Khanh's family (left to right: Hector, Maya, and Khanh)
Khanh with husband Hector and daughter Maya

Early Life

My parents immigrated to the US in 1975, after the end of the Vietnam war. The US government wanted to avoid over-burdening any one community with the flood of refugees stemming from the war, so they spread refugees out across the country. My parents met in Oklahoma, where they married and had me in 1978. Growing up, my parents were super-protective and I grew up a shy bookworm. It wasn’t until we moved to Irvine, CA, when I was eleven, that I started to come out of my shell, surrounded by the diversity of Southern California. I worked hard in school, knowing that I would need financial help to be able to go to college, so when Lewis & Clark College gave me a full scholarship, I jumped at the opportunity, and that decision changed my life. 

At Lewis & Clark, I embraced all the opportunities of college life. I reveled in the political discussions, and found myself gravitating towards the activists. I started a Free University so that students and community members could offer classes to each other at no cost, and I studied abroad twice, first in Vietnam in 1998 and then Zimbabwe in 1999. My studies and travels broadened my view of inequality and I was determined to understand its root causes and to devote my life to building community power for social justice. 

Community Organizing

After I graduated in 2001, I wanted to become a community organizer, so I moved to Los Angeles to become an organizer-in-training with the Labor/Community Strategy Center. There, in South LA, I rode the buses every day, speaking with low-income Black and Latinx riders about their lives, their search for jobs and housing, and we organized together to fight the systems of transit racism and environmental injustice impacting their lives. I then moved to Oakland, CA to work as a grassroots fundraiser and community organizer to learn from the powerful movements in the Bay Area. In 2009, I connected with grassroots groups who were drawing the connections between immigrant justice, climate justice, racial justice, and workers’ rights, and I started helping to produce radio programs that helped reframe climate change as a racial, economic, and gender justice issue. 

In my regular visits to my family in Vietnam, I witnessed firsthand how the growing impacts of the climate crisis–from stronger hurricanes and severe flooding to saltwater intrusion and extreme heat–were hitting the poorest and most vulnerable communities first and hardest. In my desire to develop more skills and expertise to address this crisis, I enrolled in a PhD program at Portland State University to study urban planning and climate change adaptation. After giving birth to my daughter Maya, the climate crisis and its impact on the world that we are leaving for our children hit me on an even deeper personal level.  I started working at the Asian Pacific American Network of Oregon (APANO) and over the next four years, I built their environmental and climate justice program.

An Oregon Leader

As a Jade District resident, I helped advocate for parks and greenspace in my parks-deficient neighborhood, as well as advocate for affordable housing and safer streets along the major corridors of 82nd Avenue, SE Division, and SE Powell Blvd. While working at APANO, I created the Climate, Health, and Housing Institute (CHHI) to train the next generation of Asian and Pacific Islander leaders to understand the interconnections between climate justice, health equity, and housing justice and how to advocate on these issues in their own communities.

From 2016-2018, I helped build one of the most diverse coalitions that helped create and win the groundbreaking Portland Clean Energy Fund initiative. The Fund will raise on the order of $50 million each year for renewable energy projects, energy efficiency and training for good wage careers, prioritizing low-income communities and communities of color.

This year, I’ve been focused on working with grassroots groups across the state to organize an Oregon Green New Deal statewide listening tour. This will build a bold collective vision, culminating in an Oregon Green New Deal policy platform that we plan to advance in 2021.  

For me, being an organizer has been about listening to community members and organizing together to take action on issues aligned with our collective core values. As a mother now, I think about the world that my daughter will inherit when she graduates high school, and I am running to ensure that she and all the children and people of our district and state have the rights, resources, and recognition that they need to thrive.