Tuyet Le

"The whole idea is to have a larger voice in civil rights and justice issues," says Tuyet Le of the push to unite Americans of Asian descent. "We want it to be a well-recognized name around the country. We already work closely together and have the same values." (Heather Charles/Tribune photo)

In many ways, Asian-Americans have done remarkably well in achieving the American dream of going to college, working at a good job and earning a nice living.

   Take Tuyet Le, who came to the United States as a Vietnamese refugee when she was 3 years old. She overcame polio and modest means to attend Northwestern University. She joined a struggling nonprofit organization and turned it into a leading voice for the Asian-American community in Chicago.

   By all accounts, the 39-year-old Le would be the poster child for the "model minority," a label that portrays Asian-Americans as well-educated, affluent and universally successful. But Le has spent most of her career educating people that the stereotype works against the community.

   Although some fit the profile, she said, Asian-Americans remain significantly underrepresented in politics, experience discrimination and need public services, such as bilingual education.

   "Success in America is not only defined in financial terms, but in self-determination and political power," Le said.

   "In those respects, our community still has a long way to go. No one seems to assume that having some successful members of the Latino or African-American community means that everyone is doing well in that community and their benefits should be cut."

   As executive director of the Asian American Institute, Le is among a new generation of Asian-American leaders in Chicago advocating for a diverse population of 147,000 that includes Chinese, Koreans, Japanese, Southeast Asians and South Asians. The institute's focus on a cohesive pan-Asian policy sets it apart from organizations providing community services. It tackles big, complex issues such as immigration reform, affirmative action and redistricting, to counter systemic discrimination.

   No matter the issue, Le charges ahead as an outspoken voice, not afraid to take on the city's sacred cows -- or political leaders. When Rahm Emanuel was the only mayoral candidate absent in February from a North Side forum for Asian-American voters, Le called him out for ignoring the community.

   People across Chicago's Asian-American community stand behind her.

   "She is tireless in bringing our groups together; I admire that," said C.W. Chan, chair of the Coalition of a Better Chinese American Community. "I primarily focus on the Chinese-American community, and even within our community we are very diverse. So she has quite a challenge."

   Said Ngoan Le (no relation), vice president of program at the Chicago Community Trust: "I think the issues she speaks to, she cares very deeply about. It's very personal to her. It's not academic."

   Sima Qureshi, executive director of the Muslim Women's Resource Center, said: "She's very strong. You have to be strong to be an Asian woman."

   Le will count on that support as the Asian American Institute transitions to a new identity next year when it turns 20 years old. It will become the Asian American Center for Advancing Justice, the collective name for a coalition of four groups that became partners in 2005. They include the Asian American Justice Center in Washington, the Asian Pacific American Legal Center in Los Angeles and the Asian Law Caucus in San Francisco.

   "The whole idea is to have a larger voice in civil rights and justice issues," Le said. "We want it to be a well-recognized name around the country. We already work closely together and have the same values."

   Although the coalition partners bring high-impact lawsuits, the institute is known for community-level organizing. Le regularly convenes meetings with Asian community groups and makes it a point to attend an endless stream of receptions and cultural events. Le does not have a policy background; she was an art major in college.

   "It's my job to know what's going on in the community," she said.

   The partnership, though, has already paid dividends to the institute. In the fiscal year that ended June 30, 2010, the Asian American Justice Center gave the institute more than $250,000 to help with census outreach. The institute parceled out the money to community groups that went door-to-door translating census paperwork and encouraging Asian-Americans to fill out the forms.

   The affiliation also attracted an anonymous donor to give the institute $300,000 last year; the same donor gave the organization a four-year grant of $2 million starting in 2011. The new funding allowed the institute to triple its annual budget, to $1 million, and increase its staff to 12.

   When Le joined the organization in 1999, as executive director, she was the only staff member, and its biggest event was an annual film festival. Now, it is defined by its social-justice mission.