There is no one title that can totally encapsulate the work that Marlene Tran does. Teacher does not suffice. Nor does community leader. Cultural ambassador also falls short.
Marlene came to the United States by way of Hong Kong in 1966 with her mother and “a tiny suitcase.” She began studying almost immediately, following up her Associates Degree with two masters degrees. She would have secured her doctorate if not for the consuming work she was doing for her community’s immigrant population – which then became her passion.
Her first job in Oakland in the 70s as a teacher’s aide paid $2.50 an hour. Marlene worked the following 35 years teaching 10- to- 12 hour days. From the beginning, she knew that teaching recently arrived immigrants was more than just teaching them English – her wish was to educate her students so that they “could be productive citizens.”
As a Buddhist, she lives and interacts with compassion. She worked with immigrants not only on their job applications and resulting challenges but at every stage of their immigration progress. After she moved to Visitacion Valley in the 1980s – then known as the “Forgotten Valley” – she knew she was equipping them with the skills necessary to survive, too. “Things don’t really belong to me as a person – so I like to share,” she states.
Visitacion Valley was a “ghost town” but the ESL program for adults she spearheaded helped “invigorate the neighborhood.” In 2007 she retired from CCSF and made Raymond Avenue in Vis Valley – where her office and the Felton Institute are located – her home. From here, she began digging deep into community and aging issues.
“I think the greatest reward for the work I do everyday is – wherever I go – they come and thank me!”
“Many seniors work very hard,” she says, “especially first-generation immigrants. They should be validated for their hard work and contributions.” Under Mayor Brown, Marlene was recognized as an Immigration Rights Commissioner.
Being recognized by city officials is par for the course these days, it seems. In March of 2019, she was one of the three women in San Francisco recognized during the opening for women’s history month by Mayor London Breed. In September of the same year, Mayor Breed appointed Marlene as the Commissioner to the Southeast Facility Community Commission. She is also an active member and/or an advisor to: Ingleside Police Advisory Board, the Asian Pacific Islander Forum, Board of Stop Crime SF, Southeast Community Facility Commission. District 10 is a vibrant and integral part of San Francisco, and Marlene works to make sure you know about it.
Does she like all these titles? “Honestly,” she says, “I think the greatest reward for the work I do everyday is – wherever I go – they come and thank me!” Grateful, she continues, “I mean, Jeez! Who on earth would have such a blessed life? I did everything because I’m passionate. As a Buddhist, my true nature comes out, and I am also very caring” about the community.
“It’s been an honor to be recognized for being my authentic self,” she says.
Watching Marlene interact with people she passes on the street or runs into at events, one might think she’d long planned on becoming a community ambassador. “I never saw myself as a community organizer,” she recalls. “I was working on so many degrees and jobs!”
“Don’t ever give up,” she offers. “It is hard being from a community that does not receive much resources…but we also have to be more proactive!”
She’s always “admired people who do good work,” and what impresses her most are those “who treat others well.” Giving back is part of her philosophy. “You never just take take take,” she says, “same with friends – you give me your time and I’ll honor you with something in return.”
“There is a saying in Chinese about life,” she shared, “First it’s bitter, then it’s sweet.” She learned early in life to work hard, be frugal, be kind to the environment and her neighbors alike. Now, the recognition she’s earned and friendships she’s nurtured are some of life’s greatest rewards.
“We should each use our experience to help our family and community,” she states. “I’m very blessed that I can do this.”
How to build community and garner respect? “Show people you appreciate them every day.” Words to live by, certainly.
“It’s been an honor to be recognized for being my authentic self.”
All photos courtesy of: Sahara Marina Borja