Executive Director: Mary Queen of Vietnam Community Development Corporation
Mary Tran is the executive director for the Mary Queen of Vietnam Community Development Corporation. Formed by community leaders in 2006, the CDC helps residents of New Orleans East, a predominantly Vietnamese community, recover from and rebuild after Hurricane Katrina.
As executive director of the Mary Queen of Vietnam Community Development Corporation, Mary Tran illustrates the social entrepreneur’s capacity to strengthen a community’s resilience. As an institution, the Mary Queen of Vietnam church demonstrates how institutions leverage social capital.
Why was the CDC formed?
The Mary Queen of Vietnam CDC was formed right after the storm mainly to help the residents recover after Hurricane Katrina. Gradually, we became a development corporation and were formally established in May of 2006. We had a community charrette (design) process done in January of 2006 and in February of 2006, and…our mission is just to follow their vision. So, we do development in senior housing. We develop community health centers and hold community forums. We help business expand, or we provide them technical assistance—so we do business development. We do social services in the office as well.
How do you judge what the community needs and where the CDC can be most useful?
We had an urban planner from Seattle. She came and she said, “This is a really good time to figure out what the community wants.” Because, of course, we don’t want to rebuild it to the same way it was pre-Katrina. So that’s when we started coming up with the focus groups and community forums, just to see what the community wants, how the community wants for it to return. What they wanted was senior housing, call centers, and better schools.
Why is senior housing so important to your community?
Pre-Katrina, we had six retirement communities in New Orleans East—none of them which was language appropriate or culturally appropriate to the Vietnamese-Americans….It took precedence over other projects because seniors were returning after Hurricane Katrina with no places to live….Right after the storm, the rent was sky high so they couldn’t afford the rent.
What is the history of New Orleans East and the Vietnamese community in New Orleans?
I was born and raised up in New Orleans. My grandparents and my parents came in about 1975 to 1980—about there….Archbishop Hannon…went out to the refugee camps to kind of reach out to the Vietnamese community….He knew about an apartment complex here that was actually built for the NASA workers….[But] in 1975, they had the white flight. The NASA workers, they moved Uptown or to Metairie, so then this apartment complex was left vacant. It had 400 units. So Archbishop Hannon went to the refugee camps and invited the Vietnamese priests to come to New Orleans East. Wherever the Vietnamese priests went, the community followed them. That’s how we migrated to New Orleans.
What is the relationship between the Mary Queen of Vietnam Church and the CDC?
The community leaders of the church formed us. We have a partnership….We work together on many projects. We had a community cleanup the other week, and we worked with them to get volunteers. Then they made food, so we worked with them really closely.
What was it like right after Katrina?
I sneaked back in two weeks after the storm just to see how the condition of my dad’s house was and pick up some clothes, and the condition was really bad at the time. It was kind of like a ghost town here in New Orleans East. I came back permanently in November 2005. Not that many people returned. It was mainly community leaders, maybe some families here and there.
I think if you drove around the community back in November 2005—some houses you would notice. They would be inside with the candles because we didn’t have electricity. We didn’t have water at the time. So everything was at the church. Everybody stayed at the church. They got water. They got food at the church. So the main focus after Hurricane Katrina was going to the church, which gave out a lot of relief assistance.
What have been some of the CDC’s biggest successes?
We were able to work with FEMA and the city to get 199 trailers, and this was in December of 2005 or about there. It was when the community really needed the trailers to come back to rebuild, because when they come back and clean their houses, they need a place to stay….
We’ve gotten $12 million for the senior housing, that low-income housing tax credit that I helped to put together. We’ve opened two health clinics in the community so far, both in partnerships with major hospitals in the city. We opened an intercultural charter school, K through 5. Next year we’ll be expanding K through 6. We’ve acquired 20 acres of land for the open farm, and we’ll successfully close down the Chef Menteur landfill. We’ve helped business owners with about $1.2 million in grants and loans to open their business—so major accomplishments.
What is the Chef Menteur landfill?
[In February 2006] the mayor, Ray Nagin, used his emergency powers and opened a landfill 0.8 miles from the edge of our community….So we found out that they were going to have a landfill, and at the beginning, we were okay with it because it was just supposed to be a C&D, construction and debris, landfill.
And then we found out later on that C&D, after Hurricane Katrina, expanded to pretty much everything. We found out from other environmental groups that it was going to be toxic and that this was going to be very harmful for our community. And so we decided to close it, and that’s when we rallied our community members, went to City Hall, and demanded that they close the landfill.
Was this the first time the community had to organize like this to interact with government?
Yes, the Chef Menteur landfill was probably the first time we had to interact so much with the city, with the government, because before Katrina our community was really kind of quiet. We kept to ourselves. We didn’t pretty much care about what the city was doing, but this time they decided to open the landfill without the community’s input so that’s when we decided that we needed to do something about it.
What effect did the closing of the landfill have on the community?
I think by closing the landfill we’re showing them that the community has a voice: You just can’t pick on us because we have a language barrier. So I think the victory with the Chef Menteur landfill was just to show the government that whatever you do, you have to involve the community’s input in it and not just decide to throw a landfill in wherever you want to.
What are the Viet Village and urban farm projects?
The Viet Village is how we’re trying to brand ourselves. Before the storm, we had 10,000 Vietnamese Americans living in New Orleans East, so we’re the most dense population out of Vietnam that has the most Vietnamese in a one-mile radius….We’re trying to brand ourselves as Viet Village so that we can be a cultural district.
For the urban farm, we purchased 20 acres of land right next to the Mary Queen of Vietnam Church. We’re hoping to have a community farm out there, as well as livestock, so that community members can go out there to grow their organic herbs or plants or fruits—anything they would like to plant. We would have goats and chickens and ducks out on the farm.
What has made the CDC and the church effective in working with this community?
I think that the church and the CDC has helped mainly with organizing after Katrina….The Bring New Orleans Back committee was formed by the city to figure out which parts of the city they wanted to return. Our area wasn’t on the map to be returned, so because we kept up-to-date with what the city was doing, we organized community members to go up to City Hall to let the committee know that we’ve already returned. You can’t turn us into green space.
I think that’s how the CDC helped a lot with the community to return. We read the newspaper, were up-to-date with everything that was going on with the city, and then we came back and held community forums and community meetings to let the community know what was going on with the city.
Why has the CDC been more successful than many other community development and church groups?
We’ve had a lot of help from community members. I think mainly because when we need them to come out for a rally or the landfill, it’s easy because we organize through the church. We’ll tell one of the priests that we need 30 folks to come out to the City Hall rally. So then he’ll announce that at church, and next thing you know, we’ll have like 60 people attending meetings.
Why has the community here to be able to come back so quickly and so effectively?
I think the community came back so fast and so effectively mainly because the community is very close knit. Everyone knows each other in the community, so then when people are telling others that they’re coming back, everybody was like, okay, well since they’re going to come back too….
We’re very resilient. Our grandparents have been through the Vietnam War and the emigration from Vietnam to here, so I think they’ve been through a lot.
What advice would you give to the new administration?
I think my advice to the new administrations, the politicians here, and our city officials is that right now New Orleans hasn’t rebuilt yet. We’re still steadily trying to rebuild. I think a lot of the entire country has forgotten about New Orleans already, but still a lot of families have not been back into their homes….So I think that not to forget that New Orleans still needs their help in rebuilding the city to the way it was.