KN: Kevin Nguyen
NKQ:Nicolas Kiet Quach
KN and AM: Hello! Our names are Kevin Nguyen and Ashley Morrow, and we are webmasters for the youth-led organization Asian American Progressive Student Union. We recently had the opportunity to interview Nicolas Kiet Quach, the Chair of the youth-led state organization California High School Democrats. Nicolas Kiet Quach is the first ever Vietnamese American individual to serve as the chair of this organization, and he also works as a regional director for the California Young Democrats. He previously served as the Chair of the High School Democrats of America’s AAPI Caucus, the President of the Alhambra Youth Commission, and worked as an intern for Mayor Pérez. He currently serves as the youngest library trustee in the United States at the Alhambra Civic Center Library. He was honored as the Democrat of the Year by the LA Democratic Party in 2022 and as the Congressional Youth of the Year by Congresswoman Judy Chu at the Congressional Leadership of the Year Awards Ceremony in 2023.
AM:Our first question is, can you tell us a bit about your background in politics and activism, and how you got involved with the HSDA?
NKQ: “Yeah, um so to be more specific, I am the chair of the California High School Democrats and also a library trustee here in the city of Alhambra, serving with the distinction actually as the youngest library trustee in the United States…but, I didn't always know that I would be in politics. I got into politics in 2020, during the COVID-19 pandemic, actually right after the election so it was around… probably November of 2020 that I got involved. I never thought that I’d get involved–I grew up as the son of Vietnamese refugees and the rhetoric in these households is that anything academic is important and everything non-academic isn't important, right? So when we’re talking about things like community involvement or being civically engaged, or getting involved with clubs and, I mean stuff like this? Granted my family wasn't super supportive of me getting involved, I think a lot of it stemmed from the reason that they fled a corrupt government and… when I got involved in local government they just thought that someone like me and someone like us couldn’t be in politics, right? Because I think in politics we don't see a lot of Asian Americans, granted, since then there have been a lot more Asian Americans elected to different areas in the government, right? From Congress to school board city councils, but I didn't grow up in an environment that always encouraged my involvement and growing up as the son of Vietnamese refugees in a low income, working household that depended on social services, there were so many barriers that prevented my involvement, right? My family always worked so getting from point A to point B wasn’t super easy for me. But it’s also other things too, right? Just, it’s the idea that I didn’t grow up in a generational household of family politicians, or in a household that had parents who had access to higher education, right? I mean that’s the biggest thing. So when I got involved in politics-which is a very non-traditional path, right–that, most folks don’t see education linked to, ‘oh, well you have to go to college to become a politician.’ And in many cases, that’s not the case. So when I told my parents, they weren't super happy right, because they never had access to higher education so by me saying that I wanted to go into politics, it was me saying that I didn’t believe in the power of higher education–which I obviously do believe in the higher education route, but–I mean, community involvement has always been something that is important to me. Growing up as the son of Vietnamese refugees, there’s this rhetoric that your voice doesn’t matter and I think in a lot of spaces…in many immigrant households, immigrants don’t get involved when it comes to government. So when there’s a broken traffic light or a broken street light or a broken pot hole, you don’t call the city and ask them to fix it, you’d wait until someone who is more “American” would do it. And that was my environment growing up…and so I just never got involved. My family has always lived here in the city of Alhambra, and here in the SJV [San Joaquin Valley] we have one of the largest API populations in the United States…but it was just something that I just never saw myself getting involved in. And it wasn't until 2020, during the COVID-19 pandemic that I didn't need a ride to events and…all of these barriers just disappeared because there was a pandemic, right? And that was when I started interning for my mayor, Sasha Renée Pérez in the city of Alhambra–she was elected at the age of 28, so the youngest mayor in our city’s history. That kind of proponed my involvement and then from there she appointed me to the Alhambra Youth Commission, I served on the Alhambra Youth Commision for three terms…I served two terms as the Commision president, the youngest Commission president in our city’s history…later elected as the regional director for the California Young Democrats covering all of Los Angeles County, to being the chair of the California High School Democrats. And before that the political director, and also the vice chair of the California High School Democrats to…different rows and different packs and organizations but now serving as a library trustee from the city of Alhambra.”
KN: For our second question, we would like to know, for any prospective young politicians, do you have any advice for them?
