Minnesota State Senator-elect Susan Pha at the Minnesota State Capitol in St. Paul on November 17, 2022. Credit: Drew Arrieta | Sahan Journal

Susan Pha never really cared for politics. 

“I really see it as a means to an end,” she said.

What she said she does care for, however, is her community. Pha, the first person of color to serve on the Brooklyn Park City Council, was elected November 8 to serve in the most diverse Minnesota Legislature in state history.

When she joins the Senate in January to represent Brooklyn Park and other nearby suburbs, she wants to ensure that her constituents have the same support her family received when she first came to the United States as a three-year-old war refugee. Pha, who is Hmong American, said her constituents in District 38 make up the most diverse Senate district in Minnesota.

Pha’s childhood experiences influenced her eventual turn to politics. She grew up in poverty in California after her family fled Laos in the wake of the Vietnam War. As they settled in San Diego, Pha experienced firsthand how simple acts of community care can impact people’s lives. 

“I remember being a child at the age of six, going up to our local church to pick out clothes. They were used clothes, but I didn’t care because it meant that I had clothes to wear to school,” she said. “I was so excited.”

That act of kindness inspired Pha to give back. 

“I looked at the people there and just saw them as heroes,” she said. “Even as a kid I was thinking, ‘Someday, I would love to be one of those people.’”

That drive to contribute to her community didn’t manifest as political ambition at first. Instead, Pha started out by volunteering and working for various nonprofits. 

“I’ve spent most of my life trying to volunteer and give my time and serve my community the way that I have benefited from programs that have served me,” Pha said.

After moving to Minnesota in 1995, she spent time mentoring women and girls through the Girl Scouts and the Hmong Women Association. She also helped Hmong women network and develop businesses during her time in the Professional Hmong Women Association.

Eventually, however, she realized that her energy would be most effectively spent trying to create and change policy.

“Through policy, I can make a real change and make sure that we are still providing those services that can truly uplift people’s lives and give them opportunities,” she said. “People need opportunities to thrive, to reach their dreams, to become financially stable for them and their families. And that’s what the state has to provide: opportunities for people to thrive.”

Pha expects next year’s legislative session to be a productive one with a record 35 lawmakers of color taking office in January—eight more than in the 2022 session.

“I think we’re gonna be able to get a lot done,” she said. “We’ve got a much stronger voice when it comes to issues that impact people of color.”

Pha said that she will prioritize equity in the policies she creates in the next legislative session, which begins January 3. She is particularly enthusiastic about a policy State Senator-Elect Erin Maye Quade is advocating for that would provide free lunches to all school students.

That proposal hit home for Pha, as it reminded her of her own experiences as a student living below the poverty line. When she was growing up, students were given punch cards of different colors to pay for their lunches. Students whose families paid for their lunches received one color, and students who received free lunches subsidized by the government received cards of a different color. 

“Everybody knew who was the kids who were getting free lunches, and I was so ashamed,” she said. “There were times where I’d rather starve than pay with my card because then everybody would be looking at me.”

A universal free lunch policy, she said, would not only keep lower-income students fed, but would also prevent them from feeling like they were the odd ones out.

Diverse district, unique needs

Pha said her priorities once she enters office will be fighting for public safety, reproductive rights, and fully funding public education—items that have been on her agenda since she was a  council member. She also intends to focus on how to spend the state surplus, and a handful of bills that weren’t passed in the previous legislative session, including one that would increase funding for personal care attendants.

She’s particularly focused on policy decisions that will uplift communities of color—especially considering the demographic makeup of her district. The population of Brooklyn Park, which is completely encompassed by District 38, is nearly 60 percent people of color. The district also includes Brooklyn Center and Osseo.* 

“I represent the Senate district that’s actually been number one most diverse,” Pha said. “But with that, it also comes with unique needs that we have to address at the state level.”

Those needs, Pha said constituents told her as she knocked on thousands of doors during her campaign, include affordable healthcare, public safety, and funding for public education.

“We’ve got to address those issues, so that all Minnesotans—and especially the people in my district—can really succeed,” Pha said.

The Legislature hasn’t done enough historically to uplift communities of color, she said. The problem, she added, lies not only in the demographic makeup of the Legislature, but also in the execution of legislation itself. 

The dissemination of financial relief for small businesses during the COVID-19 pandemic is an example of poor execution, Pha noted. Those funds, she said, were overwhelmingly accessed by larger, savvier businesses that had the resources and know-how to access them. Many mom-and-pop businesses, she said, had difficulty figuring out how to find those resources.  

“By the time people knew, the money had already run out,” she said.

Pha wants to ensure that her policies not only look good on paper, but also actually reach the communities she’s serving.

“There has to be more help and outreach to make sure that they understand how they can get this help,” Pha said.

Linda Freemon, Pha’s campaign manager, said that Pha isn’t one to settle for mediocrity. She wants to get things right.

“She is the hardest working person I know. She’s somebody who will stay up until three in the morning to get something right,” Freemon said. “She wants to make sure something is as perfect as she can possibly get it.”

Freemon joined Pha’s campaign as a doorknocker when Pha first ran for the Brooklyn Park City Council in 2016. Now, on top of serving as campaign manager, Freemon’s also a friend.

“​​She’s just a fierce defender of integrity,” Freemon said. “People can’t bully her into making decisions or compromises that go against what she thinks is the right thing to do.”

Outside of politics, Pha has written two books: “Hmong Names,” a reference book about Hmong names and their meanings, and “Success That Looks Like Me,” a collection of 25 biographies of successful Hmong Americans. She is also a mom of four (with a fifth on the way), a real estate consultant, and the owner of a small business—a towing company.

“We rescue people; we do not impound people,” Pha said of her business. “That’s our values.”

Pha’s writing is on hold for now as she focuses on her family and the political road ahead.

“I’m excited to get to work,” she said.

*CORRECTION: The story has been updated with the current suburbs in District 38.

Noor Adwan was an intern at Sahan Journal. She is a fourth-year journalism student at the University of Minnesota.