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Un-Common Power for the Common Voice 

Vietnamese youth from all over the U.S. and Canada attended the Seventh Annual Conference of the Union of the North American Vietnamese Student Associations (uNAVSA) at the Hyatt in Crystal City, Virginia, on July 30.  uNAVSA , founded in 2004, is a national  umbrella for Vietnamese youth-based groups with 450 attending, this was by far the largest Conference to date.
uNAVSA collaborates with Vietnamese students’ associations and other organizations across  North America to build a unified Asian American community across borders.  Its mission is to promote leadership, diversity, community-building and cultural identity.  This year, participants could choose any of 20 workshops, including entrepreneurship, political involvement, and activism in the internet age. 
Mr. Nguyen Ngoc Bich led a workshop entitled “How can we efficiently communicate and organize our community?”  Dr. Larry Shinagawa discussed “Opportunities and challenges in how academia and the community inter-relate with one another.  Ramey Ko, a municipal judge and activist in Austin, Texas, showed participants how to utilize social networking, blogs, and other online tools to mobilize communities for change. 
uNAVSA’s second task is to unify the Vietnamese community in support of Vietnamese initiatives and causes.  This year, they raised funds and presented over $47,000 to the Vietnamese American Heritage Foundation (VAHF) in support of VAHF “500 Oral History Project.”  VAHF has been interviewing and collecting the personal stories of Vietnamese Americans in order to publish them as an anthology.  The goal is to give the younger generation and the American public an accurate understanding of Vietnamese history.
Other beneficiaries were the Blue Dragon Children’s Foundation, which combats child trafficking in Central Vietnam; the Catalyst Foundation, an education and community center in Southern Vietnam;  and Friends of Hue, which promotes self-reliance for Vietnam’s poor. 
At the leadership workshop, Eva Chung, Lan Pham and Rosie Abriam showed how leadership and personal development are “inside jobs,” progressing from inner self to outer self.  They said people should recognize the importance of self-monitoring, self-correcting, and self-tuning, rather than relying on others.
Hoan Dang, a civic activist and community organizer who is running for delegate in Maryland’s District 19, said that Asian Americans have been underrepresented in the political process.  He wanted the attendees to understand that their political involvement could increase votes for candidates in primary elections by 50% or more, thus impacting the general elections.  Dang insisted that politics was one of the most important professions, and that advocacy for people’s rights and against social ills could promote changes in policy-making.

Lobbying Effort

The Conference included 80 high school and college students and young professionals from the New Orleans area.  uNAVSA brought them to the U.S. Capitol to highlight issues that were still lingering 100 days after the oil spill in the Gulf. 
Minh Nguyen, 25, Executive Director of the Vietnamese American Young Leaders Association, New Orleans (VAYLA- NO), addressed the economic hardship, language barriers, mental health issues, and obstacles to job training that Vietnamese fishermen and their families were facing.  “The fishermen say that BP’s policies change so much from day to day that by the time they make it to a BP site office, they walk out unable to get compensation or a job.  Hundreds are going back and forth from one site to another seeking help and are being turned away time and time again.”
VAYLA, founded in 2006, has been organizing fishermen and their families, identifying their needs, documenting and updating the impact of the oil spill, and supporting President Obama’s “One Stop Shops,” where different services are centralized.  VAYLA works in partnership with local community-based organizations.  
“I ask BP today to keep the money earned by the fishermen for oil clean-up work separate from the final claims settlements.  Fishermen like my father, who lost their means to earn a living, need BP to support them with long-term solutions such as job creation and job training.  It will be years before the water is clean enough to fish again,” pleaded 17-year old Anna Nguyen.  Vietnamese fishermen make up one third of the fishing community in the Gulf Coast
Anna lives in Versailles, New Orleans, where the majority of the residents are Vietnamese Americans.  So does Rep. Joseph Cao, the first and only Vietnamese serving in Congress.   He urged the group to have the courage to pursue their dream to become future leaders and contribute to their community. 
Dan Huynh, uNAVSA’s Program Director, said he wanted to ensure that all claimants could equally and fairly access the $20 billion Gulf Coast Claims Fund.  Community representatives, he said, should be at the decision-making table, and culturally competent staff should be hired to assist in processing the claims.
Prof. Viet Dinh, Co-Director of Asian law and Policy Studies at the Georgetown University Law Center, ended the Conference with the keynote speech, urging young professionals to have a vision, lay a sound foundation, and sacrifice themselves to build a “cathedral” to serve the nation. 
The Conference benefited from the hard work of young leaders such as Brian Vo, Long Nguyen, Nam Phuong Thai, as well as the 100 volunteers who served in the Entertainment, Finance, Hospitality, Information Tech, Logistics, Marketing, Media, Programming, Registration, and Sponsorship committees. 

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