Political Science, Asian Hip Hop and Healthcare Policy

Dr. Chuck Sawyer, NWHSU professor emeritus and special assistant to the president | June 28, 2018

A Northwestern student travels to Washington, D.C., to learn more about advocacy and grassroots organizing.

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For Rassacin (Russ) Ly, the journey to Northwestern and his interest in becoming a chiropractic doctor was not the typical story we hear from students. It first started in a computer science program at the University of Minnesota (with a minor in Asian American Studies), and then he followed a detour into political science.

But along the way, and as early as high school, he was drawn to the arts and first began to express his Hmong identity through hip hop music and spoken word poetry. In his admissions essay he wrote, “I found deep connections with poets such as Alvin Lau, portraying his struggle to reconcile his Chinese culture with the American culture around him, and Minnesotan poet Bao Phi, describing scenes of growing up in the Philips neighborhood in Minneapolis.”

Russ is a second generation Asian American whose refugee parents fled Laos after the Vietnam war. Before coming to Minnesota, he grew up in Oshkosh, Wisconsin, surrounded by his immediate and extended family. “I grew up in a duplex with my aunts, uncles and cousins, and there must have been at least 20 of us in that house,” Russ said. “So family was always very important to me growing up. We were each other’s closest friends and confidants.”

He went on to explain that refugee communities typically rely on family such that they often don’t seek outside help; especially when it comes to healthcare. “When I was growing up, we were always told to be careful because if we broke an arm we would have to go to the hospital, and that would cripple the family. That was our survival mode growing up.”

After leaving the University of Minnesota with a political science degree, he considered law school, but early on he was involved in advocacy. “I explored different jobs after graduating, and I did outdoor advocacy to promote green spaces in low-income communities. I knew that I wanted to help my community, but didn’t know exactly how.”

In 2010, Russ moved to South Korea to teach English and, during the four years he lived there, his interest in the performing arts deepened as he trained in hip hop, ballet and funk jazz. “I danced at lot and found out that like other athletes, when our bodies break down, so does our art.”

When he returned to the Twin Cities, he continued his deep involvement in the performing arts and joined the faculty at the Larkin Dance Studio in Maplewood – and discovered chiropractic as a patient.

But in addition to organizing dance teams, that interest also extends into grass roots community movements. “I’ve always been a volunteer, but I’ve never been at the organizing level. So, coming to Northwestern, healthcare advocacy is a new field for me.”

A very busy dancer and full-time chiropractic student, Russ will attend an advocacy and leadership training program this week in Washington, D.C., conducted by the Southeast Asia Resource and Action Center (SEARAC). In addition to immigration and education, their work focuses on building the capacity of community-based organizations to advocate for systemic changes to deliver health services to Southeast Asian Americans.

The organization selects just 50 applicants from across the country, and Russ will be representing Northwestern and the chiropractic profession. And, while he wants to learn more about how he might be able to affect policy as a chiropractic student and eventually a doctor, he already traveled to Washington, D.C. earlier this year for the National Chiropractic Leadership Conference and the Minnesota Chiropractic Association’s Day at the Capitol event in St. Paul.

Rassacin Ly is an example of the many Northwestern Health Sciences University students – across all of our programs – who are engaged in leadership and efforts to influence public policy. It’s a safe bet that he’ll come back to the campus even more fired up and ready to lead!