September 30, 2023

By Bryan Thao Worra

AAP staff writer

What can be learned about building community power from the Vietnamese American community in East New Orleans post Hurricane Katrina? What relevancy does this have to Minnesota?

These were questions six Minnesota community organizations asked during a recent three day journey to New Orleans as part of the National Gender & Equity Campaign’s Organizational Fellowship Program.

Last year, the Association for the Advancement of Hmong Women, CAPI, the Center for Hmong Arts and Talent, the Lao Assistance Center, Mu Performing Arts and Shades of Yellow were selected as part of a cohort of California and Minnesota-based organizations to transform themselves into social justice organizations.

Funded by Asian Americans/Pacific Islanders in Philanthropy (AAPIP), the program will invest $2.7 million in twelve Asian American organizations. The guiding philosophy is that social movements are essential to building a more just and equitable society for all.  Much of the fellowship focuses on helping the organizations develop capacities that make it more effective and sustainable as social justice organizations.

Each organization sent a delegation of executive directors, board and staff members and community stakeholders. The aim was to return with a deeper, enhanced understanding of collective leadership, community power, and cultural change as they visited and learned about the 25,000 Vietnamese Americans in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina.

One of the less well-known stories is the role the Vietnamese American community played in the return of residents to New Orleans.

The trip began with a film screening of the documentary “A Village Called Versailles” followed by Q & A with Leo Chiang, the film maker.  The film gave a compelling overview of the crisis and the opportunity the Vietnamese American faced post-Katrina.

A community site visit followed, and the Minnesota organizations were able to hear from the community.  The Vietnamese American community in East New Orleans would come to know the strength of its community values in responding to the crisis. Without much outside aid, their relationships and support of each other enabled many of its community members to return home after the disaster, and today about 90% have come back.  Much of this happened without much notice.

For over 30 years the Vietnamese American had been a near invisible element of New Orleans life, but after the hurricane, they learned that decisions and policies were made without consulting them at all when it was their community who would be most directly affected by the decisions. This became dramatically clear when the City of New Orleans installed a landfill in their neighborhood to store one-third of the toxic debris from Hurricane Katrina.

Once the community understood who, how and why these decisions were made, they organized themselves to make their voices heard. For the first time the energy of the youth became a vital part of the community political campaigns they undertook. The community also reached across racial lines to organize, winning the closure of the landfill site. This new found sense of community power enabled the community to create several new organizations to carry forth the community’s vision for itself.

Chongchith Saengsudham, the Family Resources Specialist of the Lao Assistance Center said “Watching their example, I was inspired by what we could accomplish in Minnesota.”

The site visit included a visit with the staff from the New Orleans Workers’ Center for Racial Justice, the Mary Queen of Vietnam Community Development Corporation, as well as VAYLA-NO, a Vietnamese American youth organization.

“This was a real eye-opening experience,” said Ekta Prakash, a staff member of CAPI.

Though, Minnesota may not have a “Katrina”, the six Minnesota organizations are being asked about how they can build community power, and explore how similar approaches might be applied in their own communities.

“It was inspiring to see how the Vietnamese community in the 9th ward organized for themselves post-Katrina and used the catastrophe as an opportunity to build something, not to just give them visibility but the power to really make some changes in their state, legislation and most importantly their immediate community,” said writer Katie Ka Vang, who went on the journey with the Center for Hmong Arts and Talent.

“It was also good to connect again with other cohorts like Khmer Girls In Action from Long Beach, California, the Association of Advancement for Hmong Women, and South Asian Network from Artesia, California. We got to exchange ideas, best practices, or just words of encouragement. I left with the sense of feeling that although some of us do different work, roll in different communities, we’re all contributing to the same movement,” Vang added.

The National Gender & Equity Campaign (NGEC) is a demonstration project incubated by Asian Americans/Pacific Islanders in Philanthropy (AAPIP).  The NGEC leverages, mobilizes and activates community and philanthropic resources to address systemic inequity.  It aims to build a stronger social justice movement driven by those who are most impacted, and supports the sustainability of grassroots organizations committed to cultural change and inclusion of gender and equity values and practices.  NGEC also develops and tests capacity building approaches and tools it contributes to those dedicated to building a more just world.