing.”

“Detroiters are not just resilient but creative and will figure out ways to make things happen,” she says. “As I enter the legislature I think those perspectives and just knowing all the different things that are happening in my district at a grassroots level will help to keep me grounded, because it’s about the big policy changes but at the same time it’s all about supporting local grassroots efforts.”

Over chai at Great Lakes Coffee Roasting Co. in Detroit, Chang shared with Hour Detroit what’s on her agenda as she makes the transition from community organizer to freshman legislator.

Q: How will you make an impact on your district?

A: I’m going to continue the Neighborhood Service Center … People can come in with whatever issue they might have. … I’m also going to start a fellowship for high school girls of color in the district … to help continue to build this pipeline of women of color into the policymaking arena. It would be a yearlong program where the girls learn about organizing skills and leadership skills but also get to shadow women of color elected officials in Michigan. [They would] figure out what issue they want to work on and come up with a community action project and possibly learn how to write a bill.

… Issues I’m most interested in getting engaged in are around education, safety and a fair justice system, and restoring the social safety net. [Under Gov. Rick Snyder’s administration], there’s been a lot of cuts to things like the state’s earned income tax credit, child care credits … changes to the unemployment benefits, a lot of the things that people rely on when they go through hard times. …

Environmental justice is a big issue. … It’s not really until you go door to door in certain neighborhoods and every other person [says] “pollution is my top thing” that I really started to realize it’s something that I absolutely have to work on.

Q: What are your plans regarding education?

A: There are a lot of proposals that have come out recently from the House Dems in terms of charter school accountability, and I’m excited to become a part of those efforts … making sure that the charter schools are transparent about their funds. I’m really concerned that more than 80 percent of the charter schools in Michigan are run by for-profit institutions. … A criticism of charter schools across the country has been because of the lottery system, not every child in the neighborhood necessarily will be able to go a school that’s close to them. … One of the things I’d like to do is … a geographic preference so if you’re a school that it’s part of your mission to serve the neighborhood [based on ZIP code or similar boundaries]. … So that’s one specific small thing that I think will help prevent future issues. … We [also] need to do a better job of tracking where our students are going so if a student is in a traditional DPS school and then transfers to a charter school, how are we tracking where that student is? … There’s a lot of conversation [in 2014] and previous years around how to evaluate teacher effectiveness and I think that one of the things that I am concerned about is finding ways to holistically measure how teachers and students are doing. There’s a big focus on test scores as a way to measure how students are doing and also there are severe consequences for schools, administrators, teachers depending on those scores …  I want to explore ways to more holistically evaluate teacher performance and student performance.

Q: How would you improve safety in your district?

A: Safety combines with a fair justice system, they kind of go hand in hand. In terms of re-entry we need to make sure when folks are coming home from prison we’re doing a better job of getting folks the resources they need to get back on their feet so that they don’t re-offend. [I’m also thinking about] convening a safety collaborative. Every neighborhood’s got their person who’s on it in terms of safety and every neighborhood is kind of coming up with their own creative ways [to make their neighborhood safer], whether it be a radio block patrol that some groups are starting up or different things like that. [I’d like to] convene a collaborative or a collective of folks from each of the different neighborhoods that are working on safety in their neighborhood and bringing them close together so they can share best practices and share what’s working, what’s not working so we’re not recreating the wheel.