Ming Hsu Chen is an author and professor at the University of Colorado in Boulder. After her time at Harvard University, NYU Law School, and UC Berkeley, Chen worked for the Brookings Institution along with several other civil rights nonprofit organizations. Her book, “Pursuing Citizenship in the Enforcement Era,” focuses on immigrant integration and was published during a time where much of the political rhetoric focused on opposing immigrants. Get to know Professor Chen.

Professor Chen is a speaker for TEDxMileHigh: Vision. Register for the virtual event on December 5th here

What Was a Moment in Your Life That Influenced Your Career?

In high school, I drove from the conservative Orange County, California to the more liberal jurisdiction of Long Beach to register voters and engage the public in discussions. I focused on Proposition 187, the “Save Our State” ballot initiative that sought to bar undocumented immigrants from public benefits. Despite our best efforts and a subsequent lawsuit that kept it from going into effect, the initiative passed in 1994 and became the centerpiece of Governor Pete Wilson’s presidential campaign and a template for Clinton’s welfare reform in 1996. 

The experience taught me that you cannot rely on majorities to protect minority rights because they are, by definition, not the winning vote. 

Sometimes you need counter-majoritarian institutions like courts to protect those rights. In college and law school, I sought to protect minority rights and have always felt suspicion toward mainstream politics as a protector of rights.

What Was the Biggest Turning Point in Your Life?

An initial turning point in my life was the start of law school. My first year of law school was 2001 and my first week was that of September 11th. I still remember seeing the planes hit while I walked to civil procedure. The ensuing discrimination against South Asians and immigrants brought race and immigration together in my career path. 

I gained perspective on immigrant clerking in the 9th circuit court of appeals, which receives the highest number of asylum applications. I made the intersection of race/immigration via language rights the subject of my doctoral dissertation. I’m now a tenured professor writing at the intersection of both subjects.

What Are Three Facts About You That Are Completely Unrelated to the Subject of Your Talk?

  1. My parents are immigrants, so I grew up learning English at school and from books. Consequently, I know very little slang and get common sayings wrong.
  2. I love to read etiquette columns because they teach me about social norms, which turn out to be more important than the laws that I teach.
  3. My first dog was named Piglet. 

Who Are Three People, Living or Dead, That Inspire You the Most? 

  1. Yo-Yo Ma – I admire Yo-Yo Ma for popularizing classical music and garnering respect among his discerning peers and the public. Though not part of his music, I admire his humbleness and generosity, as witnessed on the lawn seats at Tanglewood when it rained and he applauded us for staying to listen to the full Bach cello suites. I appreciate his openness to experimentation with different cultures and musical techniques, e.g. Silk Road.
  2. Maya Lin – An Asian-American artist and scientist whose prodigy and polymath skills are sheerly impressive. I named my daughter after her.
  3. Thurgood Marshall and RBG were masterful lawyers and craftsman, tracing the arc of an ideal and extending it in a manner at once brave and seemingly inexorable once accepted. Both have the added benefit of enormously compelling stories. Thurgood Marshall fought for racial equality during a time when he had to stay in segregated hotels and eat in different restaurants than his white co-counsel. 

What’s Your Favorite TED or TEDx Talk?

Many of my favorite TED/TEDx talks are professors who have made their findings accessible and relevant to a broad audience. Many of these talks remind me of what it was like to be in college: to feel enlightened and inspired to learn… and maybe to laugh or cry along the way. 

Almost 15 years ago, I saw a TEDxBerkeley presentation on gecko feet and how they have inspired scotch tape and climbing shoes. Though I am not a scientist, I still remember it. 

Spreading the ideas in TED talks can inspire change in the world, too. Professor Mehrsa Baradaran’s talk on the color of money and the simple solution of postal banking has garnered attention in Congress and inspired advocates for the poor and working-class to understand the importance of seemingly arcane finance rules to the lives of everyday Americans.

What’s a Piece of Advice That You Live By or That You Give Other People Constantly?

As much as I admire sheer genius, I’ve never seen myself as a genius. Indeed being regularly surrounded by literal geniuses in the academy makes me see the difference. Instead, the success I seek to cultivate in myself and others is borne of hard work and focus. 

I also respect doing things for their inherent value, over and above what is required or in self-interest. Frequently I’ve told younger academics and grad students that it’s good to do things that don’t “count” for tenure, so long as you understand why you’re doing them. 

What’s the Biggest Challenge You Face in Your Day-To-Day Work? 

Being a working mom has been hard, especially during the pandemic. I want to be a “good” mom and a “good” worker at all times, but it is hard to live up to that standard. Thankfully I can lean on my husband, my colleagues, public school teachers, and afterschool programs to help. But there has never been enough societal support for working parents and the pandemic has stripped away what little there used to be. 

Name One Thing We Aren’t Spending Enough Time Thinking About as a Society. What Would Be a Good First Step?

Much of my professional vision is dedicated to making the concerns of the marginalized into the concerns of the mainstream, especially racial minorities and immigrants. 

In a polarized nation, I think the way we get there is to focus on the common good and the values that bring us together as a nation. Though my substantive values align with progressives, it’s actually a conservative idea to believe that we benefit from shared traditions and beliefs. In my book, the recommended paths for achieving “full citizenship” are premised on shared institutions like civilian service, a national identity, and a perhaps naïve belief that the federal government can prod private people to follow its lead and appeal to their better angels.

If You Could Achieve One Goal in the Next Year What Would It Be?

To translate my academic research into something of meaning to a broader audience and of practical value to society. It would be great to turn some of the policy ideas from the book into reality. For example, instead of fee hikes, we should consider the fairness of fees for immigrant benefits such as naturalized citizenship and whether they encourage immigrants to integrate into society. It would be great to build a Refugeecorps (modeled on Americorps) that can be a fulcrum of multicultural understanding and an avenue for civilian service.

What Action Can the TedxMileHigh Community Take to Support Your Big Idea?

The model of spreading ideas could help with the goal of popularizing knowledge. I have found the Black Lives Matter movement inspiring in its reach, leveraging its core ideas of promoting racial equality through book clubs, author discussions, and OneRead programs. Both the University of Colorado and the Boulder Public Libraries sponsored excellent programs like these, and I know other libraries, schools, and universities have done the same.

In terms of welcoming immigrants, Colorado could become an incubator for pursuing citizenship given that it has relatively moderate politics. This would mean encouraging civic renewal through welcoming community campaigns that include language training and parent education, job programs for small business owners, citizenship workshops to help immigrants naturalize, and supporting sensible immigration reforms at the city, state, and federal level.