Ellen Young is not one to stay still, or stay quiet.
The 62-year-old volunteers as the first, and only, Asian member of the Grievance Committee for the Second, Eleventh, and Thirteenth Judicial Districts. As one of 15 committee members, she reviews complaints against attorneys from Queens, Brooklyn and Staten Island. She says she spends the rest of her time at the newly founded Golden Age Learning Center, which serves approximately 200 seniors.
“It is my responsibility to teach people that learning at any age is possible,” she says. “I oversee teacher recruiting and host seminars. The most recent one was organic farming, and the one before that was Chinese literature.”
Young, who has also made history in the past as the first Asian female auxiliary officer in the NYPD, and the first Asian female elected official on the East Coast, says her goal now is to help senior citizens to stay strong emotionally and physically.
“I sit with them to learn a Chinese poem…then take them to the farm and actually farm…last week we planted radishes,” says Young, adding that Asians hold one of the highest suicide rates in NY. “Instead of complaining, I’m urging Asian senior women to come to the school, and I lead them to happy land.”
Young enjoys giving back, because she still vividly remembers her share of struggles. She says she didn’t come to the U.S. with a dream, as most do. Instead, she left Taiwan and her job working as a factory manager, because her employer allowed her to travel to the U.S. once she turned 25.
“I planned to go back to Taiwan in two years, but two things happened – America abandoned Taiwan in 1979, and I fell in love with my child’s dad and had a baby girl,” says Young. “I still wanted to go back with my child and husband, but my friend said it was so dangerous on the island. So we stayed under the umbrella of protection of the U.S.”
A little more than two years later, however, Young says she hit rock bottom. Her husband began physically abusing her.
“I thought about taking my own life,” she says. “If it wasn’t for my daughter, I wouldn’t be here today. She would come wipe the tears off my face in diapers. She’d say, ‘Be a good girl, don’t cry.’ That’s exactly what I used to tell her.”
Young became a single parent, and the only thought on her mind was survival.
“I asked people, ‘How can I get rich legally?’,” she says in her humorous, good-natured way. “And they told me I had to be a doctor or a lawyer.”
So Young looked through the classified ads and found work in a law firm as a legal assistant.
“I spoke Taiwanese, Mandarin, Cantonese, English, and a few other dialects,” says Young about the traits that helped her. “I was able to survive and support my child. That’s when I realized this is the land of opportunity.”
She says she never was interested in politics. She never even voted in Taiwan, but it was when she heard the former NYC Mayor Ed Koch say, “Asians don’t vote,” that inspired her to register for the first time. Then, in 1996, Young says her City Council member said the Asian population in Flushing are “all gangsters and prostitutes.” That incident was enough to urge her to run for office herself.
“I turned out to be a very outspoken person – an opinion leader,” says Young, who won the position of Assemblywoman in 2006. “I spoke about domestic violence prevention, parents’ rights, and became an auxiliary police officer in early 90’s for about five years…If someone is not being treated fairly, shouldn’t I open my mouth and say something? Let me be the one.”
In 2008, Young had to resign from State Assembly after a temporarily paralyzing car accident. But because she can’t be still, she decided to take the opportunity to finally fulfill a promise to her recently deceased father and finish her education.
“I came to the U.S. without an American dream, but at age 58, for the first time, I had an American dream – that was to get my master’s degree,” says Young. “In the future, I want to try sky diving. If George Bush could do it age 70, why can’t I? I’m much younger and much lighter.”