Minh Nguyen campaigned for environmental justice in his community after Katrina. In the years since, he and his group VAYLA have expanded their mission.
Hurricane Katrina drove Minh Nguyen out of New Orleans, but the fight for environmental justice brought him home.
In the wake of the August 2005 storm, Loyola University New Orleans cancelled all classes, and Nguyen left for Los Angeles to continue his studies there. The student activist returned to Loyola the following January to complete his degree, and stayed near school, unable to bear the destruction wreaked on Village de l'Est, also known as Versailles, the heart of the city's Vietnamese community in eastern New Orleans.
"It was sad for me to go back," Nguyen says. "The house I lived in with my grandparents—after Katrina, there was nothing, just studs. All my stuff was gone."
Then his cousin called him about a new threat imperiling the neighborhood: dump trucks rolling in, piled high with tons of storm debris.
The canal, which bordered the wildlife refuge of Bayou Sauvage, also pumped into the Intracoastal Waterway where fisherfolk like Nguyen's parents had earned their livelihood.
A group convened at the Mary Queen of Vietnam Catholic church to come up with ideas on how to mobilize and get youth involved—as Nguyen had as a teenager.
Back then, a nun at the church had asked Nguyen to help represent youth in the congregation. He still doesn't know why she singled him out, but it led him to take leadership roles in high school and in college, where he pushed for greater representation of Asian Americans in the courses and on faculty.
Many of the Village de l'Est Vietnamese were refugees who had fled war in their homeland. Now the community would now have to stand together against the dump. In May 2006, Nguyen founded the Vietnamese American Young Leaders of New Orleans (VAYLA-NO), joining the church's congregation and pastor, Vien Nguyen, and environmental groups in a coalition that also crossed racial lines.
Minh Nguyen, then 21, and other teen organizers met with city council members, state senators, and Congressional representatives—the first time he'd ever lobbied public officials.
Yoojin Janice Lee, a community organizer and leadership coach who helped strategize on the campaign, praised VAYLA's efforts at that time in the Asian American Policy Review. "The youth's energy, English-speaking ability, and compelling stories … were crucial contributions," she wrote. Not all of their parents could speak English, and even if they could, they were busy working or rebuilding their homes and businesses, which left planning much of the activism to the young.
Protests followed, converging on City Hall and later at the Chef Menteur landfill. Activists were battling business heavyweights while these companies were competing for lucrative disposal fees. According to the Times-Picayune, entities linked to a rival of Waste Management—the dump's operator—donated $20,000 to Mayor Nagin and $25,000 to his competitor during the tightly-contested run-off election.
In August 2006, Mayor Nagin did not extend the zoning waiver, and the landfill closed. Eventually, it would be capped with dirt and monitored for environmental impact.
After that victory, VAYLA continued to mobilize. When the group pushed to reopen the high school in the neighborhood, by raising public awareness and talking to the city council, it found allies within the African American community. "We all wanted the same thing. There wasn't a race issue," says Nguyen, who is now 29 and the nonprofit's executive director.
As the city's Latino population boomed post-Katrina, VAYLA also began working on issues of language access in schools and helping relocate unaccompanied minors from abroad. Today, VAYLA has a multiracial staff of seven and a diverse clientele. It still focuses on community organizing, but also on health (counseling, peer-to-peer support groups) and education (tutoring, filling out financial aid forms, ESL classes), and it organizes social and cultural events.
As another election approaches, VAYLA is working hard to turn out the vote. Nguyen is especially proud of its ongoing voter registration campaign, which has signed up 1,500 people over the years, nearly doubling the number of voters in Village de l'Est—an effort sparked during the dump crisis by a conversation Nguyen had with a noted public interest attorney.
The landfill ended up in Village de l'Est because the Vietnamese lacked power, the attorney said.
"What do you mean, 'power?'" Nguyen had asked.
"They say you guys don't vote."
"We can change that," Nguyen told him. Years later, "every politician and candidate looks to our community, every election time."