Meet Emily Weber, soon to be the first AAPI in the Missouri State Legislature!

2018 was an exciting year for Democrats across the country.

It brought a historic wave of women running for office — and winning. And many of those women who won were “firsts,” making history in their own right. One of those women was now-Congresswoman Sharice Davids — who in turn, inspired another “first” to run.

Emily Weber, a graphic designer and women’s rights advocate, is running to become the first AAPI in the Missouri State Legislature. She was adopted as an infant from South Korea and raised in a predominantly white small town in rural Kansas. When the 2016 election hit, Emily got political and worked to elect Democratic women up and down the ballot in 2018.

Now she’s running for office herself. Check out our interview below!

AM: Hi Emily, it’s so nice to meet you and thank you so much for your time! I know you must be so busy on the campaign trail so let’s get into it. Not a lot of folks think of politically active Democratic AAPIs when they think Missouri — so what got you into this race?

EW: Sure! I decided to run because I, like a lot of other women of color here, am very much afraid for the future, and the present too, really, of Missouri. We’ve continued to go backwards, not forward. I started realizing in 2016 how far backward we really were, and that made me start to fear what was happening now. 

And when the current state representative in this seat, Judy Morgan, was going to be termed out, I kind of realized I could run for office. And I wanted to, so I could help protect those things that Missouri is going backwards on.

I’m actually running in a very progressive district against a Libertarian, and it wasn’t until after winning the primary that I realized I’d be the first AAPI in the Missouri state legislature. I didn’t register that at first, because I had worked on the Sharice Davids campaign [in 2018] and [that] was my first jump into [candidate] campaigning. Sharice ran a campaign full of diversity; it was the most diverse group I’d ever worked with on a campaign before. And that was my first realization of seeing someone who was a first. So getting to know her and how her campaign was run influenced me and showed me that I can run and make a positive difference too.

AM: Well that leads nicely into my next question and you kind of maybe answered already, but who or what inspires you?

EW: Sharice Davids! Of course though I’m in this position because there are a lot of strong women and individuals that I’ve gotten to know in the community who have made it a point to pull other women up, and get them to run for office. My campaign manager is one of those people — I met her on Sharice’s campaign – and we joke that she’s a little pushy. Any open seat that pops up, she’ll go find a woman to run for it. She just loves to see more women, and women of color, in office and that’s been so inspiration for me.

AM: I love Sharice Davids! She’s doing amazing work in Congress now. It must have been really cool to work on such a diverse staff – I’m curious now that you’re the candidate, how has your identity shaped your race? Again, I’m not familiar with Missouri much at all, but I know I don’t think of a significant AAPI population. How has that influenced the narrative around your race and how you’ve run your campaign?

EW: I come from kind of a unique background – I grew up in rural KS, but I was adopted. I was definitely that weird minority in town but I grew up in a white family, in a very small community where people just accepted me. I moved to a bigger city, but I feel confident that I have this background and I could go to Jefferson City and talk to rural legislators. I can still connect with them even though I look different. I can still have conversations and relate to and on their experiences in a small town. And hopefully I can open their eyes to experiences with other minorities, and they’ll become less closed off to issues facing marginalized communities of color. 

And on the campaign trail, I really didn’t experience too much negativity around being a minority. District 24 is very progressive and the folks here want to see diversity in their representation. So it was actually mostly positive reactions to my being a woman of color. And a lot of other groups are out there that want to help get AAPIs involved and get more diversity in the electorate, and talk to them about why to vote, why to fill out the census, why to register to vote.

And as I’ve been running this campaign during COVID, it’s been a lot of phone banking. I’ve been sending out mailers, but also calling on the phone; so it’s been kind of funny to get the reaction of surprise about me being Asian. Often I’ll get this moment when it clicks for them and they’ll just say, “oh you’re Asian!” And they get stuck on it, they would just repeat that again and again. 

But sometimes that got them more motivated, even, because there is this real interest in getting more minorities elected. So yeah, it’s pushed some more folks to turn out and vote. 

Growing up in rural Kansas, you know, the community was fine for me as a child. People accepted me. But as I got older, and the 2016 election happened, that feeling shifted. I moved away from my hometown years ago, but I do go back to visit, and after the 2016 election, I realized it wasn’t my hometown anymore. 

There was a weird shift; there was more racism that came up to the surface. It was just more open now, with Trump’s election. That feeling was very palpable at home. Ever since I lived there as an infant, I felt that everyone around me saw me as just me; but looking back on it, I could see a lot of racism with outsiders. People that showed up in our town, who didn’t look like them — I saw a lot of questioning of them that was rooted in racism.

AM: Wow, I can only imagine how that feels. So given that your state’s AAPI population is probably one that floats under people’s radar, what’s a policy you’re excited about, or that your office can implement to will benefit AAPIs?

EW: Right now, I would say Medicaid expansion is the biggest [policy issue]. If the state could pass that, it will be so beneficial for so many people — especially AAPIs, [many of whom are] small business owners. Then the next step is making sure that, after we pass [expansion], it really sticks. It’s going to be a continuous fight to do that, but it’ll be a big help with our AAPI community. 

I’m also working with a lot of different AAPI groups that are trying to push the AAPI community to register to vote, and turn them out in different languages to get past those kinds of barriers. There’s a decent sized percentage of AAPIs in rural Missouri, who we [at the party level] were not aware of until last year. Reaching out to them will be harder, but they are there and we’re trying to figure out how to reach out to them.

AM: Great! So last question — You’re in a progressive area but a red state generally, where AAPIs might not see themselves and their interests represented. Why do you support the Biden-Harris ticket? What would you tell an AAPI or a young AAPI who might not want to vote or sees Biden as just another politician and more of the same?

EW: I am 100% supporting the Biden-Harris ticket, and I’m very happy with the Kamala choice [for Vice President]. I’m excited to do what I can to support them. 

The current leadership [in the White House] is constantly attacking everybody. Every minority has been attacked at least once; the major religious groups have all been attacked at least once. [Trump] just doesn’t care. 

So what I’d say, to the AAPI community – [Trump] is not there to help you. He’s not there to support you or protect you, and he will put you in harm’s way. This [harm] has been going on for so long now, and what I say is that, yes, wholeheartedly, this affects you. Your life, your business, your status, your education — everything. Your vote 100% matters. We need to get everyone out to vote and make sure this never happens again. The day after the 2016 election, I got way more involved with political groups and it was because I was told at a grocery store to go back to my country. It’s only going to get worse [if Trump is reelected]. We need to fight for good, not this negativity, and Biden represents that hope for good. 

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