We sat down with Representative Vanna Howard to learn about her political outlook and her connection to Tewksbury
This continues the Carnation’s series of Q&As with Tewksbury elected officials. It has been edited for length and clarity. We previously spoke with Rep. Tram Nguyen, Sen. Barry Finegold and Planning Board Chair Stephen Johnson.
Ali Lightfield: You have an interesting story, having emigrated to the US from Cambodia. What inspired you on that journey to pursue a political career?
Representative Vanna Howard: Well, I wanted to make a difference, and I wanted to give back. I wanted to make a change. I joined a friend’s campaign who ran for school committee many years ago, and I joined because I knew he had a vision of how the school should perform.
My travels through the community showed me the needs of the constituents, and that’s when I started my volunteer work. And then I joined various neighborhood groups, you know, food, pantries, etc. And at my friend’s urging, I joined a campaign for Congress and got an even more expansive understanding and view of our region. At the same time, my volunteer and service grew to dozens of nonprofit boards and commissions. By this time, of course, I think I knew everybody, every community organization, and I was frequently asked when I was going to run for public office. That took a while. For decades at least, people kept approaching me and asking me — really important people that I look up to. The people that I had helped along the way. 2020 would change everything. In the middle of the pandemic, I wanted to make change, and with the community support, the amazing community support, they also wanted a change. At the end of the day, I wanted to run for all the right reasons. I wanted to make sure that I was running to do something and not to be something.
And my friend who ran for school committee, I think he lost the first time. He ran, I believe, two more times for school committees, and then he shifted to run for city council and he won.
AL: Speaking of Lowell, what common interests do you see between Tewksbury and Lowell, and how can the towns work together to improve things for their residents?
VH: I always say the “fiver”– there are five important things all people need. Some say a twofer or three or four, but I would call it a fiver, meaning clothes, shelter, food, health care and education. Issues are the same. My five top issues are really the health and wellbeing of individuals and families, and we all have the same basic needs.
AL: And you’re on the Committee for Racial Equity, Civil Rights and Inclusion. Have you been seeing progress in these fields when it comes to your district, and in what ways?
VH: That’s a brand new committee, put together last session by the leadership. I was honored to be appointed to serve on that committee. We are charged with making a recommendation. I mean, there are challenges in both Lowell and Tewksbury, and all the cities and towns across the Commonwealth of Massachusetts. We made progress, but we still have challenges going forward for racial equity, social justice and inclusion. My view is always to make sure that there’s equity in everything — in health care and education and climate and housing.
If there’s no equity, there’s no equality. Equality and equity go hand in hand.
AL: And you’re also on the Committee for Education. What’s the funding picture, and will you support Healey’s proposal for free community college?
VH: Absolutely. I have many community colleges in my district, and also UMass Lowell. Across Massachusetts, we are blessed. We are fortunate to have top educational institutions here in Massachusetts, and medical institutions as well. We are so advanced, and we are the leader in those two fields. And so, in order to reverse poverty, you want to be able to provide free college to not just young adults, but also adults that are trying to get back. They’re raising their children, or they are not ready to go to college, for whatever reasons, and now they want to go back.
It took me 10 years to graduate from college. I was working full time, raising a child and then going part time at night school on weekends or early in the morning, just to get a college degree. It was really tough for me to do that. And my full time job helped me pay for my college, but I was only taking one or two courses. I couldn’t afford to pay for five courses or even three courses a semester. It was tough. So, if Massachusetts can help some recipients to go to college for free and be successful, why not?
AL: You wear many hats. You’re also serving on the Asian American Commission. What have you done with the AAC that you feel has been impactful in your work?
VH: We want to make sure there is access for folks that don’t speak the English language. We want to make sure that we [the Asian community] are well represented. We want to make sure that there’s equity. We are asking for appropriate funding to make sure of this, for any Asian American organization or study that’s working towards equity in the Asian American communities. We are part of the social, economic and political life, and we contribute tremendously to the United States. And so we want to be treated with equality and equity. We make sure that Asian American organizations are properly funded but also represented right now.
We have seven of us now on the AAC; we were eight originally. Former rep. Maria Robinson is now working for the Biden administration, so now we’re down to seven. So we’re hoping we have the Asian caucus gain more representation from the Asian American community on boards and commissions or in political offices.
