Historic elections of Chinese, Filipina members of City Council were long overdue

The election wins by Nicole Lee and Leni Manaa-Hoppenworth show the importance of representation in government cannot be overstated, the head of the Chinese American Service League writes.

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Nicole Lee (left) and Leni Manaa-Hoppenworth.

Nicole Lee (left) and Leni Manaa-Hoppenworth.

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When elected leaders of vibrant, diverse cities such as Chicago make decisions impacting people’s everyday lives, it is critical that all affected communities have a say.

In the April 4 election, voters gave Asian American and Pacific Islander (AAPI) Chicagoans more than just a say. We now have two seats at the table following the historic elections of Nicole Lee and Leni Manaa-Hoppenworth to represent the 11th and 48th wards on the Chicago City Council.

As the CEO of the Chinese American Service League, a nonprofit based in Chinatown that works to create a more equitable future for the people we serve, I am proud our city has given our richly diverse AAPI community severely overdue representation on the City Council.

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While we have more work to do to erase the ill effects of historic underrepresentation, systemic racism and persistent inequity, this election gives me immense hope for our future.

The path here was anything but certain. It was only very recently that the AAPI community was able to move the needle toward better representation in our city. That’s despite the fact Chicago’s Asian population is the fastest-growing in the city, increasing by more than 30% from 2010 to 2020, and the fact that Chicago is home to the only growing Chinatown in the United States.

In 2021 and 2022, I was proud to stand with other AAPI leaders in Chicago to advocate that Chinatown receive its own ward for the City Council. After months of hard work, we were successful in our efforts when the city’s new political maps established the city’s first majority-Asian ward, providing long-awaited political agency for our city’s AAPI population.

Another milestone for AAPI representation in local politics was the March 2022 appointment of Lee to serve as the 11th Ward alderperson, making her the first AAPI woman and first Chinese American to hold a seat on the City Council.

Chicago’s population is about 7% Asian, yet there were no AAPI alderpeople on the City Council before Lee took office, and only one other AAPI alderperson had served on the council in Chicago’s nearly 200-year history.

However, the April 4 election was a true test: Would voters freely elect an AAPI alderperson rather than them being appointed? The answer was yes, twice over, as voters sent Lee back to the City Council and chose Manaa-Hoppenworth to replace retiring Ald. Harry Osterman.

With her election, Lee is now the first Chinese American chosen by voters to serve on the City Council, and Manaa-Hoppenworth is the first Filipina to be elected to the council. The importance of representation, whether in government or the media, cannot be overstated.

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Positive representation increases cultural understanding and helps underrepresented groups feel “seen.” One study of women in African countries found that women are more likely to be politically engaged when women are represented in positions of power, and another study found teenage girls across the political spectrum in the United States had a more positive view of the political system when more women run for office.

Meanwhile, a lack of representation leads to negative feelings. For example, a 2021 study by Paramount Insights found that 59% of people who feel underrepresented in the media feel unimportant, ignored or disappointed.

I know many in the local AAPI community have felt a mix of those emotions as we struggled to make our voices heard throughout our lifetimes. Regardless of Lee and Manaa-Hoppenworth’s individual politics, their very presence on the City Council is a win for all Chicagoans — not just the local AAPI community.

Our municipal government functions better when our diverse populations are adequately represented and empowered, and our entire city benefits when our elected leaders are responsive to and representative of every community’s needs.

I have no doubt the results of this election are already inspiring countless AAPI Chicagoans, especially women in our communities. This historic representation is an affirmation to our community: Our voices matter, we have political power, and we deserve to be at the table.

Paul Luu is CEO of the Chinese American Service League in Chicago’s Chinatown neighborhood.

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The views and opinions expressed by contributors are their own and do not necessarily reflect those of the Chicago Sun-Times or any of its affiliates.

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