‘It’s in the blood’: 3 generations of women and their journeys toward political activism
Lacy Lew Nguyen Wright, 23, has been “voting” since she was a baby.
Her mother, Annie Wright, wheeled her in her stroller into the voting booth for the first time when she was 5 months old. When Lacy was about 5 years old, Annie started letting her punch the holes in the cards. By the time Lacy was 10, the two of them would go through sample ballots together to discuss local candidates and propositions.
Annie also took Lacy to her first protest before she turned 1. This was in 1999, when a video store owner in Little Saigon put up a flag of Vietnam with a photo of former North Vietnamese President Ho Chi Minh. Crowds of up to 15,000 people, many refugees who had fled the communist regime after the Fall of Saigon, united for a protest that lasted approximately two months.
Despite the civic engagement lessons Annie was determined to teach her daughter, she had no desire to work in politics herself.
“I learned growing up that politics gets you killed,” Annie said.
Annie is the daughter of Jackie Bong-Wright, born Le Thi Thu Van, and the late Nguyen Van Bong, who was assassinated in 1971 when Annie was 7 years old.
In Vietnam, Bong was the director of the National Institute of Administration, and he trained young people to be civil servants. In 1969, he founded an opposition political party, the Progressive Nationalist Movement.
The day before Bong’s murder, South Vietnam’s President Nguyen Van Thieu had asked Bong to become their prime minister. Bong was killed by a bomb placed under his car.
“In Vietnam, doing politics is very dangerous,” Jackie said.
“I had to fight for the livelihood of my community”
Jackie, the second youngest of 10 children, said her family wasn’t initially involved in politics.
But her older sister became a sworn operative for the coalition whose members would eventually become the Viet Cong, and it divided their family. Her sister told the North Vietnamese government to put her own brother in jail, where he eventually died. Two of Jackie’s other brothers also died as soldiers during the Vietnam War.
Jackie said when she met Bong at a mutual friend’s wedding in Paris, he didn’t have any political ambitions yet. He wanted to be a law professor; she planned to teach French.
A widow in her early 30s with three kids under 8, Jackie threw herself into work as a way to cope. She advocated for family planning, representing Vietnam in an international conference, and she was the director of cultural activities at Saigon’s Vietnamese American Assn.
When Saigon fell, she fled with her children. They stayed in various refugee camps before eventually ending up in Alexandria, Va.
Jackie would eventually marry Lacy Wright Jr., the man the younger Lacy is named after, a diplomat she and Bong had met briefly when he was stationed in Vietnam.
But Lacy and Jackie didn’t reconnect until they coincidentally ran into each other outside of a drugstore (“She found Mr. Wright,” the family likes to say).
After all she had experienced, Jackie didn’t want any of her three children involved in politics. But she felt she personally had no choice.
“I had to fight for the livelihood of my community,” she said.
She worked to resettle refugees and find them jobs.
“I registered thousands of them to vote in order for them to have power,” she said. “Because we had to fight for the people in Vietnam who were still in prison, like my brother … We had to fight for the people who were stranded in the Southeast Asian refugee camps to come here to the U.S. …. We had to go lobby Congress.”
For the last two decades, Jackie has been the president and CEO of the national Vietnamese-American Voters Assn.
“I think it’s about knowing your own power“
Growing up in Orange County in the 2000s, Lacy Lew Nguyen Wright remembered hearing stories about her grandfather, but everyone called him a professor, an academic.
His students from the National Institute of Administration still gather in Little Saigon annually around Nov. 10, the anniversary of his death, to celebrate his life.
Lacy said she started learning more about her family history when her grandmother was crowned Ms. Virginia in the Ms. Senior America pageant in 2004. Jackie had entered so she could share her refugee story.
Jackie was the first Vietnamese American to participate in the national competition, documented in the 2006 film “The Queen from Virginia: The Jackie Bong-Wright Story.”
By then, she had also published an autobiography “Autumn Cloud: From Vietnamese War Widow to American Activist,” which documents four generations of their family.
“I couldn’t explain to my children what happened to their father because every time I talked, it was so painful that I started to cry,” Jackie said. “It’s only when I wrote my autobiography when everything came out.”
No one actively encouraged Lacy to go into politics.
“In our community, we deal with these traumas, and when we come over, we put our head down and work to try to put food on the table,” Annie said. “We work for the second generation all the time, right? Because we know how hard it was in our country, we try to steer our children away from politics and things like that.”
But when Lacy ran for student government in college, no one was surprised.
“My grandfather’s sister lives in Lake Forest now, and she was like, ‘It’s in the blood!” Lacy said.
