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Centering Cultural Identity & Love in Early Childhood with Anh Vu Sawyer

Thursday, December 23, 2021

Southeast Asian Coalition’s Anh Vu Sawyer sheds light on difficulties facing recent immigrants and refugee families, and the supportive role of early learning and care.


Joshua Croke (00:03):

Hello Worcester and the world. This is Public Hearing, a podcast and radio show from Action! By Design, about engaging community to address social problems, that center equity justice and the pursuit of joy-filled futures for everyone. I'm your host and founder of Action! By Design Josh Croke, I often get asked. So Josh, what is it that you and Action! By Design actually do? And I have spent years working on that answer while at the same time, regularly growing, shifting, and realizing new ways of doing what we do. And so I'm gonna briefly highlight how I'm talking about our work right now, before I introduce you to our amazing guest and continue our mini season topic on Early Childhood Education and Care, Action! By Design's vision is a world where all people are valued and have access to opportunities that enable them to live healthy and fulfilled lives on a sustainable planet.

Joshua Croke (00:51):

Now that is obviously a very aspirational vision and one that will unfortunately take much longer than my lifetime I suspect to be achieved. So what's the thing that we do that helps our clients, partners and communities do this work. We're a social innovation and change agency that uses facilitation and design to address complex problems facing community. The part that I think a lot of people get stuck on is the word design often thinking about visual design, graphic design, interior design, et cetera, but we approach design in the way that anthropologists and author Arturo Escobar articulates in his book Designs for the Pluriverse. That design is a space for linking theory, practice and purpose and connecting vision and reality. This is how we approach our work and address problems. We use facilitation to ensure that we're centering the voices of those most impacted by the challenges that we're addressing.

Joshua Croke (01:43):

We believe that this approach can address virtually any challenge from the boardroom to the classroom, to the courtroom. We have used this approach to get to the heart of issues, affecting people over the next few episodes. I'll be sharing some more details and stories about how we approach our work and how we hope you, our listeners, might want to connect with us, what you can do at actionbydesign.co. But now we've got an amazing guest to speak to about her work and early childhood education and care. This is the Public Hearing podcast. I am so thrilled to welcome Anh Vu Sawyer, the Executive Director of the Southeast Asian Coalition to the show. The Southeast Asian Coalition supports Southeast Asian immigrants, refugees and long term residents to meet their basic needs, overcome language and cultural barriers, successfully integrate into mainstream society and become self-sustaining contributors in economic, social, and civic life.

Joshua Croke (02:34):

Their fabulous executive director Anh Vu Sawyer has spent decades engaging in vital humanitarian work on a global scale as well as here in Massachusetts and Worcester as a college student Anh and her family left Saigon, Vietnam in 1975 via the American Embassy rooftop just hours after the fall of Saigon on went on to collaborate with her husband in bringing educational and medical projects to Vietnam after helping with the startup of several innovative companies and while raising three children. Anh graduated from Calvin College and received an MBA from MIT is a published author of the book Song of Saigon SAS, an award-winning instructor who in her work with the Southeast Asian Coalition has been recognized as one of Worcester Business Journals, Power 50, and has brought awards recognition and well deserved attention to the work of the Southeast Asian Coalition. Anh thank you so much for joining us today. I always like to provide space for our guests to add to their intro so they can highlight any experiences or other parts of their story that they want to bring into this space that might not get covered in a bio. So welcome, thank you so much for being here. And what else can you tell us about you and your work?

Anh Vu Sawyer (03:41):

Oh my goodness. You did such a wonderful job, so I cannot add anything at all. But listening to what you said made me realize that the South Asian Coalition has been in the forefront in fighting for social justice and racial equity and helping immigrants and refugees. If anything, at all allows us to see the importance of allying it's not about us, it's about others. If we could be there for others, then the world will be exactly what you said, a joyful place with a sustainable future, a sustainable world for everyone. So, but thank you. Thank you. Thank you. Thank you so glad to be here.

Joshua Croke (04:23):

Thank you. And so on the topic of building a sustainable world and a sustainable future, we've been exploring the topic of early childhood education and care with some folks from Edward Street, Kim Davenport, Eve Gilmore. We had Amy O’Leary on the show who does work at state and legislative arena talking about the need for support for early childhood education and care. We wanted to talk about your work in the Southeast Asian Coalition and the unique and intersecting needs of our immigrant families as they approach early childhood and getting support and care for their kids integrating into our, our society, our schools, et cetera. So one of the things that I so appreciate about you and your work is that focus on social justice and racial equity. And one of the things that for listeners who might just be tuning in that we've explored is looking at the racism and sexism that has existed, which create barriers for high-quality access to early childhood.

