At Bảo Vệ Collective the Title “To Protect” Takes on Multiple Meanings

Mimi Nguyễn, Y Vy Trương and kathy thái are building a calm and safe space for Vietnamese youth.

Bảo Vệ Collective is a grassroot group born at the height of the pandemic last year. (“Bảo vệ” means “to protect” in Vietnamese). Initially, its main goal was to help members of the Vietnamese community apply for Employment Insurance (EI) and Canada Emergency Recovery Benefit (CERB) with step-by-step instructions in English and Vietnamese.

Then its content expanded when the group joined the C19 Response Coalition. This project improves information accessibility for marginalized communities in British Columbia who often face language, income and technological barriers. At the time of writing, Bảo Vệ Collective was arranging translation and transportation services for Vietnamese seniors going to the vaccine clinic at Strathcona Community Centre. This happened with assistance from Yarrow Intergenerational Society for Justice, a non-profit in Vancouver’s Chinatown.

Bảo Vệ Collective was founded by Mimi Nguyễn, Y Vy Trương and kathy thái, close friends and graduates from the University of British Columbia (UBC). Nguyễn is project and operations manager, Trương is public and community engagement coordinator, and thái is design and communications lead. The trio formed a strong bond as they explored their nuanced identities as settlers in Canada and children of former refugees. Their positive energy and collaborative spirit are rooted in the quest to connect with their heritage, while also raising awareness on Canada’s tumultuous past with Indigenous communities with resources in Vietnamese.

In this interview, Nguyễn, Trương and thái discussed Bảo Vệ Collective’s motivation and post-pandemic vision, as well as the deeper meaning behind its name.

What motivated you to start Bảo Vệ Collective (BVC)?

Thái: We didn’t know how many people needed help. I was just thinking “If my mom and Mimi’s dad need help to apply for EI, who else does?”

Nguyễn: [The motivation] definitely came from a personal standpoint, seeing the people we loved affected by this pandemic. Even as English speakers, we had difficulties navigating the EI and CERB application processes. For a non-English speaker, it would be impossible. In some households, only the kids are bilingual. If they don’t have the context to understand certain things, it’s very difficult to complete the application. BVC was built because we want to support people who may not have somebody else to ask. It is a very isolating and scary situation to be in.  

How long did it take you to put everything together?

Nguyễn: It was supposed to be two weeks, and then it became three weeks, because CERB came about. It wasn’t just translation, but understanding what the program was and its criteria. Because new programs kept rolling in, we had to call our MPs for clarification, and even they didn’t have the answers.

Trương: I also want to acknowledge that the work is not over yet. Although we’ve been able to advocate for language accessibility and justice with the videos for CERB and other benefits, not much has changed. People continue to face technological, cultural and linguistic barriers. At the beginning, after we published our website, kathy, who was then our main translator, constantly had to update the information. We were born and raised here, so our capacity for Vietnamese is all different. We relied on our volunteers and our growing relationship with other folks in the community as well.

How did you reach out to other volunteers?

Thái: When we published our website, some people found us and asked if we needed help to proofread. After going over the translation, they said: “It’s not perfect, but it’s good!” (laughs) That’s how it started with the first round of volunteer translators. We knew Vân Đặng, our primary translator, through Mimi.

Nguyễn: Earlier in the pandemic, Đài Lac Việt [a Vietnamese radio station in Vancouver] invited us to go on air to talk about BVC. Through that, we received emails from listeners wanting to volunteer their time to translate.

Besides the changes in rules and regulations at the beginning, what other challenges did you face?

Trương: Everything! [laugh] Because the pandemic is a major health crisis, all of the issues that have existed are now more pressing. We have been confronted with a lot of hard conversations about racism and the lack of language accessibility. How did we get here in the first place? Why don’t people have access to what I think are our fundamental rights?

Nguyễn: I don’t think people shine enough light on how this work [helping people who have consistently been underserved and pushed into isolation] is so emotionally and mentally exhausting. It’s easy to pitch what we do as success stories, but this is the response to the lack of support we’ve experienced. The more we do this work without adequate support, aka money [laughs], the worse those gaps become. People who are providing the support are going to get burned out.

What is your biggest achievement so far?

