May Thi Nguyen has an uncanny talent for dealing with disasters — large-scale catastrophes like Hurricane Katrina and the Deepwater Horizons oil spill. The 29-year-old, second-year UCLA law student has not only witnessed the devastation of these two tragedies, but has made it her mission to help thousands meet these calamities with courage.
Resilience, said Nguyen, is just part of her heritage. “There’s probably no community more resilient than the Vietnamese American communities in New Orleans,” said Nguyen, who was born in Louisiana after her parents and older siblings escaped Vietnam in a fishing boat, the same route taken by many other families in their East New Orleans community. “They have faced displacement because of war, the hurricane and now the oil spill,” she said. And yet, she added, Vietnamese Americans were also among the first to return to rebuild after Hurricane Katrina.
When Katrina hit New Orleans in 2005 and the oil spill spread across the Gulf coast in 2010, Nguyen was a college student, first, at Johns Hopkins living in far-off Maryland and, later, at UCLA. She could easily have kept her distance from these disasters, but she ended up embracing both as opportunities to serve and learn. From these real-world “textbooks,” she has drawn an education in the power that a community can wield when it comes together to organize.
May Nguyen sits behind Ve Nguyen, a fisherman who testified before a Senate subcommittee about his losses due to the Gulf oil spill. May Nguyen dropped out of law school for a year to put together and carry out an "impact claims" strategy to get the government and BP to recognize their claim of subsistence use.
“Disasters somehow open a window of opportunity for real transformative work,” she said. “People grow and transform most when confronted with change.”
Nguyen herself is a stunning example of that. She learned community organizing in Katrina’s aftermath by shadowing the charismatic pastor of her Catholic parish, which created a nonprofit corporation that she helped build to provide emergency relief and temporary housing for more than 3,000 residents.
She also partnered with a credit union to raise more than $3 million in grants and loans. And when the City of New Orleans tried to open a landfill to store toxic debris from Katrina less than two miles from her community, she was on a team of volunteers that organized a mass protest that turned away the dump trucks — a heroic fight featured in the Emmy-nominated documentary, “A Village Called Versailles.”
Women from East New Orleans gather to protest a landfill that the city wanted to set up less than two miles from their homes to hold toxic debris. Nguyen helped the community organize to stop the dump trucks.
In April, 2010, Nguyen was at her law books at UCLA when the British Petroleum oil rig Deepwater Horizon exploded off the Gulf coast, releasing the largest offshore oil spill in U.S. history. Setting aside a summer internship she had planned to do at a think tank in Seattle, she rallied behind the hundreds of commercial fishermen whose livelihoods had been abruptly curtailed by the oil spill. “Every third person in our community was involved in the seafood industry,” she said.
Nguyen raised funds for community nonprofits that were assisting the fishermen with the BP claims process. Joining with other volunteers, she then helped bring in Vietnamese-speaking attorneys and law students by organizing the Vietnamese American Volunteer Law Corps. And when the fishermen’s claims for “loss of subsistence use” were basically going nowhere, Nguyen fought back by leading a successful “impact claims” strategy, which led to a revised method for compensation on claims BP had initially shelved. Ultimately, this resulted in the distribution of millions of dollars from BP.
For these efforts, Nguyen recently won a 2012 Rishwain Social Justice Entrepreneurship Award from the Center for Civil Society in the Luskin School of Public Affairs.
“This was a real-world strategy, not just one for a law school course,” emphasized Law Professor Gary Blasi, a founding faculty member of UCLA Law’s public interest law and policy program, in his letter supporting her candidacy for the award. “And it worked. … When the BP spill occurred, May took a leave from the law school for a year to return to her community, specifically to work with Vietnamese commercial fishermen … who were basically shut out of the remediation process because of language and other barriers.”
Law Professor Gary Blasi
Louisiana attorney Clay Garside, an attorney involved in litigation over the oil spill, wrote in a letter commending Nguyen as well: “The hard-working men and women of the Gulf coast began to find themselves without a seat at the table where their fate was being decided. … May Nguyen recognized this problem and set about building and energizing the dormant community strength necessary to combat the imbalance of power.”
