People of the Year 2020: Ashley Cheng
Ashley Cheng isn’t here to teach you how to live your best life: She wants to learn alongside you. Whether through political activism, community engagement with local nonprofits, teaching yoga or researching the opioid epidemic for her master’s in social work, the unifying thread in her seemingly divergent pursuits is a mission to empower people to meet their full potential.
As co-founder of Rouser, a creative civic engagement platform; co-host of The Rabble podcast; vice president of Asian Democrats Central Texas; and the recently elected Texas AAPI caucus representative to the Democratic National Committee, Cheng’s political endeavors appear at first glance to be her primary passion. Prior to the 2016 election, however, she never envisioned any personal political involvement. Like many, the 2016 election results changed everything.
“I realized I had not been doing my part for democracy,” says Cheng. “I was reaping the benefits of democracy without actually giving back in a meaningful way. Being a child of immigrants, I took for granted what I was born into by nature of my parents coming here in the 1960s.”
Cheng’s family moved to Austin from Taiwan around 1969, and her parents later started the Chinatown chain of restaurants in 1983—one of the city’s longest-running Chinese food establishments. Cheng recalls playing with old restaurant equipment in her grandma’s backyard, taking food orders from her siblings on carbon paper notepads.
“My parents worked hard so we could have an education,” she reflects. “My mom always said she wanted us to have options: a job at a big corporation and health insurance.”
After graduating from Boston University, that’s exactly what Cheng pursued, working for large PR and marketing agencies in Boston and New York. When corporate burnout threatened her physical and mental health, she turned to yoga, gaining certification as an instructor and yoga therapist. Moving back to Austin in 2012 while her dad was in the hospital, Cheng brought those skills home with her, co-founding the Austin School of Yoga at Castle Hill Fitness.
“I want to get as much out of life as possible every day, which can be wonderful but exhausting,” says Cheng. “Yoga really came into my life out of necessity, but those self-care practices are so much stronger when you have to teach, not just practice.”
She puts her volunteer work for Hospice Austin in the same category, noting how the need to show up fully for someone else forces you to nourish your own ability to be present. She first started volunteering for the group in 2015, now serving as a part-time research manager for the Biobehavioral Lab at the University of Texas at Austin’s Steve Hicks School of Social Work.
Somehow, she also finds time to co-host her podcast, provide what she calls “marketing for the movement” at Rouser, serve on boards at local nonprofits like Asian Family Support Services of Austin (AFSSA) and Fusebox Festival, and—as of summer 2020— represent the Texas AAPI caucus for the Democratic National Committee.
“I get a lot of satisfaction and joy in helping people learn how to live their lives the way they should and the way they want to,” she says, tying it all together as a passion for “emboldening people to learn how to lead their own lives.”
This mission extends to everyone, but as a child of immigrants, Cheng is most passionate about uplifting voices in the Asian community.
“Asians don’t typically feel like they have permission to be Asian out loud,” she says, “so my whole mission is figuring out ways to give more people permission to be really visible.”
For Cheng, that mission will continue in 2021 regardless of election results. Reflecting on this past year, she refers to 2020 as “an unveiling of what our reality already was, with so many disparities in our very own city—both in racial justice and health care.”
While that sense of unveiling can be overwhelming, Cheng also appreciates the moment—this drawing back of the curtain—as a call to hope.
“Seeing that truth and reality, the optimist in me has to believe that people will remain motivated to right these disparities. How do you ignore it after this year? With so many people finally tackling these issues, I have a lot of hope that we won’t tire of doing the work.”