Today’s blog post, celebrating Women’s History Month, may be one of the most important we’ve published. It’s not about trains or buses. But, it is about a journey. Please join us for a conversation with RTA Director Sarah Pang, in her own words.–Ride On Blog Team
Ride On Blog: Please tell us about your childhood
SP: I had an interesting upbringing. My mother was born in East Chicago, Indiana and my dad was born in China and grew up in Hawaii, until Pearl Harbor was bombed. He then joined the military, becoming a bombardier and flying 68 missions before going to college on the GI Bill. They met and married right after World War II and were married for 67 years. My father was a dentist and when he opened his practice in Rockford, he was unable to get dental insurance because he was Asian. He chose to stay in Rockford, began to volunteer in the community where he made friends and connections, eventually meeting an agent who would insure him.
As a child, we faced “name calling” like “Chinc” and people making the “slanted eyes.” People asked if we were allowed in Church. My mother told us to explain it to people. So, I told them my mom was raised Catholic and my dad was raised Buddhist so we went to the Methodist Church because they accepted us. My parents always talked about our proud heritage about hurdles that we overcame. I don’t know if we thought of it as racism. If people called us names, we stood up for ourselves. But, we were told we didn’t have to get in people’s faces; they taught us that maybe you can bring them in and they’ll learn something, maybe make a connection. Rockford was good to my family. My dad passed away last year at the age of 95. He was strong, independent and inclusive all his life. He was quoted in a publication before he passed away. It’s how we were raised. “You know, I really enjoyed my time in the service because I met all kinds of people,” Allen Pang muses. “At first I could hardly understand what the kids from Alabama or New York City were saying, because of their accents, but we all became good friends. People overcame their prejudices. We got to know each other very well and became real good friends.”
Ride On Blog: And your career, how did you end up at in public service?
SP: I decided early on that I wanted to work in government and was lucky enough to eventually get a job working for Illinois U.S. Senator Alan Dixon for almost a decade. After that, I accepted a job from Mayor Richard M. Daley, where I also worked for nearly a decade. I was the first Deputy Chief of Staff. People would ask me “Who sent you?” and I didn’t know what they meant. (I know now they meant which precinct captain or alderman sent me.) I wasn’t in the fabric of the City so I just didn’t know. I’d just say, “I guess the mayor sent me.” There were not a lot of women on the Mayor’s staff at that time and he was building a very diverse team at that point. More importantly, he was building an inclusive team where, no matter what level you were, you could offer ideas and dissent. Still, all the women were dealing with a very male dominated set of departments.
Ride On Blog: What was it like to work at City Hall?
SP: I got lucky to have a boss (Mayor Richard M. Daley) who threw things at me that were huge stretches. He had this way about him of making sure you didn’t fail but letting you go with a lot of accountability and a lot of authority and a lot of support underneath. I loved that job. I never thought I would leave it. But, I got a brain tumor. I had very successful surgery and came back after four months. I didn’t have hair and had the scars on my head and my former boss, Chief of Staff, Gerry Chico, said, “Sometimes when you have a life changing experience you ought to think about changing your life.” I didn’t get it at first. That night, all of the sudden, it clicked and I resigned to the mayor. I took a while off and then came to my current job at CNA. This job appealed to me because they said, “You’ll come in doing X and they you’ll get to make your job.” I now run global communications for the company with a team here in Chicago and communications teams in London and Toronto. This job also allows me—actually expects me– to be involved in the community so it’s really the best of both worlds for me. I have a career that I dreamt of from young age and I got very lucky that I’ve always worked for men that were advocates, who allowed me to continuously stretch myself and my teams in building what the organizations needed. It’s all that I wanted and more.
Ride On Blog: Did you like working in politics? Did you ever encounter sexual harassment or gender discrimination?
SP: I did like the rough and tumble world of governing and politics. At the City, if people were going to stab you, they would say, “I’m gonna stab ya in the eye.” I liked the straight forward approach. You always knew where you stood. So for me it was “Ok, thanks for letting me know you want to stab!” I did run into one very serious issue that I didn’t reflect on until the MeToo movement came up. I think because so many people came to my defense, I actually thought of it as a positive. I have been criticized recently for not saying the person’s name because the person is deceased. It wasn’t any of the people I’ve mentioned; it was someone I had a job with early in my career when I was doing campaigns. I never even thought of the fact that I was traveling alone sometimes with the candidates. There was a night that we all checked into the hotel rooms. I didn’t know who was in the rooms on either side of me in this hotel in a small town in Illinois. In the middle of the night the candidate came in, undressed. (the door to the adjoining room was somehow unlocked, not by me.) He said he heard my TV on. I just stood up and said, “You need to get out of here right now,” and walked to the hallway and opened the door. He went away. Not too long after that, I got fired and there were accusations about me having made too many long distance calls. It was a campaign so we had one of those long distance phone packages so you really couldn’t have too many calls and you’re calling people all over the state.
