Journal of Community Power Building      COMM-ORG Papers 2004

Contents | Walking the Fine Line | The Power of Patience | Fear and Coaxing in Waltham | A Seat at the Table | ¡Sí Se Puede! | The Local/Global Politics of Boston’s Viet-Vote | Laying Down a Speed Bump | Jook Sing

The Local/Global Politics of Boston’s Viet-Vote

By James Dien Bui, Shirley Suet-ling Tang, and Peter Nien-chu Kiang

Editor's Note:

A version of this article was prepared simultaneously for submission to an academic journal (AAPI Nexus, published by UCLA).  Footnotes and bibliography were omitted for this journal; for a version with complete notes and references, send an e-mail to Nancy Marks at

Pivotal Events

After moving past Boston’s growing Vietnamese business district during an annual spring parade along Dorchester Avenue in 1992, City Councilor Albert “Dapper” O’Neil, the neighborhood parade’s honorary grand marshal, shared his keen, caustic commentary about local demographic change with another city official on the street:  

I just passed up there, I thought I was in Saigon, for Chrissakes...  It makes you sick, for Chrissakes!

A bystander captured O’Neil’s remarks on home video and the revealing footage was broadcast on local network television news that night.  In outrage over such blatant and official disrespect, 200 people from Dorchester’s Vietnamese community along with allies from throughout the city rallied at BostonCity Hall one week later to call for racial equality and demand a public apology from O’Neil.

But, with fewer than 100 Vietnamese Americans registered to vote in Boston at that time, and with most Vietnamese residents still struggling in poverty amidst refugee realities, their capacity to exert local political pressure directly through votes or campaign contributions was minimal.  Indeed, O’Neil attended the rally and defiantly refused to apologize.  Having held office since 1971, O’Neil consistently received the highest vote totals in Boston’s at-large city council elections throughout the 1980s, and continued to do so throughout the next decade until dying in office at age 78 in 1999.

That city hall rally, though, made history as the first public, mass demonstration by Boston’s Vietnamese community focusing on local politics and issues of racial justice.  Well-organized political rallies, lobbying efforts, and public ceremonies coinciding with April 30th commemorations to mark the fall of Sai Gon or to protest local visits by groups from the Socialist Republic of Viet Nam had taken place regularly at Boston City Hall, the Massachusetts State House, and other sites since the mid-1980s.  The Vietnamese refugee/immigrant community’s capacity for political organizing was already highly engaged, but such demonstrations were – both then and now – primarily symbolic in appealing to the public’s moral conscience externally while sustaining anti-communist ideological discipline internally within the community itself.

Developing Civic Engagement

Acknowledging a critical shift in civic engagement one decade later in the immediate wake of the 1992 city hall rally, the director of Boston’s largest Vietnamese community agency admitted in terms of his own political participation, “I only vote [in the past] for president or US senator, and I wasn’t too serious with the city councilor or treasurer or small positions.  Now I should pay more attention myself to every single one of them.”  More to the point, the president of the Vietnamese Community of Massachusetts, the umbrella coordinating body of thirty-seven Vietnamese organizations across the state, asserted following the rally, “We will work harder to push the people to register to vote… if we want the political system in Boston area or everywhere in America to pay attention to our role, we have to get involved with our right to vote.”

The establishment of Viet-AID in 1994 marked a significant upgrade in the community’s organizational capacity.  Envisioned initially by 1.5-generation Vietnamese Americans who had helped to organize the 1992 city hall rally, the founders of Viet-AID sought an organizational model that would not be overly constrained by either the ideological commitments enforced by the older generation in the community or the dominant client/deficit-centered paradigm that characterized human service agencies and mutual assistance associations locally and nationally. Viet-AID’s explicit identity as a community development corporation opened new conceptual and programmatic possibilities for capacity building, particularly in relation to affordable housing development and home ownership, self-sufficient economic development, child care and native language education, neighborhood safety, and, by necessity, communication and organizing within the diverse neighborhood across culture, language, and race. 

Following the later-1990s period of immigration and welfare “reform,” a further shift in the focus of local civic engagement efforts turned to stress the urgency for Vietnamese refugees and immigrants to gain citizenship in order to be protected against the drastic elimination of rights and benefits for non-U.S. citizens mandated by Congress.  Contrasting the ease with which community leaders asserted the necessity to vote, a former Asian American Studies student who volunteered as a citizenship instructor recalled at that time how difficult the process was, especially for the elders, simply to gain naturalization:

… One woman who did not know how to read and write… was very ashamed.  [She said]  “Teacher, I'm so embarrassed.  I sit in the back of the room because I'm afraid to look at you and the other students.  I feel like I'm letting you down because you spent so much time to teach me.  I'm so stupid.  Why do I have to have this despair.  I stayed up all night last night and cried because I failed the test again.  I'm so embarrassed.  Teacher, if I don't pass the next test, I don't know what I will do.”

