Tommy Chang, Dan Koh, and Michelle Wu are breaking barriers. Chang is the first Asian-American to become superintendent of the city’s public schools. Koh is the first Asian-American to serve as a chief of staff to a Boston mayor. Wu is the first Asian-American selected as Boston City Council president.
The three spoke together for the first time last month at an event sponsored by the Asian American Journalists Association and moderated by Globe columnist Shirley Leung. Here is an edited transcript of the discussion.
Leung: “How did each of you not become a doctor or an engineer?”
Wu: “Actually with a significant amount of effort. My mom was dead-set on me being a doctor; my dad was dead-set on me being an engineer. I remember the college visit tours to the New England region. We did Harvard, we visited MIT and Brown and all of these universities, and we lingered at MIT for hours.
“I started at Harvard as a pre-med, and there were some negotiations throughout undergrad with my parents. Really what my parents wanted was for me to do something that was stable, where I wouldn’t get in trouble, and where I would make a lot of money, and politics is really the opposite of all three of those things.
“I had a series of unexpected situations come up, family and professional situations, that led me to diverge from that path.”
Koh: “I’m lucky. As you can probably tell, I’m not full Asian, and my father, who was the son of immigrants, was put through pretty much the stereotypical wringer of what an Asian father and mother, for that matter, put him through. [My father, Dr. Howard Koh] had a little bit of perspective on his upbringing and was far more open to allowing me to pursue my dreams and to do new things.”
Chang: “I basically lied my way through college with my parents. I actually intended to go to medical school so I was a pre-med student. During my senior year, I had the opportunity to go to an evening workshop that was hosted by this organization called Teach for America. That workshop was hosted by this guy named Danny Morris. He gave this really compelling story of teaching, and afterward I was like, ‘I’m gonna apply to that program, and I’m not gonna tell my parents about it.’
“Once I got in, I called my parents up, and I said, ‘I’m going to teach in Compton, California, next year,’ and they were not happy. They wanted their tuition money back.”
Leung: “Was it hard not to follow the path expected for a model minority?”
Wu: “I really didn’t deviate from that path until much later in life. I remember our conversations at the dinner table growing up were always about whether I had done well on the test, finished my homework, practiced piano and violin for the day.
“My parents never really directly put pressure on me to do those things, but all of my siblings and I knew what we were supposed to do, and we ended up being pretty close to that stereotypical path.
“I graduated from college with an economics degree and got a job making a great wage for someone fresh out of school, and honestly would still be on that pathway if I hadn’t gotten the call from home that my mom had come down suddenly with a mental illness.
“That set me off in a very different direction, of experiencing life as a 23-year-old raising my two younger sisters and running a family business and trying to get access to health care that our insurance would cover and with a provider who could speak Mandarin.
“It really wasn’t until I was out of college that I had to think about what mattered to me individually and what mattered to families and how I could play a part helping other people. In many ways, the stereotypical values of the Asian-American community and our culture are perfectly suited for deviating from that path and stepping into positions of leadership.”
Koh: “When you’re going to school, you’re always looking for a group that you identify with. In my case, I saw Asian-Americans, and I thought of them as my people. But they didn’t necessarily see me as their people. Visually it was a difficult hurdle to overcome. It’s almost as if I had to try to ingratiate myself in that model minority stereotype to try to prove that I was one of them.
“It was a difficult feeling for me because I’m also half Lebanese, so I was always kind of feeling divided between my cultures.
“I’m the middle kid. My brother was very studious, incredibly smart guy; he’s a lawyer in the Department of Justice. My younger sister is now a psychiatrist. I wanted to fit in like that, but when I was 14, I was diagnosed with attention deficit disorder, and if you think of the stereotype of a model minority Asian student — of studiousness, focus, and drive — it was the opposite of all of that biologically, and it scared me completely. But in a way, it actually gave me internal permission and my parents permission to let me go on a different path.”
Chang: “Michelle, what you said really resonated with me because it really depends on how you define model minority. If you’re defining it as hard-working, wanting to give back to community, respecting your elders, I think all three of us really fit that profile.
“I did make a promise to my parents when I did go into education, which was that I was going to continue my education, and I would not take another penny from them. I got two master’s degrees, I got my doctorate, and I didn’t take a penny from them.
“I’m at a point in my life where I am just super comfortable with the fact that I know I didn’t follow a path my parents may have chosen, but I’m making a huge difference in the community around me.”
Leung: “Asian-Americans are seen as smart and hard-working but not often as leaders. Obviously, all of you found a way to break that stereotype. How did you do it?”
Chang: “For me, it was all about being super mission-driven, and understanding my values and what grounds me. I’m very unrelenting when it comes to wanting to make sure that we get the mission accomplished. And I may not be the type that will be a bully to get to where I want, but we’re going to get there together as a team. That’s the type of leadership we actually need because you look at what’s going on now in our country, people who are yelling and screaming and disparaging other people, that’s not leadership.”
