Meet Cat Bao Le! She's helping to naturalize legal permanent residents in the Vietnamese and Montagnard community in Charlotte, North Carolina. After the jump learn a little bit more about the unique challenges that come with organizing the AAPI community in the South.
What do you do?
I direct a civic engagement project to provide naturalization services to Asians in Charlotte and surrounding areas. We mainly do this in the form of citizenship fairs (sort of like very large clinics) and group processing sessions.
How did you get started in doing community work?
Straight out of college, I joined an Asian American legal civil rights organization in San Francisco called the Asian Law Caucus (ALC). As my first job after college, ALC was critical in helping me develop a foundation. I had a number of roles during my four years there, from fixing websites (and I'm not at all a techie), to direct services, to coordinating advocacy. There was little I would say no to (even though sometimes I wanted to)! But that experience has directly prepped me for the start-up work I'm doing now.
Although ALC was the first professional community work I engaged in, doing this works feels pretty second nature to me and I really love it. I've been pretty conscious from a young age through growing up from humble beginnings. In North London I grew up in a very immigrant neighborhood with few services, so we were a pretty tight knit community in helping each other out. In some ways I like to think my work now is just building on top of what I understood to be ‘community' from an early age, and what my parents showed me through their life long struggles.
What brought you out to Charlotte?
Charlotte has a very vibrant immigrant community, and there's a lot of room and opportunity for innovative community work like this citizenship project. North Carolina has a significant Southeast Asian population and since leaving the Bay, I've been really been focused on building bridges in the community that I am from -- there's still a lot of gaps for Southeast Asians. I've learned a lot working with Bay area immigrant communities with a longer history in the U.S., like Chinatown Development Community Center who have been instrumental in empowering the grassroots and building immigrant leadership in San Francisco. I wanted to bring those visions and experiences somewhere a little closer to home for me, even though closer to home meant going further away.
What is the community like here and how it's different than back home?
There's a pretty diverse Southeast Asian refugee population in North Carolina. For example, outside of Charlotte in the Hickory area, there's a large rural Hmong community. This community may work in the factories or manufacturing centers during the day, but many come home and grow their own food on their land similar to how they did in Laos. Working in this community takes a lot of effort to coordinate since it's spread out and pretty rural, but people have been very open and really welcomed this work. Actually our next citizenship fair will likely take place in a community members' plot of land, in his barn!
Moreover the Vietnamese population is certainly growing and has doubled in the last decade to 30,000. North Carolina is also home to the largest population Montagnards outside of Southeast Asia. This ethnic group from Vietnam fought alongside the U.S. Special Forces and CIA during the war much like the Hmong in Laos, but are made up of different tribes all with individual languages. The first group of Montagnards came in 1986, and subsequent waves continued to be resettled in North Carolina -- one of the reasons being the high number of American Special Forces veterans in the State.
In terms of community work in the South, outreach work has been different. Since NC is in the bible belt, the strength of the faith based organizations is very significant. Moving here I learned that because of the lack of community based organizations, religious institutions can make up for at least some of the gap. They play a large role in organizing the community, providing services, convening community members, and disseminating information. Building relationship with those leaders is critical here. Our last event actually took place at a Presbyterian Church, needless to say I spend quite some time at churches and temples out here!
Who do you work for, why is it free, etc?
My work is under the banner of the Vietnamese Association of Charlotte, but is funded by the Asian Pacific American Legal Center which is based in Los Angeles. It is part of a national grant called the New Americans Citizenship Collaborative . This Collaborative is facilitated by Immigrant Legal Resource Center in San Francisco, and is funded by a number of foundations including the Carnegie Corporation of New York, the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, the Evelyn and Walter Haas, Jr. Fund, the Grove Foundation, and the Silicon Valley Community Foundation.
Did they target Charlotte or did you propose it?
I believe the 8 locations for this grant were selected due the high percentage of legal permanent residents that were eligible to naturalize in those locations; Charlotte (NC), Dallas (TX), Detroit (MI), Houston (TX), Los Angeles/Long Beach (CA), Miami (FL), New York (NY), and San Jose (CA).
According to the National Immigration Forum in Mecklenburg county (where Charlotte is located), there are over 15,000 immigrants eligible for naturalization. Of that number, more are from Vietnam than any other country so it makes sense we are here.
Has working here been what you expected?
I didn't know how large the community is, but also how underserved the region is. In the beginning, I was like “sure, I can do naturalization work” but along the way you can’t help but assist wherever else you can. There are many parts to building healthy communities, and providing naturalization or legal help is just one part.
Also to see so many elders support and be active in this work has been unexpected but great. Many elders who have been trained to volunteer at the citizenship fairs are limited English speakers themselves. In training them and seeing them assist their own peers, it's been great to see them realize their power. I think exciting changes happen when people realize their power.
Do you know of any other AAPI communities in NC besides folks in CLT and Hickory?
There is a large Montagnard population in Greensboro, which we would love to serve if we can secure more funding and build capacity for this community. There's also a sizeable South Asian population in NC, and the Korean community is pretty visible here also.
Where do you see this project going in the short and long term.
For short term it's about helping the community members become citizens as that is what we have been funded for. For the long term, there's a lot of room for innovative community development in North Carolina and also other areas in the South. We’ve built up momentum now and want to sustain it in a smart way.
Long term we'd like to continue this naturalization work and expand the services. We don't even have an office now, so that's the first step. If we can bring in more funders, partners, and grow the leadership, there is so much more we could accomplish in this State. I think issues needing more support are certainly legal services, but also looking at financial literacy, mental health, and youth work could be good.
What resources would you need to really expand this project?
Funding and organizational development! We've done a lot with the little we have, but what this community really needs is long term sustainable services. That means capacity building for the leaders, technical assistance, and taking lessons from other communities as we consciously build . We need to be looking at ways to amplify a community voice and get folks organized and engaged.
What's your favorite thing about CLT?
I love that it's so green, and it's really beautiful out here. There's a lot of trees, and there's a lot of places to jog because of the greenways and nature. I also love that it's so diverse -- that helps me feel more at home. My sense is there’s an excitement here that big things are going to happen soon and to watch out because Charlotte is up and coming!
I also love the culture --- people are indeed nicer in the South! I'm joking, but there's a certain Southern charm and although it's not all peaches, there's a certain social interaction that I really dig. The fried chicken from the gas station aint so bad either!
Shout out to all who have helped immensely on the project. Hi mom!