Current Town: Winooski
Years in VT: 17
Industry: Local Government
Profession: City Manager
Organizational website: www.winooski.gov
Contact Elaine: linkedin.com/in/elaine-wang-05432812
Tell us a bit about your background.
My parents immigrated to the US for economic opportunity. When they were little, they fled a civil war in China. Both of those influenced how they raised me and my older sister. My mom is an artist and librarian, and my dad is an engineer and is mechanically minded. I feel like they activated both my right and left brains as a result.
My main values have to do with environmental stewardship and self-empowerment. I worked for ten years in the intersection of the two, with emphasis on environmental stewardship. My role in Winooski also at the intersection, but with an emphasis on self-empowerment, especially as related to our communities that have been historically excluded from power structures and systems.
I grew up in California, was born in the Year of the Snake [by Chinese astrology], am an Aquarius, and I like foraging for mushrooms and wild plants in my spare time.
What do you enjoy about being a business owner/professional of color in VT?
I enjoy that VT motivates me to connect with other professionals of color who have different backgrounds from me. Since there aren’t too many of us, when I see another BIPOC individual, I want to know them. That wasn’t something that I thought about growing up in the San Francisco Bay Area of California because there were so many people of color there.
What are some challenges that you’ve faced as a business owner/professional of color living in VT? How have you worked to overcome the challenges?
Working primarily in white organizations that do not understand my experience or the experience of other people of color. At times, this can create a negative work environment and, at other times, invisible barriers to relationship building, and possibly more. It’s hard to know, which is part of the problem.
In particular, as an Asian woman, or a person who presents as a female and Asian, I have felt there were times where it [race and gender] affected people’s perception of my potential.
To overcome the challenges sometimes it takes being loud. Sometimes by persisting. Often with the support of friends, peers, and allies. Sometimes by leaving.
What opportunities do you see local government evolving?
I’m working towards what I think many (not all, but many) local government officials have always tried for: engagement of the entire community. 100% engagement.
But no local government has ever known what 100% of their population has wanted. That’s my hope: that we get better at that. That’s a big goal and a huge part of self-empowerment. There have always been portions of the community who have been excluded: the disabled, low-income, people who are trans, people who are LGBTQIA+, people of color, immigrants. If you are two or more of those identities, then even more so. We want to hear from neighbors who haven’t felt heard.
As an example, a few communities in VT and I’m sure outside of VT as well, have been trying to pay residents to participate in commissions, committees, and boards. But if you don’t have a social security number, there is almost no way for the municipality to legally pay you without an audit problem. Especially if it’s a regular post rather than a one-time payment. This is ridiculous. If you are a low-income single parent, how are you supposed to participate in a traditional board or committee without at least being able to pay for childcare while you participate?
The traditional methods of engagement are not enough because it doesn’t work for too many people. We [city and municipal workers] just have to be out there more, in more places where people are. We need to be building trust and relationships with more people. Our cities have only evolved a certain way because of the people who have had the time and resources to engage. The people who have participated are wonderful and we appreciate them but they’re not everybody.
In what ways could the community or state of VT support BIPOC in your line of work?
Listen and do.
What advice would you have wanted to receive about being a VT professional of color/business-owner before arriving?
That it was possible to find community here and it would be glorious.
What advice would you give to someone coming into your profession?
Peer support networks for me have been vital to my sanity and confidence. They’ve reminded me that I’m not just what some people think I am. That I’m more.
What do you wish others knew about living in VT that you’ve discovered?
I feel like there’s room here [in VT] to work on your dreams. I’m not saying all dreams are possible, I don’t know that. For what appears to be a low resource state, paradoxically, it gives you more room because there aren’t too many structures telling you what you can and cannot do. There is certainly systemic oppression, but there are fewer people to enforce it so there’s more room to do things.
Are there other things (events/opportunities) you’d like to share with the Vermont BIPOC community?
We are hiring in Winooski! Please look at our jobs page!
Check out Winooski Wednesdays, which happens every other Wednesday through the end of August [July 13th is the next one]. We have vendors, music and food, so it should be a good time! If not, please let me know!
The City of Winooski is working on equity and I’m personally committed to equity of all kinds. I might not always get it right, so if people are seeing that we aren’t, I’d like to know. If people have the energy or spoons, I’d love to hear from them.
Why are you a member of the Vermont Professionals of Color Network?
To bask in the excellence that is the community of professionals of color in Vermont.