A recent 2019 study by the Department on the Status of Women found that while Asian Americans make up 31 percent of San Francisco’s population, they make up a far lower 18 percent of appointees to a long list of San Francisco Commissions and Boards, with Chinese appointees even more underrepresented. These citizen oversight bodies make decisions on everything from who gets issued city permits and contracts to what neighborhoods get access to reliable public transit — all enormous privileges and responsibilities that should reflect the communities impacted by these decisions.
One such body that has zero representation from the API or Chinese communities is one that has the most to be accountable for when it comes to poor neighborhood planning decisions in Chinatown, including why pedestrian safety and Muni infrastructure delays continue. Chinatown is one of the densest neighborhoods in the city, with over 10,000 residents, the majority of which do not own cars or use scooter apps or Ubers or Google buses. The San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency (SFMTA) Board has historically struggled to understand the transportation equity issues that have long been at the core of Chinatown’s grassroots organizing legacy — one that has been led largely by women.
Rose Pak was one of those women. Many know that she almost single-handedly fundraised to rebuild Chinese Hospital when it was at risk of closing or know about her tenacious dedication to rebuilding the Ping Yuen public housing projects. But most have no idea of the critical work she did to realize Central Subway.
She built a coalition between Filipino grassroots organizations in SoMa, Chinese organizers in Chinatown and predominantly white transportation advocates from organizations like SPUR to push for this public transit mega-project. Then when funding dried up, she organized a lobbying visit to Washington, D.C. to secure $500 million in federal funds to make the project happen. Ultimately, it is Rose’s unwavering dedication to keeping the SFMTA accountable to Chinatown before, during and after construction that we will remember her for. Whether it is ensuring that the countless construction delays are being mitigated with appropriate relief for our immigrant merchants or that the Chinatown “Rose Pak” Station public plaza is programmed by and for the community, Rose’s legacy is about ensuring that Chinatown remains a gateway neighborhood for new immigrants. (Many joke that the project would have opened on time and on budget if Rose were still alive…)
Honoring the work of this civic giant is about more than memorializing her decades of service. It is about finally getting recognition from a City agency and its governing board that Chinatown and its future matter. All of us have faced discrimination in our roles as API women leaders, especially in a traditionally white “urban planner” Twitterverse that has failed to connect with our most vulnerable communities of color. This is why we have dedicated our lives to public service and neighborhood organizing around transit equity, Vision Zero and API and women of color representation in government and non-profits alike. We know that representation matters and that its absence has very real consequences. The question is: does the SFMTA Board?
Janice Li, SF BART Board, Director
Jen Chan, Democratic County Central Committee (DCCC), Member
Queena Chen, SFMTA CAC, Member
Rosa Chen, Chinatown Transportation Research and Improvement Project, Co-Chair
Jen Low, Rose Pak Democratic Club, President