Piper Fund

GRANTEE PROFILE: Mary Le Nguyen, Washington CAN, Seattle

This testimony is based on an interview by Piper staff to Mary Le Nguyen, executive director of Washington CAN, one of Piper’s grantees in Seattle, after the Democracy Voucher program was successfully implemented for the first time in the November 2017 election.

Mary Le Nguyen, Executive Director, Washington CAN

I focus on community organizing and how to build power because there is a system of oppression that does not allow people to live their lives with dignity.

I am a survivor of child sexual abuse, and for ten years I didn’t have a voice or control, nor power over my body, and I felt underserving of hope and dignity. As an adult, I didn’t want anyone else to feel that way. That is at the heart of what is driving the work I do at Washington CAN I know how it feels when people that are supposed to be protecting you, are exploiting you.

So much of what Washington CAN does is to help people share their stories and connect with each other, for the oppressed to really point out who their oppressors are, to put the shame where it belongs. It’s so powerful to come together and say we deserve better, and to realize that so much of what happens is not because of our choices: it’s a bad system, a system of oppression. What we really are is a community of survivors, who want to take control back.

The money in politics movement is really about removing barriers and building power. People are low-propensity voters because they have been told systematically that their voice doesn’t matter, that they are to blame for their poverty, so how do we expect them to come out to vote?

We weren’t sure how to enter the field, but we’ve always known that it was a problem. As a racial, gender and economic justice organization, we realized that we did not have elected leaders that represented us, that had lived our experiences, so how could they make policies for us?

The communities we serve are all low-income communities of color, refugees. It took a huge coalition of organizations to make this campaign successful. Our community members had never given to a campaign before, or very little, maybe $25 to one candidate during a national election; so it was very empowering for them to all of a sudden give at the $100 level for a local election.

What Democracy Vouchers really do is allow disfranchised communities to participate. And on top of that, candidates were really focused on our communities, they were able to engage with their constituents on the issues. Politicians tend to only listen to frequent voters or donors, and that’s how we shift power.

One of the council members elected this past election, Teresa Mosqueda, she’s a Latina, who is a renter, a part of our community. Gentrification in Seattle is dispersing our communities and that makes it so difficult for us to organize. She has such a strong voice and understands the system. We want more people in the community like her to be able to run. For her to win son candidly, that’s exactly how we want our political system to work.

For us, we will always focus on getting out the vote and civic engagement, but it is because we work with communities on issues that matter the most to them, on a day-to-day basis and year-round. We need a community that is engaged all year and understands how policy is made, and why their vote really matters.

Piper helped shift power at a table where community voices were not being honored in a way that shaped strategy. While money is only one way that power is exercised, getting direct resources from Piper allowed us to leverage resources and legitimize our position in including Legal Permanent Residents and formally-incarcerated people in the democracy voucher policy. In addition, it allowed us to focus in neighborhoods comprised of poor people, people of color and infrequent voters in passing the initiative; a strategy critical in winning and shifting political power to communities most marginalized.