Lynda Tran is a partner and chief public affairs and communications strategist at 270 Strategies. Based in Washington, D.C., Chicago, and San Francisco, the consulting firm integrates people-centered, grassroots organizing with 21st century digital strategies and a data-driven approach. Previously she served as director of communications for the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration and earlier had directed communications efforts for organizations including the Democratic National Committee and the Service Employees International Union. She also served as communications director for former Virginia Governor Tim Kaine. She received a B.A. from the University of Pennsylvania and a master’s degree in International Policy and Development from Georgetown University.
You recently posted a tweet that read, “Dear world: More joy, less turmoil please. I’m trying to bring up two kids in this mess.” Am I right in thinking that the twin poles of your life are your family and your desire to make this a better world?
I don’t know how it is for other parents, but for me becoming a mom really put my life and priorities into sharp perspective. When you hold your child in your arms, you realize pretty quickly what’s truly important. So I’m very clear that my family comes first.
That said, I’ve also spent my life trying really hard to make a difference. I always knew I wanted to be part of something larger than myself. I grew up inspired by stories of my mother’s parents – who had served the last emperor of Vietnam and launched a successful firecracker company, respectively, in the first quarter of the last century – and by the journey my grandmother, mother, and father made to this country at the close of the Vietnam War. These stories taught me about dreaming, achieving, and starting over again no matter what the challenges or how bad the odds. And they taught me to believe in justice – and to always, always hope for the better.
My family stayed in Vietnam until the end of the war; they were among the last to leave in 1975 and they did so with nothing but the clothes on their backs. When they arrived in this country, they dove right in, trying to help their fellow refugees. My mother initially worked for the Red Cross as a translator helping process Vietnamese refugees through Fort Chaffee, Arkansas. They later made their way to Maryland to join my aunt and her family where they eventually had my brother and me. When times grew tough and jobs were scarce, we moved to Texas to be part of the refugee community there.
Both of my parents worked very hard. My mom worked multiple jobs throughout my childhood, and my dad did everything from selling real estate to working as a machine operator in a plastics factory in 120-degree heat. They did that because they wanted to put a roof over our heads, but also because they wanted my brother and me to have a chance for something better. My parents believed in the American Dream and my brother and I are the embodiment of that.
Through it all, my parents taught me that I could be whatever I wanted to be as long as I worked hard. But I also learned that it’s important to make a contribution to the community in which you live. Years after they became American citizens themselves, they remained politically active, organizing meetings in their community and strategizing about ways they could democratize Vietnam one day.
I went along to those meetings, which were held after hours at local restaurants and community centers. My brother and I would sit under tables and chairs stacked up in the back of the room pretending it was a fort. All the while we’d be hearing these passionate and committed people making plans and organizing themselves to bring change to their community.
That was the model I had. These days I spend a lot of time thinking about the kind of model I am setting for my own children.
What were your plans when you went to college?
My initial priority was to take care of my family because I grew up very poor – at times I was literally hungry. So I thought I ought to go into the business world where I could make money. At 18 years old, that was my generic idea of how to be successful in America. I went to the University of Pennsylvania for undergrad. I went to class at the Wharton Business School and had this idea that I was going to be some sort of hotshot in New York.
But along the way I had incredible mentors who reinforced the inclination I already had about wanting to do good. I saw “Students Against Sweatshops” rallies on our campus. I saw homeless people struggling to survive on and around our campus. I realized there were real problems in the world. When it came time to graduate I initially took a job as a market researcher for a Fortune 500 company but quickly decided I wanted to do something that felt more meaningful.
I went to work for a political campaign as part of a program called Participation 2000. Launched by Ohio Governor Richard Celeste, it later became Campaign Corps when it was taken over by Emily’s List. When they named the program, 2000 probably seemed like a long way off. It was designed to be a program for the future.
As part of the program, I attended a boot camp on Democratic politics and how to run a progressive campaign according the theories of the time. I was sent to East Texas where I served as Deputy Campaign Manager on a State Rep race and lived in a town of 4,000 people. As I recall, many people I spoke to assumed I was Mexican because there were no Asians in that part of the state.
There I got my first taste of campaigning, which was particularly interesting because doing politics in rural parts of the country can take some creativity. I did a lot of canvassing. I drove my candidate around a lot. In the end, my candidate won.
When the election was over, I moved to Washington, D.C. My parents were living in Baltimore and I felt Washington was a place I could stay involved in the democratic process and still be close to them. I ended up working for a labor union, the Service Employees International Union [SEIU].
How did that come about?
