LEVEL Spotlight | Vi on Blazing Trails and Saying Goodbye

To close out 2020, we end with an interview with Vi Nguyen, former director of LEVEL who has recently moved on from Vancouver Foundation (VF) for another opportunity (*tear). Vi has played a pivotal role in launching the LEVEL initiative, in addition to overseeing Fresh Voices before that. She was at Vancouver Foundation for 13 years, sharing her wisdom, humour, and love of bubble tea and BTS with anyone who was lucky to cross paths with her.

While we’re sad to see her go, we know she is going to continue blazing trails for other women of colour to fight for racial equity and help make the world a more just place. It seemed fitting to put Vi in the hot seat to share with us her final reflections on LEVEL.

LEVEL: How would you describe yourself?

VN: I always identify my experience as having arrived in Canada as a child who was a refugee with her parents. I’ve grown up in Vancouver and called Vancouver and these unceded territories my home since I first arrived when I was three years old. And now my social location is about and informed by being a mother. All of my experiences about having been a refugee and as a woman of colour are all the things that are very important to me and inform who I am and what I choose to do.

LEVEL: What inspired the launch of LEVEL?

VN: The inspiration to launch LEVEL was to commit, follow through, and be accountable to young people. With the sunsetting of two really high profile youth initiatives at VF [Fresh Voices and Fostering Change], we consulted young people who were connected to and involved in those initiatives and other young people in BC who we didn’t have any relationships with to ask: What should be the new youth priority for VF? What can we do to be in learning and in service to you? What inspired LEVEL is that accountability to young people who said that we (as an organization, as Vancouver Foundation) need to name race and we need to name power. We heard from some of the young people that VF has side stepped those issues and that although we’re doing great work and they felt supported by us, the fact that we didn’t name those issues explicitly was part of the challenge to us. Now’s our opportunity to name race and power and that’s what inspired LEVEL. How can we take what we heard and be accountable and do something with it?

LEVEL: What are your most memorable moments in LEVEL?

VN: I have so many despite how young the program is! Two that come to mind are:

When we co-hosted the Youth Funders Summit in 2018 with The Circle, it was an opportunity to share the things we’ve learned as a foundation involved in youth engagement work with other funders who have a real desire to shift the ways in which they work with young people. At the close of that summit, we introduced LEVEL. Other funders were keen to know where Vancouver Foundation was going next in terms of youth engagement. At the Summit, when I looked out into the room where we were hosting the event, it captured so many philanthropic folks from across Canada and that gave me a lot of hope. They were funders that were looking to be in this work, struggling to figure out how to shift power to young people as a funding organization and willing to do the hard learning and listen to young people. We ensured that we had BIPOC folks and trans folks on the panels—they were the experts, sharing directly with funders what needed to be said. It was very different than your typical summit or conference where talking heads are always folks with PhDs or executive level types.

The second: I was standing at Dr. Sun Yat-Sen Garden at the end of the first LEVEL Youth Policy Program presentation, and I realized that in my 13 years at VF, I’ve never been in a work-related space of which 99% of the people in that space were Indigenous, Black and racialized people. Between the young people as participants, the faculty, the donors that came out to witness, and Jess Housty of Heiltsuk Nation and Desmond Cole as keynotes, it was such a radical departure from what I’ve been used to. It was that moment of seeing something come to fruition that I never thought possible but now know it to be absolutely possible and necessary.

LEVEL: What’s been the most surprising during your time with LEVEL?

VN: When we shared with broader community stakeholders what we heard from young people and that we would prioritize Indigenous and racialized migrant young people in our new emerging youth engagement work, we received comments and pushback that amounted to the idea of ‘All Lives Matter’. People challenged my colleagues and I on why we were prioritizing only these two populations of young people. Why not all young people? We were prepared to be challenged so these comments weren’t surprising to me, albeit disappointing, but what was frustrating, was who the comments came from. I thought some of these individuals and groups would be real champions of this work since we were prioritizing specific populations of young people and that we were making an explicit commitment to address racial inequity.

LEVEL: What’s been the most challenging?

VN: What’s always been challenging for me is wrestling with a desire and intention to cede power to Indigenous and Black young people who are most affected by systemic inequities and injustices while trying to work within structures that don’t allow many of us  to do that. This also raises the question of whether as a foundation, we want to actually give up our institutional power. That’s the constant struggle and tension for me in this work: To ask those questions of myself and others who hold equal and more power. And I try to be transparent with young people in terms of managing expectations but also being very honest about where my own limitations are as a representative of a foundation because I think we get seen as holding a lot of power too, which is absolutely true. So I’m conflicted by my own desire to cede power as I mentioned earlier, but wrestle with the reality that perhaps philanthropy (myself included in that) will at most, only ever be willing to share some of our power with BIPOC youth.

LEVEL: What will you miss the most?

I’ll miss the food! I learned early on at VF that if I just look in the calendar to see when certain big meetings were happening, then I wouldn’t have to pack my lunch because there would always be leftovers. A lot of themes around shared food and conversations I will miss because that’s been a cross-cutting experience for me; some of my most critical learnings have come from sharing a meal with communities. I joke around that when I’m asked what my role is at VF, I say: “I order the pizza, I pay for the pizza.” That’s been one of my key responsibilities since I started in late 2007 and folks laugh but when you really think about it, it’s true: at any important meeting such as a board meeting or consultation, people get fed so when we’re meeting with young people or hosting bi-weekly youth advisory meetings, why wouldn’t we feed and care for them in the same way? I take that as a very serious responsibility: to be able to feed young people full, healthy, and nourishing meals so yes, we stopped ordering pizza at one point and also found a way to support small BIPOC-led businesses along the way. I’ll also miss all the conversations I’ve had around food. That’s where most of the best conversations have come about!

LEVEL: Do you have any parting words for the LEVEL community (grantees, YPP participants/faculty, advisors, and anyone else in between)?

VN: Not parting words but something I often remind myself of and also share with my team and anyone I work with: This work existed before me. Although LEVEL is a program that captures a moment in time, the work of racial equity and racial justice pre-existed me. It lived in community, it lived in VF in different ways through different people, and it will continue without me. Someone blazed a lot of trails for me as a woman of colour. I came to VF and worked alongside other people, including community advisors, to widen those trails further and when I leave, I leave knowing that someone else will continue blazing those trails to create new pathways forward. I can’t wait to watch my own kids run up and down these new pathways that currently don’t exist and I know I’ll get to because they have some amazing Indigenous and Black trailblazers to thank as a result.