E.J. Carter: This is E.J. Carter, Azen Jaffe, and Jordan St. Peter. We are here with Chi Nguyen at the headquarters of APANO [Asian Pacific American Network of Oregon] here in Portland. Today is August 14, 2018. Thank you first of all for meeting with us. Maybe you could start by telling us where and when you were born and giving us a little bit of an overview of your life here in Portland?
Chi Nguyen: I was born in Vietnam -- Saigon, 1982. I came here as a political refugee asylum seeker after being displaced by the Vietnam War. My grandfather was a colonel in the South Vietnamese army and my dad, being the good son that he is, wanted to stay because his dad wanted to stay because he didn’t want to leave my grandfather behind and my grandfather’s dad, my great grandfather didn’t want to leave his country. As a result, it took us six tries with different aunts and uncles trying to escape into international waters as boat people before two of my uncles made it. They made it to Fort Hood to be able to find all of our affiliations with the US Army and thus were able to then sponsor our whole family, all thirteen of us, into Portland back in 1990.
EC: Great. What kind of work did your parents do in Vietnam?
CN: In Vietnam, my mom was an accountant for a really prestigious five star French hotel. My father was a traveling salesperson. But for the majority of his career, we owned a bakery. There’s bits and pieces still to this day that I wonder if it is part of the cover for what we were, politically active. It is so charged there. [I wonder] if that was truly what he did or if he was more of a political operative. That’s what I can remember.
EC: Do you know how their lives were impacted by the war?
CN: Yes. We have this conversation a lot with my cousins as some of them are going into psychology and [are] wanting to work in the field of being trauma informed. We always talk about like, do you wonder? Our parents’ generation either having seen -- like my mom shares stories of her walking to school and she has to encounter dead bodies laying on the side of the street, or just hearing explosions going off. I think they’re using denial as a way to cope because we ask like, “Gosh you don’t seem to ever talk about depression or anxiety.” They very much just pass it off as, “We don’t have time. We don’t have the luxury of being depressed. We’re too worried about making ends meet. What’s the point of feeling anxious when I’d rather do something about it?” I think certainly. I feel it and I’m a first generation. I came here as one of the few cousins that wasn’t born here. Most of them were born here.
EC: Did your parents suffer any kinds of reprisals because your grandfather was in the army?
CN: Yes. One story stands out in my mind. I was definitely one of his favorites because he had like seven boys and two girls so I only have two aunts and he always likes having girls around. He always carried me around all over the neighborhood, I just remember. So he always instilled this, “you come from a very special family and we do certain things not because we want to but because we have to. We are trying to protect democracy.” I came when I was eight. I lost him because he had to turn himself in, being as high ranking as he was, to reeducation camp. He also lied and said that he sent us off on the last helicopter, that none of us were there. This was the cover story that I was mentioning earlier.
But one time I was in grade school and I just remember there was this class bully that nobody liked. He always was so mean to everybody. But it came down to him or I for class president. The class voted and I knew they voted for me, but yet he won. The teacher declared that he won. Even the kids were like, “That’s not true!” But little did we know, being kids, that his father had the ability to shut down the whole school. I had the audacity to go to him and say, “If you’re going to be class president you should be more nice to kids. And not be this way.” He always stole lunch or money from kids and just was a bully. The next thing I know, the very next day, the principal called my parents into the office and I had a stern talking to. That was my first time that I was told, “We had to pull a lot of strings to be able to have you continue going to school while we are here. You can speak no word again of who we are affiliated with, what your grandpa was, anything like that. You could endanger the rest of us.” So that’s interesting.
EC: Yeah. So your uncles left first and was that under the Humanitarian Operation Program, do you know?
CN: We all came here from that file with the HO Program. But the six times or so that I mentioned of them trying to get into international waters was just illegally leaving. And then two finally made it to Fort Hood where the files were. Remember, when we stayed we had to burn everything that connected us. Because had we been found with that material, that would have been a death warrant for the whole family.
EC: I see. Did they make their way to Portland and then brought the rest of the family here?
CN: Right. They landed and obviously they bounced around to where we had family connections to help them, because they were teenage boys. I think they spent some time in New Orleans, in Houston, Southern California, just kind of bumbling along for wherever they were able to find hard labor jobs. Then they ultimately landed here in Portland.