NKQ: “I get this question a lot. Getting into politics so young at 14, there’s a lot of things I’m grateful for. Obviously, getting involved when you’re younger, you have a headstart when it comes to a number of things, right? I mean, there are people who have shared with me in politics that when they were my age, they didn’t have this network, right? They weren't as civically engaged…and I also think it's a matter of the world that we live in today. Youth today are just so much more civically engaged than they were before. But I think it’s also a matter of, when young people get involved it’s great, it’s important, it’s crucial to having a good democracy and making sure that young peoples’ voices are heard at the table, but there’s a lot that you lose, right? So when I got involved at 14, I would always be going to events, I would always be in different spaces and…serving on the board of the California Young Democrats, it sounds super great but the California Young Democrats goes from the ages of 14 to 35, so young doesn't mean young in some of these spaces, right? I mean, there are folks in politics who call themselves “young democrats” but they’re still in their 40s, which is a concept that I’m still not getting (laughs) but, being in these spaces as a young person, and i mean, being in a room of five hundred or a thousand people and knowing that you're the youngest person there, it’s a little bit intimidating, right? There are so many times in politics that I would wish I would be a little older, or I would act older, right? And you gain a lot from that, people respect you a little bit more, maybe, but you miss out on your young person perspective and I think it took me a really long time for me to understand that as a young person I bring a valuable perspective, right? That as a young person you shouldnt be entering these spaces thinking about ‘How can I be like everyone else,’ but thinking about ‘How can I amplify my voice as a young person’ because I didn’t get into politics to be like everyone else, right? I didn’t get into politics to end up like someone who's 40 calling themselves a young democrat because they’re not a young democrat. I got into politics because as a young person I understood in my community that young people weren't being amplified at the table,they weren’t having a seat at the table, and they weren’t being heard and I think when you get involved as a young person, you miss out on a lot of that stuff, you think about,’well I'm not old enough to do this, or I'm not experienced enough to do this’ and for a really long time I threw myself in that work and I spent so much time focusing on politics that it became my 24/7. Serving today as the youngest library trustee in the United States, the Chair of the California High School Democrats, and working with Student Voice, a 501c3 multi-million dollar nonprofit that serves ten thousand students across the country? That’s not work I came into this saying, ‘Oh, I'm gonna give it an hour a day’ or ‘I'm gonna give 30 minutes a day.’ It’s work that I got here today because I gave it my 24/7 and I think I obviously gained a lot, I’m obviously serving in these different positions and it’s super great hearing from these students and hearing their perspectives and making sure we have good student representation when it comes to these spaces, but I often feel that I missed out on a lot of my high school experience, right? You know, something I’m realizing towards the end of my highschool experience is that high school is 4 years, college is 4 years, and you can be 70, 80 in Congress, but you can't be 70 or 80 in high school. So when I think about the experiences I've had as a young person I think that I could have done this all over again, I’m not sure if I would have done politics and…that’s the honest answer when folks ask me, ‘Would you do it all over again?’ and the honest answer is, ‘I really don’t know…’ This work has been super great, and it’s been super fulfilling but I think at times, there are always politicians who say, ‘You’re the future,’ or, ‘You’re the leaders of today,’ and they don’t understand the barriers that come with that, or the struggles that come with that and I spent so many years choosing work parties over highschool parties or canvassing or door knocking over actual homework. These small experiences seem small and miniscule, but they’re actually big experiences in life, right? And that’s my biggest advice to young people getting into politics today is, ‘don't make it you're everything.’ I mean politics is important, the change that we're making today is important, but your experience as a young person is more important than that. Because you can be 70 and making change but you can’t be 70 in highschool and that’s what I tell everyone when I meet folks who are asking me, ‘How can I get involved?’ and ‘Is it worth getting involved?’”
AM: Our third question was, what were the major initiatives that you worked towards as the Chair of the AAPI caucus last term?
