Share about your life journey and how you found yourself living and working in the City Heights community.
Su: I immigrated to San Diego in 1993 from Vietnam. Like many Vietnamese families, our sponsor chose City Heights for us, which was one of the few places that were affordable and did not require a credit and background check. City Heights was so diverse, I fit right in. I was not mocked due to my language and cultural differences or treated as a second-class citizen.
I attended Grossmont Community College and eventually graduated from SDSU with a degree in electrical engineering. Since I was involved with SDSU’s Vietnamese student association, I founded a San Diego nonprofit called the Vietnamese American Youth Alliance (VAYA) to empower youth and preserve the Vietnamese culture after I graduated. VAYA initiated the annual Tet Festival to celebrate the Vietnamese New Year. It started at Qualcomm Stadium in 2006 and later moved to Balboa Park, drawing over 20,000 people to the three-day event.
City Heights is my home that helped nurture me. Many of my friends moved out of City Heights once they made good money. I want to be a part of City Heights and bring benefits to the people and the Vietnamese community. In 2008, I co-founded the Little Saigon Foundation. Our mission is to develop the Little Saigon District in City Heights by revitalizing infrastructure in the community, promoting Vietnamese culture and tourism in the area, and engaging youth, residents, and businesses. In 2013, the Little Saigon Foundation successfully advocated for the Little Saigon District designation, a six-block corridor of Vietnamese restaurants and shops along El Cajon Boulevard and University Avenue in City Heights. I continue to be actively involved with Little Saigon Foundation as a volunteer board member.
What accomplishments and impacts are you most proud of with your work in the City Heights community?
S: I am most proud of the Little Saigon designation. When we started that effort there were critics claiming it would create ethnic segregation. We pushed through it to advocate for representation and equity. I believe this creates a pathway for other groups to do the same.
Another accomplishment is my work with the County. In 2004, I helped establish a language program with the San Diego Registrar of Voters. Before the program, there were approximately 8,000 Vietnamese voters. Now, it has grown to over 31,000 Vietnamese voters. This is a result of increasing access by having materials in Vietnamese, Vietnamese poll workers, and years of community outreach.
Is there anything that has surprised you the most over the years as a resident of and advocate for City Heights?
S: The love and compassion for each other. During COVID, 40 tailors and seamstresses work collaboratively to make masks daily for 10-12 hours. In the time of need, the community came together for community benefit. Little Saigon Foundation helped distribute 32,000 of these masks. The community’s heart goes beyond language and cultural differences. I am proud to be a part of City Heights.
In your opinion, what are the most important challenges facing the community of City Heights today?
S: Chasing headlines instead of asking the community what they need. What services are needed to uplift communities of color? We are not doing a deep dive into the issues. We just move from one news incident to the next and without understanding the problem. Little Saigon Foundation conducted a community survey at the Lunar New Year festival on hate crimes against Asian communities. We wanted to understand the true impact beyond the headlines. We learned that many have witnessed or experienced the hate but do not report it.
I also worry that small businesses are moving out of City Heights. They could make more money in other business districts like North park, Adams Avenue, and Convoy if we don’t change the image of City Heights. We need to revitalize City Heights to not lose small businesses and provide more support for them. Also, family income needs to be lifted so they can support their community businesses.
What lessons have you learned throughout your efforts that you would like to pass on to others?
S: There are people with different perspectives. They may not agree with us and what we stand for, but that is the beauty of democracy. We just need to respect the difference and focus on the bigger picture. The bigger picture is a better City Heights.
What advice would you give youth in City Heights? Any encouraging words for our community families during this challenging time?
S: My advice is for them is to find their passion and find a way for their passion to give back to the community. What else is better than giving back to the community? Also, do not be afraid if you look different or speak differently. Share those differences with others and speak out on what you need and what you see. Do not be afraid of your accent. Call your elected officials if your voice needs to be heard.