From a dual identity crisis to community leadership
Segmento speaks to Vivienne Nguyen, Chair of the Victorian Multicultural Commission, about her experiences as a refugee, her dual identity conflict, and community connection.
At 11 years of age, Vivienne Nguyen was bundled into a boat along with her siblings at nightfall. Her parents stayed behind in Vietnam with the youngest child. Her parents drew on the same methodology used by countless refugees: splitting up the family to increase chances of survival as they fled the ravages of the Vietnam war and the aftermath of continued persecution.
Vivienne's father had worked as an interpreter for the US Army: he was now a target of the new regime. Sure enough, he was jailed soon after the war. He knew that if he was released, there would be no second chance. Luckily, he was freed, so he acted quickly with the help of a family cousin who organized the escape boat. The Nguyen family all survived and ended up in a Malaysian refugee camp for 1 year before Australia accepted them as refugees.
The National Museum of Australia estimates that in the 1970s, and by the last boat in 1981, just over 43,000 Vietnamese arrived in Australia seeking a peaceful life. For Vivienne and her family, arrival in Australia meant learning a new language and accommodating different ways of doing things and contributing to their new country.
Vivienne's journey has led to her appointment as Chair of the Victorian Multicultural Commission (VMC). In this role, she advocates for the rights of multicultural communities and ensures that their voices are heard. With over 200 cultural groups in Victoria, this is quite a task. She draws on her own lived experiences and those around her to be able to enact this complex leadership role.
The VMC is the link between communities and government: the focus is on identifying issues and recommending potential solutions to policymakers, community organizations, and government. This has been particularly important during the pandemic, which has challenged many, for instance, temporary visa holders, the elderly, refugees, women, and children.
Vivienne knows how many migrants and refugees "“shrink themselves," hiding their rich culture, and life potential just to fit in: "“It's what the Italians did to fit in, isn't it?"
Early in her career she surreptitiously managed her dual life so that her professional peers never guessed at her involvement in organizing mid-autumn lunar festivals or planning a Vietnamese museum. For her peers, she was defined by her banking role in funds management. She explains:
In the professional world of business, you could not talk about your community role. You needed to be part of a homogenous team, not stand out, be 100% committed. I didn't want to be singled out as the ethnic girl. I know things have changed, but there is still work to do in changing negative social attitudes."
She is frank in her discussion:
I admit, I didn't manage balancing my dual identity well. However, I now use my experiences to inform my work. I am frank in talking about this struggle, which often resonates with others. We cannot have an inclusive society if people are silenced.
Vivienne is aware that negative social attitudes toward migrants spring from fear of the unknown:
Engage, be curious. Find out about people. Migrants are not here to take jobs. We have seen how much we need migration during COVID, when so many of our services and industries were stretched or halted.
Vivienne acknowledges she found her voice undertaking the Williamson Leadership Program. Subsequently, she rose to the challenge of openly engaging in community: "“We all have to leverage our strengths to create positive change in society." She notes the successes of the Italian community:
Italians have been successful in ensuring languages programs are part of the educational curriculum, and Italian it self is a success story. Also, Italians contribute to different ways of thinking, doing, and acting in the community; notably, care for the elderly.
She also notes the strong contribution of many Italian-background commissioners and VMC stakeholders who contribute toits work.
As the discussion draws to a close, it is obvious that this rather softly spoken woman has a depth and determination that distinguish her leadership style. Curiosity, open-mindedness, and commitment to participate and contribute have served her, and us, well.