by Melody Ip
Whether Kim-Khánh Văn is serving on the Renton City Council, advocating for clients as an attorney, leading as co-president of the Parent-Teacher Association, volunteering with numerous community organizations — and now running for King County Council — she boils her motivation down to this phrase: “acknowledging privilege, being grateful for opportunities, and paying it forward.”
Văn was born on a farm in Cam Ranh, Vietnam, shortly after the Vietnam War, and escaped with her family to a refugee camp in the Philippines for about seven months. At the camp, the family’s future was uncertain; they thought they would all die there. Then they received the life-changing news that a Lutheran church would sponsor the family to come to the U.S.
“When we got that lottery ticket — the privilege — we got a hand up from the system,” Văn explained. “Once [I] entered through kindergarten and the public school education system in Seattle, through college and becoming a lawyer, I realized that I was privileged, even though we were low income, lived in housing projects, and I was raised by a single mother with a third-grade education, from a war-torn country.”
As a student at Garfield High School, Văn saw Black friends left out of honors programs, despite being, as she recalled, “as smart, or even smarter, actually” as her. She cited those denied opportunities as due to a lack of privilege. Privilege that she was fortunate to have, even as a refugee, and as a result of the Asian model minority myth, the perception and expectations that Asian Americans are polite and law-abiding people who achieve success through hard work. Her experiences led her to recognize that when trying to help people, our efforts are limited by laws–real change happens when laws change. And to change those laws meant running for public office.
Sights on the King County Council
In mid-December, Văn announced her candidacy to run for the King County Council representing District 9, after having been on the Renton City Council since 2019. She will be running against Reagan Dunn, who has been the District 9 representative for 15 years.
“It wasn’t my plan to run … but I think it was the mama bear in me,” Văn said. “It’s at a point where I’m protecting our communities [in District 9] and [my opponent] is doing the opposite.”
Văn recalled stories that fueled her decision to run for county council: a Chinese American kindergartener in Renton who was accused by classmates of having the “Chinese virus” and a former Renton resident who plans to move to Ghana when her child turns 10 because she fears her child will eventually be murdered by the police in the U.S.
These stories and the issues behind them were amplified this year by the COVID-19 pandemic — systemic racism, discrimination, homelessness. However, in Văn’s opinion, these issues are not being urgently and adequately addressed by Dunn, the current District 9 councilmember, who Văn described as disconnected from the communities he represents — communities whose members were suffering from racist-fueled attacks and racial profiling.
“That struck my core,” Văn said. “We didn’t have protection. We need representatives who have the lived experience to appreciate the challenges facing our increasingly diverse and dynamic communities. We need people who stand up for me, my kids who are born here, my neighbors, and our communities. Our country was in turmoil, in this pivotal point, and you don’t get it right.”
As Văn campaigns for a seat on the county council, she summarizes her priority as making sure that, as we recover from COVID-19, the American dream is still possible and accessible by everyone. She aims to take a holistic approach to public safety by strengthening police accountability; protecting our water, land, and environment; alleviating small businesses’ economic impacts; and solving homelessness and transportation issues — and the intersection of inclusion and equity in all those sectors.
The Importance of Representation
When Văn was in fourth grade, she met Senator Patty Murray, who is famously known for being “just a mom in tennis shoes.” Văn was not fluent in English at the time, but meeting a mother who also was a politician — something unheard of in Vietnam — was profoundly impactful. Now, being on the other end, Văn recognizes the heavy responsibility of being a role model and a symbol of representation.
If Văn is elected, she will be the first Asian American Pacific Islander (AAPI) woman to be on the King County Council since Ruby Chow was elected in 1973. Even more monumental, Văn would be the first Woman of Color to serve since the modern Metropolitan King County Council was established in 1992, when the county’s water-quality and transit services were folded into county government. Currently, Girmay Zahilay, representing District 2, is the only BIPOC King County councilmember.
“[My election] would mean that our community is going to have a voice, and not just AAPI communities, but certainly the African American and Indigenous communities, communities that have been left behind, the working class, newly arrived immigrants and refugees, the single parent communities — the intersectionality of my identity and what I’ve grown up with, what I’ve seen in our communities,” Văn stated.
Văn strives to represent hard work and unity, values that are evident in her district. This means being mindful of infrastructure needs, for example, seeing the bus as an economic mobility ladder, a necessity for community members to earn wages and bring them one step closer to the American dream.
“You don’t want to mess it up for anyone else that comes after,” she explained. “You want to make sure that the door of opportunities and the ladder to economic mobility is still there for the next person.
Melody Ip is a freelance copy editor/writer and managing editor for Mochi Magazine. She loves the trees and rain of the Pacific Northwest, still sends handwritten letters, and always has at least five books on her nightstand.
Featured image: Kim-Khánh Văn; photo courtesy of Kim-Khahn Van campaign.