To wrap up our series of rising AAPI voices, meet Marvin Lim, who will be the first Filipino American to join the Georgia State Legislature. He will also join the largest group of LGBTQ+ lawmakers in the State House’s history.
Marvin’s unique candidacy reminds us of the importance of thinking about issues through an intersectional lens. He is a civil rights attorney by training, but he also brings the perspective of an immigrant. Marvin grew up on free meals at his public schools and with parents who struggled with their physical and mental health. He went on to law school at Yale and practices civil rights to fight for the vulnerable and against violence and voter suppression.
Marvin’s is a powerful story, which you can read in his own words in our interview below.
AM: How are you doing? I feel like even that’s kind of a hard question these days.
ML: It’s interesting, an interesting time for sure. It seems like the last two months have gone by faster than the four months before. And as we get closer to the election, and just a new season generally, [with fall coming up], things are actually looking up. I’m a positive person, so I’m continuing to see this as a new opportunity to look up.
AM: That’s a great transition into my first question, which is why you’re running. There hasn’t been a lot of optimism lately, I feel, and I’m curious — what fuels you to run in this time of crisis?
ML: What is motivating me most — and has motivated me — is to do good for the most vulnerable populations in Georgia, particularly since I’m running in a district that is 80% minority, and where a quarter of households are below the poverty line. So it’s incredibly diverse here.
I’m an immigrant, and I came here from the Philippines when I was seven. I’ve been on public assistance for many years throughout my childhood. But I took those experiences and transformed them into my career as a public attorney, where I could fight for the vulnerable. Now [at the State House] I can do that at a greater level.
My number one goal will be to get [my constituents’] stories out there and to listen to folks. For me, it’s always been about the traditionally disenfranchised, the silent and marginalized. [Throughout my campaign] I’ve brought the immigrant and other marginalized communities resources and created over 20 resource guides to help them navigate difficult times.
I was already doing that kind of work before [the pandemic], but COVID-19 shows how important it is that we’re empowering immigrants that feel undervalued. In my district in 2016, only 30% of eligible voters voted. Imagine how much more impact we could make if more people were voting from those communities [and making their voices heard]. But my background reflects their backgrounds, and I’ll be a voice for them not just in an important election year, but beyond, too.
AM: You have such an amazing story and I think you’ve already touched on this a little but who or what inspires you?
ML: Specifically with COVID, things have changed a bit. But it’s been the people I’ve met in the district before COVID. I started canvassing in September, so before March 16th, which was the last day I canvassed, I met about one thousand people in the district, knocked on 5000 doors, and featured over 100 of their stories on instagram for my campaign, most of which were collected before COVID-19.
Hearing their stories – I see that these struggles aren’t new. COVID-19 exacerbated these issues, but traditionally marginalized Georgians were already worried about paying rent and about access to healthcare. 43% of my constituents are uninsured and all of this was BEFORE COVID-19.
So a lot of people don’t even want to go back to the “normal.” And of course it’s not that they want COVID to stick around, but their struggles made their lives hard before the pandemic, and COVID has just exacerbated these problems.
And I’m motivated by these stories of struggle. There’s been a huge effort to suppress the voting rights and political power of immigrant communities. Thousands would’ve been naturalized this year but deliberate efforts on Trump’s part have prevented them from [receiving citizenship] and voting.
These voices — the voices of marginalized and immigrant communities — despite problems with voter suppression and other challenges, need to be heard. I want to uplift them and make sure they can be heard and they know their voices matter. They don’t always think their voices matter but they need to be heard and they need to vote anyway.
AM: Again, you’ve preempted my questions a little! But I’m curious about, more specifically, how has your identity shaped your race? Do you see any issues on the campaign trail or any ways that your identity influences the narrative you tell?
ML: The key parts of my identity have enabled me to, if not directly, identify with some of the struggles of the people here. It’s complicated though, because if you look at other parts of my background — having a law degree, being a Fulbright scholar — they aren’t that relatable and [folks] might see those aspects as reifying [the current] structures of power.
But if I tell them about my humble immigrant upbringing, I can talk about how I went to college and became a civil rights lawyer to give back to the community. In this world of identity politics, there are people of all stripes and folks will want to see what they want to reinforce.
I don’t want to be seen as a monolithic individual; I want to bring out other people’s intersectional identities and I want to be seen as an intersectional person. People, and especially candidates [for political office] can’t help but feel the force of that identity politics, sometimes.
But right now, there’s a unique opportunity for us to be standing in solidarity with other folks. The Black Lives Matter moment is, and justifiably so, an issue between whites and blacks. Me being of my Asian identity and ACLU civil rights background, I’ve been able to push back against the force pressing me towards sticking to one part of my identity.
I’ve been able to help AAPIs enter conversations that already existed and talk about how AAPIs can fit into the work of BLM. I’ve talked about how other groups focusing on racial justice can bring in the immigrant perspective — not just AAPI, but also Latinx and others — and discuss how that fits in the narrative and the work [of racial justice]. My intersectional background can help bridge different communities and get beyond the boxing-in into one identity.