I fell into it, really. I had no idea what it meant to work in the labor movement. Someone had given them my résumé and I went in and talked to the head of the communications department. At the time the economy was booming and there were plenty of jobs available. I asked everyone who interviewed me the same question: “What makes you get up and want to come to work every day?” Of all the people who interviewed me, he was the only person I talked to who actually paused to be thoughtful about his answer.
He said that every day, he got up, got on a bus, and came to work. And as he was heading into the office, all these service workers would be coming off the night shift heading home to their families after spending hours cleaning or washing windows or manning security desks. He said that every morning he was reminded how hard these people work just to make ends meet and that the work he did was ultimately about helping them improve their lives.
His words moved me, and I ended up working for SEIU for eight years. During that time, I helped organize nurses who were fighting mandatory overtime policies they felt endangered their patients and I worked with low-wage workers who were juggling multiple part-time jobs to support their families, often without access to health care or any hope for a better future.
These workers reminded me of my mother and my own story. So I spent a good deal of time fighting the good fight for working families.
Did you win a good win on occasion?
I did. The most memorable win was when we organized janitors in Houston in 2005. It was a majority Spanish-speaking, majority female population. We spent two years with them. They worked for some of the biggest cleaning contractors in the country. The model was that we’d bring in workers from other cities who could say, “Look, I work for the same company you do and clean a building owned by the same owner as yours. Yet my pay is this-percentage higher than yours. I work full time and have access to family health care. The way we did it was by coming together and forming a union and you can do it, too. You can improve your life.”
I helped tell that story to the media and I had the honor of seeing many of these women – some of whom told me they sometimes felt invisible as people would just step over them as they cleaned floors – go from being very meek, almost slouching, to being vibrant worker leaders who would stand on the bed of a pickup truck with a megaphone at a rally. These workers put their jobs at risk and went on strike for four weeks, making national and local news on a daily basis. Our campaign used civil disobedience where we blocked traffic. Ultimately we won a contract that nearly doubled the janitors’ take-home pay and gave them access to affordable family health care – many for the first time in their lives.
From the labor movement I went to work for Virginia Governor Tim Kaine. I was director of communications during the last part of his administration.
Why the switch from the field to traditional politics?
They had heard about me through the grapevine and invited me to come chat with them. I was moved and motivated by the work I was doing for SEIU. I wasn’t looking to leave, but I thought it was a great opportunity to have a chance to meet the governor of Virginia.
When we met, Governor Kaine had his sleeves rolled up and his jacket off. Rather than the formal interview I expected, he started by saying, “Tell me the story of Lynda.” I found him charming, real, and sincere. They later offered me the position, and to this day it is still one of the best jobs I’ve ever had.
Tim Kaine restored my faith in public service and my understanding of why people make the sacrifices they do to run for office. I felt like I was part of something meaningful.
From there I went with him to the Democratic National Committee to serve as national press secretary for Organizing for America, which was what the Obama for America campaign became between 2008 and 2012. There, I worked with wonderful people with whom I built strong relationships. We went through some tough times, including the 2010 midterm elections, the year of the Tea Party wave and tough battles for Democrats.
Mostly the job was advocating for the President’s agenda. It was a great way to support the policies and initiatives he and his millions of grassroots supporters believed in, like the Affordable Care Act.
Have you considered running for office yourself?
I did once upon a time, maybe in my twenties. But I think my strength is in helping others tell their stories. That’s where I find happiness and where I think I can be most effective in changing the world.
How hard has it been to handle those roles as well as the demands of being a mother?
It’s always hard. I had my first child, who is 3 now, when I was at Organizing for America. Being a working mom requires some sacrifices certainly. I had intended to work on the 2012 campaign, but when I had my daughter and the decision was made that the reelect would be based in Chicago, it made my decision easier. I knew that uprooting my family and working 17 hours a day was not the right choice for me. I decided to stay in D.C. and went to work for the Department of Transportation, which was a family-friendly place.
[Balancing work and home] has been gratifying but hard. There’s no other way to describe it. It’s tough for both men and women. You’d spend all your time with your kids if you could. I had a son earlier this year and as a friend of mine told me, a second child is not doubly hard; it is exponentially hard. I try to cut myself some slack. I go really hard at work and at home and when things don’t turn out perfectly I try to be forgiving of myself.
Did your move from the buzz of politics and organizing to the Department of Transportation require a bit of a change in mindset?
Yes. There were a number of things that were interesting about going to DOT. Ray LaHood was the Secretary of Transportation when I went into the Administration and he’s a Republican who spent 14 years in Congress representing Illinois. So it was a bit of a shift to go from the world of Democratic politics to work for a bona fide Republican. He’s a reasonable Republican but a bona fide one.