Joshua Croke (05:26):

So again, that age is zero to around age, eight years old. That, and I was listening actually to a podcast this morning that Heather McGee, who's an author of a book, The Sum of Us: What Racism Costs Everyone, and How We Can Prosper Together that she was hosting for the Ezra Klein Show as he's on paternity leave. And she was interviewing someone about, what she called the care crisis and the need for access to high-quality, early childhood education and care. And they got into the conversation about how the roots of why this is not funded and supported is again, sexist and racist in its foundations because women have always been expected to just do this work, regardless of whether out in the, you know, in their own work or et cetera, or underpaid women of color will do this work. And so as we open up our conversation, how does the Southeast Asian Coalition in all of the support that you provide to the families that you work with look at early childhood education and care?

Anh Vu Sawyer (06:31):

Thank you very much. And I'm the first one to ask for forgiveness for not paying attention on early childhood support for families. I'm a former Vietnamese refugee and at least 20 years of my life, I worked with refugees and immigrants and many refugees came to this country really, I would say majority of them risked their lives and lost all of their houses, money inheritance in the old country, start out from zero in this country specifically for the future of their children, maybe it was war poverty or whatever, but they fled to the USA for a better future for their children, not really for themself. And so we focus too much on the future and not the present without understanding that it is this firm strong, healthy, joyful, as you said, foundation of the present that allow us to have the strong, healthy, joyful foundation of the future.

Anh Vu Sawyer (07:48):

So I've been in this country, I arrived in 1975. So it took me a long time, several decades for me to realize that because I had to see the negative impact of what we did not invest into the life of young family and the life of young children via early childhood development and education and care. And I have to say it was Eve Gilmore with the Edward Street services, who was the first person that opened my eyes about the importance of early childhood development. She would deny it, but she has already been my hero and my mentor, and she's gonna be stuck with me whether she likes it or not. And so it's a struggle for many, many refugees to pause and say, this is our human right to seek access to early childhood development care for my child from prenatal, you know through five, six years old to when I started going school, the parents took especially moms like Heather McGee said the woman took the whole responsibility of taking care of all of this on their own responsibility, in addition to many, many responsibilities that they had to do.

Anh Vu Sawyer (09:21):

And so at the Southeast Asian Coalition, we started out knowing nothing. We didn't even have any formal education in early childhood development. So we worked with some other agencies and the more we worked with them, we realized that these agencies, in spite of their noble intent, they did not pay attention to the cultural aspect and the actual social need of families with little children. We are so grateful for these agencies who allow us. So I'm gonna have to change that mission, that our mission that you talk about, we cannot help people with just basic needs. We really have to understand what it takes for people to thrive. And in order for them to thrive, we really have to give them a sense of dignity as they seek for access to better housing, better healthcare, better job.

Anh Vu Sawyer (10:27):

They need to be respected. You see many immigrants and refugees. I know this first hand as a refugee, I need other people to help me. And so it feels like I'm receiving a handout from other people and receiving handout is not necessarily bad, because we always needed something from the beginning for us to, you know, to move forward. But the sad thing is a lot of people giving us handouts. They won't change. They keep thinking at that, they do the world such a great job by giving hand out. And I think we have to change that word from handout to invest. You invest in the world, invest in immigrants and refugees and people who having a tough time because they are incredible potential to become one of the most significant contributors to make the world to become what you say and I repeat it again, a joyful future, a sustainable world for all.

Anh Vu Sawyer (11:26):

And so, because of that, we pay attention to several aspects. We gave lots of respect. We give dignity by visiting people in their home and creating a space for them at the Southeast Asian Coalition, so that they could come with their children. They'd share with us what their dreams are. I'm not talking about needs. Everyone needs money. Everyone needs food, but what are your dreams? Some people said my dream is becoming an artist. My dream is being able to sing amazing songs. My dream is to make the biggest woven piece of tapestry that say everything about my country. My dream is to fall in love and to feel safe about falling in love. My dream is to know that the world is a safe place for my kids, whether they're gonna be a doctor or they're gonna be a writer. So giving them a space is important.

Anh Vu Sawyer (12:19):

And Dr. Anita Fables from Clark University shared with me about the importance of giving displaced people, a space where they can smell their food, listen to their languages and their music and eat their food. That's one of the best things to help people to rebuild their lives and re-strengthening the community. So we are very grateful for Tim Gavin and you United Way of Central Mass for allowing us to have suite 400 at 484 Main Street that where we have been since I started there in 2012, maybe a couple years before that. We have a large space, 7,000 square feet. And in that space, we gave five different refugee groups. We gave the Burmi, the Nepali, the Bhutanese, the Vietnamese group the Mandaeans society who are Arabic speaking group. And we also gave the space to Native Americans as well.

