James Bui Builds the Peaceful Neighborhood
The National Association of Vietnamese American Service Agencies has devoted half its resources to Katrina recovery and helped launch a community development corporation at a church in predominantly Vietnamese Village de l'Est. This interview with James Dien Bui, the association's Gulf Coast manager, originally appeared in the December 1, 2006, AsianWeek.
Image: Beyond Black and White
Sara Catania

After Hurricane Katrina battered thousands of homes and businesses in the eastern New Orleans neighborhood of Village de L'est, the National Association of Vietnamese American Service Agencies devoted half of its resources to Katrina recovery, providing volunteers and staff and helping launch a community development corporation at Mary Queen of Vietnam, the church at the center of the neighborhood.

In August, Village de L'est celebrated a hard-fought victory when the city of New Orleans agreed to shut down a nearby landfill where it had been dumping toxic post-Katrina waste. James Dien Bui, Gulf Coast regional manager for NAVASA, talks about the area's post-hurricane challenges and an unprecedented effort to build a $60 million, 300-unit senior housing project there.

You've been involved in Vietnamese American community organizing for a long time. How has Katrina changed the work of these groups?
Two words: scale and exposure. Nonprofits don't generally do 300 units at a time. Something like 30 units would be more typical. For a newly formed group like the one at Mary Queen of Vietnam to take on something this big—in the Vietnamese American community that's unheard of.

What about exposure?
Katrina ... put community development in the Vietnamese community front and center. In the past there was a view of nonprofit work as charity work.

Was there a stigma?
Oh yeah. My mom is a good example. She thinks I should have become a priest because that's what priests do—charity work. If you talked about real estate development or creating jobs or housing for the poor, you'd hear, 'Shouldn't the government be doing that?' When we talk about civic engagement campaigns, it's not just, 'Get out the vote.' It's more about how do you raise the critical awareness in our language about politics, about defining our community.

"Internally, the biggest hurdle is making sure the core group we have now is sustained for at least five years. Katrina is going to fade. Funders won't be so eager. If we have a good core group and really solid projects I think the funding thing will work itself out."

So Katrina is effecting a paradigm shift?
Absolutely. One elder in the community went with us to meet the governor right after a landfill protest. He said, 'This thing needs to be shut down because I'm concerned about my health and it's going to decrease my property values. But most importantly, my kids won't come back.' Boom. He hit the nail on the head. This community will cease to exist because the landfill is there and he understood that. Contrast that with before Katrina, when his perception of the youth would have been, 'Study real hard in school, become a doctor and go and get a job somewhere.' Now it's like, 'If your kids come back, what kind of jobs are they going to have and what is our role in that?'

How hard will it be to sustain the momentum?
The slow-go, if you will, is to create community block groups. The working title is Khu Vuc Hhoa Binh, The Peaceful Neighborhood. Within these groups there can be clean-ups, planning sessions, garden groups, social groups—activities, which are related to the community piece, but also feed the talk and the dialogue.

What is your biggest challenge in achieving these ambitious goals?
Internally, the biggest hurdle is making sure the core group we have now is sustained for at least five years. Katrina is going to fade. Funders won't be so eager. If we have a good core group and really solid projects I think the funding thing will work itself out. The problem is timing. If you don't do it in the next two years or so, when all eyes are on New Orleans and the Gulf Coast, then it's going to be really, really hard. The external challenge is that with the national media, even among those who are interested in Katrina, there's a lot of inertia. Soon no one is going to give a crap about Katrina. That's the honest-to-goodness truth. It's not so much that I want you to care, or change your way of life. But I feel like the truth needs to be told. There's not enough truth out there about Katrina, in English print media and in Vietnamese media as well.

The total population of the Village de L'est area is only 10,000, out of 1.5 million Vietnamese Americans nationwide. Is it wise to expend so much of NAVASA's resources there?
NAVASA was able to increase its resources because of Katrina, so those resources rightly belong in the area affected by it. For the past few years, NAVASA has really committed to a community development model. Prior to that, it was an umbrella group for social services: ESL, citizenship classes, that sort of thing. In order to demonstrate our commitment to community development, we need to show that it can really happen. Katrina is the best place to showcase that. It's a community development model that can work across the country.

Originally published on December 1, 2006 in AsianWeek. Copyright © 2006 by AsianWeek. Reprinted with permission.