• Nguyen at Long Beach Poly High School, her alma mater, where she now teaches ethnic studies

  • Nguyen and other anti-SEA deportation advocates at Capital Hill (2018)

From filmmaking to grassroots organizing, Lan Nguyen, a UCLA Asian American studies M.A. alumna, works to strengthen working-class power and challenge stigmas.

By Kitty Hu (UCLA, 2020)

"My experience at UCLA in the Asian American studies department was the first time that I had mentors and professors who had similar upbringings to my own," says Lan Nguyen, who recently completed her M.A. in Asian American studies. Nguyen also received a 2018–2019 FLAS Fellowship from the UCLA Center for Southeast Asian Studies, which allowed her the flexibility to pursue more courses about Southeast Asia.

Despite having graduated, she continues to maintain relationships with her professors. "That form of mentorship was something that I didn’t even know I could get," she comments.

Roots in Organizing

Nguyen moved to Los Angeles after finishing her undergraduate studies at Northwestern University, hoping to organize within the Vietnamese community. That goal led her to VietUnity, a group of progressive Vietnamese organizers, a journey that taught Nguyen about deportations for the first time.

"I saw a lot of parallels… growing up as a child of refugees in a low-income neighborhood where there were really high rates of crime and policing," she says. "It just felt like my community was under attack."

Her work on the ground reflected many of the Asian American histories and realities that she was learning about at UCLA at the time. "It felt so daunting that there were so many systems against minorities," she shares.

In her organizing work, Nguyen made a number of friends who were formerly incarcerated and at risk for deportation. Many quickly became like family. "All these people who are my friends are the most compassionate and big-hearted people I know. I wanted others who may not be in community with formerly incarcerated folks to see what I see. That’s when I sought out to create a film to change the stigma," she explains.

Filmmaking for social justice

In lieu of a written thesis for her M.A., Nguyen proposed making a documentary. The resulting short film, "Fighting for Family," looks at a family from an indigenous tribe of Vietnam separated by deportation, following Chuh and Rex as they navigate the emotional and logistical toll of raising a family apart while fighting for Chuh’s return to the United States.

Nguyen has hosted numerous screenings of the documentary at schools, festivals and community organizations. One screening for an audience with very few people of color particularly echoes in her mind. It was eye-opening, she says, to see an audience whose political ideologies and life experiences likely differ from hers agree that "the story is heartbreaking and what’s happening is horrible."

Her first introduction to documentary filmmaking came from Professor Renee Tajima-Peña’s EthnoCommunications class. Nguyen had always been interested in storytelling, especially when it comes to stories of injustice, but had been criticized for being too emotionally connected to people she reported on as part of her journalism classes during her undergraduate studies.

"How could I write about poverty and not be attached to the issue, having grown up poor myself?" she asked. Although Nguyen eventually switched her focus from journalism to education and Asian American studies, she never lost her passion for visual storytelling.

"I think that the power of filmmaking is that people can, across political spectrums, feel the same emotions, anger and the need to take action," she comments.

Building Power

Today, Nguyen spends her day between teaching ethnic studies to high school students as part of a program under CSU Long Beach and her full-time job as communications manager for Asian American and Pacific Islanders for Civic Empowerment Education Fund (AAPI FORCE-EF), a coalition that works with grassroots organizations to build the political power of working-class Asian Americans.

In the classroom, she often discusses serious topics such as police brutality and different forms of injustice. "Walking my students through the history and teaching them about oppression makes them really sad," she admits. "She now intentionally incorporates more positive elements into her teaching, such as examples of people rising up to gain rights and joining in solidarity with other communities.

At AAPI FORCE-EF, Nguyen applies what she teaches her students: she utilizes storytelling as a tool for mobilization and to enhance Southeast Asian representation across California.

"You can’t mobilize people without telling stories," she notes, "so framing the narrative around a movement is really critical to getting people to engage and participate."

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Published: Monday, May 18, 2020