Anh Vu Sawyer (13:24):

We said, here's the office. You can use the space, let us know when you be there with a large group so that we don't have, you know, too many large group at the same time, you don't have to pay for anything, this kitchen just tidy up and clean up after that because other groups be using it. And I did this without knowing I really should have done some data collection on this because the communities, the ethnic community coming in use the space and how family, especially family with children, because they don't know where to go because of the language and cultural barrier. There are lots of help out there for kids when they start going to public school, not really enough yet, because there's still lack of cultural and linguistic connection for folks, but coming to this place, the Southeast Asian Coalition was able to give them other support for housing education legal issues, domestic violence, you know, whatever from A to Z.

Anh Vu Sawyer (14:26):

And from there I realized that it’s the children that were left behind, like Eve said. And so we were very lucky to have some grant that specifically focused on women. And with that we help parents started with a prenatal part, you know, vitamins, how take care of your kid, if your home has lead was built before 1985, we need to go in there and make sure that it doesn't have lead paint because let paint gonna, it negatively terribly affect the neuro growth of your child. And from there, we also realized that parent worry too much about survival. And so we bow a new gate and other staff started with lion dance and other cultural programs where parent can come and sing their song, did their dance. And the kids learn all of that.

Anh Vu Sawyer (15:33):

And they took pleasure. The kids enjoyed so much. You see refugees and immigrants, displaced people. When we come to a place that received us, we want to integrate and be like them without knowing that we are forsaking the beauty of our cultural heritage, part of Southeast Asian Coalitions mission is to help people to promote and preserve and take pride of their cultural heritage. I know I'm saying a lot of things here, but I think early development for family who are low income, who live in poverty, who are displaced, who are in immigrants and refugees, is to provide them a safe space where the whole community comes together, because it truly takes a village to raise a child. We treat the parents with respect. We treat the kids with respect so that the parents say, oh, they call me auntie, always hug the of kids.

Anh Vu Sawyer (16:33):

And the kids always love to come and hug her. So parents, you know, physical contact publicly is not always welcomed or it not people kind of don't do that publicly lots of immigrants and refugees and Asians. So I did that because I am me and because I wanted for myself. And so a lot of these things I do believe the kids thrive. They're doing well in school. They come back to SEAC all the time. The parents told we only have Monday, I mean, Tuesday, Wednesday, and Thursday for families. And the parents say the kids on Monday cry, they couldn't go. They kept asking when they could go to SEAC and on Thursday they said, oh, do we have to wait for the whole weekend? So, and some of the kids told the parents when I grew up, I want to work for SEAC.

Anh Vu Sawyer (17:24):

So to wrap all of this up is that I think love and care and respect and pay attention to cultural nuances are unquantifiable. We cannot measure it, but it's so important for early childhood development. And because of that, it brings healing to parents. It give parents hope, it give them trust is not last, not least at all. You mentioned the word design. I have,  I'm from MIT and one of my most favorite classes, and I did very well, I think I was the top 10 students. It's a difficult class. It's called DMD Design Model and Data or Data Model Design. Well, my professor, Georgia Peris will kill me for not remember exactly what it was, but by data, we will be able to make better design and by making the better design we need to model. And I really feel that at the Southeast Asian Coalition, we did all of that. So thank you so much for giving your time. Thank you.

Joshua Croke (18:36):

Of course. And I so value and appreciate so much of what you, all of what you said, and in the context of design, and I'm gonna try and weave some of the things that you said and underscore those for our listeners, because I think they're so, so critical. The first being inherent dignity, right? Dignity and respect for all people is something that we need to believe in. And not just in our interpersonal day-to-day actions with people that we interface with, but in the way that we think about how we support initiatives, programs, funding models that support, or do not support everyone in our communities. And so I so appreciate that you leading with that love, respect, dignity, things that I think some folks often say, like, those are soft things like not measurable things, but as you, and I know doing this work, you can see it.

Joshua Croke (19:27):

You can see it manifest. You can see it change and shape community and support community. The other,  piece is investment, right? And changing that word handout to investment. We are investing in our community. And one of the things to kind of make a tie back to Heather McGee's work in her book, The Sum of Us is talking about challenging the zero-sum paradigm, right? Where if one person gets something that means their person is losing something. And she challenges that from like the broad economic like model of the nation and says, like, actually we know now that if we invested in our communities and if structural and systemic racism did not permeate our policies and practices that disallowed people to access things like educate patient, childcare and other types of like health supports. We know that our country, as a whole would have, if we had to tie it to our profit, right, our, you know, our gross domestic product, our GDP would be billions and billions of dollars higher because of that investment in our community.