Lacy entered college at UC Santa Barbara in 2014 when students were actively lobbying legislators to prevent proposed tuition hikes. That was her introduction to advocacy work, and she’s been meeting with local politicians since.
“When you think about your elected officials, it seems intimidating,” Lacy said. “But also, our politicians are here to respond to us and to our needs. They also don’t know of everything.”
One of her high school friends was a homeless community college student who wasn’t able to shower in the school’s gym. So he wrote the bill that allowed homeless students to shower in all community college gyms in the state.
“We just went up and down throughout Sacramento, popped into people’s offices, asked them to co-sponsor this bill and asked them if they would vote for it,” she said. “I think it’s about knowing your own power and knowing that you can propose what you want.”
After transferring to the University of Pennsylvania, she was an intern on Hillary Clinton’s 2016 finance team.
During the Democratic presidential primaries in 2019, she was the national advance associate on Sen. Kamala Harris’ campaign.
Lacy is currently the associate director of BLD PWR (pronounced “build power”), which was started by actor and activist Kendrick Sampson to connect folks in the Hollywood entertainment industry with political organizers.
“I had done so much lobbying on different pieces of legislation … and it was like you were rolling a boulder up a mountain just to watch it roll back, over and over again,” she said.
After years of advocating for sexual assault survivors, it wasn’t until the #MeToo movement that Lacy realized “what we’re willing to allow others to believe about ourselves is so dependent on what is put out by the media, by entertainment.”
At BLD PWR, she works with Black Lives Matter Los Angeles and collaborates with grassroots organizations across the county on issues ranging from mental health to climate justice.
“It’s exhausting, and it’s so hard on your soul,” she said, of activism work. “But I’ve been able to have conversations with my grandmother about burnout, and she understands what I’m feeling because she’s been in that space where she’s doing this work so tirelessly.”
“I was basically shocked into action.”
Annie said it was Lacy who inspired her to go into politics after the 2016 election.
“Like many people, I was basically shocked into action,” Annie said, pointing to President Trump’s Muslim ban as the catalyst.
“What I was witnessing was our government employees carrying out orders to detain, deport and interrogate U.S. citizens and permanent residents,” she said.
At the time, there wasn’t a Democratic club in Aliso Niguel, where she lived, so she started one.
She asked Lacy and college friends to come teach their organization how to lobby, how to talk to elected officials and how to read legislation.
By 2018, the club had helped elect Tiffany Ackley, the only woman in the Aliso Viejo City Council, and worked with other progressive organizations to flip four districts in Orange County.
“Growing up in O.C., I never thought I would see the day where every single congressional seat was Democrat,” Lacy said. “So that’s something that was really inspiring to me, that my mom, who had never been politically involved pre-2016, would be part of a movement to flip that many seats and reshape the political makeup of Orange County.”
In 2019, Annie was elected as the vice chair of the Democratic Party of Orange County, representing South Orange County.
“Regardless of what happens in the 2020 elections, my hope is that the party will dedicate more resources to recruit and train candidates for local offices and to do more culturally competent outreach to the Asian communities in Orange County,” she said.
“I’m voting for myself ... my community”
“I was always taught that we, as a family, are only here because of who helped us,” Lacy said. “Even now, my grandmother is the definition of high-risk for COVID, and she is still going out and handing out masks for front-line workers. She’s never seen an issue and taken it lying down. She’s always thinking, ‘There’s something wrong in this world. What can we do?’”
At 80, Jackie still hosts a weekly politics show on the Saigon Broadcasting Television Network where she analyzes American policies for Vietnamese-speaking immigrants.
“I cannot tell my community to vote for whom,” she said. “I have to be nonpartisan ... but I think this year is the most important year, where most Vietnamese will go to vote, one way or the other.”
“My mother is far more involved in the actual party,” Lacy said. “My mom can knock on every door and convince you to vote after 10 minutes of speaking with her. She can do something I can’t. So I think both of them are really great about building community and encouraging people to get involved, especially those who might not have.”
Lacy represents a new generation with new ideas.
“We’ve been told so many times that we need to vote and it’s important to vote, and we are told to vote for somebody else,” she said, “and I think that’s the shift I want to see: I’m not voting for a candidate or a politician, I’m voting for myself, I’m voting for my community ... I think our generation is so different because we’re taking action into our own hands.”
In addition to her work at BLD PWR, she runs the website Ballot Breakers, interviewing young Democrats running for office, and she’s a speakers bureau representative with the Rape Abuse Incest National Network (RAINN). She’s been in their last two PSAs.
“I think when people think about organizing, they only think about political organizing,” Lacy said. “But we have all figured out a way to be active and give back, organizing digitally, especially during the pandemic. That’s where young people shine. Young people know how to mobilize in this space.”
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