When Christine Nguyen started her job as a community center coordinator at Dorchester’s Vietnamese American Initiative for Development (VietAID) last winter, she thought she would mainly be doing administrative work overseeing the community center’s activities and office spaces.
Then came the pandemic.
Since March, Nguyen has been operating a meal site for kids and teens, helping Vietnamese people who are not fluent in English file for unemployment insurance, and answering questions people have about COVID-19 at the VietAID headquarters in Fields Corner.
A second-generation Vietnamese American born in the U.S. to immigrant parents, Nguyen switched from working in the medical field to nonprofit work and did an internship at VietAID where she learned about the challenges facing the Vietnamese diaspora and how groups and individuals in the community are mobilizing to tackle them.
Nguyen said she hesitated before applying for the job at VietAID because she felt she lacked the exposure to the community but pushed herself to do it anyway.
“I didn’t grow up in the Vietnamese community, I didn’t feel confident in my Vietnamese,” she said. “But the fact that I’m a native English speaker gives me a lot of privilege and that’s a lot more important than my discomfort maybe is. There’s a lot of good that I can do and I have a duty to do that.”
I am the editor of The Scope, a digital magazine operated by Northeasterm University’s School of Journalism, and Nguyen recently talked with me about the work she has been doing at VietAID during COVID-19 and the challenges she is facing.
What follows has been edited for length and clarity:
Q. How has COVID-19 changed what you were doing at VietAID?
A. With COVID-19 shutting down most in-person services, managing this space has taken on a lot more meaning in a way because the community center at VietAID has become a hub for basic necessities, like food (we have a meal site here) and also information because when folks come to get food they inevitably ask questions about things that are going on. People ask questions like “Where’s my stimulus check?” “How can I get it?” or “I’m unemployed right now, how can I get help with applying for unemployment?” “When are things going to be open?” And for a lot of folks who are older and monolingual or living alone, there’s a big technological barrier. So having somewhere to go to seek help is really important.
Q. How did you adapt to the changes?
A. At first, there wasn’t really time to reflect. We heard we [were] going to be one of the citywide meal sites and then with the filing for unemployment assistance, I was getting dozens and dozens of calls every day from Vietnamese folks, not just in Boston, but in cities in the Greater Boston area asking for help or having questions about unemployment just because they didn’t know what else they could get in language services. I’m putting in a lot of overtime. I think we all thought that a few more weeks and we would reopen in like a month or two. Now I think: How am I going to sustain this level of work long term?”
Q. You assist with people filing for unemployment insurance. How does the assistance come about?
A. Originally, the Greater Boston Legal Services (GBLS) was providing that help, but since they knew that we had some bilingual staff, they asked us for help. So, in the beginning, when people called in for help with unemployment, we would just take their contact information to a GBLS volunteer to help them submit the application. Since then, it has developed into this entire system where VietAID is now helping these workers with their applications from beginning to end. A lot of times it’s a pretty complicated process. And for all this, we work closely with GBLS and their team of lawyers who themselves work with the Department of Unemployment Assistance to try to make sure that everyone who qualifies for unemployment can get valuable financial aid.
VietAID workers at the meal site. Photos courtesy Christine Nguyen
Q. What types of meals do you provide at the meal site, what are the hours, and who can receive the meals?
A. VietAID partners with YMCA and Project Bread to operate as a Boston Public School meal site for kids and teens. It’s officially for Boston Public School students, but really it’s for all kids and teens who come to the meal site. Originally the hours were Monday through Friday from 8 a.m. to noon. Just beginning this month, we had to change our hours to 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. every weekday. The meal site is at the VietAID community center at 42 Charles St. We distribute breakfast and lunch meals out of our lobby for kids and teens and parents can come without necessarily bringing their kids. They just need to come and say: “Oh I have three kids at home,” and then we have breakfast and lunch for them.
We also provide a number of hot meals for seniors every day as well and that’s just breakfast and lunch. And then every Friday, we try to pack additional grocery bags for folks coming in.
Q. Where do you get funding to provide grocery bags?
A. The source of groceries is kind of varied, sometimes they come from the YMCA. For the last couple months, we’ve had a really generous community member donating hundreds of dollars in Vietnamese produce to distribute every Friday. And sometimes we have also used funding to purchase our own produce, because sometimes the bags we get from the YMCA aren’t the most suitable for a lot of the population that we serve, so we try to complement them with veggies that are more commonly used in Vietnamese cooking.
Q. How many volunteers do you have in the program?
A. VietAID received a grant from the city for Workforce Development to hire temporary workers, particularly workers who are unemployed during the coronavirus and help them develop professional skills. So, I have a team of three including myself right now with unemployment matters. For the meal site, we’re also using the grant we have to hire about five to six temporary workers to help me on site. We are really trying to kind of funnel money into our communities because they really need it right now.
Q. What motivates you to keep going?
A. Honestly, it’s knowing that I’m really lucky to be secure in my job and in a relatively secure financial situation but I know that there are a lot of folks that are counting on the work that my staff and I do. I keep that in mind when I’m frustrated with daily interactions, maybe because people aren’t observing social distancing guidelines, or because I sort of have to repeat myself over and over about the process.
Q. What do you wish people knew about your work?
A. I notice just in my interactions with a lot of folks is that there’s a lot of conflation. I’ve had folks talk to me on the phone and assume that I work for the Department of Unemployment Assistance and I’d have to explain that, “No, I don’t. I don’t work directly for the government, I just work for a community organization, and we’re trying to help people navigate these public systems.”
We’re in it for the long haul but looking forward, what we really want to do is try to change these public systems because the government is supposed to be the institution that makes sure that no one slips through the cracks, that everyone is provided for.
As a community organization, we can definitely play a supporting role, but in the long term, it’s through advocacy and fighting for changes in the laws, and that’s how we can make sure that in the long term everyone can get what they need.
The Reporter is partnering with The Scope to highlight stories by its staff and students. This article was first published by The Scope on July 27, 2020 as part of its “Changemaker” series.