Saint Mary’s conference focuses on social justice solutions
By Lou Fancher
Vien Truong was wrong: she was never small.
Addressing the 2016 Leadership for Social Justice Conference at Saint Mary’s College focused on sustainability and environmental justice, the Oakland-based social justice activist said she decided in 2010 “to no longer tolerate being small.”
She quit her attorney job to lead a team that helped to pass SB 535, an initiative that channels a quarter of California’s Greenhouse Gas Reduction Fund to disadvantaged communities.
But Truong was also right: building solidarity, not divisiveness, she said, is the best way to be “big” in opposition to injustice and for the work of environmentalist and thought leaders like herself to continue.
The all-day conference Nov. 20, included breakout sessions on progressive change and was presented by SMC’s Catholic Institute for Lasallian Social Action.
Truong, winner in 2016 of the White House Champion of Change for Climate Equity award, stands no more than five feet tall, and began her remarks sharing her dramatic biography. Born in a refugee camp, she is the youngest of 11 children whose parents and 80-year-old grandmother fled Vietnam in a rickety boat, rowing roughly 500 miles to reach China.
Her family eventually reached the United States where her parents labored as farm workers, picking strawberries and snow peas in pesticide-heavy fields in Oregon.
A move to Oakland to gain economic stability found her parents reduced to earning only 25 cents per shirt working long hours in textile sweatshops, and exposed the children to environmental, economic and social hardships.
Before graduating from high school, Truong attended 10 different schools as her family moved in search of a better, safer future.
She earned a B.A. from UC Berkeley and a J.D. from UC Hastings College of the Law.
“When I returned to Oakland, all of the things I’d normalized were no longer normal.”
She said the daily drive-by shootings so common that schoolchildren no longer ducked, and the educational, employment and other systemic inequities were unacceptable.
“I realized the purpose of my education was not to escape poverty, but to end it.”
Truong and her husband are raising their 3-year-old twin sons in her childhood neighborhood. She said the life expectancy for her family is predicted to be 12 years less than that of people who grow up living near SMC. The reason? “Not bad people, bad circumstances,” she said, naming as causes the location—sandwiched between two freeways—and housing and food shortages that made people “desperate.”
The solutions, she said, are to be found in recognizing that people of all communities are connected. Society is an ecosystem in the same way that bee populations, plants, agriculture, and the food that winds up on a person’s plate are interrelated — and co-dependent.
“Why don’t we realize that what happens here affects everybody else?” she asked.
The 2014 water crisis in Flint, Mich., that exposed roughly 10,000 children to lead in the water system, she suggested, was a wakeup call.
The cost of repairing pipes in the houses — let alone providing health care to people impacted and fixing the system — exceeded the homes’ values and was a two-fisted blow. Many people faced severe financial losses.
“Not only were the people poisoned, they were robbed,” she said.
Truong used Green For All, the national initiative she leads that builds inclusive green economies, to take big strides in Flint. The grassroots organization raised funds, including $800 collected by inmates at Oregon State Penitentiary.
“Society tells us that people in prison are hopeless and should be thrown away,” she said, noting that the inmates’ contributions represented 10 percent of their incomes. “Who among us has done that?”
Offering a challenge to the audience, Truong said concentration on reducing greenhouse gas emission could no longer blind environmentalists to interrelated issues: racism, poverty, threats to educational funding, and more.
She urged people to find common ground with global warming naysayers.
“People can agree that weather has become weird: start where people are.”
Savvy use of social media, she predicted is pivotal, as are innovative partnerships with private entities and banks to leverage funds needed to combat the problems.
Most essential, she said, was for people — big or small — to have heart, drive and the will to connect and build a sustainable energy future for generations.