EC: And then they acted as the sponsors for the rest of the family?
CN: Correct. It was thanks to partner organizations. Our family specifically was Catholic organizations that helped with the refugee resettlement program.
EC: So you were eight at that time. What were your first impressions of Portland?
CN: I just remember the smell. It was just definitely childish memories. Like the first time walking into Fred Meyer in the produce department. It smelled very clean. People were nice. I never had been treated badly. So, I grew up in Northeast Portland right up the street. I went to Madison High School, I went to Jason Lee Elementary and then Gregory Heights. Nothing stood out for me, Portland in the 90s.
EC: So did you stay in that one neighborhood most of your childhood after you arrived? Was that near 82nd street in the Northeast?
CN: Yes. Right off of 86th or 87th and Eugene. Right down the street from Jason Lee. It was a working class neighborhood and that probably helped to that end where I didn’t feel different or anything. I also had a lot of friends in what used to be Halsey Square. So that was the second wave of the friends that I then took under my wing when they came and didn’t know English. So that was where all of my friends lived. I thought it was strange, because I was like like, “Well I’m the only Asian kid in my neighborhood.” It is fascinating to even see where it is now.
I thought for a moment in time that I could afford the house that my parents bought for $50,000. I somehow thought this. Then when I went to buy my first house, back then it was $300,000 for the house that I grew up in. I know my dad built most of it -- the basement and things like that. Portland changes quickly.
EC: Did that neighborhood that you grew up in change a lot? Were there more Vietnamese or Asian children later on or were you always the only one?
CN: I was always the only one.
EC: But you had friends from other Vietnamese neighborhoods who you met at school?
CN: Yes, I had to definitely go to the other side where they lived. So close to Glendoveer Golf Course, a pocket of those friends and then Halsey Square was where the rest of them lived.
EC: Were there other places you would congregate with other members of the Vietnamese community? Churches or stores or restaurants, were there meeting places that were important for the community?
CN: I know the Catholic church is really big, La Vang. I know the Buddhist temple, Ngoc Son, is really big as well. I remember Fou Lee is another Asian market back in the day. There was the A Chau Market which is now where Pho Oregon is. It is upstairs from there. There used to be a supermarket there. That was the usual. Grocery stores, churches, the Buddhist temple, and then every so often we would do Chinese New Year, so Lunar New Year. Those, they would float around. Sometimes it would be at Madison. Sometimes it would be at other schools.
EC: Could you tell us about your experience in Portland Public Schools?
CN: Yeah. I actually use this a lot. I previously was a politician. I was on city council and I always say. I came here back in the 90s. Their version of ESL [English as a Second Language] was these really clunky 80s headphones. You’d sit in front of this machine and they would give you a stack of cards where there is a picture. You would slip the cards through and then the machine would say the word and you are supposed to repeat it. I just sat there and I just thought, “This is how I’m going to learn English? Are you kidding me!?” But it actually wasn’t how I learned English. I got so frustrated by that system. I learned better English by playing chess. Chess for Success is one of those programs that I continue to allude back to. That is how you learn English, right? You have a common denominator, that’s the game of chess, I learned that from my great grandfather and then my grandfather. So I play and it levels the playing field. It then breaks the barrier of something that I wouldn't have been able to [ … ]
I remember one of my first memories was I thought I knew the answer of what the music teacher was asking. So I raised my hand. But I had that moment of doubt where I was like, “Oh no. I’m going to say something wrong.” Another Vietnamese kid was helping me and I lied and said, “I was stretching my arm.” So he goes and he translates that. But I did know the answer. So it is things like that -- I couldn’t do in the classroom, but yet here it is. A chess player with another chess player, then I can. It is less high stakes. But that’s how I learned English.
My Portland Public School experience was fantastic. I always knew that the teachers were really helpful. They went above and beyond. I even had administrators who saw potential. Then they would like make a recommendation, “You should do this.” So they signed me up for robotics classes. Then I would drop out because I was scared, “Oh but that’s going to cost my parents money and I can’t ask them.” I just then dropped out not knowing that there was no fee. Somehow they moved the budget around, but I was so young then. I was trying to just be less trouble for people. Always just kept my head down, did my work.
