In 2007, at the age of 29, Carmen Chu became the only Asian American elected to the San Francisco Board of Supervisors at the age of 29. Since then, Chu has gone on to successfully serve two terms as supervisor and recently won her second citywide election as the elected assessor for the City and County of San Francisco—becoming the only Asian American assessor in the state of California.
A key player in the city’s financial health, Assessor Chu leads a 170-plus person organization that is responsible for generating over $2.6 billion in annual revenues, the single largest general fund revenue source for San Francisco. This year, under her leadership, the Assessor’s Office increased local property revenue by over 10 percent, helping San Francisco address budget shortfalls, invest in additional homeless and housing services and prepare for potential federal funding risks associated with federal health care changes.
Daughter of Immigrants
Chu’s commitment to serve stems from her family background. Growing up, experienced firsthand how difficult it was for new immigrants to survive. With little resources, Chu’s mother initially worked in sewing factories and her father worked long hours in Chinese restaurants. Eventually, they saved enough to open a family restaurant where Chu grew up serving tables, taking orders, and cleaning dishes.
“How I grew up—the experiences we’ve had—shape my view of what good public service can be. I saw my parents struggle with not speaking English and I saw them succeed through determination. It has taught me the value of working hard for what you believe in, and the importance of inclusion and opportunity,” expressed Chu. “To me, in addition to doing what is in the best interest for the people, good government is about embracing community and making a serious effort to serve everyone, regardless of a person’s religion, gender orientation, background, or ability to speak English,” added Chu.
Role of Independent Higher Education
As the first generation in her family to attend college, Chu emphasizes the importance of education in her family. “My parents never finished high school and their deepest wish for their children was that we go to college so that we wouldn’t have to struggle like they did.”
Chu attended Occidental College through a scholarship from the James Irvine Foundation that was established to help inner-city students pursue a higher education in the wake of the L.A. riots. “My parents were survivors of the riots. They owned a small family restaurant in Inglewood and on the first day of the riots, they were held up at gunpoint. Somehow, after the long week of fires and looting in the community, my parent found the strength to repair and continue their business. I admire their courage, and I developed from that time on a constant questioning about how government can help or hinder in providing opportunities to communities in need.”
Chu also credits her education to the many teachers and counselors who helped her to see how her family could afford college. “The greatest disservice we can do is not to show our young people the path to education. So many of my classmates never continued to higher education because they thought they couldn’t afford it. But before writing it off, just know that there are financial aid packages out there to help,” said Chu.
Chu said the biggest difference between a private and a public institution is the learning environment. Though she enjoyed the large group setting in her public high school, the relatively small size of Occidental’s student body offered an intimate learning environment which she cherished and thrived. She recalls one public policy class taught by Professor Peter Dreier. With only about 10 students in the class, Chu remembered, “Professor Dreier kept us on our toes. At first it took some getting used to, but you knew you had to come to class prepared to participate and speak—there was really nowhere to hide in a class of 10.
“He really pushed me to think critically about policy, who shapes it and the role of community organizing,” said Chu.
Chu graduated Magna Cum Laude and Phi Beta Kappa with a bachelor’s degree in public policy. She went on to earn a master’s degree from the Goldman School of Public Policy at UC Berkeley, where she was the distinguished recipient of a Public Policy and International Affairs fellowship.
Inspiring New Civic Leaders
One area where Chu is distinguished is in her passion for inspiring the next generation of young leaders to public service. In addition to other civic work Chu participates in, it is not unusual to find visits to local elementary schools and career days on her schedule.
“When I grew up I didn’t see anyone who looked like me in elected office,” said Chu. She added, “I want to make sure that young girls and kids know that they can be anything they want to be and that there are people who will help them get there.”
When asked about the work of the city, Chu’s voice brightened. “We hire firefighters, doctors, lawyers, scientists, veterinarians, accountants, painters, drivers, nurses. We run an airport, two hospitals, Golden Gate Park, and a regional water system stretching from the Yosemite Valley to the Bay Area,” she said.
“We create policies that impact how people live. I don’t know what could be more meaningful or more interesting than serving the public.”