Inaugural Leadership for Public Purpose Dinner with Tram Nguyen

Leadership for Public Purpose Dinner

Posted in News Story

By Nile Blass (COL 2022)

On October 23, 2019, the McCourt School’s Center for Public and Nonprofit Leadership (CPNL) hosted its first “Leadership for Public Purpose” student dinner. The Center’s Director, Dr. Kathy Kretman, opened the conversation: “We want to introduce our students to public interest advocates and movement builders on the ground and across the country. We want our students to learn what motivates individuals to turn their passion for social justice into careers and what sustains them for the long haul, despite the roadblocks along the way. We are thrilled that a passionate advocate like Tram Nguyen could take part in our inaugural dinner of the series.”

On the breadth of Tram’s leadership, Tamara Copeland, a Visiting Practitioner at CPNL, remarked that, “Since meeting Tram Nguyen, I have been impressed by her passion, her strategic thinking and her leadership in engaging those who truly are the new Virginia majority. I am delighted that she was the inaugural speaker for Leadership for Public Purpose.”

If you were to ask someone ten years ago to name an epicenter of important political action, the town of Richmond would not have been mentioned. However, as 2020 nears, the pivotal role Virginia will play in our nation’s future is undeniable. Like many states, Virginia has seen major shifts in racial and cultural demographics, creating an entirely new environment where politicians must compete for the votes of diverse communities. Tram Nguyen’s family was one of many immigrant families to move to Virginia in 1981, as refugees of the Vietnam War. As one of the few Asian children in her community, Nguyen was a victim of racial prejudice and discrimination from both teachers and classmates. The advice of her parents and trusted adults was often that she simply “keep her head down” and make herself smaller to avoid attention. However, she found through her activism that, “If we keep our heads down, we never make change.”

Tram Nguyen’s work in advocacy and public service has ranged from securing resources for communities devastated by national disasters with Boat People SOS to working alongside congresspeople to draft policies that protect our country’s most vulnerable populations. In 2008, alongside other activists in the state of Virgina, Nguyen founded New Virginia Majority with a single grant and a leap of faith. The organization was designed to politically mobilize and empower Virginian communities that had been marginalized and sidelined by the party establishment. For Nguyen, change didn’t come from just protesting and taking to the streets, but through electoral organizing that emphasized the power of the voting booth. They successfully primaried incumbents who no longer voted in the interest of Virginia’s more vulnerable communities and gained a platform to communicate with party leadership that would typically ignore grassroots movements. The concerted efforts of the team resulted in several major victories. After more than six and a half years of lobbying, Medicaid coverage was expanded for 400,000 people in Virginia. After nine years of advocating for rights restoration for returning Americans who had been incarcerated, a 2016 executive order by the governor reinstated thousands of voters — voters with an informed interest in issues like criminal justice, bail bonds and prosecutorial office races.

Even with these successes, Nguyen has had to cope with the harsh reality of political organizing and the sluggish pace at which progress is achieved. When asked how to maintain the energy of a coalition without quick and immediate wins, she asserted, “It’s incredibly hard and sometimes you lose people along the way. You keep going to meetings and talking, but there’s still no movement. However, we have to think about defining success. While that may be a bill, it can also be winning over the hearts and minds of committee chairs who can help your cause in the future. You must identify success along the way while feeling good about the progressive movement forward, even when it is incremental. Sometimes it’s as simple as pointing out the packed room at your latest town hall. You have to find those hopeful moments.”

Like much of the country, Virginia is facing an election that will determine which direction the state takes. Will it move forward toward a more equitable community or back toward a less inclusive time? Virginia is an indicator of how intensely the public is engaged and paying attention, with a lot riding on its upcoming elections. In closing the dinner, the most important questions were those posed by Nguyen to event attendees, asking each of us to define ourselves as social advocates. What is it that we value, as individuals and as communities? What are the solutions to the problems we face and the action required to make them possible? And what is the cost of us choosing to keep our heads down?

A recent Op-Ed in the New York Times by Tram Nguyen can be accessed here.