In building a coalition of advocates that included nonprofits, unions, religious groups and two U.S. senators, her supporters said, Nguyen got results that would have taken years to achieve through standard litigation.
Brian Rishwain, a Los Angeles attorney who has dedicated his career to working for the underdog and who funds the Rishwain awards, said that while many who are nominated strive to achieve social justice, it’s the entrepreneurial spirit that distinguishes the winners. “It’s doing good in a unique way that fills a need that perhaps few people see. May has that instinct, that entrepreneurial sense that she could fix this wrong.”
Attorney Brian Rishwain
While the U.S. Oil Pollution Act requires polluters to compensate those suffering a loss of subsistence use, it was basically dismissed as a non-issue, too trivial to consider when compared to other economic losses, explained attorney Garside. Not only was it difficult to document, but it was hard to value in dollars.
The loss of subsistence use describes the loss of the premium seafood that fishermen took home everyday to share with relatives, friends, neighbors and others at family dinners, community gatherings, church potlucks and celebrations that are traditional to their way of life. Families also used seafood to barter and trade for goods and services.
At first, Garside said he too dismissed the claim as “a sideshow for the devastating economic losses that working people suffered when their livelihoods were ruined. … However, May Nguyen actually listened to people and … kept her eyes and mind open to the losses and the impacts that mattered. … By guiding and connecting people, by facilitating their ability to tell their own stories, May Nguyen developed ‘subsistence use’ from a non-issue to a rallying cry representing the invaluable community and familial bonds interrupted by a massive crime,” he said.
She empowered these plain-speaking workers to voice their grievances in a way that caught the attention of the government, the media, politicians and the public — “from the floor of the U.S. Senate to boots-on-the-ground hand-shaking engagement,” Garside noted. And she did it in a way “that salty, independent, gruff fishermen, leaders in their own right within their communities,” recognized her as their leader and visionary.
She organized a diverse coalition of fisherfolk, called GO FISH (Gulf Organized Fisheries In Solidarity & Hope).
Nguyen and the fishermen worked together with experts she persuaded to join their fight. “We didn’t really want to fight or vilify BP,” she said. “All we were saying to BP was: ‘Everybody knows you have to pay for the loss of subsistence use. You haven’t quite figured out how to pay for it yet. So let us help you.’”
Community organizer Tap Bui from the Mary Queen of Vietnam Community Development Corporation, the nonprofit Nguyen helped build after Katrina, talks with local fishermen affected by BP oil spill about the claims process.
To come up with the methodology, she called on friends, colleagues and law professors. “Luckily, I had a lot of very, very smart advisers and mentors that I could count on,” she said, including her visiting torts professor at UCLA, Douglas Kysar, now associate dean at Yale Law School.
“He came through big time,” recalled Nguyen, who wrote a white paper that summed up the fishermen’s position.
Nguyen sought out three fishermen who could best tell their stories about their way of life and what was taken away from them. “They already had a voice,” she said, refusing to take credit. “All I did was give them a microphone and tell them they needed to get the ear of certain people.”
Ultimately, in a masterwork of strategic planning, she put together a campaign to convince government-appointed claims administrator Kenneth Feinberg, BP and elected officials to recognize the fishermen’s claims. Winning the support of the two U.S. senators from Louisiana, Mary Landrieu (D-La.) and David Vitter (R-La.), and working with Feinberg, Nguyen and the fishermen had their day before a Senate subcommittee. Shortly afterwards, BP came to the table to negotiate.
In the end, the oil company giant revised its claim process. After celebrating, the fishermen and community organizers sent Nguyen back to UCLA, buying four new tires for her 12-year-old Nissan to make the return trip. “They told me to hurry up and graduate because they need a lawyer,” she said, laughing.
With a UCLA law degree that she hopes to receive next year, Nguyen said she will head back to her community. In the meantime, she serves as a strategic consultant to several Louisiana nonprofits. Working with the Baton Rouge Area Foundation, she is focused now on a disaster-in-the-making: the mass relocation of communities as Louisiana wetlands continue to encroach on more and more dry land.
“It’s funny because I’ve always turned abroad when I thought about how I could contribute,” she said. “I look at the landscape and think, ‘Where can I plug in? Where can I really be of use?’ Right now, Louisiana just seems like the place.”