Elk Grove's Hmong find a voice on their school board

11/13/2012 12:00 AM

07/13/2013 2:31 PM

Ten years ago, political novice Steve Ly was crushed in his attempt to get elected to the Elk Grove Unified School District Board.

Despite an army of Hmong refugees from across California who campaigned for him, the Laotian immigrant lost to veteran incumbent Jeanette Amavisca.

But in the Vietnam War the CIA's Hmong guerrilla forces, including Ly's dad, were known as fierce warriors, many of whom fought on long after Laos fell to the Communists in April 1975.

This year Ly, 38, returned with a fresh army of 250 volunteers, most of them Hmong Americans between the ages of 16 and 25, said his campaign coordinator, Mai Yang Vang, 27.

They knocked on 12,000 doors, made 6,000 phone calls, walked precincts and helped Ly become the first Hmong American to be elected to public office in Northern California, Vang said.

After a contentious campaign, Ly defeated another incumbent, administrative law judge Jake Rambo, by more than 17,000 votes, 67 percent to 33 percent.

"This is a breakthrough for the Hmong community," Ly said. "They've never felt connected to anything, they wanted to have a voice in this community and now everyone's excited about the political process."

He'd like to see Hmong, Iu Mien, Vietnamese and Cambodian history taught in the diverse district, whose 63,420 students speak 78 different languages.

"I want to bring light into communities that have been largely overlooked," said Ly. "We need to teach how the U.S. got them involved in the Vietnam War. Everybody has a story, and after you hear their story, that person has more value to you."

Ly said he was inspired to run for office by hearing the stories of his late father, Youchao Ly, a captain in Gen. Vang Pao's guerrilla army who flew with the Ravens, American pilots who flew secret bombing missions over northern Laos during the Vietnam War.

"When I was growing up he'd tell me how he'd go on missions in the jungles to recover American pilots dead or alive before they fell into enemy hands, and I never believed him," Ly said. "It was like a kid's dad telling him he used to walk through 10-foot-deep snow to school. He would always remind me that voting was so important to him; that's why he fought for democracy in Laos."

Ly teaches foster kids for the Sacramento County Office of Education while awaiting his State Bar exam results. He's a graduate of Clovis High, UC Davis and University of Northern California, Lorenzo Patiño School of Law.

After finishing college, Ly said, he developed violence prevention programs for kids, working in Richmond for a nonprofit. Over the years, he figures he's helped mentor about 5,000 youths. "I realized many of their struggles were similar to mine," he said.

His earliest memories are of running through a Thai refugee camp, "half naked and always hungry," after his family fled the Lao Communists. His uncle Phao Chor Che Lee told The Bee in 2002 that he swam across the Mekong River with his wife on his back so they could one day become U.S. citizens and elect their own leaders.

In October 1976, Ly's family resettled in Gardena, near Los Angeles. "We didn't know where to go, how to shop," Ly said. "My sisters told me they'd met our African American next-door neighbor, Miss Ernie, and couldn't figure out why she had such a dark complexion."

Miss Ernie "became our lifeline. She taught my family how to go to the store, how to survive in America," Ly recalled. "We both had large families – my parents had six of us and Miss Ernie had six, too."

Ly couldn't speak English when he arrived in the United States and struggled mightily in school, "but my teachers and classroom aides never gave up on me," he said.

The family moved to Clovis in the 1980s because it reminded his parents of the Plain of Jars in northeastern Laos, Ly said.

His father, a mechanic, couldn't find a job, "so he and my mom picked strawberries, cherry tomatoes and sugar peas," Ly said. "On weekends we'd start at 5 a.m., make a fire, get warmed up and when the day breaks and the pails of tomatoes start filling up, I'd start carrying them back to the truck."

Ly said he learned about the challenges facing kids in Elk Grove from his wife, Cuo Lo-Ly, a library media teacher at Harriet Eddy Middle School, and his sons Leeson, 9, and Leland, 7, who attend a district school.

When Ly told his wife he was going to run for school board again, "she about kicked me out of the house, but I couldn't do it without them," he said.

Ly raised $26,000, nearly twice as much as his opponent. Rambo was endorsed by Sheriff Scott Jones and several newspapers, including The Bee. Ly was backed by current Elk Grove Mayor Jim Cooper, Mayor-elect Gary Davis and his previous opponent, Jeanette Amavisca.

"It's wonderful we now have somebody who can reach out to the Hmong community and get the parents involved," Amavisca said. "When the parents don't speak English, you're not sure what information's getting to them; the kids sometimes are only telling them what they want their parents to know. Kids with parental involvement do much better than the kids that don't" have it, she said.

Ly also enlisted Vang to be his campaign coordinator. She is a Hmong activist raised in Oak Park who's the the oldest of 16 kids. "I have seven siblings that attend Elk Grove schools," said Vang, who has a master's degree in public health from UCLA.

"Steve's all about making sure all students have access to a quality education and have the best outcomes," Vang said. "In his first campaign there were a lot of folks in their 40s and 50s, but this time it was basically run by Hmong youth, the next generation."

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