There were counselors who would say, “Oh my gosh, you should consider Wellesley College.” College wasn’t even in my realm of possibilities so how could I even then think [about] the top schools? I’m lucky if I can finish high school because my friends were getting shot down. That’s the reality of what we were dealing with. But looking back, hindsight twenty-twenty, it is very interesting. Had I stayed in those robotics classes, had I gone to do that. Maybe she knew of some scholarship, right? Usually folks already have thought down that path before they make those recommendations. But still, I can’t complain.
EC: Were there any other challenges that you encountered growing up? In school or elsewhere.
CN: No. Other then just [ … ] the class of 2000 was pegged as like the class of losers. I don’t know what it was. They didn’t have a lot of expectations for us. We were a bunch of misfits, counter culture punks, I guess. I don’t know why class of 2000 had that rep.
EC: At Madison specifically?
CN: No in general. Like Time Magazine and all these [ … ] it is very similar to what I think the millenials are feeling right now. “You’re this way” and “you’re that way.” How do you know? It’s strange. And then you start identifying with some things. But I just think we were really hungry. We were really hungry for learning. We were really resourceful and we just knew that we had a lot against us so we had a lot of burden to carry. My parents sacrificed their whole life for me. So earlier you asked about what my parents did. They gave up their professional jobs for blue collar jobs. It is kind of like, “I better not mess this up.” They sacrificed everything so I better make the most of it.
EC: What kind of work did they do here?
CN: My mom ended up as a seamstress for a long time. After that she finished up her career as a travel agent. So she was able to get back to an office-type job. My dad stayed in hard labor. Luckily it was union represented but he worked in a bakery his whole career in America.
EC: Did they have trouble adapting to life in Portland?
CN: I don’t think they ever adapted really. They just made work the consummate thing in their life. That’s all I ever knew of them. My friends would always have their parents attend sports or dance recitals stuff like that. The library raised me in the summertime. I came home and grandma would be home. I don’t know when my parents are often around because they are having to do so much work. I guess that is a common thing because all my Asian friends were the same way. Some weren’t as lucky to have a union job, so they were doing like two or three jobs. I felt like one of the luckier ones.
EC: So your parents didn’t talk about going to college a lot, but you picked up the idea elsewhere?
CN: Yes. It was definitely in school. My guidance counselors, career counselors -- I forget what they’re called. I had one uncle who did go to the school. He was the younger of the two brothers that came. He went to school at Cleveland and then went on to PSU.
EC: And where did you go?
CN: I went to undergrad at Oregon State and then I did my MBA at Willamette.
EC: What did you major in?
EC: What did you do after graduate school?
CN: Actually graduate school was a way for me to leave my corporate job. I am loyal to a fault. My parents were like, “Why would you want to leave? You’re making good money and doing what you love.” But it was a really carbon heavy company. It’s in the automotive sector. I was swimming upstream. I was doing quite well, they wanted me to move to St. Louis. I’m like, “Are you kidding me?” It’s Portland. Why would I move from nature’s abundance to St. Louis. Nothing against St. Louis. But I didn’t see myself there. I used the MBA as a way to wean myself out of that structure. After the MBA I launched two start-ups that I was trying to prove as the anti-corporation; mission driven, very investing in the frontline staff, treating people like they are not just cogs in the wheel. Yeah, it has been fun.
EC: We read about Auto Medic. What is the other?
CN: My second start-up is two years along. It is an e-commerce store, it’s a nutraceutical. I turned that into a business because I saw how it helped my mom. Not FDA approved, but they were going down the route of just chemo and I didn’t want her to do that without exhausting all the other options. I fell upon research on medicinal mushrooms. Nine months later, they couldn’t trace it. And I was like, “Oh.” But I knew that she then had to stay on it for the rest of her life and it was really expensive. So again, entrepreneurial hat, right? I need to access the wholesale. How do I do this? Let’s turn it into a business then. That was Zen Chi. My second start up.
EC: Where did you get the idea for Auto Medic?
CN: Auto Medic was the worst of times. There was a recession going on, 2010. Everybody was having travel moratoriums and everything. I think the inspiration really came from my brother. He was telling me about the inequity that happens inside a dealership model. I also saw that my friends and family were being displaced. People were trying to stay in their homes so they weren’t going to renovate. So there were a lot of handy folks that were then unemployed. There were hospitality, housekeeping folks that were unemployed. Then I was like, well if you can clean a toilet you can clean a car. And you can probably make more money and be happier doing it. If you can lay hardwood floor than you can probably change oil. And it is less grueling on your body. So that’s how it started. It literally was something that I intended to start just to gift to my brother. But it had become so niche. We were delivering really specialized fleet services that it was really tough for him to break out from his break and mortar experience. I got stuck with it.
