Watch CBS News

Oakland Mayor Sheng Thao, the first Hmong American mayor of a major U.S. city, reflects on her inspirational success

History was made earlier this year when Oakland, California, Mayor Sheng Thao was sworn into office, becoming the first Hmong American to serve as mayor of a major U.S. city.

Her swearing-in ceremony was something she could never have imagined.

"Hmong people flew in from all over the country to join me," Thao said. "It was a journey that I took with the whole Hmong community."

Thao's parents fled Laos in 1975.

"My parents are refugees. And all I knew was that we were poor and it was hard and I felt like government has failed us," she said.

Before graduating from UC Berkeley, Thao escaped an abusive relationship and lived in a car with her young son. On many occasions, she had to stand in line for free food.

"You always hear about starving students, but what do people actually do about it?" she said.

Her solution was to run for city council.

"You can't do this work without feeling empathy," she told CBS News. "And you shouldn't do this work if you don't have that empathy."

The 37-year-old now leads a large and troubled city. Her mission is to make it better for the next generation, including her son, Ben.

Now 16, Ben played cello at his mother's inauguration.

Thao said that the message people should take from her story is that "hope is everything."

View CBS News In
CBS News App Open
Chrome Safari Continue
Be the first to know
Get browser notifications for breaking news, live events, and exclusive reporting.