Longtime Menlo Park resident Chelsea Nguyen has lived a life full of what sounds like contradictions.
She came to America from as a child refugee, then served in the military in the Middle East and attended military police training. She has been Buddhist and Christian, and got her graduate degree in theology from Oxford University.
She's experienced the gamut of circumstances that brought her from a refugee camp in Vietnam to being a homeowner and parent of three in Menlo Park, a city she's lived in for 40 years, she said.
And on July 20, she pulled papers to run for the Menlo Park City Council's District 3 seat.
If elected, she said, her top policy priorities would be in the areas of housing affordability, police reform and transportation.
When Nguyen first came to the U.S., with her parents and two siblings, the Menlo Park Presbyterian Church (now Menlo Church) sponsored her family. They lived in a small apartment in East Palo Alto and she attended Willow Oaks School.
"As an immigrant I have a different perspective than other people who are born and raised here," she said. "I know what it's like not to have anything. I know what it's like to lose everything and start new ... I know how hard it is to survive when you have very little," she said. "As a community we ought to know better."
Now, her three adult children – a daughter and two sons who have served or are serving in the military – tell her that there's no way they'd be able to live in the community if their family didn't own their home.
She said she favors rent control and would like Menlo Park to have a more robust below market rate housing rental program.
Santa Monica has had rent control for many years. "It's an affluent neighborhood like ours and they are able to have rent control. I don't see how we can't have that," she said.
"If you work at Starbucks and make $15 an hour, like my daughter, you will never make enough to have a place to live," she said.
Her daughter, she said, is lucky, because she can live at home and walk to work. She, unlike her coworkers, doesn't get parking tickets for not moving her car frequently enough while on the job.
"What about the young people who just start out who don't live here (and) work here?" she asked. "I just think we ought to ... be better. We have to find a way to be better."
Nguyen said she also is interested in police reform policies.
While in the military, she said, she had several jobs, one of which was with the military police.
At the military police academy, she said, she was taught that every suspect she would interact with is a trained killer. Yet despite working to enforce laws among people with far more combat training than the average civilian, she was always instructed to shoot to maim, never to kill.
That training contrasts deeply with the police shootings that have been happening around the U.S., she said.
Nguyen said she'd be interested in focusing police reform on recruitment and hiring practices rather than training. She said she would also want to understand more about how policing is taking place, and whether, especially in Belle Haven, where many minority residents live, police officers are patrolling with a mindset of catching criminals or focusing on community safety more broadly.
She said she favors a compassionate approach to law enforcement, and described a scene from Victor Hugo's novel "Les Miserables" in which a young man who stole some food went to jail. When he was released, he stole some silverware from a church, and when caught, the priest let him keep the silverware and forgave him. She said she took a lesson from that story: "For me, if you give compassion, you never know what kind of wonderful positive outcome could come back to you."
Another policy priority would be transportation. She said she was recently in Phoenix helping with a campaign for a Democratic candidate and was impressed with the public transit there. She said she'd love to see a similar public transit option that allows for faster travel along El Camino Real in particular. "I think it's a pipe dream," she said, but is interested in other ideas to improve transportation in the Bay Area.
While a run for City Council would be her first campaign for public office, she's volunteered for a number of candidates, doing phone banking and registering voters. She also helps register new naturalized U.S. citizens to vote, has served on Palo Alto's Community Development Block Grant board and is the vice president of the San Mateo County Blue Star Moms chapter, which organizes care packages for troops and supports veterans, including those who are homeless, in Menlo Park.
"I want to have a voice to speak for the ones who can't, who won't, or who are not able to speak for themselves," she said.