Alum starts historic first term in state legislature

By Dylan Bennett, For the Daily
Published January 21, 2015

When the Michigan Legislature kicked off a new session Wednesday, the House floor included a number of new faces, including state Rep. Stephanie Chang (D–Detroit), the first Asian-American woman to serve in the Michigan House of Representatives.

Earning a bachelor’s degree in psychology at the University in 2005, she said the skills she developed through student leadership roles on campus ultimately gave her the confidence and experience to run for state representative.

“When I was on campus around the time of 2005, the Supreme Court case on affirmative action was going on, and I was involved in an organization of students supporting affirmative action,” Chang said. “We mobilized people to get on buses to go to D.C. It was really a training ground for me in terms of learning how to organize and practice coalition building skills.”

After graduating in 2005, Chang became a community organizer in Detroit. While living on the city’s east side, she served as an assistant to Grace Lee Boggs, an influential Asian-American political activist, and as a mentor with the Detroit Asian Youth Project. She said her experiences at the University prepared her for these tasks.

“A lot of the things I did in college really helped prepare me to learn how to organize, build relationships and how to really effectively advocate on different issues,” Chang said. “A lot of those skills will serve me in the legislature as well.”

After being asked to run for state representative in the 6th District by her predecessor, former state Rep. Rashida Tlaib, Chang had to determine if her race was going to impede her ability to win in a predominantly Black city.

“What really became clear on the campaign trail was that people want someone who shares their values and someone they can trust and someone they know can work really hard for them,” she said.

Chang’s district had traditionally elected a diverse array of people to leadership positions. Past representatives include a Palestinian woman, a Jewish man, a Mexican-American woman and a Hungarian woman.

In her position, Chang represents a significant portion of Downtown, Corktown and Southwest Detroit and a small section of the near east side stretching from Interstate-375 to Belle Isle. She is aware that there are a number of tough issues in her district. Chang highlighted quality of education, safety in Detroit, criminal justice and environmental issues as persistent challenges.

“There are a number of areas in Southwest Detroit that have high amounts of corporate pollution that are very concerning, and could have a huge public health impact,” she said.

Chang stressed the importance of developing the district’s relationship with the Detroit City Council to help ease these problems. Additionally, Chang has established a neighborhood service center where residents can easily seek assistance in their district.

“One of the things I have is a neighborhood service center in the district, so that people don’t necessarily just have to call my Lansing office,” Chang said. “They can actually come in to our Detroit office right in the district.”

Chang’s parents emigrated from Taiwan to pursue educational opportunities in the United States. In part due to her background, Chang’s campaign advocated for increased quality of education in Detroit. Chang and a group of state legislators toured Detroit Public Schools Friday to meet principals, students and parents to get a sense of the most pressing issues facing the public school system.

That morning, the Detroit Free Press reported that every senior at Cristo Rey High School, a Catholic school in Southwest Detroit in District 6, was accepted into college.

“We want to celebrate the success that that school has had,” she said. “We have some really amazing schools to be proud of in Detroit.”

Though Chang plans to advocate for improvements to education, she opposes the emergency financial manager law, which allowed Republican Gov. Rick Snyder to appoint a new emergency manager for Detroit’s public school system last week.

“Emergency management hasn’t necessarily provided the solutions that we need,” Chang said. “No one knows better what needs to happen than those that are directly impacted by DPS.”