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News + Politics Leaders under 30: Lucy Shen on the power of young voices

Leaders under 30: Lucy Shen on the power of young voices

She ran for School Board in Fremont at 25 -- and helped build an active new community organization.

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Editor’s note: 48hills is doing a series of interviews featuring political activists who represent the Bay Area’s future. You can find more profiles here.

Lucy Shen has already done much for her community at 25 years old. The former Fremont School Board candidate (whose background includes software engineering and youth mentoring with StandUp for Kids, Girls who Code, and Spark) recently spoke with 48hills. 

48hills: Tell me a bit about your personal journey into Bay Area politics.

Lucy Shen: I started getting involved in local organizing in early 2018, when our school board was voting on whether or not to adopt a new puberty and sexual health curriculum to comply with the new state standards introduced by the California Healthy Youth Act. Through that experience, I met a lot of friends and fellow organizers who have since pulled me into the loop on lots of other issues in Fremont that needed our advocacy, including the Housing Navigation Center, the Tobacco Retail License, and School Resource Officers. I consider local organizing a “team sport,” and I deeply believe that sustainable advocacy can only be possible if we take care of each other and hold each other accountable. In other words, I’ve only been able to be part of all this because so many of my friends have taken me along for the ride!

48hills: How has your personal background and upbringing influenced your political career and activism?

Lucy Shen: My parents immigrated to California in their early 20s. I was born right here at Washington Hospital, and we’ve been here in Fremont ever since (with some back and forth between Fremont and Shanghai for a few years due to my father’s job).

It’s a background of economic privilege—I’ve never had to worry about a roof over my head or food on the table. And like many of my Chinese-American friends here, I grew up with strict parents and high academic standards. I was raised with quite a lot of cultural consciousness when it comes to the Chinese customs my parents had left behind, and I spent my childhood attending Chinese language school on the weekends. What’s wild is that I grew up believing this was a “normal” experience, and it wasn’t until I left the Bay Area bubble and went to college in the Boston area that I truly understood what a unique childhood I’d had.

It’s this time in college that began to catalyze a change within me, because it forced me to reflect on my sheltered childhood in Fremont with fresh perspective. My priorities began to shift from the more self-centered [and] achievement-focused values I held through high school toward a more community-aware mindset. At the same time, I came to embrace my own Chinese and Shanghainese cultural heritage a lot more, not as an “other” in the US but as another facet in the multidimensional “American Immigrant” experience. 

48hills: Would you talk a bit about your race for the Fremont School Board, your motivations for running and the impact of the results?

Lucy Shen: It was a complicated decision resting on a lot of different factors. The primary goals of my campaign overlap completely with my past and current goals as a member of our community organizing team—to engage more people in local politics and empower our community’s younger voices to speak their truth and be heard. I won’t go into my platform planks too much (they’re all still available online at votelucyshen.com), but both my campaign and our current organizing work are driven by a coalition of parents, alums, and students who believe that we can build a healthier and more supportive school system than the one we experienced. While we weren’t able to win the campaign, but watching the coalition come together throughout the campaign and our organizing efforts helped me gain a lot of hope for our future in the process. And now we have Engage Fremont!

48hills: In your experience, why is political engagement so important? What motivates you to do the work that you do? 

Lucy Shen: A democracy can’t be successful unless it’s truly participatory, and unfortunately our system is set up in a way that makes it difficult for most people to stay engaged and updated. This means that a lot of decisions are made by governing bodies such as a city council or school board without proper communication and conversation with the community they intend to serve, and this can lead to lots of negative side effects. A more actively engaged public that represents ALL perspectives in discussions allows our governing bodies to make more informed decisions, and also holds them accountable to their constituents.

For me, this boils down to transparency and conversation. It’s about bridging the communication and cultural gaps that have splintered our community. I truly believe that if we can more actively engage people in the conversation, we’ll be able to work more collaboratively and productively to help our local government make the best decisions.

48hills: What does your perspective as a young person bring to the political table?

Lucy Shen: The power of having young voices at the table lies primarily in our ability to bring a fresh perspective and new ideas. Similar to how in the corporate world we often depend on new hires to ask the “innocent” questions we haven’t asked ourselves, having someone question why we do things a certain way has a lot of value. … In many instances, we may find that the answer is “because it’s always been done that way.” Beyond that, it’s important to have diversity in representation in order to make decisions that benefit the entire community, and that includes generational representation as well.

48hills: In your opinion, what is the most urgent social political issue facing us today?

Lucy Shen: The single most urgent [issue] from my point of view is climate justice. It’s a huge issue that needs to be tackled from many different angles, and it also encapsulates a lot of the racial justice issues and structural inequities that we’ve been wrestling with a lot this past year in particular.

48hills: What actions can readers take to help? 

Lucy Shen: Look up your city council, school board and city commission meeting schedules, and try to attend one or two of them a month to get a sense of what your city government is working on and [hear] what other public speakers are concerned about. Look around on social media for local organizing bodies that you can join up with to help amplify your advocacy. If you’re in Fremont, please consider adding your voice to our Engage Fremont coalition by joining one of our events or reaching out to us on social media.

48hills: What gives you hope?

Lucy Shen: In 2018, if you’d told me that we would have an active community of organizers speaking at virtually every major city meeting, posting updates on dedicated social media accounts and hosting town halls and educational presentations, I would have never believed you. But that’s what we have in Fremont now, and it’s all thanks to the efforts of our local organizers investing their time and energy into this labor of love. In my school board campaign, I saw for the first time how much potential power our younger generation has, and I was honored to see friends rallying together to support my campaign and other local organizing efforts. It’s also been an absolute miracle seeing all the student-led organizing efforts spring up, particularly with GENup and BAStA. I’m hopeful that we’ll be able to preserve this momentum as time goes on!

48hills: Since we’re featuring young Bay Area activists like yourself, what makes political leaders of the future?

Lucy Shen: I’m not sure I’d ever really consider myself one of the “leaders of the future,” but I’m excited to be working alongside so many other capable people, each with our own unique goals and ideas and priorities. I honestly have never been very good at leading the charge from a public angle (I’ll step up if I have to, as I did for the school board campaign), but my preference has always been to listen and learn from the fellow organizers around me who are powered by their vision of the future, and to be the facilitator and connector and hands-on-worker for all the pieces required to make that happen. I’m just one muscle in a very large beast!

For more information and actions, you can check out the following!

Engage Fremont: www.engagefremont.com

Fremont BAStA: www.instagram.com/fremont_basta

GENup Fremont Chapter: www.instagram.com/genupfremont

More by this author

Leaders under 30: Assemblymember Alex Lee on the impact of engagement

The youngest member of the state Legislature in a century and the first openly bisexual member ever talks about running for office at 25.

Leaders under 30: Lucy Shen on the power of young voices

She ran for School Board in Fremont at 25 -- and helped build an active new community organization.

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