Asian/Pacific American Heritage Month: Q&A with Leadership United Participant Hannah Nguyen

Asian/Pacific American Heritage Month, celebrated each May, pays tribute to the generations of Asian and Pacific Islanders who have enriched America’s history and are instrumental in its future success. Today, 22.2 million Asians and 1.6 million Native Hawaiian and other Pacific Islanders call the United States their home. And yet, despite that scale, the seeds for the commemorative month originated from just one woman – Jeanie Jew, former Capitol Hill staffer. She remembered stories from her great-grandfather, M.Y. Lee, who immigrated to California from China and later became a prominent businessman. Jeanie’s revelation became a calling: how can we create a better understanding of the contributions, history and cultures of Asian/Pacific Americans in the U.S.?


Hannah Nguyen, Ph.D., Advisor for Global Ethics and Compliance supporting Research and Development at Eli Lilly and Company Corporate Center, and dedicated volunteer and advocate for United Way of Central Indiana, sat down with us to share her personal experiences and perspective..


Below are Hannah’s personal thoughts and not in any manner affiliated with her employer.


Q. Why is giving back to the community important to you?

A. I believe that there is always a blessing or two, in addition to hard work, that helps us succeed. I have been blessed – blessed to be born and raised in a healthy, safe, and self-sufficient environment. Blessed to have been at the right place at the right time with opportunity. Blessed to have been somehow protected by a guardian angel at times when things could have gone the other way.


I feel that many of our neighbors work hard and just need that blessing or two. It breaks my heart seeing data that shows a significant percentage of our neighbors working so hard – often juggling 2 to 3 jobs – still having to worry about their next meal. I cringe when I hear of stories of children born in an environment of alcohol and/or drug addiction and where caregiving and basic needs are lacking. Or when I hear of stories of children already at a disadvantage when they start school compared to their peers because their parents were not able to afford early child education. I want to give back and help enable the blessing(s) that significantly improves the quality of life of our neighbors in need.


Q. What Central Indiana human services organizations are you involved with and why?

A. My involvement varies between giving time, talent, and/or treasure, depending on the organization. I am currently involved as s United Way Lead Ambassador at my employer, with Second Helpings as a Board Fellow through United Way’s Leadership United and with Gleaners Food Bank of Indiana. Other organizations which I love to highlight include, but are not limited to, Flanner House, Horizon House, and Bosma Enterprises.


What I love about these organizations – and there are more out there – is that not only do they provide the band-aid to ease the immediate basic need, but they also invest in the long-term journey with each neighbor who is struggling, towards the path of self-sufficiency.


What I admire the most about some of these organizations are the innovative and remarkable strategies they come up with to be sustainable in the long term, and how they continually evolve to best help their community.


Q. Why is it important for our community to know more about our fellow neighbors with American Asian Pacific Islander heritage?

A. I believe it is important to know more about ALL our neighbors in our community including our fellow neighbors with American Asian Pacific Islander heritage. I personally have had my share as a kid of being laughed at and bullied because I was a “chink” and as an adult directly experiencing unconscious bias – and tragically I am one of the lucky ones that has never been threatened or killed, and my heart cries and goes out to those families who have not been so fortunate.  I am a firm believer that ignorance breeds fear – we are scared of what we don’t know or understand. To me, community is family – each family member has a unique personality, unique skills/talents to offer and unique needs, and we need to understand these to best take care of each other and to maximize our potential. The more we understand each of our fellow neighbors, the more we – our community – thrives and can build on that success.


Q. Why are you passionate about United Way and our mission?

A. I can’t and don’t even want to imagine what our community would be like without United Way. I can go on and on about why I am passionate about United Way and their mission.. When I was introduced to United Way 8 years ago, I was so impressed that I decided to become involved, and since then, have been helping to spread the word about what United Way does and the significant impact it has on our community.


First, United Way partners with over 80 non-profit organizations in our community who share in United Way’s mission to strengthen our communities by fighting for education, financial stability, health, and basic needs for our neighbors in need. Like a mother hen using tough love, United Way holds the bar high for these organizations yet supports them by providing training, workshops and other non-profit tools and resources to help these organizations thrive and be best positioned to effectively compete for United Way grants and other funding.


Second, United Way invests in researching our community and uses the data to inform what and where the key community needs are. They reach out to our government and provide the voice for our neighbors in need.


Third, United Way holds themselves accountable by setting goals and metrics to measure the impact of their work. They continually grow and evolve in strategic direction to adapt and flex with evolving community needs and to maximize the impact of our donations.


Q. What advice would you share for those considering ways to get involved in the Central Indiana and/or the AAPI community – where to start? What ways would you recommend for individuals and families to engage and learn more about AAPI culture here in Central Indiana?

A. One way I stay up to date with things is by researching. Using “Asian American Pacific Islander Indiana” as a key word helped me pull out the following organizations: the Indianapolis Chinese Community Center Inc., the Asian American Alliance, the America China Society of Indiana, the Korean American Association of Indiana, the Asian American Association at Indiana University and the the Burmese American Community Institute, which I just learned is also one of 63 grantees of the United Way Basic Needs fund.


Perusing these organizations’ websites is a great way to start learning about what is going on in the AAPI community. Many organizations have on their website an option to sign up to receive newsletters or have social media pages one can follow – I take advantage of these to stay in touch on the latest with respect to initiatives and events.


A second potential channel you may be able to discover more is where you work. Many places of employment are investing in diversity and inclusion initiatives, resources, and specific employee groups that you can become a member of and build on a supportive network -and from which you can learn more about your community.

A third potential path would be to leverage Indiana’s growing ethnic diverse repertoire of restaurants to explore AAPI cultural food traditions.

For those interested in becoming more involved in the Central Indiana community in general, I would start by going to the United Way of Central Indiana website, where they list and provide information and links to the websites of their community partners. Again, it is worth taking the time to peruse these organizations’ websites and get acquainted with their mission and the wonderful work they do for our community. Several of these organizations give tours that are eye-opening and inspiring and offer volunteer opportunities which are a great way to experience what the needs in our community and a wonderful way to give your time, talent, and treasure.


Q. What inspired, frustrated, and surprised you most about this last year as many of our fellow neighbors found themselves struggling economically through the pandemic?

A. I was heartbroken to hear of not only how many individual jobs and local businesses were lost, but how the pandemic was also crippling the community-based organizations that would normally be there for our fellow neighbors who were struggling. The rainbow came out when I heard of the timely launching of C-CERF – the Central Indiana COVID-19 Community Economic Relief Fund, by United Way and other substantial partners to provide emergency funding to organizations serving neighbors in need due to the pandemic.


I was also in awe to hear how some community-based organizations stepped up to the challenge. For example, Second Helpings, a community-based organization dedicated to food rescue, hunger relief and culinary job training, quickly adapted and did not miss a beat – they leveraged C-CERF and other funding and partnered with local businesses to find new and safe ways to help provide food to their neighbors and to quickly build significant capacity to respond to the drastically elevated need for food assistance. It was absolutely inspiring to see this type of funding and social innovation coming together so quickly for our community during this unique time of dire need.


Q. What community work or leadership are you most proud of at this point?

A. Every opportunity I have had to help the community is a blessing for me and each has been rewarding in its own unique way.


Spreading awareness on United Way and their partner community-based organizations is important to me – like all non-profits, these organizations depend on donations to thrive, and I believe anyone who is made aware of and understands the wonderful work these organizations do to strengthen our community would not hesitate to invest their time, talent, and/or treasure to the cause.


One of the community experiences that had a lasting effect on me was a servant leadership opportunity to build a home in Mexico for a family of 4 – Dad, Mom and two young children.  Again, a heart-string tugging situation where Dad was working day and night, but family was living under sub-optimal conditions. It was absolutely rewarding to see Dad happy and proud to help with the build and to receive the keys to a new home. It was humbling experience which helped put things in perspective.