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.
"I have never done a film festival," Le said.
One issue the group is working on is the redrawing of ward maps in Chicago. Le would like to make sure that wards with sizable concentrations of Asian-Americans, including the 50th Ward, in Rogers Park, remain that way.
Le has a compelling personal story that resonates with Chicago's diverse Asian communities. Her family left Vietnam the day Saigon fell, April 30, 1975. The Les were part of an exodus to the United States of about 125,000 refugees in 1975 alone.
Her family was able to escape because one of her uncles had been a naval officer in Vietnam; he was able to negotiate a place for his extended family on a fishing boat in exchange for his navigation skills.
Le recounted the ordeal in a speech she gave at one of the institute's fundraisers:
"Our boat was seaworthy, but it was beyond its capacity. There were over 200 of us on it, with only enough room for each of us to sit. We had been out at sea for several days when a Taiwanese ship pulled alongside. They were sent out with orders to pick up any refugees who were of Chinese descent. Of the hundreds of us on the boat, there were only two people who were -- a father and daughter.
"The Taiwanese offered them passage onto their boat. But the family refused to go, unless we could all go with them. The daughter explained that we were kind enough to have taken them along with us. She said that in return, she would rather stay with us, facing uncertainty, than abandon us. The Taiwanese relented and allowed all the women and children onto their ship. The men followed behind in the fishing boat. They led us to the Philippines, where we were processed as refugees, and within less than two days we were on our way to the United States."
The Les arrived at Fort Chaffee, Ark., a military base that served as the first home for thousands of refugees from Vietnam and Cambodia. Le, the youngest of five children, was 3 years old and suffering from polio, which struck when she was 11 months old.
Polio affected both her legs and gave her severe scoliosis. After she got sick, she didn't walk again until she was in the refugee camp in Arkansas. She still walks with a limp.
Refugees were resettled across the United States; thousands came to Chicago and other Midwest cities. Members of a Lutheran church in Milwaukee sponsored the Les and gave them housing.
The first wave of Vietnamese refugees received a lot of government support. Her family had case managers, food stamps and even government cheese, Le said.
The U.S. refugee policy also allowed her extended family to relocate together so members could support one another. Le's grandmother lived with her family and took care of her and her siblings so her parents did not have to spend what little money they earned on child care. Her father worked a variety of manufacturing jobs, and her mom became a hairdresser.
At 3 or 4, Le learned English by watching television; she remembers "Sesame Street" and "The Electric Company." (She says her Vietnamese is not that good.) The Milwaukee school system hired tutors to teach the language to her siblings because the schools did not offer classes in English as a second language.
Le's father became active in the small Vietnamese community in Milwaukee, helping start the first Buddhist temple. He also started helping refugees who came after him.
"I came home from a college break one year, and our dining table was missing," Le said. "I asked my dad where it was, and he simply said: 'Somebody needed it.' He had given it to a recently arrived refugee family."
But the Les and other Vietnamese families could not shake the war's legacy. Le remembers Vietnam War veterans stopping her in the street and asking if she was Vietnamese. When she replied in the affirmative, some of them would begin apologizing.
She followed one of her brothers to Northwestern, where, she says, she first started coming to grips with her identity. Her parents rarely talked about their refugee experiences with their children, and the only history she had learned in school about her native country was in the context of war.
Le became active in Northwestern's Asian American Student Advisory Board, which organized classes on Asian-American history and began advocating for an Asian-American studies curriculum at the Evanston-based university. (After Le graduated, several Asian-American students went on a hunger strike in 1995 to protest the school's lack of support. A year later, Northwestern agreed to add an Asian-American studies component to the undergraduate curriculum.)
After graduating, she said, she did what all good art majors did after college: "I got a job with a small accounting firm."
She later joined the Vietnamese Association of Illinois in the Uptown neighborhood on Chicago's North Side, where she oversaw ESL classes. The Argyle Street area in Uptown is probably the most identifiable Vietnamese neighborhood in the Midwest, home to restaurants, food markets and video stores that cater to the ethnic community. Le lives in Uptown, near the institute's headquarters at Broadway and Lawrence Avenue.
One of the partners in the accounting firm where she worked was involved in the Asian American Institute and introduced her to the organization. When the institute was looking for a new executive director in 1999, it hired Le.
She made her mark the next year, when the institute issued a report that graded Illinois politicians on how many Asian-American staff members they had hired and what they had done to address immigration concerns. Then-Gov. George Ryan and Cook County Board President John Stroger received failing marks.
The turning point for the institute, though, came four years later, when the Daley administration began restructuring the set-aside program for construction contracts meant to benefit minority contractors. Asian contractors were excluded from the proposed ordinance.
Le galvanized leaders of the Asian-American community and several supportive aldermen to join a rally to protest, but the Chicago City Council approved the ordinance.
The institute did not stop lobbying and learned a lesson about Chicago politics. When former Ald. Bernard Stone ran for re-election in 2007, challengers included Naisy Dolar, an Asian-American woman. Dolar forced a runoff. Stone introduced an ordinance to add Asian-Americans back into the set-aside program, which passed in the full City Council six days before the runoff election. Stone won.
When Emanuel declined to attend the voters forum earlier this year, which attracted about 1,000 people on a cold night a week after one of the biggest blizzards in Chicago history, Le issued a news release. "There are 60,000 Asian Americans registered in Chicago, and we can make the difference if Emanuel is trying to avoid a run-off," she wrote.
Karen Narasaki, president of the Asian American Justice Center, said meeting the needs of a growing Asian-American community will require a strong voice like Le's.
"In every community, you need to have people willing to shake things up a little bit," Narasaki said. "I think it's important, particularly because of the stereotype that Asian-Americans are too polite."
- - -
Title: Executive director of the Asian American Institute, a pan-Asian advocacy nonprofit in Chicago.
Name: Her first name means "snow" in Vietnamese and the "y" is silent. She says "Tuyet" like "duet." Her last name is pronounced "lay."
Hobbies: Knitting, crocheting and print-making.
Family life: Single; youngest of five children. Her parents were in their 40s when they left Vietnam as refugees. "As much as I look at where my siblings are in their careers and nice homes in the suburbs, I know that my nephews still struggle with being seen as outsiders," Le said. "So I wonder how far we have come in a generation, and whether the struggles of a refugee family are eradicated in one generation."
Career path: After graduating from Northwestern University in 1993, she worked in accounting and at the Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago and the Vietnamese Association of Illinois before joining the institute in 1999.
Secret to her speeches: "Organizers try to find what motivates people to doing social justice work, and they are often motivated and inspired by their own struggles, and the struggles they see around them. Asian-Americans are not often known for publicly expressing emotion and hardship, but we have all known it. I think people appreciate that I give voice to those things."
firstname.lastname@example.org | Twitter @ameetsachdevCopyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun