San Jose mayor taps local organizer to serve as Asian community liaison
Tri Nguyen, the latest AAPI community liaison in San Jose Mayor Sam Liccardo's office, has a strong passion for public services and a desire to give back to his community. Photo by Tran Nguyen.

    Tri Nguyen started work as a community liaison in San Jose City Hall with a clear purpose: To get city services to his community.

    Since his family immigrated to San Jose from Vietnam more than 17 years ago, Nguyen has grown to love his second home in the South Bay.

    “I have built my roots here,” Nguyen told San José Spotlight, adding that he’s worked with and advocated for the Vietnamese and immigrant communities for more than 10 years.

    Now as Mayor Sam Liccardo’s latest community relations coordinator for Asian American and Pacific Islander (AAPI) communities, Nguyen—who speaks fluent Vietnamese—aims to expand his work through education and outreach efforts to serve the diverse population in San Jose.

    “For many of the communities we serve, like the Vietnamese Americans, the concept of public services doesn’t exist where they come from,” Nguyen said. “The city and media channels will have to work together to not only make our services more accessible, but also to educate our constituents to let them know that the city is here to help.”

    San Jose, the 10th largest city in the nation, has the largest Vietnamese population in any U.S. city of more than 140,000 people. But the community—and its concerns—is often overlooked at City Hall, a problem that was only exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic.

    Tri Nguyen has worked with the local Vietnamese and immigrant communities for more than 10 years. Photo by Tran Nguyen.

    Addressing needs

    A grassroots organizer since his college days, Nguyen is well-known in San Jose. He works with local nonprofits such as the Vietnamese Voluntary Foundation and the Vietnamese American Roundtable, and has volunteers to help refugees resettle in the U.S. and Canada.

    Nguyen, who started the job in late August, plans to address the community’s needs through listening and collaborating. He’s trying to tell more residents about city services such as child tax credit and rental assistance programs through translated brochures and flyers.

    “We’re glad to have an experienced community leader working hand-in-hand with the AAPI community,” the mayor’s spokesperson Rachel Davis said. “Tri has strong existing rapport with the community that will be a great asset in our efforts to more closely connect city services to our residents.”

    Despite its large population in San Jose, the Vietnamese community struggles to find its political voice. During the pandemic, small Vietnamese businesses feel they are forgotten as financial help is not accessible to those with limited English. The Asian community continues to reel from the surge of targeted violent crime earlier this year.

    “This is still a learning process for me,” Nguyen said. “I see, hear and learn more every day.”

    A familiar face

    For Philip Nguyen, executive director of the Vietnamese American Roundtable, Tri is a perfect choice for the job.

    The pair started working together at the roundtable in January 2020, but Tri had been a pillar for the organization long before that.

    “Tri was clearly a plug in the Vietnamese American community,” Philip told San José Spotlight, recalling residents already knew him when the roundtable formed. “Having Tri on our staff helped us become a trusted organization in the community.”

    Tri is the point of contact for many older residents who don’t speak English. For the roundtable, he used to host a bi-weekly chat with community members, experts and government officials on pressing issues in San Jose.

    Through his years working within the community, Tri has a firm grasp on what Vietnamese residents want—and need, Philip added.

    “He’s really able to get into the nooks and crannies of the Vietnamese community,” he said. “He can also help bridge the gap between the youth and the older generation.”

    Prior to the pandemic, Tri worked with the city to organize workshops and events like the New Year’s parade in downtown. In the early days of the pandemic, Tri helped the city with its outreach efforts, where he translated city messages about where to find free meals. He continued to help the city connect with some of the most at-risk residents over the past year.

    “I hope that we can continue to make progress providing services from the city and to do so in a way that the San Jose AAPI community can trust and believe in,” Tri said.

    To contact Tri Nguyen, call (408) 535-4800 or email him at [email protected]

    Contact Tran Nguyen at [email protected] or follow @nguyenntrann on Twitter.

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