A little over a decade ago, Sheng Thao lived in his car and slept on strangers’ couches with his newborn son, not knowing where he would find his next meal.

On Monday, she becomes the youngest mayor of Oakland, California, in 75 years and the first Hmong American to lead a major city, after winning November’s election by fewer than 700 votes.

“To be the first Hmong to represent a city with almost no Hmong people, that has broken a glass ceiling that the Hmong never saw for themselves,” said Thao, 37. “It shows that we can represent people who are not like us, that we are past the point of leading our own communities.”

Born to Hmong refugees who fled the genocide in Laos during the Vietnam War, Thao grew up living in poverty in Stockton, California, the seventh of 10 children. He lived in public housing for most of his life and, when he was in his early 20s, he became involved with an abusive partner who left her pregnant and homeless, he said.

Those experiences informed his progressive policies, Sheng said. As a city councilman, he helped pass legislation to extend the paid leave policy and make Oakland California’s first sanctuary city for abortion rights. As a mayoral candidate, she vowed to strengthen tenant protections, create RV parking spaces for those who live in their cars, and expand violence prevention services. Over the next eight years, she said, she expects to build at least 30,000 new housing units throughout the city.

Thao spoke with NBC Asian American about her vision for Oakland and how her upbringing shaped her advocacy for working families. The interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Mayor-elect Sheng Thao is greeted by supporters after a news conference at City Hall in downtown Oakland, California.
Mayor-elect Sheng Thao is greeted by supporters following a press conference at City Hall in downtown Oakland, California on November 23, 2022. Jane Tyska/East Bay Times via Getty Images

NBC Asian America: You are the first Hmong American to become mayor of a major city. How did his heritage and background shape his view of American politics and his progressive beliefs?

CAT: We are very much clan based so we really look out for each other. We work with a clan system and we elect presidents at the community level. Everyone is everyone else’s aunt, uncle, or cousin. Growing up poor in such a tight-knit community gives me a whole different perspective on how I can support my community. I remember being 4 years old and telling my mom the change in the supermarket because she doesn’t understand English and she can’t count. My parents are still on MediHealth even though their daughter made it. So I’m interested in impacting the lives of those who live on the margins. That has been my charge in life since I was a child.

How did your heritage and background shape your views on American politics and your progressive beliefs?

CAT: We are very clan based so we really look out for each other. Everyone is everyone else’s aunt, uncle, or cousin. Growing up poor in such a tight-knit community gives me a whole different perspective on how I can support my community. I remember being 4 years old and telling my mom the change in the supermarket because she doesn’t understand English and she can’t count. Historically, Hmong people have no formal education. When I was a child, I was in a school that taught 4th and 5th graders together and 5th and 6th graders together. It’s hard to see that my parents are still on MediHealth even though their daughter made it. So I’m interested in impacting the lives of those who live on the margins. That has been my charge in life since I was a child.

With welfare support for his son, he went to community college and became valedictorian, then transferred to UC Berkeley and graduated with a degree in legal studies. Why was it so important to continue studying while raising a child?

Historically, Hmong people have no formal education. When I was a child, I was in a school that taught 4th and 5th graders together and 5th and 6th graders together.

What, then, drew you into politics?

CAT: It really was an accident. While on my way to law school, my son was outgrowing his clothes. He didn’t have money to buy her new clothes, so he needed a paid summer internship. I found a program called APAPA, who paid me $1,000 to intern with Rebecca Kaplan, a member at large of the council. That’s when I learned that the policies these legislators pass have the greatest impact on the lives of people who live on the margins. I became passionate about making sure I could be a voice in local government for working families.

When she was 20 years old, she escaped from an abusive relationship and lived in her car with her young son. What does it mean for Oakland’s homeless residents to have a mayor who has shared experiences?

CAT: When you are not hosted, you activate survival mode. It has a hugely negative impact on your mental health that can turn into many other things, including drug abuse or deepening mental health issues. Getting into a very violent relationship, having to use public services, and not seeing the government show up to connect the dots, that’s what really made me think, «Poverty and homelessness are very systemic problems.» It is universal for people who did not grow up with the resources they should receive. The urgency of finding temporary or permanent housing becomes very personal to me.


Sheng Thao said it's important to build fair housing shelters and bring in comprehensive resources that address mental health, substance abuse and more.
Sheng Thao said it’s important to build fair housing shelters and bring in comprehensive resources that address mental health, substance abuse and more.Thao for mayor

Oakland Homeless Population increased 24% in the past three years, one of the largest increases for a major city. What are some of the first steps you plan to take as mayor to address the housing crisis?

CAT: It is a comprehensive approach. In order to be successful in ensuring that we have safe streets, clean streets, and good schools, we need stability, which starts with housing. That means making sure we can put up decent housing shelters, centralize them, and bring in comprehensive resources that address mental health, substance abuse, and more. We have to prioritize families and those who have minors, so that the children can go to school and be calm. At the same time, we need to establish a parallel track of building affordable housing. When I was a council member, I was thinking about the mechanism by which we finance public housing, and that is something that we will continue to do.

Oakland does not have a large Hmong population. But his choice made waves among the Hmong diaspora in Sacramento, Stockton and the Twin Cities in Minnesota. What kind of impact do you hope it will have on Hmong youth with political aspirations?

CAT: We’ve only been here 47 years. A lot of people who came here in 1975 never thought they would see the day when their daughter could be mayor of a city like Oakland. The Hmong community itself is already politically engaged. But there was never a time when my parents said, «You too can be a politician.» My story shows that Hmong values ​​resonate very much with American values; we are american enough. Show that you can still be mayor of a big city, even if you are a single mom and domestic violence survivor who grew up poor. These things should not be stigmatized; they are my superpower. That had a huge impact, especially on our Hmong girls because the Hmong community is still quite patriarchal. Breaking all these barriers crosses the line of inspiring all women in general.