Thu Nguyen is a proud Vietnamese refugee, an artist, a youth worker, and now, after their first-ever political campaign: the first non-binary and Southeast Asian-American councilmember in Massachusetts. Nguyen’s victory in politics is not only a win for Asian Americans nationwide but also a monumental moment for the LGBTQ+ community.
Born in Vietnam, Nguyen’s family sought asylum in Worcester, Massachusetts with their family when they were one year old. Prior to immigrating to the United States, Nguyen’s father fought in the Vietnam War, and was imprisoned for six years. In Worcester, Nguyen says they grew up in poverty while their parents worked in factories.
After graduating from Clark University with a Bachelor of Arts in Studio Art and Sociology, Nguyen started giving back to the community by serving young people. As an activist and a youth worker, Nguyen facilitated after-school programs at the Worcester Youth Center to hire young people at parks and schools across the city. Most recently during the COVID-19 pandemic, Nguyen worked with Mutual Aid Worcester to raise nearly $75,000 to support local families, organize an immigrant and refugee pantry, and set up a hot meals program.
Nguyen’s first-ever political campaign was endorsed by 11 organizations, including the Massachusetts State Council, Victory Fund, and Planned Parenthood Advocacy Fund of Massachusetts. The successful campaign won them one of the six seats in Worcester City Council. According to Spectrum News 1, they won about 10.9% of the vote, totaling 7,364 votes.
Nguyen’s victory is a result of hard work, dedication, and a strong passion for social change. Vietcetera talked with Nguyen to learn more about their new position as a councilmember.
As a nonbinary Vietnamese refugee, what is your opinion on immigrant and LGBTQ+ representation in politics and how is your victory significant to the Asian-American/LGBTQ+ community?
We don't have nearly enough representation, especially on an intersectional level. As a queer Vietnamese nonbinary refugee and someone who earned their college education and became a director at a nonprofit, I felt a sense of duty to reflect and represent us in a space that usually isn't "safe" or welcoming to identities and bodies like mine. I think representation and visibility is crucial and even at times, life-saving. Seeing people who hold similar identities and experiences as us as decision-makers can validate us and provide a sense of belonging in ways we don't always realize, especially if you're a part of marginalized communities.
I also think being at the decision-making tables matters — it's important that we have the ability to influence policy, budgets, and how our government works to meet the needs of not just our community but those like ours. Our existence in these spaces pushes our system to holistically care for its people and ensure that no one is left behind. I think my victory is significant not just because it's historical, but I also hope that it makes politics more meaningful for people who saw themselves as outsiders. I hope that people start imagining themselves at these tables and re-think the ways we contribute to our community.
What do you hope to achieve for your local community? How will your position as a new council member impact people in Worcester?
I believe in putting community-led solutions at the forefront of city hall. I want a political reimagination of Worcester and how people interact with our government in general. On both a national and local level, we need a transparent, honest, and accessible government, one where elected officials work in partnership with the community they represent to meet their needs.
We're at a time where homelessness is exponentially rising, amid a housing crisis, while Worcester's being gentrified. And this is happening in many places all over the nation. I think we all collectively have to pause and reconfigure how we envision our future. We need to make space for that especially now when we are putting into consideration COVID recovery and adapting to a "new normal." We need to do better and we can do better.
I'm committed to staying on the ground and ensuring our government is people-centered. My win in the city council created a ripple of hope, because it was a grassroots campaign for the people and by the people, and now I'm excited to continue being a vehicle for us to build, advocate, and create the society we want and deserve.
Do you have any advice for people like you who are looking to get involved in politics in the United States?
Find your people. Sometimes we dream, we resist, we fight in isolation and that's a tough journey. I've been doing social justice work for over a decade, and I think the community is essential when we want to get involved and make changes in stagnant spaces. I'm a firm believer that your people are out there. We are out there. Don't do this alone.
The road to bettering our political system to uplift and holistically care for all people is long, but it can still be filled with love, liberation, healing and joy. Stay grounded, make sure you're doing it for the "right" reasons, and trust your people to guide you further than you can ever go on your own.
How would you describe your connection to Vietnam and Vietnamese heritage?
My father fought in Vietnam for democracy and freedom, and was later imprisoned for six years. My lineage and my parents provided me the grounding and foundation of love and integrity, which was a blessing that allowed me to give every ounce of me to this world and show up as my best self. Vietnam is my homeland; Vietnamese, my mother tongue. Vietnamese culture birthed me and allows me to dream of a collective vision of that magical, incredible Vietnamese pride.
What would be your message for those who identify as nonbinary in Vietnam?
We have always existed in history, and I find that beautiful and worth honoring. Each day is a celebration of our ability to bravely connect with the magnitude of who we are. And it's important we create the life we want for ourselves and the room for others to grow in love with us. There is so much joy when we tend to ourselves — writing, rewriting, and overwriting our fates. The future belongs to all of us.