Editor’s Note: This article is part of a San José Spotlight series examining the newest San Jose councilmembers and their first six months in office.
If you have lived as many lives as San Jose Councilmember Bien Doan, it gives you a unique perspective on life.
For Doan, he believes more than anything that people are in charge of their destiny. They can pull themselves up from the bottom and build a better life—but that also means asking for help, and that’s where the government can come in.
“We got 248 services and we support an enormous amount of nonprofits whose job is to help citizens who are stuck, who are in need of a job and needed a place (to live),” Doan said. “Yes there are faults in the system, and that is where we come in to fix it. But people also need to know where they can ask for help.”
The freshman councilmember beat out incumbent Maya Esparza to represent District 7 last November, with a campaign promise to solve the East San Jose neighborhood’s biggest woes—homelessness, blight and lack of economic opportunity.
He said District 7 hosts 30% of the city’s homeless population and small business owners are struggling to stay afloat, especially after the pandemic. So as a councilmember he wants to open more interim housing—a shift from his original position on the campaign where he advocated for affordable housing. He also wants to empower residents to clean up their neighborhoods alongside the city and invest in small businesses to help them flourish.
“I want to give people opportunity to grow, to strive. I don’t want to give people empty checks,” Doan told San José Spotlight.
Helping his neighbors is a lesson he learned from his mother who, despite living in poverty, always cooked enough food to feed those who had even less.
Doan immigrated to California from Vietnam at the age of 10 with his parents, grandmother and five siblings. Like other immigrants, the wealth, status and savings they had in their home country didn’t transfer to the U.S. His family had to start from scratch.
“We weren’t just poor, we were dirt poor. We lived in a 1,100-square-foot home with one wall heater, one bathroom, nine people,” Doan told San José Spotlight. “When you are that poor, that is when you realize that you need to help other people even more. You understand what they’re going through.”
At 10, he worked as a paperboy to help support his family while trying to learn English. As a teenager he worked on the farms in Porterville and as a high school grad he found himself homeless and living out of his 1969 Volkswagen Beetle for a few months.
While homeless he worked two jobs to save enough money to move up to study in the Bay Area. He dipped his toes in a tech job, but found little-to-no meaning, so he joined the San Jose Fire Department. He rose through the ranks and became the first Vietnamese fire captain in San Jose.
“The greatest thing about America is we came here with nothing, but I’ll tell you this, people came out and helped us. How can you say that’s not a great country?” Doan said. “So I made a commitment early on that I’m going to give back to this country and that’s what I’ve been doing.”
Now at 59, Doan has found another way to serve his community. He said the first six months of office have been fruitful, but not without difficulties. He said his predecessor cleared the office, taking all the resources and contacts and making it harder for him to reach residents.
So he has been doing his own outreach, going to several community meetings after the work day ends and on the weekends. He hosted “Dumpster Days” for people to toss large items for free and several neighborhood cleanups. Doan also reestablished and funded the D7 Neighborhood Leadership Group to serve as a main communications hub for news and events to all neighborhood and business associations district-wide.
June Tran, owner of Crema Coffee and local Vietnamese leader, said she has seen Doan in the community, even before he was elected. She met him when he was a firefighter who responded to the destructive 2017 floods.
“I liked him because he’s very genuine. He speaks his mind and he is not a politician,” Tran told San José Spotlight. “He is very new to all of this, but he is doing a good job and he is trying his best. We can all see that.”
Doan has been an ally of Mayor Matt Mahan, voting in line with the mayor’s vision to resolve homelessness and increase interim housing. During the budget cycle, Doan secured dollars for after school care and homework assistance. He also delivered on his campaign promise and secured funding to enhance the long forgotten Vietnamese Heritage Garden, grants for small businesses on Story Road and money for more night markets in East San Jose.
Councilmember Dev Davis, a more conservative voice on the council, initially found Doan to be a natural ally and endorsed him when he ran—pointing to his years of public service in the fire department. However, they have not always seen eye to eye.
“As a new councilmember, he has had his ups and downs which is to be expected,” Davis told San José Spotlight. “Hopefully it will get better.”
Doan has not introduced any policies of his own, but brought back the city practice of distributing keys of the city to honor police officers injured while working. He wants to create a cultural night where the diverse ethnicity of the District 7 community showcases its food, culture and small businesses to residents. Additionally, he worked with his colleagues to support other important citywide issues like retaining paramedics in the San Jose Fire Department and no animal licensing fees to adopt pets for lower income residents, among others.
“Serving my community, it’s embedded in my every cell,” Doan said. “If I can help at least one family I will call that a success. But I hope my amazing team and I can help many more.”
Contact Jana Kadah at [email protected] or follow @Jana_Kadah on Twitter.