Tibet may be on the far side of the world, but the Chinese government’s attack on political protesters there has been very much in the local newspapers — and very much in the thoughts of Jigme Ugen.
Ugen, a second-generation Tibetan refugee, is the executive vice president of 14,000-member SEIU Healthcare Minnesota. Ugen was born in 1972 to a Tibetan family living in exile in Darjeeling in India.
“I grew up with the American Dream in the foothills of the Himalayas,” he said. “I listened to Leonard Cohen and Lynyrd Skynyrd.” He majored in English at Delhi University and studied Shakespeare.
When Ugen decided to emigrate to the United States, he sought help from a U.S. Senator with a reputation as a strong advocate for the Tibetan people — Minnesota’s Paul Wellstone.
“Paul was my sponsor to America,” Ugen said. “I had complications with the paperwork… I sent him a letter and he replied. He helped me with the process. He wrote about three letters.”
Ugen came to Minnesota in 2001 to join family here. Minnesota, he noted, has the second largest Tibetan community in the U.S.
After arriving in the United States, he said, the dramatic disparities of wealth he witnessed shocked him. “That’s when I woke up to the real American Dream.”
He learned Wellstone was running for re-election and walked into the campaign office one day to volunteer.
He took a stack of voter registration cards, returning soon with 300 signed cards. “I said, I’m sorry, I couldn’t get all 500,” he recalled. His success astounded campaign staff.
Ugen finally met Wellstone in person. “He called me the mysterious Tibetan guy,” Ugen recalled.
Ugen joined the Wellstone campaign staff, working on canvassing and community outreach.
He was no stranger to political activism, however. After attending college in Delhi, he did volunteer work as a community organizer and teacher. Plus, as a Tibetan exile, he said, the duty to protest, to organize, and be politically active is “inbred.” Ugen has served as general secretary for the Tibetan Youth Congress, an organization advocating for complete independence for Tibet.
Working with Wellstone for social and economic justice, Ugen said, became the biggest influence in his life. “He brought out a passion in me I didn’t have before,” he said. “That little piece of Paul Wellstone will always be with us.”
After Wellstone’s tragic death in 2002, Ugen took advice from Wellstone to heart: “Paul always said, if you believe change can be made, go work for SEIU.”
In 2003 Ugen, went to work for SEIU Local 113 as an organizer. “The first assignment was to run a strike vote,” he recalled. He moved next to different roles in the organizing department, then became a business representative.
SEIU Local 113 became SEIU Healthcare Minnesota last year and, in December, Ugen won election to the office of executive vice president — his first run for union office.
Ugen’s election marked the first time a Tibetan refugee has won union office in the U.S. That was big news in the close-knit Tibetan community. Ugen received congratulations from the Dalai Lama, the political and spiritual leader of the Tibetan people.
Ugen’s history as an immigrant helps him connect with the many immigrants who are members of SEIU Healthcare Minnesota. He said he asks them, “What is your dream? Where do you want to be in 10 years?” Helping SEIU members to realize their dreams, he said, “I can go back to where I started with my American Dream.”
For Ugen, his work at SEIU is about listening, building bridges between a diverse membership, and helping them work together for social and economic justice.
“At the end of the day, I’m a trade unionist, not an immigrant, not a Tibetan,” he said.
“I truly believe if I adopt a country and the country adopts me, it’s my responsibility to make it a better place.”