In the first few days after Katrina, a single working phone line was all that connected the residents of New Orleans’ Vietnamese community to news about their homes, businesses and neighborhoods.
Then-20-year-old Minh Nguyen was one of few able to return to the community shortly after the storm ended and the levees gave way. His phone was all his evacuated family and neighbors had to keep them informed about the state of their beloved community.
“It was actually very hard on me,” he said. “I would give them the information they needed, but I didn’t tell them everything. It was like a war zone. There were thousands of people on the bridges along the highway waiting to get picked up. I saw dead bodies, helicopters in the air. It was really very traumatizing.”
He never imagined that playing the role of community messenger would lead to anything more, especially not to his current role as a community organizer.
Today, Nguyen serves as the executive director of VAYLA New Orleans, a nonprofit organization that he founded after the storm to revitalize his community by cultivating and empowering the youth’s voice for social change. The organization’s motto – “We can. We must. We will. Let’s Make It Happen.” – embodies the spirit that Nguyen seeks to instill in the diverse high school and college-age students who come together at VAYLA. Even more, it represents an attitude he believes his entire community must take on in order for change to come.
Born and raised in New Orleans, Nguyen has always been active in his community. Before the storm, he never intended to leave. But after mandatory evacuation was ordered, stopping him short mid-semester of his studies, he headed to Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles, where one of the priests offered him transferred tuition and housing to help him continue his education.
While he flourished in LA, he was forced to return to New Orleans to finish his education. His former university was suffering from dangerously low enrollment, its students flocking to other schools; his local high school was shut down; and a landfill had been proposed for location in the center of the community and next to the Bayou Sauvage National Wildlife Refuge, the nation’s largest urban National Wildlife Refuge.
Someone working to stop the landfill asked him to get his community organized to help. Torn between pursuing a dream of working in entertainment in LA or staying in New Orleans to finish his education and shut down the landfill, he chose to come home.
“It was a choice between making money or saving lives,” he said. “I couldn’t leave. This was the community my grandparents and parents had left their country to come to. My grandfather had been a leader in this community. I wanted this community to be a better place, and I wanted others to embrace the people who live here.”
The idea that later became VAYLA was something Nguyen always wanted for his community. He envisioned it as a space for youth and a place where they could have a voice. “We needed to create our own space not controlled by adults,” he said.
Coming together with friends and other youth leaders, they put a plan in place to form an organizing conference where youth would be trained in public speaking and coached on becoming more civically engaged. He also did his research and approached lawyers to better understand the landfill situation, and he learned that his community had little to no voice on city issues.
But Nguyen believed that could be turned around and felt it was his responsibility to lead the effort. Recognizing the low voter turnout rates in his community, he organized a voter registration drive. The proposed landfill was shut down within the first four months. Within a couple of years, more than 1,500 people were registered to vote for the first time.
Growing his leadership skills, Nguyen admits that he learned on the fly. When he traveled, he learned from a diverse set of people interested in his work and believes that being exposed to this wider world gave him a more progressive view. He also credits his community’s youth for giving him hope that things can and will change.
But Nguyen strives for more as he looks to the future. “My hope is that my community will become a real community – that we will show New Orleans how to work together and overcome differences by doing it here first,” he said. “I see it happening. When we have conflict, we work through it. I tell the young people when we get through this in here, we can teach others how to do it out there, too.”