Further public policy attacks against immigrants have continued locally – most recently through a 2002 statewide ballot initiative financed by California businessman, Ron Unz, that successfully eliminated bilingual education in Massachusetts, just as he had previously accomplished in California.  The Unz initiative compelled bilingual education advocates and organizers in Boston’s Vietnamese community to re-engage with the need for issues-based voter registration, education, and mobilization.  This set the stage for the most recent efforts in 2003 and beyond, known as Viet-Vote.

The 2003 Viet-Vote Campaign

The Viet-Vote Campaign is led by a coalition established initially in 2002 by Viet-AID, the Vietnamese American Civic Association (VACA), and the Massachusetts Vietnamese-American Women’s League.  In 2003, the coalition added four more groups: the Vietnamese-American Public Affairs Committee (VPAC), the Vietnamese Professional Society (Massachusetts chapter), the Intercollegiate Vietnamese Student Association of New England (IVSA) and the Vietnamese-American Voters League of Massachusetts which had pioneered the use of the phrase, “Viet-Vote” in their previous statewide voter registration and education efforts in the 1990s.

The goals of the Viet-Vote Campaign are to:

  1. Build a permanent coalition of Vietnamese-founded and operated groups whose mission is to build power in the Vietnamese community through civic engagement;
  2. Use a three-prong approach of voter registration, education, and mobilization to increase Vietnamese civic participation, particularly in terms of voting in Boston Wards 13, 15, and 16 with increases by 33 percent in 2003 (local elections), 50 percent in 2004 (national elections), and an additional 20 percent in 2005 (compared with 2003); and
  3. Build the capacity of coalition members to sustain voter participation efforts.

Activities in 2003 included:

  • Voter education and registration at community events, businesses, churches, and door-to-door;
  • Producing a civic participation curriculum as well as bilingual voter information materials for newsletters, newspapers, leaflets, and Vietnamese ethnic media (press, radio, television, internet);
  • GOTV bilingual phone-calling to roughly 1,500 Vietnamese registered voters before election day;
  • Providing bilingual support and transportation, particularly for elders, at polling stations on election day; and
  • Creating a database of almost 3,000 Vietnamese registered voters in Boston.

Efforts in the Fall 2003 elections yielded a direct increase of 172 new Vietnamese registered voters.  More importantly, on Election Day in the targeted Wards 13, 15, and 16, Vietnamese voters increased from 14 percent, 14 percent, and 37 percent in the 1999 elections to 200 percent, 133 percent, and 279 percent respectively in 2003 -- a combined increase of 941 percent.

A follow-up survey conducted immediately after the elections showed that the average age of the Vietnamese voter in these wards was fifty-five.  As it turns out, the “senior” population within the Vietnamese community was the politically active group of the community.  Immediately, then, the question was raised about the younger generation, namely the “youth population.”  What role do youth play in all this?  Indeed, Viet-Vote was mostly carried out by college students and young professionals, but somehow did not impact young voters.  As a result, attracting young voters, especially through the registration component of the campaign, became a new goal for the future planning and development of Viet-Vote.

Diasporic Local/Global Political Strategies 

Beyond simply being another good example of grassroots, electoral ward/precinct machine-building with working class immigrants, the Viet-Vote Campaign is also – like the community itself – a story of civic engagement with both local and transnational meanings in a diasporic context.  While Viet-Vote’s voter education efforts worked to connect desires for Vietnamese voice, power, and representation with critical local issues ranging from crime and jobs to affordable housing and bilingual education, a complementary strategy focused on gaining recognition of the flag from the former Republic of South Viet Nam as the “official” flag of the Vietnamese community in the City of Boston.  The yellow flag with three red stripes embraced by Vietnamese refugees and their families often flies with U.S. flags outside Vietnamese-owned houses and businesses in Dorchester and has always been present at major community events for the past 25 years.  But in this effort, community advocates used it in mobilizing to impact public policy symbolically in the city.

