This week, a year after Trump and the Republicans trounced the Democrats, the Dems bounced back. On Election Day 2017, a large number of seats up for grabs flipped from Red to Blue. Now, this post isn’t here to rah-rah about this turn of events. For a good summary of the highlights of who won what, you can check it out here at this HuffPost article.
No, today’s post is actually two tales of awesomeness rolled into one, because we’re going to celebrate and briefly highlight the stories of two of the election night victors. Why? Because they symbolize what is awesome about democracy, especially democracy in America.
You see, these two have become elected officials in a land that is not of their birth. They started life somewhere else, but came to the US as immigrants. Moreover, they came as refugees from the land of their birth. And now they have become elected leaders in their adopted homeland. Here’s their story.
Wilmot Collins, 54, was elected mayor of Helena, Montana on Tuesday, unseating a four-term incumbent. He became the first Black man ever to be elected mayor since Montana became a US state. However, he wasn’t born in Montana. He wasn’t even born in the US.
Collins came from Liberia 23 years ago as a refugee from Liberia’s civil war at the time. He lost two younger brothers in the civil war, one killed by rebels and another by government soldiers. He recalls having to wait three days in line to board a cargo ship to take them out of Liberia and on to Ghana, where he and his wife disembarked nearly dying of starvation. Indeed, they’d be forced to go back to Liberia and would have to go by way of the Ivory Coast before they’d make their way to the United States.
In an interview this week, he stated that he never envisioned getting into politics when he petitioned for US refugee status two decades ago. His focus was on simply joining his wife, who had been pregnant when she moved to Montana ahead, and his American-born daughter that he’d never seen.
As he told the Guardian:
“I never thought about it,” said Collins, exhausted but exhilarated. “My only thing was, I hope they can give me a second chance. That’s all I needed. This country and this state and this city provided me a second chance.”
Since moving to the US, he became a US citizen and worked for the Montana Department of Health and Human Services, specializing in child protection. He holds degrees in political science and sociology, a Masters in human resource management, and is on his way to getting a doctorate in forensic psychology. He’s also been a member of the US Navy Reserve for the last two decades.
Collins’ victory was a surprise to many in Montana, for less than one percent of the state’s population are African American. That combined with some stains to the state’s reputation like the short but very high-profile residency of controversial white supremacist, Richard Spencer, may lead many to think that a man like Collins would have had a snowball’s chance to win the mayoral office. Indeed, Collins himself has stated that his home was vandalized with “KKK” letters and graffiti telling them to “go back to Africa” in the past.
But Mr. Collins had found a home in Montana. In fact, he is adamant that although there may be some racists in the population, the majority of the people welcomed him into their community and he’s been wanting to give back to that community for a long time.
He also wants to let everyone know that his story was one of hope for refugees in the state. There has been some tension in Montana regarding the presence of and the accepting of refugees into the state. Collins hopes that with greater education about refugees the Montana public will become more welcoming. And that his story will offer an example and hope for those coming to the US and to Montana and Helena in particular, of a better future.
Kathy Tran fled Vietnam with her parents when she was just seven months old. She fled on a boat, becoming one of millions of boat refugees who escaped the fall of South Vietnam as the Americans pulled out and the North Vietnamese took over.
She became so ill on the boat that she almost died, and despite having options to go to other countries, her family chose to wait the 13 months it was necessary to be accepted into the US as refugees.
Now, Tran has won a seat in the Virginia House of Delegates as a representative from the state’s 42nd district. She has become the first Asian-American woman elected to the House.
She was inspired to run for office by the election of Donald Trump to the Presidency. She is one of 330 first-time women candidates running for office in 2017 and 2018 who trained with Emerge America, a program that has been training women leaders from diverse backgrounds to run for public office since 2005 through recruitment, training, and networking with mentors and other like-minded people. She credits her youngest daughter, Elise Minh Khanh who was born four days after Inauguration Day, to be her motivation for running for office at this time. She told CityLab:
“[The name] Elise was inspired by Ellis Island, and Minh Khanh is Vietnamese for ‘bright bell,’… [and together means] to ring the bells of liberty and champion opportunity for all…I made the decision to run…with the realization that I had given Elise this aspirational name, and I couldn’t sit on the sidelines and leave her with this responsibility…The time was now for me to stand up and fight hard for my kids.”
She went on to earn degrees from Duke University and the University of Michigan, then to work at the Department of Labor.
In an interview with AsianFortuneNews she remarked:
“At the end of the Vietnam War, my parents were determined not to raise their family under tyranny, so our family left the only home we knew, when I was just seven months old, and fled Vietnam as boat refugees… My family has never forgotten that America stepped up to accept refugees at that time, and we have spent our lives working to give back to this country that has given us so much,”
To give back, Tran’s father provided free dental services to those who could not afford it in their community and Kathy’s younger brother David is a Combat Engineer Officer in the U.S. Marine Corps serving two tours in Iraq and Afghanistan. This family ethos of service of has also motivated her to be a public servant. She states:
“Our family is tremendously proud of [my brother’s] service to our country…We risked everything to come to America because this country has always represented hope, opportunity, and freedom,…In America, I have worked to live up to these ideals by devoting my career to public service, helping working families and veterans acquire job-skill training and achieve the American Dream.”
Now, granted, it’s very early to predict what kind of leaders and movers these folks will be. Hopefully, they will continue to be good people and do great things. Nonetheless, their stories deserve a spot in the annals of the Tales of Awesomeness. Their stories are not only awesome because of their individual triumphs. Their stories are awesome because they highlight how awesome American can be.