Ride On Blog: What happened after that?
SP: I didn’t have a job so I went home to my parents’ house and found out the campaign had already been there. They told my parents that I had been fired and not to believe anything I said about them. My parents kicked them out. My parents told them, “She didn’t tell us anything and we are on her side. We know she didn’t do anything wrong and you showing up here tells us you’re scared.” I was very worried “it wouldn’t break my way,” as I was sending out letters to try to get a new job in government. I had volunteered for Lynn Martin in Rockford from the time I was a child. Among many, I sent a letter to Senator Dixon asking for a job and Lynn Martin happened to be with him on a plane flight to D.C. when he opened it. She told Senator Dixon, “You have to meet her.” So, his staff called me and eventually, he hired me. Years later I found out that the candidate who had come into my room that night had also spoken to Senator Dixon when they found out he hired me, scared. The senator said, “I don’t believe it.” When I went to work at Mayor Daley’s office, I found out the same thing happened there. This was like ten years later. I was so fortunate to have two powerful, male advocates. Now a days, I would have done something very different and I would tell any young woman, you can tell your whole story and you can tell it more loudly. I think because my parents supported me, the senator, the mayor…without me ever having talked to them…they believed in me, I thought that was enough. It was a lot. But, it’s really not enough. Because, that person is long gone now, but how many other people did he potentially hurt? So, it’s always the right thing to speak up. It’s never going to be easy. Nothing gets better unless you speak your truth. And that’s true for men and women. You also have to speak up about bullies in general and people who try to dominate and take away and try to create a culture that is not inclusive. Speaking up can help others to tell their stories, too.
Ride On Blog: If you could give young Sarah, your younger self, a piece of advice, what would you tell her?
SP: Pauses. I think I’d tell her to be even bolder about my career. In the early days of my career I decided that I did not want to ever run for office. But, I then set myself up to be a staffer to try to bring about monumental change. I’ve had a spectacular career. I am not done. Chapter 1 was the Senate and the Mayor’s Office; Chapter 2 is CNA and strengthening my financial acumen, my business sense and Chapter 3 is going to be something that combines those two things. But, I think I constrained myself because I didn’t believe enough in myself and was a little afraid to push myself, really far and maybe fail. And I think in particular a lot of women do not like to set themselves up for failure and failure is where you really learn and stretch yourself. I think in today’s world it’s even easier to do that. People don’t stay in jobs for 10, 20 or 30 years anymore. It’s ok to tell the next person you’re interviewing with, “It just wasn’t a good fit. I’m really interested in what you have to offer now. I’m hoping we can be a good fit.” I wish I could tell myself then, “Be the person who says, it’s ok to fail. Put yourself a little further out there.”
Ride On Blog: Why transit? Why did you choose to join the RTA Board 5 years ago?
SP: Transit, to me, is… I don’t care if you’re a Democrat, a Republican, a Communist..transit is an underpinning of any economy. In rural areas too and in big cities for sure. I like the fact that we have a very diverse region coming together on the RTA board representing the City of Chicago, Cook County, all the collar counties, we are very different. And, to break a tie among these very diverse constituencies that has a multitude of different challenges in a state that is not adequately funding transit. The only way to break ties comes down to what is best for the residents. And I love that. Transit is like apple pie. It is just something so uncontroversial that we can come together. I really believe that the strength of the RTA will overcome the lack of funding in Illinois, for now. But something has to change, because in the surrounding areas you’ve got Indiana putting in $1.7 billion in the South Shore which I totally applaud. But, it’s very clear what their statement is: that it’s the underpinning of the entire economy. Transit is complex, it deals with issues of diversity, areas that are underserved, it’s got city, county, state implications and federal implications and global economic impacts. It’s really a privilege to serve on the RTA Board and to fight for transportation for adequate funding for our residents.