Like many undergraduates, it took some time for Vivian to find her bearings. Fortunately, once she discovered her passion, she didn’t look back. “I thought about marine biology and my dad wanted me to be a doctor, but when I took an ethnic studies class, things clicked for me there. I was able to learn about social and cultural forces that were shaping the world around us. I am a first generation college student, and I didn’t know what ethnic or Asian American studies was. I was starting to understand how race and gender are huge forces in shaping experiences of communities I’ve grown up in, and I started to understand the world through that kind of lens.” she recalls.
Toward the end of undergrad, she realized she wanted to give other students the same experience and began the road toward a career in academia. “I hadn’t learned about my own history: my parents were refugees from Vietnam, but I hadn’t explored what that meant. I wanted to provide the kind of learning experiences I had in Asian American studies classes for others who were seeking that kind of history and connection.” she explains.
After graduating from Brown, Vivian worked as community organizer back home in New York City on a youth campaign against the stop and frisk policy there. That led her to think about connections between academia and broader communities. An important part of her work, Vivian is continuing her passion for community activism as graduate student, with an eye towards the idea that “knowledge produced in academia shouldn’t stay within the ivory tower but flow outside of it to create broader change.” She also believes in recognizing and respecting the forms of knowledge that have already been developed in marginalized communities outside of the academy.
Vivian chose Michigan because of the faculty and funding. “I was offered a lot of support, and U-M had a strong ethnic studies program. “Unfortunately, Vivian says, the university has lost several faculty in ethnic studies, especially in Asian/Pacific Islander American studies, over the years. “That’s one of the reasons it is so important to maintain robust programs to draw grad students here. I’ve had a lot of really supportive faculty and mentorship that I’m appreciative of, and I’m thankful for the sense of community I’ve found among graduate students in the American culture, English, and history departments.”
She was also drawn to U-M because of the vibrant changes going on in Detroit, specifically the community organizing models put forward by Grace Lee Boggs, who encouraged building alternative institutions rather than protests based on making demands of existing institutions. She is grateful to have had the opportunity to meet Grace Lee Boggs before she passed away last October.
She’s engaged in Detroit by getting involved in a new youth program through APIAVote in Michigan, where she facilitated workshops on Asian American identity and community issues.
Vivian participated in Rackham’s Institute for Social Change two summers ago and started to think about a community project that would dovetail with her research. She found one and applied for an Arts of Citizenship grant to fund it. The Committee Against Anti-Asian Violence (CAAAV), a non-profit organization working to empower low-income Asian immigrants and refugees, is soon to celebrate their 30th anniversary. Vivian is planning a public history project to document the history of the Asian American community around CAAAV’s work. She describes, “I’m working with the documents archive – really boxes in the back of a closet – and going through the process of digitizing and organizing them in addition to completing an intergenerational oral history project. The grant would cover this research and an exhibit or presentation on the archive and history project for the 30th anniversary event.
Narrowing her ideas for her dissertation proposal, Vivian plans to research the history of Asian American community organizing around broken windows policing issues in New York in the 1990s. This topic would help her dive into CAAAV’s history working with black and Latino communities to hold police accountable, combining her research with her community activism.
As Vivian continues to chart her course, she’s holding one ideal above others – the dedication to maintaining a connection between academia and the community outside of it. “There is this push and pull where we get some small victories, then they get undone, but I can’t hold onto that kind of pessimism. Part of doing the work that I have done as community organizer and continue as a researcher and scholar activist is rooted in persistent belief that change can happen. Often things look really grim but activism and mobilization are really inspiring. I want to trace how the work we see now has this longer history, thinking about how current movements can understand and learn from this history.”