Helen Ying: Connecting the Dots for a Better World

This blog is the first in a series of posts celebrating elected leaders who reflect our equity priorities. At Northwest Health Foundation, we know communities need the power and resources to sit at decision-making tables, to help dispel beliefs and practices that do not promote their health, and to help shape those that do. From local school boards to the state legislature, parents and families should have a voice.

 Helen Ying stands in front of a crowd of her supporters, arms outstretched.

Helen Ying stands in front of a crowd of her supporters, arms outstretched.

Helen Ying's personal mission is to engage and empower people to improve their communities, something she's been doing her whole life. As a young teen and recent immigrant, Helen served on Marshall High School's student senate. It didn't matter to her that she was still learning English. She wanted to improve her community, and she'd found a way to do it — becoming a leader. This desire continued through adulthood, bringing Helen to where she is now: a member of Multnomah Education Service District's elected board of directors, National Vice President of Membership for the Chinese American Citizens Alliance, and a force for change in our region.

Of course, Helen's journey wasn't a straight path from student senate to county-level elected official. First, she became a leader in her church, volunteering to coordinate the choir at age sixteen and superintending Sunday school at eighteen. For thirty years, she worked as a math teacher, school counselor and vice principal. During this time, she realized how few laws and policies truly support health, particularly the health of children and youth. When Helen retired, she knew she wanted to do one of two things: become a missionary or run for office. Lucky for all of us, she chose the latter.

 Helen marches in the St. Johns Parade, waving with one hand and holding a campaign sign in the other.

Helen marches in the St. Johns Parade, waving with one hand and holding a campaign sign in the other.

Helen didn't win her first campaign for office. In 2011, then Metro Councilor Rex Burkholder approached her and suggested she run for his soon-to-be-vacant seat. Helen campaigned for six months and came in second. But she doesn't consider her campaign a failure. She ran against four white men and received more votes than three of them combined. Furthermore, the connections she made and visibility she gained during that campaign led to dozens of other opportunities.

After her loss, several community leaders approached Helen and invited her to serve on boards and committees. These included the Creation Committee for the Office of Equity for Portland and the Oregon Health Policy Board Coordinated Care Organization Criteria Work Group, among others. She also chairs the Asian American Youth Leadership Conference and serves as a board member for We Can Do Better. So, when Northwest Health Foundation President & CEO Nichole June Maher suggested Helen run for Multnomah Education Service District, Position 2 in 2017, Helen was ready. And this time, she won.

As a Multnomah Education Service District board member, Helen is committed to taking MESD to the next level. She strongly believes she and her fellow board members have the skills they need to succeed, to promote policies that will support health for children and youth.

In Helen's opinion, it is incredibly important for elected officials to reflect the communities they serve. As a young person, she couldn't understand why there weren't any leaders who looked like her. This year, at the Oregon School Board Association Conference, she and the other school board members of color (the most ever in Oregon's history) met to start a caucus to support one another and ensure their voices are heard. Helen wants today's students of color to be able to envision themselves in leadership roles, and seeing school board members who come from their communities making a real difference is part of that.

More than anything else, Helen Ying wants to inspire others, especially young people, to become involved in their communities and strive to make the changes they want to see in the world. Her advice? Start small. Consider your skills, where you can have influence, what needs to change. Make a commitment to yourself. It could be as simple as encouraging family members to vote. Continue taking tiny steps, working your way up to bigger actions. Participate in an issue campaign. Meet with your legislator. Join a committee or board. One day, you might even decide to run for office.

If Helen's story motivated you to get engaged, check out the partnership and learning opportunities on our Open Opportunities page. Maybe you'll find your next small step toward improving your community.