VietLead executive director Nancy Nguyen after her release from recent arrest

A Burmese elder looked at me as he walked past VietLead’s mobile voter registration table in Mifflin Square Park. “I have my citizenship for six years now, but I have never voted,” he said.

“Yeah,” he continued, “no one asked me before.” He smiled and sat down. I opened the tablet and helped him fill out the online voter registration form. It took all of three minutes.

Another Asian voter added to the roll. He was one of six that day, as I crisscrossed the city to do civic empowerment outreach in the community.

A different kind of election year

Right now, civic empowerment organizations like VietLead are in the homestretch to get as many new voters registered for the November election as possible. We have been diligently forging connections with the Vietnamese and Southeast Asian communities in Philly over the past five years.

In Pennsylvania alone, there are over 250,000 eligible Asian American voters. We are also the fastest-growing ethnic group nationwide, with a potential for great untapped political power — if only.

If only we weren’t trying to pull this off during a pandemic. If only this wasn’t the age of disinformation.

Unreliable sources and a disconnectedness from society at large are emblems of marginalization that are manifesting in ugly ways. An absence of language diversity across every level of U.S. government means immigrants and refugees have always shared information through a limited network of family and friends. Under current circumstances, this inadvertent misinformation can skew opinions and harmfully impact decisions.

For example, many Vietnamese voters eschew mail ballots because of discouraging rumors about voter fraud. For others, conspiracy theories can take hold — like the suggestion that the coronavirus originated in a lab.

Working with the community this election means providing resources to mitigate those misperceptions. It is painstaking work, even without multiple crises to navigate.

Summer of change

The pandemic, and the ensuing government failure to protect and provide for its people, spurred VietLead and other groups in Philadelphia to mobilize supportive resources, like distribution programs for food and information.

We connected families with fresh produce from VietLead’s Resilient Roots Farm in Camden, N.J., and OurChive 215 in Germantown. Organizing with immigrant groups, we raised funds and distributed our version of a stimulus check to undocumented community members. For those who lost their jobs or got sick, our health team took on the labor to help them apply for unemployment and worker’s compensation.

We witnessed community resiliency through these mutual aid networks, on display in light of our government’s failure to contain COVID-19.

The summer uprisings over the killings of George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery and Breonna Taylor sparked deep discussions and conflict over police brutality, anti-Black racism and Asian American identity in the community. In broad daylight, these injustices contradict the “American dream” myth.

Immigration Customs and Enforcement (ICE) recently appointed Tony Pham, a Vietnamese refugee, as director. The appointment, viewed by some in the community as a good thing, barely conceals an undeniable record of human rights abuses behind a refugee’s face.

Last Thursday, we got a taste of that cruelty. Pham and the police came after Nancy Nguyen, VietLead’s Co-Founder & Executive Director, and other protestors, for their participation in a nonviolent demonstration outside of his house. They cited illegal dumping to justify armed police officers going in her house and detained her for 21 hours.

The country has changed so much since the last presidential election that what happened to Nancy is no longer an isolated incident, but part of a federal intimidation campaign to shut down free speech. The resources and money spent on law enforcement have only increased in Philadelphia and across the nation since 2016. All the while many communities of color are, contracting and dying from COVID-19 at significant rates, facing an increasing number of deportations and detentions, suffering loss of livelihood due to small business closures, and enduring racism.

More than ever, these issues demand that we deeply engage with our communities, support folks through unprecedented circumstances, and protect our democracy- by exercising our right to vote.

The next few weeks

Find us at Asian supermarkets, distributing free masks, hand sanitizers, and voter education. We are sending out mailers informing folks how to vote and how to check on their ballot. We are calling and texting to spread the word about Vote By Mail, placing ads on local ethnic media, and recruiting a diverse group of poll workers and monitors.

If you are not registered to vote, register now at If you are a voter, volunteer to be a poll worker and interpreter at Apply for a mail-in ballot at today or vote early at satellite locations across the city. If you can’t vote, make sure those who can are aware of when and how to cast theirs.

There’s a saying in Vietnamese: “A tree can’t make a mountain but three trees will.” Our solidarity and collective fortitude are key to building a stronger community, and a stronger society.

And take heed, Tony Pham and ICE. We are coming for your destructive policies.