Asian American LEAD (Leadership, Empowerment and Development) builds community strength by supporting immigrant families and helping them gain access to services. “In Vietnam, there are no social services. The community provides,” says founder Sandy Dang. “Here, we become nieces and nephews. We come into the home and say, ‘Uncles and Aunts: How are you doing? What do you need?”
Thuan Nguyen expected the American government to make all the choices about her children’s studies. That’s how it worked in Vietnam. With AALEAD’s support, she has learned to navigate a very different educational system in America. “I am lucky that I have children who are studious,” says Thuan Nguyen, who came from Vietnam in 1995, when her children were 13 and 5. “But it’s not enough to be studious. They need someone to guide them academically.” Currently, daughter Lan Anh Phan is a junior at the University of Virginia, and son Minh Phan, a ninth grader, is at AALEAD nearly every day after school for tutoring, sports or community service programs.
Asian American LEAD was founded in 1998, but its origins date back to 1981, the year that executive director Sandy Hoa Dang arrived in the United States at age 13. After fleeing Vietnam and spending three years in a Hong Kong refugee camp, Dang’s family was bewildered by their newly adopted country. In 1995, she joined the Indochinese Community Center in Washington, D.C., and discovered an enclave of 6,000 Vietnamese, many of whom lived in conditions far worse than those she experienced as an immigrant. She founded AALEAD to strengthen immigrant families and reinforce the bonds between parents and their children.
Education becomes the entry for AALEAD to reinforce parents as they work to realize family goals despite language barriers. Staff explain report cards, translate school documents and accompany parents to school conferences. Informal gatherings also bring families together to celebrate their children’s progress, share their stories and renew cultural ties.
After-school tutors give homework help and English language enrichment to young people. A youth leadership program offers service learning and assistance with college applications. AALEAD also reaches beyond the Asian community. When a group of tenants needed help with their slumlord, AALEAD, organized Asian, African American and Latino tenants to fight successfully for their rights. “Our model is strength-based,” says Dang. “Any community can strengthen itself, and then it can transcend its own boundaries, coming together with others to form a richer fabric for this country.”