by Ben Young Landis
In 2005 and 2010, a Vietnamese community was faced with back-to-back environmental disasters: a severe tropical cyclone that flooded towns and farms, followed by a toxic spill that halted the fishing industry and polluted the local coastline.
But this community was not in Vietnam. Rather, it was one of the many neighborhoods in New Orleans, Louisiana, that reeled to rebuild after Hurricane Katrina and the Deepwater Horizon oil rig explosion.
“It’s the kind of community where as a kid, if you walk hand-in-hand with your new girlfriend, everyone finds out right away,” laughed Tuan Nguyen, Executive Director of the Mary Queen of Viet Nam Community Development Corporation (MQVN CDC), a local nonprofit that advocated for and organized Vietnamese-Americans in both recovery efforts. “It’s very, very tight-knit, everyone knows each other, and we’ve retained the culture — these are the things I love the most about our community.”
Nguyen is one of more than 14,000 Vietnamese-Americans living in New Orleans East, where thousands of refugee families settled after fleeing war-torn Vietnam in the 1970’s. Many found work in the seafood industry, as shrimp shellers and oyster shuckers. Others set up subsistence farms in their backyards, growing Vietnamese vegetables for themselves and selling the excess to neighbors.
Their reliance on the land and sea made the double-whammy disasters in 2005 and 2010 particularly devastating for this tight-knit community of refugees and their descendants. But their response — a combination of individual effort, community-led programs, and strategic partnerships with experts — makes New Orleans’ Vietnamese-American community a model of resilience.
Matching Local Strengths with Academic Advice
Each disaster impacted the community in its own way. Katrina devastated infrastructure, and while the self-reliant, cooperative spirit of the Vietnamese community meant they were able to rebuild homes quickly on their own, businesses and storefronts were slower to revive. And while the oil spill spared residences, it disrupted fisheries and coastal jobs — circumstances that severed the community’s main economic lifeline altogether.
Enter the MQVN CDC, which draws its name from a Catholic church central to New Orleans’ Vietnamese community. Founded in the aftermath of Katr
ina by local pastor Father Vien Nguyen, and a community member, Mary Tran, the organization was designed to provide support wherever the community encountered hurdles that were beyond the reach of homegrown talents and resources. It quickly became a key link between Vietnamese-American residents and outside partners in academia and the business community.
The list of the community’s outside partners is long and diverse. When one particular business corridor struggled to bring back commerce after Katrina, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology assessed opportunities for upgrading building façades to draw in shoppers; the implemented plan quickly dominoed and was adopted by another corridor.
Reviving food production after the devastation of subsistence farms was another key challenge, which the MQVN CDC sought to solve with an urban farm that could unite backyard growers into a more organized cooperative. The organization drew architecture expertise from Tulane University, Louisiana State University and local firms to design the farm. They also consulted with the University of Hawaii and private companies to explore the potential for aquaponics — systems that integrate vegetable production with fish cultivation. And Delgado Community College collaborated on a train-the-trainers curriculum to help bilingual speakers teach farming and aquaculture methods to residents who only spoke Vietnamese.
These efforts eventually culminated into the VEGGI Farmers Cooperative, a thriving urban farm with greenhouse and aquaponics facilities. “It’s doing really well,” said Nguyen. “Members of the co-op get to own and manage what is being grown.”
Nguyen sees opportunities to transfer lessons learned from the VEGGI experience to improve backyard subsistence farming practices community-wide. “At VEGGI, farmers create their own compost. They use no fertilizers,” he explained. “But the older generations doing backyard farming still use fertilizers and pesticides, which can leach into local waterways. So we need to figure out how to reduce this use. And there are other ideas as well, like exploring how to adapt the banks of local canals into terraced gardens.”
The community also partnered with Johns Hopkins University, which provided a student team to help VEGGI find ways to reach new markets. “They did a wonderful job, looking at how local restaurants and chefs can source the produce that was being grown in the community,” said Nguyen. “We had twelve head chefs visit our elders to see what was being grown on the ground, and tasted these specialty foods used in Vietnamese cuisine. The business study allowed us to take advantage of this niche market and more of the local buying market, not only for the produce [but] for the commercial fisheries, as well.”
Not all of the technical expertise behind these economic recovery efforts comes from outsiders. Nguyen is also grateful for colleagues such as Daniel Nguyen, project manager for the VEGGI farm, who holds a degree in biology from the University of California, San Diego. “Daniel’s our in-house geek,” smiled Tuan Nguyen. “He’s definitely the person to talk to about the opportunities and needs that researchers can collaborate with us on.” Other VEGGI team members have backgrounds in marketing, environment, geography and psychology.
A Message for Collaborators
In VEGGI and numerous other community development projects, Tuan Nguyen has seen what works when outside experts seek to engage his community—and what doesn’t.
Cultural sensitivity is key, he says, especially with elderly residents who aren’t fluent in English and retain cultural contexts from their region of birth. Having a community organization such as the MQVN CDC can be extremely helpful in bridging the gap.
The main lesson, according to Nguyen, is simple: work with your community partners first.
Proposals drafted without community input can sometimes miss the mark with regard to local nuances and needs. “We sometimes have researchers come in with a grant in hand, with their plans already written,” said Nguyen. “And we would have to say, ‘why do we need this project?’”
“Come to them beforehand,” explained Nguyen. “Talk to them while it’s in the planning stage, not after the fact.” He cites one example where a university wanted to conduct water sampling after the oil spill, but seemed oblivious to local resources. So the MQVN CDC suggested the researchers employ area fishermen, familiar with the waters, to help with sampling. “And it worked,” Nguyen explained; the collaboration allowed researchers to benefit from local knowledge, while boosting local livelihoods.
That type of collaboration and mutual benefit is what the MQVN CDC is all about. Bringing science and community action together to produce practical solutions has sustained New Orleans’ Vietnamese-American community, allowing it to bounce back from disaster — and prepare for whatever is ahead.
Ben Young Landis is a freelance science communicator and a contributing writer for Creative Science Writing and the Thriving Earth Exchange.
More stories on this topic:
A Village Called Versailles: a documentary about activism by New Orleans’ Vietnamese-American community to stop a toxic landfill from being built near their homes
President Obama Celebrates Asian American & Pacific Islander Heritage Month: An article and video about President Obama honoring Father Vien of the Mary Queen of Viet Nam Church
New Orleans Viet Community: A news video highlighting the work of the Mary Queen of Viet Nam Church in rebuilding after Hurricane Katrina