CHINATOWN — For Theresa Mah, the path to a liaison post in the Illinois governor’s office can be traced to her grandfather’s migration from China to California in the 1920s.
Using a fake name to enter the country, Mah Dai Hung escaped poverty in Guangdong Province to enter a life of working low-wage restaurant and seasonal farm jobs.
More than thirty years would pass before federal laws would allow Hung to become a naturalized citizen and bring his wife, past the age of bearing children, stateside. The couple adopted Mah's father.
“The knowledge of my grandfather’s story has led me to always think about the underserved and under-represented,” she said. "His quality of life as an immigrant...had an impact on my life."
Last week, Mah was named by Gov. Pat Quinn as his senior policy advisor and liaison to the Asian-American community.
It’s the next step in a career that’s long been focused on civics, including issues like fair housing, immigration reform and voting rights.
In the new role, the former college lecturer will ensure Asian-Americans are given a seat at policy discussions across the state.
Some of that work began last year when Mah helped lead an effort to pass a state law expanding opportunities for the Asian-Americans looking to work for the state. Right now, Asian-Americans represent about 5 percent of the state’s population but just 2.5 percent of the state of Illinois workforce.
Most recently, Mah, of McKinley Park, has served as policy consultant at the Coalition for a Better Chinese American Community, a Chinatown-based advocacy group that acts as an umbrella for eight community organizations.
“I’m sad to leave because I loved my job. I enjoyed working with the community here, especially because my role fit within the coalition’s mission to engage the community, empower and organize,” she said.
In 2011, the Coalition for a Better Chinese American Community scored a major victory with a successful redistricting effort that regrouped scores of Asian voters into more unified legislative state Senate, state House and congressional districts.
She’s also been a lead organizer in the group's recent efforts to have a freestanding library constructed and fieldhouse built at Ping Tom Park. She also serves on the local school council at Kelly High School in Brighton Park.
It's that type of civic engagement — from the big-picture to the micro — that's earned her connections at many levels.
June Coutre, a friend of Mah’s who serves on the Haines Elementary School local school council, said Mah "ties it all together to make a real community."
"She doesn't have an underlying agenda. She's sincere and looks out for the best for the Chinese-American community."
Mah starts her new post on March 6 at Quinn’s budget address.