Meet the first Asian-American soon-to-be elected to the Wisconsin State Assembly – Francesca Hong!

To kick off our candidate series in honor of the Democratic National Convention, it seemed only appropriate to highlight an exciting, up and coming voice from the Convention’s host state, Wisconsin — Francesca Hong

The daughter of immigrants, Hong is a chef, service industry leader, and community organizer. She co-founded an organization called the Culinary Ladies Collective to provide a space for women and nonbinary folks in the food industry to find and give support for each other. This drive to raise up and advocate for intersectional, marginalized voices, and investing in her community, has infused her perspective and her campaign platform.

She’s making history as the first AAPI expected to be elected to the Wisconsin State Assembly. But for Hong, her AAPI identity is only one aspect of diversity she’ll bring to the Assembly. She’s aiming to expand her mission of cultivating equity and inclusion in the food industry to state policies, from fair wages to healthcare to denouncing xenophobia and racism. For so many hospitality workers, who’ve never seen their community reflected in their government for so many reasons, Francesca Hong will be our voice in the room.

Here’s our interview, edited for clarity.

Ally Mark: How are you doing under lockdown? I can imagine that the pandemic was hugely disruptive for the industry!

Francesca Hong: Yeah, quarantine is… not ideal. We shut our restaurant down before Governor Evers’s order. We wanted to prioritize keeping our staff healthy as possible, but we’ve reopened for carryout recently, and as a community kitchen too. We’ve been cooking meals for those in need around our community.

AM:  That’s amazing, and it leads into my first question! Could you talk a little bit about why you’re running?

FH: I saw this moment as a call to action. I’ve done so many of these pitches but it’s a little different each time because each moment and place is a little different. I really think of myself as a service industry worker and a community organizer, who can provide resources and support for community members to be their own change and mobilize. 

Our leadership in this state hasn’t been [meeting the moment]. The GOP’s tyrannical leadership is directly harming our community and putting Wisconsin lives and livelihoods at risk. I’m running because I want to prove that politics can look different and that that’s ok. I’ve been able to engage with folks who have felt like their presence in our political landscape wasn’t wanted or needed and that’s not ok. Politics affects everyone. I want to see more representation and different representation. 

The hospitality community is really a deeply ingrained part of the larger community and its culture. Nursing and taking care of the broader community and running a business aren’t separate ideas for us. We’re there to take care of people, and we feel that responsibility to do more for each other in our larger community. As a community organizer, I feel responsible for bringing people together, for a mission, and I see myself as a connector. Women throughout all aspects of the food and hospitality industry should have a space to feel supported and talk to each other. The Culinary Ladies Collective is about showing how different parts of the industry aren’t all that different and can come together for a common cause. 

Francesca worked her way up from dishwasher to one of the youngest and first female executive chefs at 43 North Restaurant, and finally, to opening her own restaurant.

Right now, we’re at a loss. We’re facing multiple crises, including a crisis of connection. We’re overly connected via social media and the internet, but we’re losing that connection with our neighborhoods. We’re losing the connection of empathizing and struggling with our neighbors.

AM: That’s really powerful, and I guess you kind of touch on this, but who inspires you?

FH: The restaurant community. I was one of the first people to reach out to other restaurant leaders around the Madison area and say we are struggling and we need to get in front of the government and raise our issues to their attention. We looked around and said hey, someone needs to represent us there [in the state government], and I was well-positioned to be that person. My colleagues, my family, other folks saw that and said, yeah, that makes sense. We need better and more representation and politics can look different.

AM: You talk about how politics can look different, and your candidacy is making history here. So how has your AAPI identity shaped the race?

FH: This race has solidified for me that we can have multiple identities and still run for office. An individual can appear stronger with a richer picture of their identity, you know. I coexist with all these identities – mom, AAPI, service industry worker, organizer. When we talk about a particular community, we just see them as a monolith; but we all have so many identities. We’re not just Black or brown or low income. I really hope my race and my candidacy makes people more thoughtful about our individual identities. Mine is a message about my community, not my campaign as an individual. In the service industry, we’re all about sharing our table, so I’m all about our community. And that ideal really resonates with a lot of folks right now. They see that I genuinely want to feel supported by and accountable to my community.

Francesca and her son at her restaurant, Morris Ramen. When Wisconsin opened back up, she started cooking meals for community members in need.

AM: That’s amazing! With that perspective in mind, what’s a policy you’re advocating for that will help an issue impacting AAPIs in your state?

FH: I want to denounce the support I’ve seen for the xenophobia and hateful language that’s become part of our state’s discourse. This issue has brought a lot Asian American communities together, demanding that the government denounce such rhetoric. The language — sometimes overtly racist — is unacceptable and we’re not seeing pushback from our leadership in the legislature. We need laws that show Wisconsin is not going to stand by racism. It’s a public statewide health crisis and it could unify a lot of communities if the leadership shows they’re going to stand by us. 

I appreciate the Biden/Harris campaign and the actions they’re promising to take, because it’s easier to say we’re stronger together than to do. And that’s what’s so important about more representation, and having someone, in the room, at the table. If Speaker Vos affirms Trump’s language, now [the GOP will] have to answer to us, the community I represent. 

I do appreciate the historic nature of being a first, but that shouldn’t take away from all the work we have left to do. I’m excited to see AAPIs keep organizing and doing the work, especially seeing multiple generations involved. In fact, I just saw a local paper publish a spotlight on AAPI leaders! They have been doing this list of the top Black and brown leaders for years, but this is the first time they’ve done it for AAPIs. That’s really what community organizing comes down to: building relationships and trust. The paper did things the right way, and [we organizers] are building real relationships with our community. By increasing representation and getting to know our community’s issues, I see the potential for real change and that our influence on policy is real.

AM: You touched on the Biden-Harris ticket a little; why do you support Biden and what would you say to other AAPIs about supporting him?

FH: I think that, regardless of how people might see themselves, we do need [federal] resources to help us protect our communities. So, do we need bigger changes? Yes. Have they committed some harms in the past? Yes. I’ll admit that I was not stoked about this ticket; I’m a little more… radical than them. But the work is still there and we know more harm will come if Trump wins reelection. Biden and Harris, they are the harm reduction ticket, the opportunity ticket. Having them in office will allow us to be better agents of our own change. And that opportunity won’t come if we re-elect Donald Trump. It starts by coming together. We need to build coalitions around the Biden-Harris campaign, and then we can start our work. Even though incremental change is unacceptable to a lot of us, we can’t even start the work if we don’t elect Biden-Harris. Trump isn’t the only enemy. We have multiple enemies. We have the pandemic, we have systemic racism. But we can’t start addressing them, without all systems going. Our engine start is getting Kamala Harris and Joe Biden into office. Then, we can take off in whatever direction after that.

AM: Thank you so much for your time, and congratulations!

Ally Mark is an AAAF media fellow, based in Chicago. She is a recent graduate of Northwestern University’s environmental engineering program and now works at a Democratic political communications consultancy. You can find her baking scones and sourdough bread or camping in the woods.

Unless clearly identified as statements of the AAA-Fund, the views, opinions, analyses, and assumptions expressed in each blog or clearinghouse post are those of the author or contributor alone, and not those of the AAA-Fund.