Thái: The fact that we’re still here and working with the city of Vancouver [conducting engagement with the Vietnamese community to inform the city’s urban planning initiatives]. I thought we would be done after CERB, then we continued with the C19 Response Coalition. After that, we tackled misinformation with a digital literacy guide and more vaccine information. I’m just amazed that we’re still here.

Trương: One of the successes that we’ve experienced is generous support. We’ve had the opportunity to engage with Vietnamese folks and other communities as well. The Asian Canadian & Asian Migration Studies Department at UBC has shared our content and helped us apply for grants. Other non-profits, such as Yarrow, Hua Foundation, Tulayan and Sulong have been with us, too. They have a larger population in Vancouver than the Vietnamese community, and elders experienced in community organizing work. For us, we don’t have a lot of elders who can teach us that. The conversations around community building are different from how they were in the past. 

What is your vision for BVC after the pandemic?

Nguyễn: What we have consistently talked about is building a space for Vietnamese youths. I spent my undergrad years asking organizations if they needed help with the Vietnamese community. Most of the time, they didn’t have anything. There are probably other young people who want to share their energy and collaboration too, but our community in Vancouver is quite fragmented. We don’t have a central space or identity, for various reasons. Sometimes the things that make us diverse can keep us apart. With BVC, we hope that we could become a safe space.

Trương: The three of us share a space where we can openly ask each other questions, and we hope to extend it to other people. We’ve had difficult conversations, not just between us, but also with our families. For example, how do you translate racism to your parents, when you don’t know the vocabulary? When I was an undergrad, I didn’t know any other Vietnamese who were studying English literature or interested in film and arts. Finding kinship with kathy and Mimi made me feel safer in being recognized for who I could be.

Thái: I am proud that we were able to connect more Vietnamese youths to opportunities, especially those with interest in community organizing. 

Why did you decide on the word “Bảo Vệ” ?

Trương: In an art project to support the Wet’suwet’en protest [to oppose the construction of Coastal GasLink’s natural gas pipeline on Wet’suwet’en territory in British Columbia], our friend Jane Shi asked people from different diasporic communities to write “Stand With Wet’suwet’en.” She believes language justice is crucial in building cross-cultural relationships with Indigenous communities. I joined her by saying “Bảo Vệ Wet’suwet’en.” That wasn’t too long before the pandemic hit. Since then, I’ve been thinking about “What does it mean to protect?  What does it mean to build a community predicated on the ethics of care and solidarity?” I thought it would be a nice name for us to begin the work at BVC.

Nguyễn: We felt “bảo vệ” was very fitting, because we were protecting people from hardships during this pandemic with our CERB and EI videos. Later on, we protected them from the virus, when the lack of language accessibility impeded their understanding of new information. As time passed, the second meaning of “bảo vệ” became “to foster, care, nourish” and provide people with the tools that allow them to grow, particularly with the digital literacy guide. When the George Floyd protests happened in June, we compiled some resources so our communities could have conversations around racism and anti-blackness. “Bảo vệ” has taken on a lot more meanings during the last year.

Do you have any message for the Vietnamese community in Canada, or youth specifically?

Trương: Community work needs to be grounded in care and compassion towards the most vulnerable and marginalized people in society. One step towards that is by having hard but necessary conversations.  I encourage Vietnamese youths living in Canada to invest time to think about settler colonialism and understand the struggles of Indigenous and Black communities here. These issues are important because our struggles are interconnected, and from there we can build a better understanding of what our relationship to this land and each other is. 

Nguyễn: Despite our similar histories, our lived experiences make us anything but a homogenous group. Some of us will have difficulties exploring our heritage or finding kinship with “our people”, but the Vietnamese community is whomever you identify with and wherever you are welcomed.

Thái: To Vietnamese youth specifically, I want to say that you can create what you want to see in your community. We could draw upon our experiences and skills to create a space for people to find resources, while also hopefully beginning a process of (un)learning. It takes time, initiative, and patience with your team, your community, and yourself. BVC doesn’t want to be gatekeepers of the Vietnamese community because we don’t believe we represent everyone. There are many opinions, ideas, and creative sparks out there. I hope we’ve shown what might be possible when you’re aware of your positionality, approach community-building with care, and are willing to share what you’ve imagined. 

The interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

This content is also available in: Tiếng Việt

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This content is also available in: Tiếng Việt