By far the most common question we get at the Vietnamese Friendship Association (VFA) is, “Do you only serve Vietnamese people?” When VFA was founded, our mission and services were clearly aligned; we supported Vietnamese war refugees and helped them with resettlement in the United States. “Psst. Hey. Hey you. Are you Viet? Need some help?” It was pretty straightforward, and we largely succeeded in this regard.
As the Vietnamese community has continued to grow and mature, so too has VFA shifted our programs to focus on emerging needs, such as positive youth development, parent empowerment, civic engagement, and a brief stint at animal rescue when found one lost puppy a new home. So it comes as a surprise to many people when they learn that VFA’s largest program, the Saturday English School, serves a majority non-Vietnamese youth. Over 13 different languages are spoken in this program! It’s like a mini United Nations, but instead of trying to achieve world peace, they’re busy SnapChatting.
VFA has been wrestling with our identity for the past couple years as a result of these demographic changes. As a Vietnamese organization, what is our role in serving other refugee and immigrant communities? Even though Vietnamese-Americans have been living in the United States for about 40 years, there continues to be numerous barriers that disproportionately impact our community. Which…ya know…kinda makes VFA still relevant. At the same time, we feel a responsibility to support newly-arrived refugee and immigrant communities because of our own experiences. We know what it’s like to be refugee ourselves. Is it possible to honor our history and heritage while serving the broader refugee and immigrant community?
This brings me back to an experience I had last year. VFA and our partner, a Latino organization, submitted a proposal to provide job training to 58 refugee and immigrant youth. To my knowledge, this was the first time a Vietnamese and Latino organization has ever partnered together on a grant. It was pretty epic and I’m convinced all of the other community organizations would have given us a power couple name like “Latinamese” or “Vietino”. Unfortunately, our proposal wasn’t funded, for a variety of legitimate reasons I’m sure, such as the Executive Director’s vegan diet may actually impair his judgment. That makes sense to me.
But one of the funder’s concerns was that Vietino wouldn’t be able to connect with youth from other ethnic groups like the East African community. It was frustrating feedback to receive, especially when we have a good track record of working in solidarity with many East African groups from youth programming to advocacy.
The YMCA was awarded instead; and for good reason. They do some amazing work. But what about the Young Men’s Christian Association makes them better suited to serve refugee and immigrant communities!? No one questions the YMCA when they propose to serve people who aren’t young, Christian or men. Just because they are an organization that is largely and historically White led, does not mean they automatically know how to effectively serve communities of color. Again, this isn’t to knock on the YMCA, they are a very capable organization and their award was well deserved, but Latinamese can get stuff done too!
This issue extends beyond community organizations too. Are women worth as much as men in the workforce? Is President Obama really American? Why are White actors cast in Asian roles? Is Jeremy Lin a basketball fluke? This societal double standard is incredibly frustrating, and marginalizes many communities who feel like we are playing under a different set of rules and benchmarks.
The questions around identity, and the unique privileges it either brings or denies, is extremely complicated and sensitive. VFA is going through this reflective process right now. What percentage of Vietnamese clients do we need to serve in order to still be Vietnamese organization? I don’t have an easy answer to this question. But I do believe no one has a monopoly on social justice and service; it is a shared responsibility that requires a shared vision.
I think our Director of Development summed it up best when she said “VFA is an organization rooted in the Vietnamese community that is pushing for a better life for all refugees and immigrants.” We canhave a multicultural impact too. And if that fails, there’s always animal rescue.