Brooklyn’s First Asian American District Leader Aims to Help

Nancy Tong (Photo by Kimberly Conner for Voice of NY)

Nancy Tong (Photo by Kimberly Conner for Voice of NY)

Nancy Tong never intended to make history, but that’s exactly what she’s doing.

“I’m not here to make a name for myself,” Tong said. “I’m here to work for the community.”

Tong is the first Asian American to be elected to office in Brooklyn. On Sept. 21st, she was sworn in as the female district leader for State Assembly District 47 which comprises Bensonhurst-Gravesend. Although she ran unopposed in the Sept. 9 Democratic primary, her election is an important political landmark.

Tong’s appointment to office comes at a time when many areas of Brooklyn are seeing a rapid influx of Asian immigrants. In the neighborhood of Bensonhurst, for instance, the Asian population grew 57 percent between 2000 and 2010 according to census data – an increase of more than 23,000 people. Currently, around 36 percent of Bensonhurst’s total population self-identifies as Asian. However, this demographic shift has not been reflected in the political leadership of the borough.

Tong, who won’t specify her age, saying only that she is in her 50s, was born in Hong Kong and grew up in New York. Her political career is rooted in a long history of community service. She started volunteering in schools when her son Albert, 22, was in pre-K. Through the years, Tong has filled various volunteer roles from tutor to chaperone at school events. She says it’s the joy she gets from helping others, rather than the recognition, that motivates her.

“Sometimes when I help someone it seems like I’m happier than the one being helped!” said Tong, laughing.

Tong moved with her family to Bensonhurst 12 years ago and has worked at Assemblyman William Colton’s office ever since. She started out as a volunteer but later transitioned to the role of community liaison.

“When I first came to Bensonhurst, they told me how Colton’s office does a lot of work for the community – and that attracted me,” said Tong.

The assemblyman said Tong’s compassion and strong work ethic are what distinguish her. “She is somebody that has a heart and really cares,” said Colton. “And that’s a very important asset for every community in this diverse district.”

Tong’s election is a significant milestone not only in terms of Brooklyn politics but also because of its potential impact on the Asian immigrant population in the district.

“Her election is very important for the Asian community,” said Dr. Tim Law, an activist and advisor to the United Chinese Association of Brooklyn. “We now have somebody who can represent us and speak for us.”

Law believes that a lack of understanding about government rules and regulations has historically been a major obstacle for Chinese immigrants. “It’s very important that now we have Nancy Tong to help them get that information and relay it to the community. She can act as a bridge…Nancy Tong speaks our language, so it’s very easy for the Chinese community to approach her for help,” he said.

Law also thinks that Tong’s election is just the beginning of a larger trend. “Nancy Tong will play a role in more Asians becoming active in politics – people will see Nancy and think ‘if she can do it, I can do it too!’”

Tong, who is fluent in Mandarin and Cantonese, says she is proud of her heritage but adds, “I don’t just service Asian people – I service anyone that comes in seeking help.”

Tong says she is currently focusing her attention on education and housing projects.

“There’s a lot of money being given to pre-K programs, but we don’t have enough schools to accommodate all the students,” said Tong. “I believe pre-K is the foundation of education. If you can’t build a good foundation, how do you expect students to succeed?”

Tong is working with local civic organizations to create temporary pre-K facilities in order to accommodate more students.

Tong also spoke passionately about the need for more affordable housing, particularly for seniors. Approximately 17% of Bensonhurst’s population is over the age of 65.

“With seniors, you really need to listen. Sometimes the seniors that come to me have never asked for help before and they feel ashamed. I don’t want them to feel that way,” said Tong.

“Everybody needs help.”

Kimberly Conner is a student at the CUNY Graduate School of Journalism.


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