EC: Did you employ a lot of Vietnamese workers? Or refugees in general?
CN: Not Vietnamese, but when I launched the Seattle operation I reached out to their equivalent of IRCO. I was able to employ a lot of Ethiopians. I extended my outreach, it was really heavy with the API community, because I thought since I looked like them it would be easier. But for some reason it didn’t yield much up in the Seattle market. Down here, I hired one Vietnamese. But that’s it other than my brother. He worked for us only for a couple of years before moving on to a retail job.
AJ: Can you tell us about APANO?
CN: Sure, the organization that I am involved with now is a non-profit that has a C4 and a C3 arm. And the building that you see on the corner of 82nd and Division is actually our capital campaign project. The ground floor will be our new community center, as well as our HQ. We are currently renting the space that we are meeting in here right now. We operate to help provide advocacy for the API community.
AJ: And how did you become involved here?
CN: I was an intern back when I graduated Corvallis, I went and studied abroad before I graduated. So I wanted to plug back into the Portland scene after having lived in Corvallis and abroad in Europe for year. APANO was like a plug. I came back and reached out. I interned for a little bit before I got the job at Enterprise. That’s when I did that deep dive into that career track. Then, I went away for a little bit from APANO. Back in 2015, I came back as their legislative days. So that’s our day of action where we bring our membership down to the Salem capital to advocate on the priorities. I was their keynote in 2015. Then, my universe rank the last five years because I had two kids. One is turning four in a couple of weeks and one that just turned two. So I was really just focused on being a stay at home mom. The startups allowed me the luxury of working around my kids schedule. But, I went back into the marketplace and was looking for a job. I saw that there was this interim executive director role. I thought I’d give it a shot and see if my skill sets are what’s needed to guide the organization through. It’s changed a lot over the last ten years, it’s grown a lot. When I was an intern we were doing this co-sharing space with another organization, you probably know of them as Causa. Two people [employees] to now twenty people with a much bigger operating budget. I heard Joseph was retiring, and moving back to be with his family, he was the prior ED.
EC: What were some of the ways that this organization pursues social justice?
CN: We center our work in organizing, but we really work at the intersection of things. So, environmental justice, because usually it’s people of color who have the least power to have a say in anything that ends up polluting in the backend. So we partner with a lot of coalition members like Opal, for transportation justice. Because, you have to be able to access the job, right? Housing, with what I mentioned, our new capital campaign project with the ground floor being our space. We are partnering again, for this project specifically with Rose CDC. They’re putting in forty eight affordable housing units. Harrison Park, right around the corner here, is another one where we do education equity work, where we bring dual language immersion. Other programs we do have cultural competency written into them through health. So, we do a lot, what we do is just very expansive. This room we’re in is actually OHEA, Oregon Health Equity Alliance. They actually are too small to be their own 501-C3, so what they do is they tuck under and we are their pay master. Think of them as a potential spin off while they’re not large enough to stand on their own, so we’re fiscally sponsoring them to help them along.
EC: Do you pursue legislative goals? Or is the focus more on community organizing?
CN: We realize that structurally power begets power, right? You can’t always just design around reacting to policies that are forced upon your constituency. So, we will play at the legislative field, that’s why we created the C4, to do more specific campaign type work too. It’s not just about lobbying for those changes, but also about changing the faces of who sits at the power table making those decisions. Leadership development, making sure that staff are diverse throughout, whether it’s the judicial or the executive or legislative branch, we want representation. Kids tend to see where they could go by seeing those that look like them. So we want to share and shift the power throughout the structure, not just constantly be on the one side asking folks to help with change.
JS: On APANO’s website it states that APANO serves a “community of contrasts” and that some communities are doing well while others face challenges, particularly in education, health, and economic prosperity. What social and economic issues are most significant in the Vietnamese community would you say?
