Olivia Chow

Online & Offline Organizer

Location: Washington, DC

"I might not always know the right thing to say, but I know when saying something is the right thing to do."

My mother tells me that I was a quiet, unfussy child — so quiet that I did not speak until I was three years old. My parents feared that I was mute, but I was just waiting for the right thing to say.

In April 2012, an infamous DC councilman made a slew of anti-Asian comments that infuriated me. The councilman’s remarks were irresponsible; instead of addressing a legitimate policy concern, he scapegoated Asians for stealing American jobs. He also dismissed the contributions that Asian American shop owners and Filipina nurses have made in DC.

Frustrated, I sent an email to a handful of my peers with a link to the incident and the following question: “Do we want to do something about this?” I was astounded by the flurry of responses that mirrored the outrage I felt. Overnight we coordinated an online campaign to force an apology from the councilman.

Despite having demanding work lives, my peers spent their free evenings working tirelessly on this campaign. I was excited for the attention the campaign was getting; we received hundreds of petition signatures in the span of a weekend and reaped local and national media attention. In the midst of all the excitement there was a piercing voice of doubt: What if I exhausted my already-busy peers with campaign tasks, conference calls and work parties with nothing to show?

There were plenty of well-intentioned naysayers – including people who I considered to be mentors – saying our campaign was too brash. The councilman spent two months dodging the issue and it seemed like our campaign had plateaued at 700 signatures. Work lives were becoming increasingly demanding on the campaign team, which left very little time to push the campaign forward. The councilman was elusive, scheduling meetings with the community but then cancelling at the last second and insisting that he had done nothing wrong.

I leaned in further and after weeks of conversation with coalition partners, our hard work and organizing forced the councilman to hold a press conference where he issued a formal apology to members of his constituency.

When I sent that first email, I never imagined we would build a nationally recognized campaign on a local issue. I took a chance by sending that first note, and to this day I thank the campaign team for leaning into uncertainty with me. I might not always know the right thing to say, but I know when saying something is the right thing to do.

I am still close to the campaign team; together we train our peers to use the Internet to amplify their own voices and win campaigns. My hope is that more people will speak up and more people will get heard on issues that really matter.