A Bridge Between Worlds

In her new role as deputy chief of staff to Governor Hochul, Linda Sun ’06 is helping immigrant communities — and all New Yorkers — find their voice in local government

By Erin Aubrey Kaplan

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Linda Sun ’06 likes to say that she got started in public service in a very private way: being a translator for her immigrant Chinese parents. From about the age of 8, Sun says, she helped her parents manage a whole range of tasks — filling out forms, doing taxes — that were critical in connecting them to a sense of how things worked, and worked for them, in America.

Sun, now 37 and the deputy chief of staff for New York governor Kathryn Hochul, says a lot of children of immigrants play the same role, a bridge between worlds to help acclimate and empower families in their new country. It’s a role Sun still plays, on a bigger scale and with a bigger sense of urgency, in the governor’s office. “There needs to be a partnership between government and people,” she says. “But many times, for Asian Americans there just isn’t that conduit or messenger.”

Sun’s mission in the new Hochul administration couldn’t be timelier. She was appointed deputy chief of staff to New York’s first woman governor in October 2021 — the highest-ranking Asian American in the administration — after several stints in state government, including as deputy chief diversity officer and director of Asian American affairs for the Executive Chamber and as chief diversity officer for the New York State Department of Financial Services. The country has seen a sharp rise in anti-Asian hate crimes during the pandemic of the past two years. In New York City, there have been a spate of horrific and violent attacks against Asians, particularly young women.

The fact that New York was ground zero in the early months of the pandemic made the situation for Asians that much worse. Sun helped facilitate COVID testing and vaccine delivery to Asian Americans that was equitable, efficient — and safe. “Because of the rise of hate, we worked with local service providers and brought them into the community, kind of like pop-ups,” Sun says.

Since her days as lieutenant governor, Hochul has been very supportive of Asian communities, according to Sun, who says that the governor visits NYC’s Chinese neighborhoods regularly and has made a $10 million investment in mental health services and educational trainings aimed at reducing hate. Under Hochul, Sun hopes to set up additional pilot programs to deter hate, such as providing “ambassadors” to walk Asian Americans to errands and other destinations. While Sun is concerned about the safety of Asian communities as a whole, her concern is also personal. “I worry about my own parents,” she admits.

Though drawn early to public service, Sun says her career path was not immediately evident. At Barnard, she studied political science, “not imagining much,” though she was always interested in government. As a student, she nabbed an internship with the New York City Police Department as an interpreter, after the city experienced a rash of robberies committed against delivery people working out of Chinese restaurants. It was a position that was at once familiar and unique. As an intern, she helped develop procedures to ensure public safety, such as implementing walkie-talkie services, and began to think she wanted to attend law school. But after graduating in 2006, “I realized that I didn’t want to go to school three more years,” she says with a laugh.

Instead, Sun stayed put and began working at Barnard as an admissions counselor. The experience was transformative, thanks in part to the mentorship of Jennifer Fondiller, the College’s vice president for enrollment and communications. Sun’s new job took her out of New York and into the Midwest and elsewhere, where she talked to students and did presentations and college fairs, all on her own. “I grew up very shy, but Jennifer helped me develop confidence,” Sun recalls. “She helped me understand that if you don’t have the right answer, it’s not the end of the world.” She also worked with Barnard’s campus support programs for first-generation students, vetting members for a small, tight-knit group that she followed closely throughout the school year. It was in many ways her first time representing a constituency. Sun thought she had found her path — but not in government. “Working at Barnard, I thought, ‘This is it! I’ll go into higher education!’” she says. “I really loved it.”

She decided to pursue a master’s degree in teaching at Columbia University with the intention of going into education administration. But a fortuitous thing happened the summer before she started the program. In 2008, Grace Meng, now a congresswoman representing Queens, was running for state assembly and needed volunteers to work on her campaign. Meng had encountered Sun at local events and was impressed by her energy and initiative. “I said, ‘Why don’t you consider doing this?’” Meng recalls. “Linda was always running around trying to be helpful to whoever crossed her path. She was very innovative and came up with good ideas on her own.” Sun joined the campaign as public relations director and, when Meng won the race, became the assemblywoman’s chief of staff (after completing her master’s degree in 2009).

Working with Meng oriented Sun to a bread-and-butter kind of politics that focused on providing underserved, often immigrant constituents with what they needed but often didn’t know how to get or who to ask for it. The state assembly staff was minuscule, but that hardly deterred Sun. “We got people from other states, like Florida and Vermont, calling for help from all over the country, because their states didn’t have any Asian elected officials or anyone who could provide services in their language,” she says. “We took walk-ins. Grace was adamant that we turn no one away.”

In 2012, Meng ran for Congress, again enlisting Sun to work in her campaign. Meng won that race too, making history as the first Asian American woman on the East Coast to be elected to Congress. Sun did not join that administration, but other elected officials had started to notice her work, says Meng, and Sun accepted a position in the governor’s office as director of Asian American affairs and Queens regional representative. In this position, Sun’s constituencies were nonprofit organizations, businesses, local chambers of commerce, and elected officials, but she stayed on mission to inform and empower. “It was less nitty-gritty — lots of questions about licenses, things like that,” she says. “But in helping to bring resources, we worked on language access, translating documents, which tracked with what I’d been doing, creating access and connecting people to services.”

It was all a learning process for Sun, which was fine with her. Being empowered rather than intimidated by not knowing the answers to everything was her greatest takeaway from Barnard, both as a student and an employee. “Being at an all women’s college, I was able to sit in a room of my peers and profs and feel like there’s no stupid question,” Sun says. “You felt like you could raise your hand and approach the prof afterward. I never felt afraid to ask.” That spirit of equality prevailed in the admissions office, when she was a recent graduate working among women with more professional and academic credentials.
 

At the end of the day, everything is local. ...
Not that everybody should run for office,
but you’re always part of the government on
some level, always.

Linda Sun ’06

Sun says that spirit also permeates Hochul’s administration. “Under the governor’s leadership, it’s ‘What do you think we should do?’ She listens. It’s not top down. We don’t say to constituents and stakeholders, ‘We think this will benefit you,’ we’re asking what you need.” Projects in the works include creating a map of state-recommended financial services and teaching financial aid and business literacy in low-income communities.

These services and others may now come into sharper focus now that the pandemic that has consumed states’ resources for so long appears to be on the wane. Though its devastating effects will be felt for a long time, the pandemic has had its silver linings: For one, it was the emergency response to COVID that truly put Sun’s passion for public service to the test. “When I was in the Executive Chamber, I had to scour the world trying to find gloves, masks, and other equipment, working every single contact I knew to get this stuff, because the federal government wasn’t helping,” she says. “I had to learn the difference between FDA approved and European Union approved. I got very involved in making sure that immigrant communities had access. It was an education.”

Sun is an advocate of more Asian people going into public service and insists that Asian Americans, like all Americans, need and deserve representation — and advocacy — especially during crises. “At the end of the day, everything is local,” she says. “Not that everybody should run for office, but you’re always part of the government on some level, always. You’ve got to at least meet in the middle.”

She adds that having a voice in government, mundane as it may seem, is really at the heart of the lofty democratic ideals underlying what many people — and many immigrants — still see as American exceptionalism. “America,” notes Sun, “is the only country that has a dream.”

Latest IssueFall 2022