By: Katie Goldstein, #MovementMakerTribe Intern & LSU Student
As an intern for Terri, I have had the opportunity to interview Bee Nguyen, a state representative in my home state of Georgia. Representative Bee Nguyen represents Georgia’s House of Representatives for District 89. She founded the nonprofit Athena’s Warehouse in 2009, and in 2015 she became involved in politics and joined the Georgia Women’s Policy Institute.
The importance of family
As one of five daughters born to immigrants who fled Vietnam in the early 1970’s, Nguyen says her parents ingrained in her the idea of family from the start, highlighting the importance of sacrifice and empathy for others. These concepts help her navigate the political climate in the Georgia House of Representatives every day.
When asked about her role models, Nguyen was quick to talk about her parents. In the middle of the Vietnam War, her mother facilitated her family’s escape to America. Prior to coming to America, Nguyen’s father was held as a prisoner of war for three years. His first job in the United States was working in a mental institution making minimum wage. At night he would come home and study on a cardboard box. He earned his engineering degree in two and a half years. Nguyen said that her mother has always been the one to put everyone else’s needs before her own, and her father was determined to be a driving force towards a brighter future for his family.
Nguyen said that her parents never encouraged her to engage civically. Her parents always taught her that education was the key to breaking out of poverty. Nguyen says she was just drawn to a different pathway. “You could tell that they [her parents] were still suffering from a lot of trauma they experienced. They fled conflict and war and they were largely silent all of their lives,” Nguyen said. “They fled from a government that didn’t allow them to participate, and I felt like I needed to put that energy into empowering other people because I didn’t know how to support my parents.”
Nguyen says that when she founded her non-profit organization, Athena’s Warehouse, it was a relatively simple concept. The organization would provide young women with prom dresses in exchange for three hours of community service. Since its founding, Athena’s Warehouse has grown into a variety of after school programing that focus on life skills and building self-esteem. Nguyen says that the most important thing about Athena’s Warehouse is that it provides a safe space for young women to grow and learn about self-empowerment.
The service projects pair high school girls with professional women. This is to expose the girls to role models and mentors and to show them the possibilities of what they can become when influential and strong women invest in them. Nguyen says the goal is to show the girls a strong female role model instead of a princess waiting to be rescued, giving them the confidence to fight their own battles and lead their own way.
Bee’s political origin
When asked about why she decided to become more involved in local government, Nguyen said that the root of a lot of the problems she was seeing at Athena’s Warehouse were policy decisions. “Everything is an extension of itself. I was working with 75 girls a year, but the reality is that there are so many more girls in the same position, and you can only change it through the decisions that we make with policy,” Nguyen said.
In 2015, Nguyen joined the Georgia Women’s Policy Institute that teaches women how to pass legislation. Through the program, Nguyen worked on a bill titled Pursuing Justice for Rape Victims. The bill worked to clear the backlog of rape kits that exist in Georgia.
“I was at the general assembly talking to lawmakers and I was with sexual assault survivors. When we were talking to the lawmakers, we were talking to almost all white men who didn’t know how to talk about the topic and they had never talked to survivors so directly before,” Nguyen said. “It made me realize we really need more women at the capitol.”
Passion for public service
“I view everything that I’ve been doing as a natural evolution. It just seemed like the next logical step of needing to step up and getting more involved,” Nguyen said. Growing up, Nguyen said she never anticipated herself going into politics. Nguyen said part of the reason for that is that she never saw herself represented as a woman or as an Asian-American.
“I think that young people need to see themselves reflected and it gives them the ideas of what they could be when they grow up,” Nguyen said. “When you’re not exposed to that, when you don’t get to see it with your own eyes, it is hard to imagine you could be in that position one day.”
When asked about the issues that were most important to her as a lawmaker, Nguyen highlighted prison reform, sexual assault, and domestic violence. Nguyen also stated that issues that feel personal to her are education as well as immigration policy. Being a daughter of immigrants has made these political issue very personal to her. Nguyen says that there have been times when people have said to her (concerning immigration), “Well your parents did it the right way.” Nguyen says she finds that sentiment particularly inaccurate and offensive. Her parents left their country in the middle of the night, which was illegal.
“They went out into the middle of the sea on a small boat,” Nguyen said. “A Thai fisherman found them. The fisherman took all 30 people on that boat onto his fishing vessel, which was also illegal. Those were the decisions people made along the way because they felt that humanity and what was right was more important than what we define as legal and illegal.”
Nguyen talked about the association between immigration and for-profit prisons. In Georgia there are three for-profit detention centers. Nguyen is working to shed more light on the interwoven relationship between these two issues. She believes it is an issue that can be worked on in the city of Atlanta, Georgia and nationally.
“We [the government] literally get paid for the amount of people that are being held. When you create a for-profit prison system, you are essentially selling people’s lives for money. In those detention centers we know the conditions are horrendous and the practices are inhumane. There is no accountability,” Nguyen said.
Nguyen’s current state of affairs
Nguyen currently sits on the Georgia House of Representatives Education Committee and she touts education as being one of the issues she is most passionate about. As part of Athena’s Warehouse, Nguyen has spent a lot of time in under resourced public schools, and she has seen first-hand how it impacts the children who attend them.
Nguyen was elected to office around a year before the 2016 presidential election. Nguyen states that since the election she has seen an increase in participation in government locally and nationally.
“I do think that perhaps this is a moment in time that people are beginning to understand that local matters and state matters,” Nguyen said.
Recently on his show, Sacha Baron Cohen talked to now former Georgia State Representative Jason Spencer. On the show Spencer made several disparaging remarks and actions which led to his resignation. Nguyen sat two seats down from him and talked to him every morning.
“In this case it was hard for me to see him act like that knowing that every single day for almost four months the two people that he talked to in the morning in the general assembly were an Asian woman and a black woman, and for some reason he was able to still have these attitudes so incredibly vocally and unapologetically,” Nguyen said.
Nguyen also says that she tries to talk to everybody and understand that there are some issues that they will agree on and some that they will not agree on, stressing the importance of people being heard and respected. She also feels it is important to talk about politics as a gray area.
Nguyen’s first legislative session was hard for her to get used to. She said it was like highschool. She compares the committees to classrooms, describing how she needed to figure out how to be most effective and impactful in those spaces.
“The biggest lesson I learned was not to be beholden to my fear because I think so often that if we give into our fears we start to give in to our principles,” Nguyen said.
Nguyen’s advice to someone who wants to be more involved in local government, national government or just their community would be simple. “Whatever you do should make sense for what you do, who you are, what you care about, and what you’re passionate about, because that is the thing that is going to keep you continually involved. Sometimes you might not know, and you might have to push yourself out of your comfort zone, but I think that there is a space for everybody.”
More about the Author: Katie Goldstein is a Sophomore at Louisiana State University in Baton Rouge, Louisiana. Hailing from the Atlanta area, Katie says she had a fan girl moment when interviewing Representative Nguyen. For Katie she’s always heard about passing laws from her local news, but this time she was able to hear it from the source herself. Goldstein is studying Political Communications at LSU’s Manship School with hopes of working in the policy arena upon graduation. She currently is Vice President of the LSU Public Relations Student Society of America and is proud member of the #MovementMakerTribe.
Disclaimer: This blog is non-partisan. The views reflected in this article do not necessarily reflect the views of myself or Terri Broussard Williams.
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