NKQ: ‘Yeah I mean, serving as the National Chair of the AAPI caucus was super great, it was super great hearing from different folks and…I think serving as the Chair of the High School Democrats of America's AAPI Caucus gave me a really great insight into the different communities, right? For a really long time I primarily worked in my community in the City of Alhambra in LA County and I think, my belief is that every community is different,right? Every community is a community of stories and cultures and people, and those cultures are different and those people are different. So when I got elected as the Chair of the AAPI Caucus, it was just a blast of insight, right? Because I was working with different communities and folks that identify as API and, what I realize and something I realized a while ago early in my childhood is that there are APIs who don’t feel heard, right? There are APIs that feel very isolated and I think growing up in a community that was majority Asian, you don’t really feel that, right? Because, in communities like Alhambra or in places in LA County, you’re not a minority anymore, you're actually a majority. So here in the City of Alhambra, we actually have an Asian majority, there's a majority of Asian folks who live in this city so when you’re growing up around these folks you don't feel like a minority anymore, right? because you are the majority. So when I was talking to different communities, it was a mix of, ‘I feel isolated, and I don’t have that community backing me,’ so it’s hard for me to speak about my experiences as an AAPI person when folks don’t understand my experiences, right? The second thing that we worked towards when I was the Chair of the AAPI Caucus was, there’s this big divide in that most of the folks who were on the AAPI Caucus were East Asians, and when you think of Asians you think of East Asians you don’t think of South Asians or Southeast Asians, so what I pushed for was making sure we had South and Southeast Asians on our boards, in our caucuses, and making sure that they had a voice, right? Because I think oftentimes when we think about APIs we don't think about South Asians and South Asians are as much Asians as any other folks who identify as Asian, right? So those were the two biggest initiatives that I pushed for when I was Chair. Early in my childhood, I lived in Arizona, so I used to live 10 minutes from the Mexican border and my brother and I were the only APis there and this is a story that I share with folks because it was a whole 180º growing up in the SJV in Alhambra to moving to Arizona ten minutes from the Mexican border where my brother and I were the only Asians there and it was hard for us to talk about our experiences as Asian people when no one understood it–when there weren't cultural restaurants or markets or anything that I grew up experiencing in that environment, right? Thankfully we moved back to the SJV, so it was a lot better, but that’s an experience I share with folks because not every Asian person has the same experiences and it depends on where you live because every community has its own cultures, its own stories, and its own people.”
KN: Our next question is, are there any current issues that you think should be addressed in the coming years?
NKQ: “Yeah, there are so, so many I think…when I think about issues there is no shortage, right, from homelessness, to the environment, to sustainability, to affordable housing, there’s so many issues but I think, what I fought for when I was getting involved and what I still fight for is making sure that we have young people in these spaces. I talk about the experience very openly and obviously I'm not 14 anymore so I don’t understand the experience of what it means to get involved at 14 anymore but I remember getting involved and, I just kind of thought there was this lack of support, right? I think folks in politics are so focused on this idea of climbing a ladder, so when we see politicians who are running for city council one year, and then the next year they’re running for state senate and then the state assembly and then…eventually they’re planning on running for governor, right? So it kind of feels like our politicians aren't working in the interests of the people and they're focused on this idea of climbing a ladder. What I’ve learned over the past years I’ve been involved in politics is that it's not about how I can climb a ladder but it’s about how I can find places and book coalitions and build a ladder for other folks to climb on. I;’m here today as the youngest library trustee in the United States, as the Chair of the CAHSD, and have the opportunity to serve as the National Chair of the AAPI Caucus because folks built that ladder for me. Because the folks that I was involved with, the politicians that I was engaged with, they weren't focused on how I could help them climb a ladder, they were focused on ‘How can I help you climb a ladder,’ right? How can I build your leadership and make sure we have this pipeline and it's not the same folks who have access to money, have access to higher education, have access to all of these things that people in politics have access to, and how do we bring new, fresh leadership into this, right? So that it's not just the same people who have been in power for the last decade, decades, generations, and how do we bring in new leadership. So that’s the biggest thing that I think about when I think of these issues is that we need folks who are being impacted by these issues. In my work with Student Voice and equity, this idea of education and justice…oftentimes there are bodies who empower these students. I mean, we have student board members, we have youth commissions and youth councils and internships and…so many avenues for young people to be involved, but I think what we don't think about when we think about opportunities to be involved is: are the people most impacted on these issues represented on these councils? And the answer is often no because the people who are most impacted by these issues–whether they’re low income, and that means they have to take care of their siblings because their parents are working, or they have to work a second job to support their family income, or they don't have access to transportation because they are low income–they’re being impacted by these issues, but they aren't serving on these councils because they’re being impacted by these issues. I think that's one of the craziest things that we talk about is that, the folks who are serving on these councils and on these boards, they’re not being impacted by the issues because they’re privileged enough to serve in these positions. And I acknowledge that by serving here today, by doing this internship with you all and serving as the Chair of the California High School Democrats, I’m a lot more privileged than other folks to be serving in these positions. As a person in leadership, I understand that my perspective is valuable, I think everyone’s perspective is valuable, but I also understand when it’s time for us to take a step back and say, ‘Well maybe my perspective isn’t as valuable as someone else’s perspective on this issue.’ Or, ‘How can I uplift someone else and have them speak better on this issue and be a better advocate.’ So when I think about long term leadership on a number of issues like homelessness, like sustainability, it’s not about tackling those issues head-on, it’s about thinking about how can we uplift young people, put them into these positions, put them at the tables, at the boards, at the councils, and have them create the change.”