It was an eye-opening experience. Secretary LaHood made such a massive contribution to the Administration because he comes from a time where people in government actually worked together and reached across the aisle. He did admirable work for President Obama no matter what major issues came up. Whether it was fuel economy or vehicle standards, he was a person who sought common ground and that was a great model.
Also, the agency I worked for within the Department of Transportation, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, was very engineering and science focused. So while I wasn’t doing politics, I was doing something new and interesting.
During my time at NHTSA, we launched a heatstroke awareness campaign called “Where’s Baby?” The effort brought a variety of stakeholders together to highlight accidental deaths of children in hot cars: everybody from regulators to automakers to safety advocates and seatbelt manufacturers. Every summer dozens of young children die because their parents aren’t aware they’ve left them in the back of the car.
My daughter became the poster child for our campaign. There are pictures of her looking quite sad, sitting in a car seat below the words “Where’s baby? Look before you lock.” I was proud of that effort and we toured the country to support it.
Now you’re doing communications for 270 Strategies. Does it feel good to be back organizing for change?
270 is nothing short of a labor of love. We launched the company in January 2013, shortly after the reelection. It was based on a very simple premise: that we all in one way or another had had the honor of working for the president during the previous six to seven years. We all deeply believe in the organizing approach that made his campaigns so impactful and we believe the integrated way we work together can be applied to causes and campaigns and companies who want to change the world. We help people apply the best practices and lessons we learned over the years so they can be more effective in their own programs.
One of the fun things that has happened since we launched 270 is that young people who have just graduated college or just came off a campaign regularly reach out to have informational interviews with me. It’s humbling that they ask for career advice since the path I’ve taken has been pretty straightforward. I tell them all the same thing: my three pieces of “wisdom.”
The first is I encourage them to take risks. They’re young; they’re usually not tied down by mortgages or relationships. Now is the time for them to parachute into a campaign or an organization doing work they believe is meaningful.
The second is to find a job that allows them to have a mentor. If you have a mentor who is as invested in you as you are in the mentor, it can help you achieve your potential.
You’ve had mentors?
Definitely. The first, of course, was my mother. She is the best role model a young woman could have. She taught me from the very beginning that anything is possible if you work hard to achieve it, and that lesson has certainly stayed with me. But I’ve also had career mentors who pushed me and went to bat for me and helped me refine my skills.
Governor Kaine was a mentor and continues to be one. He said to me not long ago that one of the greatest things I could do when building 270 Strategies with my partners is to set a strong example as a working mom because there just aren’t enough working mom role models out there. He said it’s great that we are building an office culture that celebrates and embraces it, and the more I share that piece of my identity, the more I can have an impact on women around me.
But the third piece is a line I stole from Jeremy Bird. He always says you should “maintain your humble swagger.” My interpretation of that line is that many of the people I talk to are smart and talented and connected, and they’re going to accomplish incredible things. And while there are a lot of talented and amazing people working in communications, there are not a lot of talented and amazing people that other people want to work with. So the advice is to let your hard work speak for for itself and to stay humble about the many accomplishments you may have along the way.
From what you’ve seen, what makes effective leadership?
This is a great question. Ultimately I think that effective leadership depends on what is called for in a given moment. If you polled people, there are probably a host of qualities that they agree great leaders have: charisma, vision, ambition or drive, the ability to inspire people, and the courage to put their ideas into action.
But perhaps the biggest lesson I’ve learned during my career is that you have to meet people where they are – whether it’s about persuading someone to support your efforts, conveying that you see eye-to-eye on a particular issue, or just understanding an individual’s unique perspective even if you end up agreeing to disagree.
In a crisis or tragedy, leadership may mean simply being present to hear the pain people are feeling – or it may mean having a solution ready to roll out. On a campaign, leadership may mean being the one with the winning strategy – or it may mean being smart enough to know what you don’t know and getting the right brains in the room to figure it out. And in life in general, leadership may mean knowing when to lean in and fight hard – or to save your fire for another time
The bottom line for me is that good leaders know how to adapt to what is called for.
What do you hope your children learn from you?
I hope they learn that it is more important to do what you love, than to do what pays the most. That when all else is said and done, your family is the most important accomplishment you’ll have in your lifetime.
There’s a saying that on their deathbed, no one says they wish they’d spent more time in the office. I think I might quibble with that just a little sometimes because I’ve been blessed to have great jobs that made me want to come into the office. But I have no confusion about my priorities.
My family is the most important part of my life. I hope they carry that with them.