CN: That’s a really loaded question. Politically, you can imagine pan-Asia is really a spectrum. There’s the really old school, conservative, deep-rooted Asian beliefs, and then there’s us who are trying to be very progressive in the things that we are asking for. The younger generation, we can’t help but be system thinkers. You can’t just silo it out and say, “Oh it’s this.” It is the intersectionality. My answer to that is that it’s political. There is a gamut. We have to then be very clear about why we exist and what we are trying to do, what change we are trying to create, and not have mission creed. Then there’s also the other complexity, the question of economic differences.
A 1990 immigrant is different than a 2010 Vietnamese immigrant. I can tell you that we came with literally a one way ticket, and there was no way going back without dying. Versus now, where I see even not very far away at all, my mom’s sister, her younger daughter, [who is] my cousin, is able to come here. And she’s coming here with a leg up because real estate is of value back there. They’re able to rent their ground floor of their three story house and they just live in the other stories. They can send her money to support her here. She was able to buy a house as a first generation. It took me working my butt off, and my parents [...] there was a lag time. Whereas she came over and it was [snaps fingers] car, cash, house, nearly cash. That’s a really different experience.
I’m not speaking in totality. Generally speaking we have to, disaggregate data, and not all API are the same. Meaning, that just because that’s one anecdotal doesn’t mean that there aren’t still other folks coming in waves due to global migration issues like the agrarian culture due to climate change is now having to be displaced. You have the H-1B Visa type, who are the Intels and the Nikes, West side kind of Asian. And again, I’m not saying that all West side Asians are rich, but it’s very different and there’s a reason why we [APANO] are placed here in Southeast Portland, because we still show up on the lowest graduation rate, we show up where it’s the most low income affected, we show up on reports that generally you don’t want to see anybody that you know showing up. So that’s what it means, it’s a balance for that representation. We’re not all things to all people. We’re going to try to prioritize with the “rising tide lifts all boats” mentality, and we’ll go to those that are the most marginalized and most affected because of course everyone else is going to be okay if we do our work with these folks.
EC: Does the city, and the state, and the county for that matter have better programs to help refugees acclimate more than they did in the 80’s and 90’s? Or is it about the same? Or are programs even worse?
CN: I am sixty days into my new role so that would be better question to ask of my program staff. I’m lucky and I’m fortunate to not have to rely on the social network programs, we weaned ourselves off really quickly. What I can tell you though, is very concerning to me with the federal administration and the crackdown on public charge. People are fearful that they’re not even able to utilize some systems, some networks, in fear that they’re going to lose their immigration status and their ability to naturalize. I think the complexity has gotten more, it requires cities and counties to be asking themselves even more complex questions, on how to deliver services. Especially when the can is being kicked down the road. Local-control is so huge these days, you can’t really avoid that topic anywhere you go. I can’t speak directly to that question. I can see if I can get you a staff member to be able to answer that if you like.
EC: That’s ok. You said you were on the city council, is that Portland?
CN: Kings City.
EC: That’s right.
CN: It’s a very unlikely position. I could have walked into that council chamber as a purple three headed dinosaur, because I’m young–King City is predominantly a retirement community–it’s a nonpartisan seat in city council and county races. It’s not a surprise to know that it is a staunchly Republican area, Washington county is predominantly caucasian in leadership, and it’s not just caucasian but older men, very conservative by nature. So I walked in, here I am I’m young, I’m Asian, I identify as LGBTQ. I was quite surprised by how much I was able to move the needle.
By the time that I joined I think the average age was 86 on the panel.
But, by the time I left, and I can’t take credit for it, because it was an open election but I was able to make a strategic hire in a city manager who is fantastic. Young and very driven. I was able to leave with a mayor who is African American, our very third in the state history. Our composition was three women, three young folks, three people of color, that’s huge. We were looking at seats at the table for other, for example, the water board. No one took interest in that and I said well if 80% of our constituency is medically “fragile” identifying, don’t you think access to healthy waters is of concern? We should go sit on that seat. Or because these folks are on fixed income, 86% are retired, if COLA increases -- social security is like 2.5% to 3% yet housing cost is like 6% and health cost is increasing 8%, where’s the COLA? Who is going to fill that gap? Maybe we should prioritize the CDBG grant at the place making table. That’s where HUD is administered. I guess I’m an agitator. I go ask the really tough questions. Curiouristy is what kills the cat and I think that is where I end up with access to different rooms that I normally wouldn’t be able to go into.
EC: Are there other political positions that you are interested in? Is that something you think about in the future?
