Vu Le is either the funniest or humblest community activist ever.
When told that a story about him was being written, the Executive Director of the Vietnamese Friendship Association (VFA) quipped, “If this is going to be about my accomplishments, then it’s going to be a short article.”
On May 19, Le will receive the Tatsuo Nakata Youth Award at the International Examiner’s 19th Annual Community Voice Awards. Named for the young Chief of Staff to former City Councilman David Della, the honor is given to those demonstrating exemplary community service, while under 30 years-old. Like Le, Nakata was passionate about activism —until an accident took Nakata’s life in 2006, at 29 years-old.
Born in the countryside near Saigon, Le arrived in the U.S. with his family when he was eight years-old. Their first home was Philadelphia where Le’s strongest visual memory is seeing snow for the first time. The family later left for Seattle and Le attended Shorewood Elementary and Cascade Middle schools. Then the family moved again, to Memphis.
“It was pretty awful,” Le says. “I was one of only a handful of Asian kids at the high school. Plus, people in Memphis love barbecue and Elvis. I’m vegan and I didn’t like Elvis.”
Vu earned a B.A. in psychology at Washington University in St. Louis, and a Masters in social work, but was ambivalent about the city.
“Missouri was marginally better than Memphis,” he says.
At Washington University, Le started a vegetarian’s union that advocated better food for student “plant-eaters”—demanding soy nuggets, fake bacon and soymilk in the campus food courts.
While his family moved back to Seattle, Le decided to travel and live in Vietnam for a year.
“I wanted to practice my Vietnamese and develop my skills in international social work,” he explains.
Le also taught English and volunteered for an organization that helped Amerasian children of Vietnamese and Anglo-American parents who were abandoned by families migrating to America.
“Every day, Amerasians came to the embassy and asked to be allowed to come to the U.S.,” Le remembers.
After returning to Seattle, he joined the National Alliance of Vietnamese American Service Agencies (NAVASA), an organization providing capacity-building for smaller groups in the U.S. He was assigned to the Vietnamese Friendship Association in 2005.
During his first year, Le and NAVASA staff assessed the board and internal infrastructure of the organization, and developed a strategic plan for the next three years. After submitting to funders like the Gates Foundation, United Way and the City of Seattle, the VFA blossomed and has developed into a leading Vietnamese social service agency in Seattle.
Under Le’s leadership over the last five years, the VFA has tripled its staff, works intergenerationally with Vietnamese community members and is now leading a $100,000 research project about the Seattle Vietnamese community. The research, called the CARE project (Community Action Research and Empowerment) will study and develop a comprehensive analysis of the Vietnamese community in order to better gauge and serve its needs. It’s a huge undertaking, but Le remains humble and appreciative.
“I can’t take a lot of the credit for this,” he says. “It was a huge team effort,” Le says of VFA’s projects.
In the past five years, the staff has built programs focused on youth and families with a vision towards helping young leaders become more engaged with the Vietnamese community.
Asked to list his mentors, Le declines at the risk of omitting anyone.
“I don’t think anyone actually encouraged me to go into social work,” said Le. ”The parents were actively against it! But once I got here, I met some amazing people who have been teaching me everything — leaders of other non-profits, community activists, teachers, and case managers, people who are often not recognized for their work.”
The Examiner is happy to recognize Vu Le for his.
Join the country’s only non-profit Pan-Asian American news organization in honoring our community’s unsung heroes: Outstanding Organization – the Asian Pacific Islander Community Leadership Foundation (ACLF); Vu Le who is earning the Tatsuo Nakata Youth Award; Cassie Chinn who is honored for her work at the Wing Luke Asian Museum; and Sharon Maeda for the Lifetime Achievement Award. These deserving individuals are testament to the on-going sacrifice and courage it takes to preserve a people, uplift its community and advocate for its needs. The IE shares in this celebration and hope you’ll join us in this month of May which serves as APA Heritage Month – a time of commemoration and honor. Purchase Tickets Here