There are few people I distinguish as heroic. When I met Daniel Nguyen and the Mary Queen of Vietnam Community Community Development Corp. (MQVN CDC) team in October 2013, I was humbled by their dedication to community health, economic opportunity and environmental sustainability.
To address food quality, safety, accessibility and environmental impact for the Vietnamese community in New Orleans in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina and the Deepwater Horizon (BP) oil spill, the MQVN CDC deployed unique methods to advance community health and cultivate economic rehabilitation.
They carry out their work with an uncommon business structure and immense sincerity to the people they serve. They are true social engineers, and I’m fortunate to share their story and ask for your help in supporting them.
Daniel Nguyen is a true hero to his community. Daniel works as a project manager with MQVN CDC in New Orleans East. His work encompasses workforce development, environmental justice and incubation of aquaponics and sustainable agriculture. He is currently the project director of the start-up enterprise VEGGI Farmer’s Cooperative. VEGGI Farmer’s Cooperative serves to improve family economic security, promote sustainable agriculture and create local sustainable jobs, as well as provide workforce development in the Vietnamese community of Village de l’Est. Nguyen has also worked extensively in the Gulf region after the 2010 BP oil drilling disaster, providing technical assistance to affected workers, leading community-based participatory research on the environmental impacts of the spill and helping to develop a campaign for Gulf-wide subsistence compensation.
The New Orleans East population faces high levels of poverty, lack of food access, economic loss and lack of language access. Over 60 percent of New Orleans East households reported total income as less $25,000 in 2009. Segments of New Orleans East, including Village de l’Est, are designated USDA food deserts — areas with limited access to major grocery stores. Opportunities for Vietnamese-owned businesses are limited due to lack of language access to business development resources. The Vietnamese community was also devastated by the Deepwater Horizon oil spill, as 1 in 3 in the community worked in the seafood industry.
Since 2011, the VEGGI Farmer’s Cooperative has leased 3.5 acres and trained 12 farmers. In 2015, the program will increase to 15 farmers, expand the scale of produce production and establish tofu and soymilk production and distribution to regional markets.
In a recent online interview, Daniel spoke to me about his work and what his community needs to thrive.
Rhianna Taniguchi: Why are you personally invested in your work?
Daniel Nguyen: I am personally invested in this organization because I believe that food production is at the crux of human survival, and our society is headed in a direction where food production no longer honors the environment and the people who work the land and who consume the food. I believe that we must imagine a different way to produce food to sustain and nourish our bodies. I also believe that we must imagine a different economic system, and I believe that the cooperative model, which gives power back to the workers, is a viable alternative.
Taniguchi: How does your work relate to health? Why is that important?
Nguyen: We believe that individual health is tied to the health of the community and that an unhealthy community context makes it difficult or impossible for individuals to be healthy. Our community is home to three landfills, over 30 auto junkyards, 13 dumpsites and a major industrial corridor with industries producing emissions daily. In addition, our community is a food desert and lacks access to healthy, affordable produce and foods to be able to lead a healthy lifestyle. With this context in mind, we believe that by promoting local, sustainable agriculture through a community cooperative model, we can address the food access issue. In addition, we believe that health can’t be solved solely by providing access to more healthy produce, but must also be combined with community education and outreach. We recently launched a Health Is Wealth program in order to organize community members around health as it pertains to diet, exercise and home while using a culturally relevant lens and putting individual health in the context of community circumstance.
Taniguchi: What are some of the challenges that you’ve faced as an organization?
Nguyen: Access to capital — specifically, farmland. Our success in regards to job creation and food access depends on the ability to grow, which is dependent on available space.
Taniguchi: Why should JACL be invested in your work and success?
Nguyen: We are constantly advocating for the rights and benefits of AAPI farmers nationally. These farmers are often left out of the national discussion in regards to farming benefits and rights.
Taniguchi: What goals do you have moving forward as an organization?
Nguyen: We intend to expand our growing capacity and thus begin to increase our job creation potential. In addition, we want to expand our tofu- and soymilk-making operation to begin to supply to national grocery chains. We also want to expand our community programs, specifically Food Justice Collective and Health Is Wealth.
Taniguchi: What do you need to achieve these goals?
Nguyen: We need access to more land and additional technical assistance regarding agricultural and cooperative taxes.
Taniguchi: Who are some of the partners you’ve worked with or that you are working with now?
Nguyen: We have partnerships with other entities such as Kids Rethink New Orleans Schools, Oxfam America, Asian Pacific Islander American Health Forum, USDA, etc.
Taniguchi: How are you engaging youth?
Nguyen: The Food Justice Collective is a partnership between Kids Rethink New Orleans (Rethink) and VEGGI Farmer’s Cooperative that aims to build a multiracial youth organizer cohort to deepen understanding and intersect histories of oppression in relationship to land and ownership of food systems. VEGGI and Rethink aim to develop bonds of solidarity and shared understanding of past experiences that influence our present situation in relation to access to food. This cohort will build both knowledge and skills in horticulture, money management and cooperative economics and other alternative forms of economies as they manage farm plots, participate in marketing and distribution and revive other forms of connection to land (i.e., medicinal remedies). Through this collective effort, youth will engage in intergenerational organizing with growers, community members and other prominent educators in order to unpack concealed histories and build up long-term practices of self-determination. This proposed project contributes to VEGGI’s work by connecting young people from New Orleans and New Orleans East toward increasing local food access, job creation and promoting sustainable agriculture through intergenerational organizing.
Taniguchi: What informal education techniques do you use?
Nguyen: We engage in consensus and democratic decision making and therefore engage in a lot of education around cooperative dynamics and organizational dynamics.
Taniguchi: What is something you’re proud of personally?
Nguyen: We have grown from one staff member to five and from engaging four young people per summer to over 14 multilingual young people for an entire year. We started from backyard scale agriculture to now farming over two acres with commercial tofu and soymilk production.
Taniguchi: How are you engaging the Asian American community?
Nguyen: We are based in one of the most-concentrated Vietnamese communities in Louisiana and thus engage this community by recruiting Vietnamese member growers into the cooperative and recruiting Vietnamese young people to participate in our Food Justice Collective.
Taniguchi: How is this a social justice issue?
Nguyen: This is a social justice issue because especially for Southeast Asians, we do not fit the model minority myth and face many racial and economic injustices. Therefore, it is crucial to build programs and opportunities that support genuine community self-determination.
MQVN Community Development Corporation is currently seeking pro-bono tax specialists, lawyers, public health specialists and a website designer. Submit your resume and a brief description of how you can contribute to MQVN by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org by April 30.
Rhianna Taniguchi is an aspiring social engineer from Hawaii. She currently works for Girl Scouts in Washington, D.C., and was the 2014 JACL Norman Y. Mineta Fellow.