In 2000, UC Irvine student Bao Nguyen made national headlines when he and other classmates stood at the edges of a John McCain rally in Little Saigon wearing T-shirts reading, "American Gook." They were criticizing the then-presidential candidate for so easily using the anti-Vietnamese slur during interviews; pro-McCain Vietnamese activists wouldn't have it, humiliating Nguyen and his friends with slurs, shoves and even saliva.
Thirteen years later, Nguyen now favors suits as a member of the Garden Grove Unified School District Board of Trustees, but his passion to do what's right and criticize what's wrong has only increased. Last month, in the face of Tet parade organizers who refused to allow a Vietnamese LGBT group to march in their event, he not only publicly announced he would not participate in the parade, but he also convinced his fellow trustees to vote against appearing.
"Acknowledging our differences and being able to celebrate together distinguishes my homeland from my mother's homeland," the son of Vietnamese refugees said during the trustee meeting. "But I will not forget where I came from. Remember, a free and democratic society is not necessarily defined by a majority, but defined by how one allows others the same liberties one wishes for oneself."
The stance was the ultimate homecoming for Nguyen, who grew up in Garden Grove and graduated from Pacifica High School. His experiences as a student gave him a need to give back and change locally. "Sometimes, I feel the system doesn't represent our community," he says. "I have that relationship, the kind I can bring to the table where I got trained as a community organizer really young, and also a policy. I feel like an artist, and politics is my medium."
Fluent in English, Vietnamese and Spanish, Nguyen is a politician equally at home working a crowd of wealthy donors or DIY activists at a son jarocho show. The Democratic Party salivates at the idea of running the charismatic, kind, razor-sharp Nguyen for higher office and to break the historic monopoly the GOP has had on Little Saigon, but electoral aspirations are an afterthought for the 32-year-old. Currently, he is working on a project to get interpreting services in health care for Californians through collecting the testimonies of people with limited English-language access. He plans to return to school to earn a doctorate—in what subject, though, he's still not sure. After all, it's not about him.
"I want to equip our kids for the future and give them the opportunities I didn't have," says Nguyen.