community organizers

Posted: August 28, 2011
By: Clay Cerny

[“Sabbath” is Career Calling’s Sunday feature on different types of work.]

Building a Community – and Saving It

Last week I had the pleasure to view a documentary entitled A Village Called Versailles.  It tells the story of the Vietnamese American community that lives in the eastern part of New Orleans, which is called Versailles. This lowland area was flooded when the levees broke following Hurricane Katrina.  Like others groups in the city, the Vietnamese American community was dispersed to Houston, Baton Rouge, and other cities. What makes them different is how they responded to the disaster.

99% of the community returned toVersailles and rebuilt their homes.  They washed clothes and ate outside while gutting homes and replacing roofs.  They planned to open new community centers and make their neighborhoods even stronger.  Then a second disaster occurred.  Against the vote of the City Council, the Mayor of New Orleans decided to put a large landfill near Versailles.  The waste would included toxic materials, which would pollute waters and the crops grown locally.

The community developed leaders in a parish priest and young activists to stand up against the mayor and his corporate partners.  They protested at City Hall and organized a blockade at the gate of the dump site.  The mayor backed down, and the people of Versailles protected their community.

 The film was inspiring as was the appearance Minh Nguyen, the founder of the Vietnamese American Young Leaders Association -New Orleans (VAYLA - NO).  Mr. Nguyen is only in his mid-20s, but he played a key role in the campaign to block the landfill.  Since that time he has built an organization to support youth and provide services for young people.  He discussed the new challenges the area faces after last year’s oil spill.  The Vietnamese American community has many fishermen, which means that they have been impacted by the spill.  Nguyen approaches this problem as he does everything else – in a spirit of optimism and common sense.  The people of Versailleshave faced other challenges and endured.  With the leadership of young people like Minh Nguyen, there is no reason to think they will not build an even stronger community.

 This event was put on by the Chicago Chapter of the Japanese American Citizen League, which has helped its New Orleans Chapter and other groups in the city.  We often ignore how groups like JACL help us all when they serve our neighbors.  Community does not build itself.  It takes leaders and people who are committed to solving problems.  Their work deserves our respect and recognition.