A high school student shows up at her community center for homework help and a few years later she's an advocate for reforming her community's public schools. That's just the latest chapter for a nonprofit tapping the potential of young leaders in New Orleans East.
A few years ago, when she was still in high school, Linda Tran heard about a group called the Vietnamese American Young Leaders Association, or VAYLA, which operates a youth center in her neighborhood in New Orleans East. She stopped by for homework help at first. Now she’s 20, she’s enrolled in college and she works with VAYLA on education reform issues. The jump from homework help to education equity work was a quick one, and it started with her speaking her mind at that VAYLA youth center.
“One day I just came in was like ‘oh my God I hate school,’” Linda remembers. “Like, I don’t learn anything, it’s so easy, like I want to learn something, I want to be educated.”
As it turned out, a youth organizer at the center had been hearing the same complaint a lot.
“And he’s like, I hear from every student when they come in, they complain about school right off the bat,” she says. “So why not come together, talk about problems at schools and try to fix it?”
It led to the Raise Your Hand campaign, an education reform program that gets students involved in the future of their schools. It’s now a central part of VAYLA’s efforts and also an illustration of how this nonprofit works.
“For VAYLA, our mission is to empower young people in the New Orleans area through organizing, through cultural awareness for positive social change,” says Minh Nguyen, executive director of VAYLA.
This nonprofit was formed in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina by young people who felt that City Hall and developers had bypassed the democratic process with a plan to build a new landfill in their neighborhood. They stopped the plan cold.
“Right after we shut down the landfill, the young people and our members — we had about 200 members at that time — we were like, what’s next?” says Nguyen. “And obviously the big thing that was next was that our young people didn’t have schools to go to. And we obviously didn’t want the school to just reopen and be the same way it used to be, we wanted it to be something better.”
From education, VAYLA’s advocacy work has branched into many other areas, with programs from college prep courses to counseling to music and sports to leadership training. Its membership has diversified too. Vietnamese American is right in VAYLA’s name, but today the group also represents all of its neighbors.
“Again, we all face the same problems, living in this community, the lack of investment in New Orleans East. To the day we still don’t have a hospital, right? That’s been a big issue, and the majority of schools in New Orleans East are still in trailers,” says Nguyen.
While VAYLA works to bring attention to these ongoing issues, it’s also amplifying the voices who will speak for the community in the future, like the one that belongs to Linda Tran.
“I’ve learned how to successfully communicate with others, through VAYLA. I started off at VAYLA being such a quiet girl, all to herself, didn’t want to talk to anyone, to a girl who’s talkative now and just loves being social,” she says. “It’s just a chance for my voice to be heard, because nobody back then wanted to listen to me.”
Learn more about VAYLA at www.vayla-no.org.