Obviously, I believe that more AAPIs are paying attention to BLM, and that there are still Filipinos that might be conservative, but who see pride in me [representing the Filipino community]. I see [those folks] as an opportunity to expand our discussion on what it means to be AAPI, and particularly, AAPI in this time of fire in our politics.
The diversity of the US is clear but so are the divisions. So I’m interested in, how do we [AAPIs] situate ourselves as a way to further the conversation, and not to divide to the detriment of other minority groups.
AM: I think it’s so fantastic that you’re emphasizing this intersectionality in your identity, and that you’re so focused on the marginalized folks in your district. I’m willing to bet you have a lot of answers for this next question, but what’s one policy idea that you’re most excited about, that your office can implement, that will benefit AAPIs?
ML: In the last couple weeks, I’ve written almost 30 bills. You know, I’m given two years in the job, and I really never thought I’d run for office before. I truly feel that I’m at the right level of office, in the sense that I have no aspirations for any higher office. I think I’m in the exact right place to help the people I want to help.
So first, housing rights is something I’m very focused on that will help impact the AAPI population here. [The AAPI population] are mostly renters here. Talk about AAPIs being a monolith, you know, representing the myth of the American dream and being the model minority and all — there are so many AAPIs here that are NOT that story.
If you look at the AAPI populations that people don’t tend to look at — like Cambodians, etc. — they aren’t at that level of economic success and stability. And one way that [disparity] manifests itself is the housing issue. I want to listen to people, as I said before. So, I sent out a landlord-tenants’ rights mailer and an HOA rights mailer. This was even before COVID-19; I just wanted to make sure people had those resources.
We don’t want to put bandaids on these issues, though, so I’m working at the policy level — with planning and development organizations in the community, because I want to be very community focused. We found that, with landlords that take advantage of their tenants, there isn’t a process to report mold in apartments at the government level. You could fix that by establishing a process or issuing an ordinance, for example, to report mold to the county level. At the state level, I would push bills to create mechanisms for reporting abuse from landlords. Right now, there exists only the current claims process, so I want to keep in mind the people that don’t want to go through that process.
And there are lots of types of abuses, like various fees, lack of repairs, etc. that impact AAPIs. So I want to reform the HOA code to prevent those kinds of abuses, going all the way down to the types of assistance available to people. I think it would be especially helpful in the COVID-19 period to publicize every kind of foreclosure and eviction resources out there.
And I think that one thing I can do is to tell the stories of AAPIs in the first place, which is just one way I can serve the AAPI community in a topic I’m very passionate about. Georgia is one of the few places that didn’t have an eviction moratorium during COVID-19 and that was hard on AAPIs. I’m also working with small immigrant-owned businesses, because all these eviction moratoriums will stop at some point.
There’s a looming housing and eviction crisis that we will need to address soon. So there’s an opportunity that will help people immediately, to reform the types of laws that will prevent these types of crises. The laws are currently written in terms of finances, not in terms of people, but also — and this is evident in the way that Georgia didn’t spend a single dime on housing assistance during the pandemic — the law is more fair to landlords than it is to tenants, regardless of an emergency situation or not. We’re faced with so many immediate crises, but I always try to look forward. America suffers from shortsightedness, which is clear from both the COVID business AND health responses. But now more than ever, we can’t afford to just deal with the immediate. I want to empower folks to change this system and that requires a long term focus.
AM: I love the environmental justice lens of the housing policy! I have a background in environmental stuff so it’s always exciting to see a policymaker focused on EJ. Okay, last question, why do you support the Biden-Harris ticket?
ML: I’m looking at [the presidential election] through the lens of three major issues impacting all of us — particularly minorities, but everyone too. One is the economic recession that’s basically turning into a depression as we go. Two, the racial and immigrant injustice rage that’s going on. And three, the racism that’s facing AAPIs now and that will continue after COVID-19.
Those issues all have long-term implications but are also impacting us now. The pandemic has shined a great light on so many of these key issues. As far as 2021 goes, we don’t know what’s going to happen, but right now we have a chance to make our voices heard, and to change our path.
COVID-19 will show us how we need to go in a different direction, but specifically, that we need to go with the Biden-Harris ticket. I’m looking at what he wants to do about these issues, particularly the housing issues. He wants to put lots of funding into housing and transportation — and not just short-term housing assistance in rentals but in building out fair, affordable housing.
That seems to me like a very simple solution. We need to put money in short-term needs to help folks get to their jobs and stay housed. But the policies Biden and Harris are proposing are arguably so much more progressive on these issues. And it’s very different from the president right now. Biden will help people meet their needs right now, in this emergency time, but also for the long-term to make this a better country to deal with the shocks in the future.
Our individual actions impact everyone else around us, and the way our country has divided over this [pandemic] issue has hurt everyone, especially minorities. I’m not saying we need unity for the sake of unity, but we can’t afford to be divided in the ways this president wants us to be. It has cost us in these emergency times, when we need to be united the most. It’s not going to be the last pandemic in our lifetimes, and it’s not going to be the only emergency shock that we’ll face. We need that unity in our country so we don’t fall divided, as we have been.
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