Koh: “For me, there’s both an internal kind of factor to this and an external factor. The internal, at least in Korean culture, the respect for elders is really ingrained into you when you’re a fetus, right?
“When you’re in a room with somebody that’s 20 or 30 years older than you, the feeling inside is to stay quiet and nod and say yes. And that is something that was completely part of my value set growing up.
“Part of leadership is taking a stand, speaking out, having a contrary view. And I think at least in the Korean culture, it’s not a typical thing. It was hard for me to overcome.”
Wu: “I resonate very much with what Tommy and Dan have already said so I’m going to add three concrete steps of how I got to being comfortable with leadership.
“Growing up, I never thought of myself as a leader. My perception of what leaders should look like and how they should act was different from my innate characteristics: a tall man that was very loud and shaking his fist all the time at the front of a room doing all the talking. That was basically the opposite of how I feel.
“There was never the expectation from adults around me that I would step up and run for office. People asked me all the time if I would become a professional figure skater because Michelle Kwan was so famous. That was really the strongest career expectation that I got from adults.
“So I think it’s about three stages. One was shifting my definition of success. toward what makes me happy and what makes me feel fulfilled rather than external expectations.
“Secondly, being very comfortable with not getting to 100 percent success, and whatever version you are able to do, knowing that you have done your best. It’s particularly salient for me day-to-day now as a new mom because it isn’t possible to balance everything when you’re trying to get out of the door with an 18-month-old who leaves food on me and everything else. There are days when I’m leading the City Council meetings with baby spit-up or mashed banana on my jacket, and I’m perfectly happy.
“And finally being comfortable with a different definition of leadership. It doesn’t have to be fitting into a certain mold, but knowing that whatever you do, when you do it effectively, when you do it collaboratively, when you do it in a way that is most comfortable for you, that is success and that is leadership.”
Leung: “What do each of you see as the biggest issues facing the Asian-American community?”
Wu: “It’s always tricky to answer that because Asian-Americans are the most diverse community along lines of country of origin, language, socioeconomic situations, and immigration status. When you average out all of our experiences across different subsets of the Asian-American community, it masks disproportionate impacts.
“Take just health impacts, certain communities have higher instances of certain types of illnesses, and unless we are breaking it down, we’re going to miss those who desperately need targeted help and support.
“We as Asian-Americans tend to need access to language, translation, and interpretation, and that’s something that we’re working on at City Hall. We tend to need access to affordable housing. Think about Chinatown in Boston, in particular the precarious situation in being so close to downtown and the land values incredibly attractive for developers to come in to flip the properties with no regard to whether Chinatown remains the important cultural hub that it is for the entire region.
“And we as a community need to step up and have a stronger voice. That’s why I’m really excited about tonight and seeing everyone out in force.
“We need to be doing this more often, and we need to be doing this without anything to celebrate and without anything to necessarily complain about but just to say, ‘Can we develop a shared agenda together? How can we support each other and make sure we are represented as the fastest-growing ethnic group in Massachusetts?’ ”
Koh: “She mentioned voice, and I think this is really the key element. For example, Boston Mayor Marty Walsh has prioritized so much having a diverse Cabinet, over 50 percent people of color. It is not just for the optics but because people of different backgrounds have different perspectives and have different constituencies that they listen to. City Hall and elected officials in City Hall have been to more Chinese New Year banquets than ever before. When you’re at these events, you hear these concerns from the community that you then take back.”
Chang: “Dan, I don’t know if you know this, but Mayor Walsh told me I was going to be invited to 38 different Chinese banquets.
“In everything Dan and Michelle just said, I would add in a couple areas within the School Department. In terms of translation, we’re working very rigorously to make sure that we’re translating all our documents in multiple languages. Now we’re in nine.
“I had an experience growing up at a very young age that led my parents to stop speaking Taiwanese and Mandarin with me at home because they wanted me to speak perfect English. We can’t have our community thinking that way. That is just such an old and backwards way of thinking.
“We need to make sure we sustain the culture our kids are coming to school with, and so we’re looking at creating more dual-language programs as long as we can get our budget figured out.”
Leung: “Do you ever feel pressure to represent the Asian-American community because there are so few Asian-American leaders?’’
Chang: “I’m really crystal-clear. I’m the superintendent of Boston Public Schools. I serve all kids in Boston.”
Koh: “I don’t necessarily define it as pressure, I really see it as an honor, and I think all three of us would probably say the same thing. I see myself as the mayor’s chief of staff of all things, not just Asian-American issues, but obviously it’s a part of who we are.”
Wu: “There definitely is still pressure. I remember shortly after I was elected someone said something to the extent of, ‘You can never retire. We need an Asian-American elected official in the City Council forever.’ ”