This strategy culminated in August 2003 when – with roughly 100 Vietnamese Americans cheering from the gallery – the Boston City Council voted unanimously to recognize “the Heritage and Freedom Flag as the official symbol of the Boston Vietnamese-American community.”  The approved city resolution had been submitted by Councilor Maureen Feeney who represents the Dorchester-Fields Corner area.  In response, the Vietnamese Embassy in Washington, DC quickly issued a formal statement of protest, asserting: “A small minority of Vietnamese-Americans who claim themselves representatives of the Vietnamese-American community living in Boston aim at sowing division, rekindling the past hatred and painful pages of the history between our two nations and among the Vietnamese themselves.”  Embassy officials then visited BostonCity Hall to insist in person that the only proper flag to fly was that of the Socialist Republic of Viet Nam which is recognized by the U.S. government.  Disregarding such claims while acknowledging the growing clout of the local Vietnamese community, one city councilor explained at a formal meeting with the Embassy’s Deputy Chief of Mission, “What you feel in Washington, that is in Washington, and we here in Boston support our community here.”

Interestingly, although the 1992 racial justice rally marked the first time that Boston’s Vietnamese American community demonstrated at city hall about a local issue unrelated to Viet Nam politics, the official response from City Councilor Dapper O’Neil at that time was, “Apologize to who? For what?  I didn’t say anything to any of them.”  In a show of both his own power and the marginal political influence of the Vietnamese community, O’Neil went on that same year to be voted as the city council’s president.  In contrast, a decade later, when government officials from Viet Nam came to BostonCity Hall to protest, city councilors voted unanimously to support what they believed were the wishes of their local Vietnamese constituency. 

These two historical moments at BostonCity Hall are linked closely – though in non-linear and seemingly contradictory ways – through the complex process of street-level Vietnamese community capacity-building and development.  Issues of racial justice and homeland political passions are both implicated in and essential to Vietnamese community civic engagement.  Yet, if the next historic rallying moment at Boston City Hall in the future can be imagined as the inauguration of the city's first Vietnamese American elected official, then we suggest that dedicated day-to-day campaigns such as Viet-Vote and the foundational long-term capacity-building commitments of its sponsoring community organizations are concretely and conceptually necessary to continue building on the 941 percent gain in Vietnamese voter participation in Fields Corner that the community so dramatically produced in 2003.

Specifically regarding the Viet-Vote campaign, adding a “youth leadership development” component to the civic engagement initiative has become a top priority.  Clearly realizing that youth are the “do-ers” of the campaign as well as the ones most familiar with the U.S. political system, capacity-building for the next generation of community leaders who can organize while being intimately in touch with the issues of the community is essential for the survival, if not growth of the Vietnamese community within Boston’s ethnic, racial, and geographic realpolitik.


Through the title of his oft-quoted autobiography, former Massachusetts Congressman and long-time Speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives, Thomas P. “Tip” O’Neill (unrelated to Boston City Councilor “Dapper” O’Neil) observed, “All politics is local” (1994).  For organizers in Boston’s Vietnamese community, such sage advice, when put into practice, has needed to account for the local meanings and consequences of intense transnational sensibilities as well as multiracial/multicultural neighborhood realities and racialized quid pro quo relationships with city officials. 

The experiences of the last decades have taught us valuable lessons.  Increasing voter participation requires basic legwork – particularly by staff and volunteers from the younger generation.  The local mission and operation must be tied intimately to much longer-term organizing and capacity-building efforts; to intergenerational, bilingual sharing of stories through cultural/community development projects; and to hard-earned street solidarity with other minority groups.

James Dien Bui is Director of Community Organizing and Programs at Viet-AID, a community development corporation in Boston’s Fields Corner-Dorchester neighborhood.  He oversees Viet-AID’s Civic Engagement Initiative to increase Vietnamese voter registration, education, and mobilization.  He is also adjunct faculty in the University of Massachusetts Boston’s Asian American Studies Program where he teaches the course, “Resources for Vietnamese American Studies.”  Born and raised in Chicago, he holds an MSW from the University of Michigan. 

Shirley Suet-ling Tang, PhD, is an Assistant Professor in the American Studies and Asian American Studies Programs at University of Massachusetts Boston. Her teaching and research interests include: comparative race/ethnicity/culture, Southeast Asian American community studies, transnational feminism and activist/community art.  Several of her students participated in the Fall 2003 Viet-Vote campaign.

Peter Nien-chu Kiang, EdD, is Professor of Education and Director of the Asian American Studies Program at the University of Massachusetts Boston where he has taught since 1987.  He currently serves as Chair of the Massachusetts Advisory Committee of the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights and is Co-President of the Chinese Historical Society of New England. 

Contents | Walking the Fine Line | The Power of Patience | Fear and Coaxing in Waltham | A Seat at the Table | ¡Sí Se Puede! | The Local/Global Politics of Boston’s Viet-Vote | Laying Down a Speed Bump | Jook Sing