Joshua Croke (20:29):

So investment not only has like moral argument of why it's valuable to allow for, and support and encourage the development and, you know, fulfillment of individual lives, but also that it makes us a more innovative nation. And you also mentioned supporting the pursuit of passion with young kids and families, right. and allowing them to engage in and have the space and time to really lean into the things that they're passionate about, which because of how our society is currently constructed. So many folks that, you know, I work with that I'm sure you've worked with feel stifled or suffocated by the responsibilities of having to survive right. And not be able to pursue being able to thrive. So they push some of those dreams to the back burner. the other piece is the preservation and celebration of culture, which I think is so incredibly important and actually ties to, I mentioned Arturo Escobar, who wrote this book called Designs for the Pluriverse, and it looks at how we might build and imagine a world that has a similar vision for the fulfillment of, you know,realizing a sustainable world and the value and inherent dignity of every person in their ability to thrive, have access to health, healthcare, food, resources, et cetera, but how, the way we design our world can be multitudinal right.

Joshua Croke (22:03):

We can have so many different variations and versions of what success looks like, and culture is such a strong part of that. And so looking at, how we grow and develop as a nation, thinking about the design as a mechanism and support and celebration of diverse cultural experiences, as a mechanism for innovation. 

Anh Vu Sawyer (22:26):

Oh, exactly. Mechanism of innovation. I, that is very important. I think that is the heart in a way, well, I shouldn't say the heart, but that's a very important result of our willingness and knowledge and wisdom to invest in the multi-cultures that we have in this country. The Southeast Asian Coalition is very grateful for the funding from the Bar foundation and the Ford foundation for what they called empower the culture futures. And with that with the grants, we will be able to focus more formally about the culture aspect that the Southeast Asian Colaition is so honored and so lucky and so blessed to be given, you know, we have a least 12 different ethnic minorities in our groups. I'm not talking about the main groups, the Burmese that came to us

Anh Vu Sawyer (23:38):

they came from Burma, but we have five different ethnic minority groups. The Mandaeans is an ethnic minority from Iran, Iraq, and Syria, and they speak Arabic. And we have Montagnard people, you know, and we have different minority groups from the Philippines. And the thing is though who will preserve the world's cultural heritage except these folks, but they don't have access to opportunity to do that. And cultures also allow other people to see beauty through arts, to the arts, through food, through history. And so the Southeast Asian Coalition with the grant, from the Bar foundation and the Ford foundation, we would like very much to have the Southeast Asian Cultural Center where we will preserve, promote and share Southeast Asian culture and history to the whole, not just Worcester, but to the whole world. So we have several collaborations with other museums throughout the US as well, three other groups that we will kind of share our knowledge and our artifacts that were brought here by refugees. So from what you said about the innovation mechanism investing in the life of people so that not only to have social justice and to eradicate racial discrimination, but in my opinion, it is the best return of investment.

Anh Vu Sawyer (25:36):

Because once people have this, their brain and their heart will start to work away that it’s not about them, but about for other people. And this is how we have to fight for, you know, the world is not about us anymore. Worcester is not about Worcester anymore. We are in it together for the whole world. Look at what happened to the environment. Look at what happened to poverty, look at the COVID. Some of my African friends from Africa said they would never even see vaccination in their lifetime. And here we have them abundantly. A lot of us don't even care to have them. What does it take for us to make sure that people outside the US have COVID vaccination? That's just one example, because when we really provide just like what you say, a healthy future for children, if we can have a healthy future for all children in the world, then the world could be such a good place. And this is to me, the best ROI return of investment we can ever do. I think I'm done with this. 

Joshua Croke (26:56):

Anh well, I am always so nourished when I hear you speak when we have conversation, thank you so much. And thank you for the work that you do. And for folks we'll include information about Anh's work. And so Southeast Asian Coalition in our show notes, thank you for listening to Public Hearing our podcasts and radio show that airs Wednesdays at 6:00 PM on WICN 90.5 FM Worcester's only NPR affiliate station, which also can be heard wherever, where you listen to podcasts. I'm your host, Joshua Croke. If you have ideas for the show or would like to become a supporter, reach out to our team at publichearing.co. Our audio producer is Guliano D’Orazio, who also made our show music. Also, thanks to Molly Gammon for supporting this show. Public Hearing is created and produced by Action! By Design a social innovation and change agency, helping people imagine and materialize equitable, and just futures. Learn more about our work at actionbydesign.co that's the time we have for today. And thanks for listening.