AL: You’ve already mentioned that you do a lot of volunteer work. This past January, you hosted a spice drive in Lowell. What made you think to use spices specifically for this community outreach?
VH: It was so much fun. Oh my goodness. Thank you to the Tewksbury Carnation, to taxpayers, the Tewksbury community pantry, and high school students and the community. They have never seen anything like it! I have been volunteering with food pantries over the years and the most requested items are spices, cooking oil and butter. When you think of donating to food pantries, you think cereal, peanut butter non-perishables, right? But you never think about those spices, so I learned over the years those are the most requested items. I specified it, and I reached out to one of the food pantries. I said, “I want to host a food drive for you, but specific to the items.” And the executive director said, “Oh, this is a great idea.” And so that’s how the idea of spice came about. It’s never been done here before, nothing I’ve ever done here in the city of Lowell. So that’s great.
AL: Do you think that you’ll be hosting one again?
VH: It was a big success, so now I’m hoping to bring awareness so that next time people make donations to the food pantries, and they think about cooking oil, butter and spices.
AL: You’ve really been showing up in our town, and that’s great. So, what have you learned about Tewksbury since you gained the precinct?
VH: I used to live in Tewksbury with my family, for almost 20 years. The precinct I gained during the redistricting, that’s the neighborhood I used to live in. So I’m very familiar with that area, and I’m very excited to represent it. My son went to elementary school and middle school in Tewksbury, and one of my brothers and my stepson graduated from Tewksbury High, so I still stay in touch with Tewksbury friends and new friends and new constituents.
I’m actually going to be co-hosting a food drive in May with the Tewksbury Community Food Pantry. There is also the town-wide cleanup happening again. I’m going to be participating in that again, because picking up trash — it’s my nickname, “the trash lady.” That’s another thing I do that I enjoy. Picking up trash is not just picking up trash, it’s also a constituent service. When I go to the taxpayer in the city where I am, I am engaging with constituents and their concerns, so it’s more than just picking up trash. I get to meet folks, especially in my street clothes. They feel more comfortable talking to me than when I’m in my formal attire.
AL: What opportunities have been extended to young people who may want to get involved in politics?
VH: I would say to just get involved. Get involved! Get engaged. Young folks, if they identify an issue that clearly needs to be addressed, I would say go for it. Join and don’t be afraid. Don’t be afraid to learn and really establish yourself. Bring your empathy and integrity to everything you do. That’s how I got my start, by just volunteering for everything.
I mean, I’ll just show up to anything that’s happening in the community. Start at the street level. Start by engaging in the community. That’s where you learn where your passion is, but you also learn about issues affecting the community.
AL: And are there any new projects or pieces of legislation that you’re most looking forward to this year?
VH: Well, I’m hoping that one of my bills, the Healthy Youth Act, will cross the finish line this session, and I just actually submitted a bill today, so that will make bill #24. It’s an anti-slavery education bill. It’s to establish a special commission to learn about the anti-slavery effort that’s happening here in the city of Lowell, and across Massachusetts. So, it’s really consistent with the curriculum framework to promote the teaching of racism and racism issues in all public schools and school districts, with particular attention to the study of the inhumanity of slavery.
AL: Do you want to elaborate on what the Healthy Youth Act is?
VH: The Healthy Youth Act is an opt-in, it’s not a mandate. It requires that any public school that teaches sexual education present the information in a medically accurate and age-appropriate way — meaning contraception, LGBTQ+ topics and consent. It also teaches what a healthy and not healthy relationship is, and also STIs. So it’s teaching consent, respect and it’s part of the school curriculum.
The bill does not force schools to add sexual education classes if they are not already part of the curriculum. Parents are still allowed to review course materials and opt their children out of the class if they wish. But that’s it. Respect, consent and that’s all the bill is for.
AL: Is there anything else you’d like our readers to know?
VH: Well, I say that constituent services are really my top priority. I don’t wait until the grass grows under my feet. I show up, I go out there and hear their concerns. I love engaging with people, and I love that they have access. That’s really engaging and accessible to the representative. It’s very important. And that was my promise when I took this office. It’s been quite an honor to have the trust of the community to serve and to be the voice.