San Jose Vietnamese community at center of Philip Nguyen’s advocacy work
Philip Nguyen, the first executive director of the Vietnamese American Roundtable, presents at a summer 2021 mentorship program. Photo by Tran Nguyen.

The Vietnamese American Roundtable is becoming a household name in the South Bay, and at the core of the transformative effort is its first ever executive director, Philip Nguyen.

Nguyen, who served as a part-time program manager starting in 2020, took on the leadership role last summer, marking a pivotal point for the growing organization.

Nguyen didn’t have plans to apply for the top job, until he watched the students he mentored flourish and grow as future community leaders last summer and received support from board members. Then he had a change of heart.

“That’s when I felt the call to responsibility,” he told San José Spotlight.

Philip Nguyen, executive director of the Vietnamese American Roundtable. Photo courtesy of Philip Nguyen.

The Vietnamese American Roundtable was founded in 2013 and relied mainly on volunteers prior to hiring Nguyen last July. The group often hosts community events, such as the Tet holiday—which celebrates the Lunar New Year —and Black April Commemoration—which honors the anniversary of the fall of Saigon—as well as civil engagement panels on voter education and employment rights.

The Southern California native from Lancaster first learned about the Vietnamese American Roundtable during his master’s program in Asian American studies at San Francisco State University. The group’s mission, which places community building and engagement as guiding principles, resonated with Nguyen immediately.

Two years ago, Nguyen applied to be a part-time program manager with the hope to translate his academic training and background to community organizing.

“I oftentimes felt a disconnect, like being in the ivory tower,” Nguyen said of his academic career. “The job was an opportunity for me to engage with the community in a way that I hadn’t been able to do before.”

When the COVID-19 pandemic first hit the South Bay in March 2020, the organization scrambled to move its projects and activities online, including the group’s summer youth leadership program.

Nguyen, only three months into his job, took the lead. The conversion to online was arduous. The organization also found itself at the forefront of fighting misinformation—and keeping the Vietnamese community updated with COVID news.

“Phillip took those (projects) and ran with it,” board member Huy Tran said.  “We could see immediately that he was going to be the kind of guy who wants to do the job. He really flourished in a position where the job was about serving others.”

During his time as manager, Nguyen helped create a bi-monthly show called, “VAR on Air,” where the group discusses programs and services available to residents and significant issues facing the community.

“What Phillip doesn’t know, he’s gonna go out and find the answer,” Christina Johnson, board vice president, told San José Spotlight. “He’s already a go getter and he’s always trying to come up with creative solutions and make things work.”

Philip Nguyen (back row, second from the right) first joined the Vietnamese American Roundtable in 2020 with the hope to translate his academic training and background to community organizing. Photo courtesy of Philip Nguyen.

A decade of roots

Nguyen, who moved to the Bay Area roughly 10 years ago, established himself as a prominent community organizer. In addition to leading the Vietnamese American Roundtable, Nguyen also teaches Vietnamese American literature and history at San Francisco State University, serves as a consultant for the Progressive Vietnamese American Organization and also leads the Union of North American Vietnamese Student Associations.

Through different events and initiatives, Nguyen helps put the Vietnamese American Roundtable on the map, Tran said. He also collaborated with San Jose and led outreach efforts in the Vietnamese American community during the census count in 2020.

“We’re incredibly grateful to have a person with values and and dedication like Philip,” Tran said.

East San Jose native Alexander Nguyen said he knew about Philip before they even met.

“He was very involved with the community, so his name was out there,” said Alexander Nguyen, who participated in the leadership program last summer and has since become friends with Philip. “I have always seen him as a leader.”

For the Vietnamese American Roundtable, Philip Nguyen has been integral to its operation and growth. The group that once relied on volunteers now has a substantial operating budget—funded by grants that Philip Nguyen helped bring in, Johnson said. The organization’s estimated operating budget is $300,000 this year.

“He’s a great collaborator, and he’s a really strong grant writer,” Johnson said. “I would love that one day we become a big advocacy organization for the Vietnamese community. I’m thrilled that Philip is at the helm of our organization to work toward that.”

Six months into his leadership role, Philip Nguyen said there’s still much for him to learn.

“Working with the Vietnamese American community is incredibly difficult,” he said, adding the work goes beyond just knowing how to speak Vietnamese. “It’s about knowing how to engage or interact with all generations and all facets of the Vietnamese American community in a way that we can empower each other. Because we’re not leaving anyone behind.”

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

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