VietLead is a force to be reckoned with. Founded in 2015, this nonprofit organization—created to address inequities that Vietnamese American youth face in Philadelphia—has closely served the city's Southeast Asian community. By providing services that range from voter registration to student leadership programs, the organization gives a voice to a group of people who are often overlooked.
Because of Philadelphia's history of gentrification and cultural erasure of immigrants, VietLead has taken its community's problems into its own hands by tackling language barriers, offering legal support to immigrants, and helping people fill out the 2020 Census. Claire Nguyen (C ’22), a college organizer who's part of VietLead's Community Defense Campaign, explains the importance of the organization's purposeful and unfailing action within the community.
"These are all things that the community needs and has been asking for, in some way, shape, or form, so VietLead has built it,” Claire says. “Everything has really been built from the ground up, rooted in the community's needs, and empowering the community to build it together.”
In order to target a history of colonization, displacement, and war, VietLead operates under a "heal, resist, and grow" model. Claire notes that its "work is to heal from that, resist the continuation of oppression and violence that our communities face, and to grow and to nurture our community.”
One long–term challenge the organization has is ending deportations. “A lot of Southeast Asian refugees, who have been criminalized by the war on crime, the war on drugs, and the war on poverty, are now experiencing increased, heightened deportations,” Claire says. Under the Trump administration, there was a sharp increase in Vietnamese and Laotian deportations among both the documented and undocumented immigrant populations.
"These are people who came to the United States as refugees and who lost their green cards due to the process of being criminalized," says Claire. VietLead's Community Defense team helps with deportation case management and leads awareness campaigns.
After witnessing Tony Pham, a former Vietnamese refugee, become the acting director of United States Immigration and Customs Enforcement, refugee communities across the country, including VietLead, had to confront this betrayal. However, members of the nonprofit continue to do so with kindness “because we see our uncles in him, we see our fathers in him, [and] we see people in our community in him,” Claire says. “That is something we're constantly challenging—trying to meet the community where it's at, but also moving the community towards a place of liberation, towards a place of healing, resistance, [and] growth."
Besides VietLead's long–term agenda, the organization also addresses issues that local Vietnamese residents deal with in day–to–day life.
“When the pandemic was kicking off, we kept in contact with a lot of members in our base to ask if they needed any food support. If they did, we could bring them fresh food from the farm that VietLead has," says Julci Areza (C '21), an organizer for the Healthy Schools Campaign. "We asked about any sort of support or help that they needed. Trying to create a system of mutual aid is one of the main components [of VietLead].”
Although the nonprofit is targeted towards the Philly Vietnamese immigrant community, VietLead doesn't work in isolation. It rallied with community organizations and Philly residents in response to the Black Lives Matter Movement.
“Following the deaths of George Floyd, Tony McDade, and all the countless other folks, we've been trying to fight for the Philadelphia police budget to be reduced,” Claire says. “We're surveying community members to see where they would want to see money go, given that we know that in Philadelphia, there are several services that are terribly underfunded when the police budget is in the range of 600 to 700 million dollars.”
VietLead also works to address inequities in the Philly public school system, which often disproportionately harm the children of immigrants. Many schools suffer from poorly managed budgets, over–policing, and underfunding due to some of the city’s largest institutions, including Penn, failing to provide Payments in Lieu of Taxes (PILOTS). Julci feels that these disparities show "really clearly that immigrant populations are not a huge priority, and the city would rather give incentives to large corporations and developers.”
To combat this reality, VietLead works with Southeast Asian youth to develop their leadership skills.
“It’s very youth–centered work ... [We're] cultivating the leaders of tomorrow by having a lot of leadership development for the new interns,” Julci explains. “You can definitely see their growth. Whether that’s just their ability to facilitate an event or discussion or their political knowledge and consciousness, it really shows.”
Some of these student leaders from VietLead are now joining the Penn community. Christina Ly (C '25) and Peter Keo (C '25) have been a part of VietLead since its early days and are now in the Class of 2025.
Christina and Peter have always been passionate about targeting inequity in their community, and they found a home in VietLead. “Everyone feeling comfortable sharing the vulnerable parts of themselves and what they’ve been through makes me feel a whole lot less alone,” Christina says. “It’s definitely a place where I not only feel tolerated but also celebrated.”
“It really has provided a unique experience for me to not only grow but reflect and heal from all of the hurt that I’ve experienced all of my life,” says Peter. “It feels like a second family to me because at VietLead, they all have the same passions and interests, so I don’t feel like I have to burden them with my experiences alone. We share it."
VietLead members don't have to be Vietnamese immigrants from Philadelphia to contribute to the cause. Claire and Julci are not from the local Vietnamese community—but they believe in the organization's mission.
“I'm very conscious of the space that I take in VietLead," Claire says. "I know that it's not about me. It's about Philadelphia, and it's about the Southeast Asian community in Philadelphia.” She hopes to help Penn students recognize the shelter of the Penn bubble. She's passionate about reminding students of privilege, the importance of giving back to the greater Philadelphia community, and the fact that there is a danger of being "complicit in a lot of the harm that Penn enacts on the Philadelphia community.”
Julci echoes Claire's call to action. “I want students to think very critically about the organizations that they’re involved in and how they’re spending their time at Penn,” she says. “It’s really important to think about how Penn influences the communities that it takes space from. I would encourage people to use that privilege to advocate for PILOTs and ending the 10–year tax abatement."
In both their work at Penn and in VietLead, students hope to motivate people to care more about others and build a better future for South Asian immigrants in Philly. But they also recognize that these goals can be overwhelming.
“I think with organizing, it's really easy to feel very heavy with all that you're dealing with all of the time because the labor of all of the things you need to fix is so tremendous. There have been a lot of losses, and there have been a lot of victories," Claire says. "But what I think that is really galvanizing for me is knowing that, if you show up and can commit to it, you can institute change, even at very small levels. I see the window of opportunity, and I also see the larger picture. And once you see it, you can't unsee it. You just want to keep going at it.”