WS State Rep. Francesca Hong Highlights Key Steps for Progressive Change

By Eddie Wong. Posted Oct. 5, 2022.

Intro: As part of East Wind ezine’s coverage of the crucial midterm elections, we present a series of interviews with Asian American elected officials and activists who are fighting hard in battleground states. Rep. Francesca Hong was elected in 2020 to represent the 76th Assembly District in Madison, WS. She is the first and only Asian American in the Wisconsin State Legislature. Born and raised in Madison, she has worked in restaurants since 2009 and became co-chef and co-owner of Morris Ramen, a top-rated Madison restaurant, in 2016. This interview was conducted by Eddie Wong on September 26, 2022.

Eddie Wong:  What are some of your thoughts as we move into the heat of the midterm election campaign in Wisconsin?

Rep. Francesca Hong: When it comes to relational organizing and engaging specifically communities of color and Asian American communities, we must remember that turnout is more than getting people to vote. We’re more than an on off switch. Relationship building takes time and unfortunately, in Wisconsin I don’t think we have been investing enough and building relationships specifically with the Hmong community here. It’s beyond just parachuting into communities and trying to get them excited about a candidate. It’s really asking people what they care about, letting them know that mistakes were made in the past of only showing up during election season and that our intention is to do more and be better.

We have the third largest Hmong community in the country, and we have to recognize the generational trauma that exists in the communities and the dominance of patriarchy in these communities.  We must be mindful and sensitive to engaging with folks and recognizing that it’s important to keep these issues at the forefront. I don’t think it’s enough to just have pamphlets and mailers with different languages. There’s a lot of people in the Hmong community who are more oral listeners than reading pamphlets. We’re making inroads.  We’ve got phenomenal leadership right now in the API caucus, but we must make sure that we’re trusting people who are demanding resources and build that organizational power.

Photo from PBS documentary “The Hmong in Rural Wisconsin,” a Lidia Bastianich production for WGBH.

I’m more rooted in community work because we have a gerrymandered state and a legislature where Republicans in power refused to provide resources for our communities. I firmly believe that electoral politics needs to center improving the conditions for community work to expand and grow. It’s about having more elected leaders recognize that we’re making the proper investments in relational organizing at the party level. And then remembering that the issues, especially in Hmong communities in Wisconsin, are complex.  We need to celebrate the contributions of these communities and not just center on the war and the reason they’re here which lands on talking more about their trauma as opposed to their triumphs.

Eddie Wong: Are you finding that the party and national foundations are beginning to make those investments or is there still a long way to go?

Rep. Francesca Hong:  We know that the API voters were the margin of victory for Wisconsin in 2020. We know that it was communities of color and specifically a lot of Black women organizers who have done the work on the ground to make sure that the voters turn out.

I think it needs to be the type of investments that both hits some of our gaps right now when it comes to field organizers, but also encourages them to stay and do relational outreach all year round. When it comes to building coalitions, the directors and managers need to be on salary all year round to make sure that this relational organizing pieces is sustainable.

I would also love to see some more national attention come to the state. I know that states with larger API populations tend to see more engagement. But Wisconsin being a battleground is a petri dish for a lot of authoritarian policies that do long term harm for community building, and foreshadow what might happen in a lot of other states.

We don’t invest enough in our organizers or have folks on their airwaves in more rural areas. That makes it harder for us to get our message out to communities, specifically Asian communities in areas that are not progressive strongholds.

Rep. Francesca Hong speaking at State Assembly. Photo from Hong4Assembly website.

Eddie Wong: You must do a lot of work with Freedom Inc. as well then, right?

Rep. Francesca Hong: I think what’s great about them is their ability to really highlight Hmong communities, not being defined by a lot of the patriarchal culture and celebrating a lot more of the folks within the community. I also work with the Hmong institute. We have multiple Hmong candidates running for statewide office and building the pipeline, ensuring that we’re having Hmong representation at many levels of government. We still don’t have a Hmong legislator in the legislature right now. I’m currently the only as well as the first Asian American in the legislature.

Eddie: Are you feeling that the Dodds decision and the issue of reproductive rights is really energizing voters in Wisconsin? Will that help make the difference?

Rep. Francesca Hong: Absolutely, I think it is a clear message from the opposition that they do not care and aim to control. They want government to be a source of interference and mandates and not a source for good. And I think we have a lot of people who don’t want to engage with politics because it’s so polarizing right now. But the Dobbs decision is really making politics personal for a lot of people, and it’s energizing women all across the state.

Another message I’m really trying to share with folks is that the government has no right to tell you how to take care of someone you love. And someone you love will need an abortion someday; someone you love has had an abortion; and someone will you love will want an abortion. This decision is an infringement on freedom for everyone. In Wisconsin right now we have an 1849 law that’s in place that prohibit anyone from providing an abortion. Self-induced abortions are not illegal, but abortion providers would be fined and given a felony charge. So, it’s absolutely been energizing voters. A lot of people just feel very removed from what’s going on in government, and this is giving us an opportunity to let them know yeah, you might say you don’t want to do politics, but politics is going to do you.