CN: I want to give back to my state. I feel like the state has invested so much in me. I am constantly looking for ways, obviously, like this interim role. I don’t know if you caught the headlines? We’ve been in the news for all the wrong reasons. I am looking to rightsize this organization and launch us into earning our way and just proving that the value of what we do is so important. After I’m done with this project? [ … ] Of course I am scanning for where my skill sets can be leveraged. Previously I was really looking at the Washington county level, the Board of Commissioners there, but we had relocated to West Salem for my ex’s career. So being the stay-at-home (and I can work anywhere with wifi) I subordinated to her needs. But since then we have decoupled and so now I am kind of looking around and seeing. Oh gosh -- does that mean I need to move back up to Portland where my friends and family are? Or do I stay there? Are there possibilities to help shift or move the needle in Salem? I don’t know. It is a bit early yet. I’m open to it, if you have any ideas I would love to hear.
EC: What do you think are the biggest political issues facing the Vietnamese community in particular?
CN: Well with the general election coming on November 6th, right away, Measure 105 is going to impact us heavily. The right is calling it the Sanctuary Law and we’re calling it the Anti-Immigrant Measure. What it does, in an effect, it undoes a rule that has been established since 1987 that has served us for thirty years incredibly well. It was passed with both Democratic and Republican support back in 1987. My concern is that if that measure passes, then if somebody who doesn’t look “Oregonian” enough, then a police officer can walk up and say, “Show me your papers.” That is a really dangerous, slippery slope to be going down.
It also encumbers the already strained police department. I know King City, we have a police force that is only five or six officers. In rural communities it is even worse. They don’t even have the budget to be able to answer to basic 911 calls. So why would you want to add on really complex federal laws when local law enforcement is having enough to do with not being able to meet their own local budgets? Those two priorities.
Measure 106 is another one. It would deny access to abortion as a preventive healthcare. It is a slippery slope for insurance companies to then pick and choose what they call preventive healthcare. Disproportionately we know it is going to affect people of color.
We are trying to be very inclusive about the language that we use. We were one of the leaders with the RHEA Bill, Reproductive Health Equity Act, RHEA. So we don’t want to undo a lot of that work [with] the LGBTQ community and other allies. That’s why there is a big distinction between saying “women” and just “people who can get pregnant.” Sixty days on the job, I’m still learning the dialect of racial justice. I’ve never done culturally specific work before.
EC: Do you think the community is well organized politically, the Vietnamese community in general, but maybe the API community more generally? Do they speak with one voice and do they need to speak with one voice?
CN: I don’t think that there is a unifying voice yet. I think that people are coming to terms with power systems in different ways. Some are very dubious and distrusting because they come from very corrupt government systems. The Vietnamese community is very anti-communist and by being anti-communist it aligns them as Republican but truly when you drill down to the values that is not it. But we go to what is most traumatizing, right? Even my parents. I live with a Trump supporter, believe it or not. That was the party that came to their aid when they needed it. So automatically it is that. Then you start asking them questions. Do you really want to shut the door behind you when someone else left if open for you? How did we all get here? Aren’t we all immigrants? (Unless you were a slave brought here against your will or your land was stolen from you, an ingenious person.) Then when you start asking tough questions, they are like, “Yeah, I guess so.” But I don’t think it is a unified voice. I think we have a long ways to go to get there.
EC: Besides politics are there other things that divide the community?
CN: I think just life maybe. Some folks are coming at it as, “I’m trying to survive here. Just want my kids to do well in school. Just keep my head down and do the work.” Other folks are more like, “No, change needs to happen.” So approach and philosophy are very different too. Some are just like, “Let’s just assimilate. Let’s just plug and play. Let’s not ask questions.” Then there are organizations like us, where we are going and we are beating our drums and we are asking tough questions. It puts us at this discord where they might go, “Why are you agitating? We’ve been able to get along so well. Why don’t we keep the peace? Don’t rock the boat.” So there’s that but it all comes back to politics.
JS: Are there individuals in the community who you look to for leadership and guidance?
