Credit: Moises Camacho, Santa Ana Community Artist(a) Coalition

The definition of equity is contested in Orange County and in American society.  Across academia and business, government and philanthropy, many kinds of institutions and influencers lay claim to it – but they use the term in different contexts, with different meanings and motivations, and too often in isolation from the people and communities most impacted.

During a recent presentation hosted by OC Grantmakers, speakers Tracy La and Vincent Tran of VietRISE, Son Do of the Orange County Mobile Residents Coalition, and Thuy Vo Dang of UCLA, who co-authored A People’s Guide to Orange County, shared the history of how refugees from Southeast Asia “remade their lives through and against conditions of war and displacement,” eventually making Orange County “home to the largest population of resettled Vietnamese refugees.”  Just as importantly, they described narratives that have framed the Vietnamese immigrant experience, pointing out that “it was not until this recent decade that the stories told about our experiences were written by Vietnamese people.”

OC Grantmakers caught up with three of the presenters for a brief conversation about some of the issues they raised.  What follows is an abridged version of our conversation. It has also been edited for clarity and conciseness.

OC Grantmakers: How is the narrative of the “good” immigrant versus the “bad” immigrant reinforced by the philanthropic and nonprofit sectors, and what can those sectors do to help deconstruct it?

Thuy Vo Dang: There’s an expectation that Southeast Asian refugees will perform our trauma and become legible in a certain way, that we’ll go from desperate and in need of rescue to becoming good citizens who contribute and give back. I think it’s actually scalable to other immigrant and refugee groups as well. The nonprofit and philanthropic communities can be more attuned to write calls for proposals and to fund programs around identity and belonging without this expectation that groups will first have to perform their trauma and their need. Everyone wants to use metrics to identify where the most need exists in the community, but a lot of this research has already been done. People and organizations shouldn’t need to subscribe to the model minority or “good” immigrant trope in order to belong, to deserve aid, to be worthy of joy, safety, and abundance.

Tracy La: A lot of nonprofits and philanthropy, as well as elected officials, won’t support policies or advocacy campaigns, like the VISION Act, that see people who have been incarcerated as a full human. We also get criticism from other nonprofits or those in the philanthropy space for the tactics we use when we call for changes to policies and systems. They’ll say things like, “You need to be nice,” but if we only ask nicely, that’s already putting us on an unequal playing field.

Vincent Tran: When the philanthropic world and the nonprofit sector look at the Vietnamese community, I think they see it either as very successful and integrated, or as a community full of trauma and war, struggling between two very different generations. This is reflected in how programs are created and funded. There’s a focus on mental health, which is good, but until recently, issues like housing and immigration, which affect the community on a daily basis, have been glossed over. We’ve constantly had to reiterate that the community faces these issues and has been at the forefront of addressing them.

OCG: How do you balance the immediate needs of community members with the longer-term imperative for systemic change?

TL: There’s always a way to connect direct services or resources with systemic change. Every time we meet a new community member, it’s an opportunity to create a relationship, to build long-term leadership, to recruit a member, to connect someone to campaigns for systemic change. We’re also direct and upfront that our goal is systemic change. Given COVID, immigration, and housing needs, we do need to provide services, but that’s never the last time we connect with someone. 

VT: For service providing agencies, the most basic thing is to hire staff who can communicate in Vietnamese. For many years, our co-presenter Son Do has been helping mobile home residents file paperwork to apply for government utility and weatherization programs – he does this as a volunteer because the agency doesn’t provide the resources or support for outreach to the community.

TVD: Organizations need to be nimble and responsive. Before the pandemic, many were focused on voter registration in Asian American Pacific Islander communities and disaggregating data around the needs of our diverse communities, and during the pandemic, they pivoted to address health care disparities and access, then vaccines, and then escalating anti-Asian violence. People who have been working in the community for a long time know best how to respond and be nimble, but the culture of constantly having to respond, under duress, without the structures and funding to assist, is one of the big challenges. 

OCG: What next steps would you recommend for people or organizations who want to learn more and get involved in the important work to advance multiracial solidarity and joint struggle?

TL: Advancing multiracial solidarity and joint struggle isn’t something you can do by yourself. It requires a community and trust. Be willing to do some research, reach out to organizations directly, get to know the members and the leaders, try multiple groups, and check in with other people to see what’s legit. Also, systemic change can’t be done by one organization working alone. We build partnerships, coalitions, or networks with organizations that are aligned around the same goals and values, and we each fulfill a specific role within that ecosystem. I recommend this ecosystem approach to other nonprofits and philanthropic organizations.

TVD: It has been an uphill struggle to challenge misinformation and disinformation in our community – some of it is very malignant and set up to take advantage of vulnerable populations. I encourage folks to get educated and learn how to assess information through a variety of means, seeking multiple sources, talking to different stakeholders, and fact checking.

VT: People twist narratives to fit their own agendas, but in terms of organizing within the Vietnamese community, it’s really imperative to be in conversation with the community, know where they’re coming from, and know the history in order to understand the complexities of the community.

OCG is thankful to the many speakers who are part of the Beyond Equity learning series. To see resources from the series, learn more, or register for future sessions, please visit the Beyond Equity page on OC Grantmakers website.

Taryn Palumbo is the Executive Director of Orange County Grantmakers (OCG), the regional philanthropic serving organization for Orange County. OCG envisions an Orange County where philanthropists and nonprofits work together as partners to achieve equity for our most impacted communities.

Opinions expressed in community opinion pieces belong to the authors and not Voice of OC.

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