Protesters hold signs as they listen to speakers Thursday, March 18, 2021, during the March for Asian American Lives in Madison, Wis. Angela Major/Wisconsin Public Radio.

Eddie Wong: I read your in your article What’s At Stake in This Election in Bon Appetit before you ran for office in 2020, and it really struck me that, one, you’re not afraid to use the F word. And two, you’re really for systematic change. What in your upbringing or education as an organizer led you on that path?

Rep. Francesca Hong: Well, I’m a daughter of a progressive sociologist as well as a Catholic music teacher.  I come from a household where I see that people are capable of changing their political ideologies. I saw it in my mother and my dad. And I saw the power of conversation and gathering around food. My parents hosted and they continue to host to this day new folks coming to the university from Korea. My parents would host these parties where there was bratwurst and gochujang and people would get introduced to Spotted Cow, which is our state beer. Community building for me – I didn’t even really know that’s what it was – I just I knew that listening to so many different types of conversation and helping people feel a sense of belonging in Madison, that was something that has just been a part of my life since I was a kid.

I think it’s what compelled me into going into hospitality work. The beautiful thing about people who work in restaurants is that it takes a special breed to work in a restaurant and to stay with it because you see the best and worst in humanity. Just knowing that things could always be better when you work together, and centering care and food was a way for me to connect with people. I saw disparities in the restaurant industry, especially amongst women, and it’s what made me co-found the Culinary Ladies Collective .

We have, by the way,  an open kitchen. I want to create a restaurant where people not only felt visible but had their work affirmed. But there’s a lot of systemic changes that must happen in the restaurant industry. I started getting into the policy ring and bringing voices from the service industry to this work.

State Rep. Francesca Hong. Photo from Hong4Assembly website.

It’s not going to happen without more of us, because the system wants us to be cynical. They want us to feel helpless and if we don’t have more folks, especially if Democrats don’t have working class folks with lived experiences at the forefront at their leadership, we’re fucked.

Eddie Wong: How do you juggle your life? You’re a mother, you run a major restaurant. You’re a state legislator and you’re a national advocate. How do you do it all?

Rep. Francesca Hong: I don’t do it all well. I am a product of both of committing to and believing in community. I have people from my restaurant who help take care of my son. I have my parents I rely on, and I’m unapologetic about intergenerational housing and also want to change the stigma of living with your parents. I want to take care of them and have them take care of me. I have a community of women from the Culinary Ladies Collective who continue to affirm and support what I do. And then at the restaurant I have an amazing staff. A lot of the good that’s happening in the restaurant right now that’s only because of them choosing to stay and work there and feel respected and valued for the work.

If I have that expectation for myself to constantly keep things balanced, then it’s an impossible task. So there are definitely things that have to fall through the cracks, but other opportunities that come up, and I’m just really grateful that I have a lot of people who believe in me, even in times when I don’t.

Family portrait from Hong4Assembly website.

Eddie Wong: Do you have any last comments?

Rep. Francesca Hong: I read some of the pieces that you’ve written and I’m grateful that we continue to focus on mobilizing our communities because I’m late to this. I I have not always done political organizing.  I didn’t realize what I was doing in the community was even organizing. I just wanted more people to feel like there was more to what they were doing in their work and it’s hard right now. Our Asian American communities, we haven’t always been the ones to take control of our own narratives and there’s opportunity to do that right now. It’s important that we continue to prioritize being loud and unapologetic and taking our places in roles of leadership with solidarity with other communities in mind.

I’m tired of just seeing Asian Americans in the news because of a tragedy. And that’s going to take more of us being in the newsrooms. That’s going to take more of us in making policy decisions. But the most important thing is recognizing that we’re healthier and stronger when we work together, especially with our other Black and Brown communities.

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Editor’s Note: For more information on the 2022 midterm elections, read Massive Turnout Needed To Defeat the Right in 2022.

In Wisconsin, the U.S. Senate race pits Democratic Lt. Governor Mandela Barnes, a progressive, vs. Trump toadie Sen. Ron Johnson.  Democratic Governor Tony Evers is also locked in a tight race with Trump-backed businessman Tim Michels. For more information on how you can help progressives win in Wisconsin, contact the Wisconsin Working Families Party and Freedom Action Now, Inc.

1 Comment

  1. Ravi Chandra on October 6, 2022 at 9:52 am

    Really love this interview and to learn about Wisconsin, advocacy, organizing and change – I am flabbergasted by all the hats Francesca Hong wears! Amazing. “Change comes at the pace of relationships” – and Hong is really making relationships that matter. Inspiring.

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