CN: Of course. I think there are so many folks doing good work everywhere. Specifics? You want me to name folk? I think Oregon is a very special place. Where in America can an immigrant kid come not knowing a lick of English, be able to go through school, come out, create businesses, create jobs, and then also [ … ] I had the opportunity to intern downtown at legislature. That’s what got me into politics. Actually [it was] even before that. [Current] senator Lew Frederick was working for PPS and because my friends were getting shot down and I was student body president, I went to him and then he convened for us a monthly meeting with back then mayor Vera Katz. So we met as student leaders and said, “These are things that we are dealing with. This is what we need. This is what you can do.” The nature of Oregon politics, how open and accessible it is needs to be protected.
Kate Brown, she officiated mine and my ex-wife’s wedding. We’re two immigrant kids. She had a bunch of other more important things to do. But nonetheless she gave us an afternoon because our officiant at the last minute prayed on it and said that he couldn’t go through with it because God told him he couldn’t. We already paid him six months ago, yet somehow at the last minute he couldn’t go through with it. She was like, “That’s a really stupid reason. I’ll do it.” [Laughs] People like that. People who make tough calls and stand by what they feel is the right thing. There are so many. Really, those like Lew and governor Brown are the high profile. But I truly think it is the hidden heroes of everyday; the teachers, the nurses, the counselors that I mentioned before.
EC: Was there a lot of violence in your neighborhood growing up?
EC: Gang violence?
CN: It was either fighting in the hallways, gang violence right? Or just random drive-bys. Like you knew when to just duck. You just drop to the ground because there were just a lot of drive-bys. Back then, Madison was the most diverse high school in the state. By the time my little cousins went through it was David Douglas and the latest statistics that I’ve heard was East Beaverton, believe it or not. You can kind of see, as Portland grows and with it comes intentional growth. I hear of people saying, “I can buy a house cash for what would be a down payment in California.” I just don’t think the wealth is being shared. I think what we do is shift problems out and out and out. Then it causes other issues like transportation and congestion. People have to travel farther because they don’t have the luxury to be able to pick where they live.
AJ: I think those are all the questions that we had. Is there anything else that you would like to tell us or share with us?
CN: No I just really appreciate that you are doing this project. It really dovetails well with what we do when we say we center our work in organizing. Everytime that you can get a face to the number, a story behind these statistics. When you humanize than it is really tough to be able to make calls like, “It’s just part of a budget cut.” Well this is who you are cutting. So to be able to highlight folks’ stories -- centering the narrative. I’ll finish with this.
My seventh day on the job, we’ve never had to deal with complex immigration issues. 123 detained folks got dropped into Sheridan, a tiny little town. Funny fact, OFIR [Oregonians for Immigration Reform], the folks that are behind the Anti-Immigrant Bill happen to be in McMinnville. And guess where Sheridan is. Yamhill County. It’s my conspiracy theory [Laughs.] But on my seventh day it was one of those moments where I had to make that call. We’ve never done the work. We’ve never worked with the Indian immigrant group ever. But I looked to staff and I said, “Let’s do this.” If our work is so good, it is going to stand on its own two feet. They were so worried, we’re dealing with budget shortfall. Because of the crisis that we went through a lot of funders decided, “We can’t participate in funding you when you’re undergoing this investigation.” (Nothing was found to be credible by the way, so legally we are clear.) And I am still on my road tour to get out to tell folks, “Hey we’re still here, we are doing good work.” But that was a highlight, where I said, “When there is a need, go meet it.” No matter what people will see the value. As a result I was able to then continue funding someone’s position who would have been without a job because his funding source had run out. So what you see, this stack of goods out here, [motions to the boxes and piles of supplies outside the office] we partner with Innovation Law Lab who provided pro bono legal services to these refugees -- the majority of them have been found to have credible threats. Therefore they did the right thing by surrendering themselves at the border. And soon, in the next few weeks they will be released. All the stuff that you see has been an outpouring of faith based organizations of just random things because the doors are going to open and they are not going to have anything but what they had on their bodies during that time when they were taken in. The respite network.
Literally, that was day seven. Friday was my sixtieth day. I don’t know if there is more of a “Yes we need to exist and this is why.” To be able to kick off my road tour, to say that to funders and say that to community partner organizations. If you believe it, this is how effective we can be literally in sixty days. Rapid response in this crazy world of ours where things get kicked down the road from the federal level to state level, county, and now at the local level. It takes a village at every level to make change happen.
EC: Well thank you so much for speaking with us. We’ve been talking with Chi Nguyen on August 14th, 2018. Thanks again.