AM: Going on what you said, your statement on leadership and the key issues that you believe to really need to be more discussed in common discourse, what are some of the key issues that you seek to prioritize this term as the President of the California High School Democrats and what are your plans in terms of youth mobilization as President this term?
NKQ: “My biggest one for the California High School Democrats this year is: I want to push young people to leadership. For a really long time I think, in the California High School Democrats, there has been a lack of involvement of different kinds of folks, right? I mean, the folks on the California High School Democrats, the same thing I share with everyone too is that I’m privileged enough to be in this position, and I'm a lot more privileged than other folks. And that’s the same thing with a lot of folks in the California High School Democrats in the past, is that the folks there typically weren’t low income, they typically weren’t people of color, they typically were people who were privileged enough with very small amounts of lived experiences that contribute to the California High School Democrats, right? So my biggest one when I was elected as Chair was to make sure that, a) we have Latinos on our board, that we have Black people on our board, and more broadly that we have people of color on our board because for a very long time, the board has either been majority Asian, or majority white, or a split-split with no Latinos or no Black people on our board and that’s just not right because, this goes back to the point that the people who are most impacted by the issues are not serving on this board. We obviously know that people who are Latino or people who are Black have a much harder time getting involved because of systemic barriers, right? I think it also comes to a matter of the fact that people who were interviewing folks for the board, they weren’t Black and they weren’t Latino, and that plays a role in who they choose. So when I was elected as Chair of the California High School Democrats those were my two biggest priorities, making sure that we had that representation and the second one was making sure that we could fundraise enough to support students going into this. For the first couple of years, when I was getting involved, cost was a big barrier. So thinking about how I could get to this event, or how I could get from Point A to Point B…politics is not cheap, I will share that with you right now. Politics is not cheap, and I think for me it was about, how do I fundraise enough to support these students, right? Because when we talk about things like canvassing, it’s like…gas cards, or making sure that we buy food for them, right? Or, how do we supplement their pay that their losing when they’re taking time off work to canvass and do this work because…I mean the folks who are in the California High School Democrats, they’re not people who are super high income when they’re canvassing and not in a position, right? I mean those are the folks who are on the ground, that understand their communities and…for me, it was important to think about how we can support them, not just with a vice but also with money, I mean that’s the biggest one. And the second part of that was making sure that we tap into local leadership. For a really long time when we were doing our endorsements or talking about policy, it was folks who didn’t live in those areas who were considering endorsing candidates in those areas. And for me I believe in empowering the folks on the ground who understand their communities, and I think I understand my community best because I’ve lived in this community. And I think for someone who lives in a community maybe up north understands their community a little bit better because they've lived there for a long time, they know the issues, the people, the cultures, the stories…and for me it was important that we empower them and make sure that they’re a part of that process.
KN: That was really powerful, thank you so much for your amazing response. So, our next question is, do you believe being Asian American has given you a different perspective or experience during your work?
NKQ: I think it definitely does. I obviously do believe that everyone has a unique perspective when it comes to this work. I think being Asian American has given me a unique perspective in how we do this work, right? Because I think being Asian American in politics, when you get a little higher outside of your community–and I’ve already shared that my community is a majority Asian America, and that in Alhambra, I’m not a minority, I’m a majority, but–when I expanded my politics to a state level or county level, or expanded it a little out of my community, it was eye opening because it seems like there are fewer Asian Americans when you get a little bit higher. So when I was in these spaces it was important for me to A) amplify the voices of my community, because most Asian Americans are not in politics, right? I’m sure you guys know but there’s this rhetoric that you have to be a doctor or a dentist or a pharmacist or a lawyer and that’s the path that most folks go into but, there’s a small majority of folks that are in politics, and the folks in politics who are Asian American have a big road to advance their communities and make sure that the Asian community is heard. What I’ve learned over the past couple of years is that, yes it’s important to amplify your community but it’s also important to build coalitions so that when we saw Stop Asian Hate, it wasn’t just Asian people saying hey, let’s stop Asian hate, it was Asian people, it was Latino people, it was white people, it was Black people. It’s about building those multi-racial coalitions of people so that when one of us is under attack, all of us are under attack. And also, serving as the first Vietnamese Chair of the California High School Democrats, that’s a unique perspective because there aren’t a lot of Vietnamese people in politics. I can probably count on one hand the amount of people I’ve met in politics who are Vietnamese. And that’s a very short list given the work that I’ve done in this state, but you know, it’s about amplifying your community and I also do think I bring a very unique perspective growing up in an environment that didn’t always encourage my involvement. Living in Arizona ten minutes from the Mexican border where my brother and I were the only two Asian Americans, or living in an area like Alhambra where I am the majority, but outside of Alhambra I’m not the majority, right? I’m a minority and I’m working to advance Asian American politics in a world that is not Asian American-dominated and I think about building those coalitions and that’s the biggest thing that politics has taught me, that you can’t accomplish anything on your own. If Asian Americans said one day, ‘we’re going to build our own group’ and Latinos said, ‘we’re going to build our own group’ and Black people said, ‘we’re going to build our own group,’ and white people said, ‘we’re going to build our own group,’ nothing would get done, right? It’s about how we build these coalitions and understand the different issues that affect our groups.”
AM: With our last question–going on with what you said about representation in both leadership and activism–are there any Asian American activists or politicians who you see as your personal role models in terms of politics, and can you name a few emerging activists who are apart of the Asian community that you think we should learn more about?
NKQ: “There are so many folks in politics, and I think for me, it’s not the big folks in politics, right? It’s not the big folks in politics that I see in the news or in Congress but it’s the folks who impact their communities. Obviously, folks like Kamala Harris are super great because she’s the first Asian American senator in the state of California, she’s the first Asian American vice president of the United States. Those are important, but for me personally it’s about the folks who have encouraged my involvement when other folks didn’t, right? Because, being a young person in politics and being a young Asian American in politics, was very hard. It’s folks in the California Young Democrats, it’s folks like my council member Jeff Maloney, my senate member Mike Fong, my member of Congress Judy Chu who have encouraged my involvement, right? These are folks who saw me and…granted, four years ago I was obviously a shy person, getting involved in politics when I didn’t always know politics. Getting involved in politics I always said that I was a democrat but I didn’t know what being a democrat meant. I always said I was a democrat because I grew up in California and in California you kind of have to be a democrat, right? But, I always grew up saying I was a democrat and that I love politics, and for a really long time I didn't understand what that meant until I actually got involved. It’s folks like Judy Chu, like Mike Fong and like my council members who have encouraged my involvement. They were there fighting with me and fighting for good work when we talk about tobacco restrictions, or “Hero Pay” to pay grocery and farmers workers during the COVID-19 pandemic better because they were doing hero work. Or, a project labor agreement or affordable housing. These were things that I fought for when I didn’t know if they were a democrat or republican policy, but I knew they were good policies, right? They’re policies that work for working families, and oftentimes those working family policies are democrat policies. But it’s folks like that who have encouraged my involvement. Mike has been super great, I worked on his campaign when he was elected to State Assembly, and Judy Chu, the Chair of the Asian American Congressional Caucus, she’s been super super great to be my member of Congress, and I’m super proud to have her as my member of Congress, serving as the National Chair of the Congressional Asian American caucus. When I met Judy three years ago, I met her at a march against API hate. When I saw her, it was mind-blowing because, I mean, Judy obviously has name-rec, I’ve seen her on the news, so when I saw her it was crazy. And now seeing her today, as like, oh, that’s Judy Chu, you know? It’s not as crazy as it was before but it’s folks like Judy Chu who have, a) trailblazed a way for me to be in politics–she was the first Chinese American woman to be elected to Congress–but even more so she has trailblazed in the SJV, folks know her name because she was one of few Asian Americans when there were no Asian Americans in politics in this area but also in this country. She recently honored me as her Congressional Youth of the Year at her Congressional Leadership of the Year awards, and that was super great when she recognized my work. It’s super crazy going from, ‘wow, that’s Judy Chu, that’s super super crazy’ to ‘wow, that’s Judy Chu, my partner-in-crime and my partner in advancing this work.’”