Meet Community Scholar-Activist Dr. Lan Nguyen: The Importance of Including All Voices

Dear GlobalEd Readers,

It’s a pleasure to introduce you to Dr. Lan Nguyen. Dr. Nguyen is a community scholar-activist who works in and with the community for equitable social and spatial change in global urbanization, climate change, and disasters. She earned her Ph.D. in Urban Design and Planning at the University of Washington, Seattle, and is currently a Post-Doctoral Fellow at the Joan B. Kroc School of Peace Studies at the University of San Diego. As a professional community development planner in California, she learned that sustainable development is community-driven with support from outside organizations with resources and power. Her experiences led her to question theoretical framings and public policy around race, urbanism, and disasters. We recently caught up with her to chat about why students need to learn about urban planning, community advocacy, organization, and development.

To start, can you provide a brief overview of your background? What got you interested in working with communities for equitable social and spatial change, and how have your previous work experiences and leadership roles informed your work as a community scholar-activist in your current position?

I had a professional career before I had an academic career, and my professional practice informed my research and teaching. I did the Peace Corps in Mali, West Africa as an agricultural volunteer working in a small village with people to help them realize their goals within the community. When we think about different types of communities, we mostly view them through the lens that they are systematically disadvantaged and de-centered in public policy. Still, these communities have so much to give and many strengths. These communities are giving and doing, but their actions can seem small and often go unappreciated. I did not go to Mali to teach them how to farm; they had been doing this since time immemorial. I went to help them do what they wanted to do, such as setting up a community garden, so I wrote grants to help them create these solutions.

I was an agricultural volunteer because I grew up farming alongside my parents, refugees from Vietnam. My parents taught me all I know about farming and have shared their life stories, struggles, and journey with me about creating a stable life here in the United States. My parents came to the US after growing up in a war zone and had to start over in the US, but I always remember us having a stable family. Their experience gave me have a strong sense of responsibility to help those who are pushed and live on the periphery of our society to work alongside them to help them realize their dreams. I have worked as a professional community development planner in Orange County, California, and for multiple years, I worked in emergency management consulting. My work made me realize that so many other voices and knowledge frameworks were missing from the conversation and those voices are also missing within theory and practice. I was encouraged to get my Ph.D. and become an academic, scholar, and activist who would help shepherd these voices’ inclusion through policy change.

You currently hold a position in higher education as a post-doctoral fellow at the Kroc School of Peace Studies. What are some of the classes or topics you most enjoy teaching? Could you expand upon what that means?

As a post-doctoral fellow, I teach a lighter load than our full-time tenured track faculty and our professors of practice. I also have a lighter service load and advising load, which allows me to have time to continue with my research and focus on publishing. I currently teach seven units, two classes in the current Spring semester and three classes in the upcoming Fall semester. I teach a three-credit class on Community Advocacy, Organization and Development, a one-credit reading group called Race and Place, and a two-credit class on Displacement, Migration, and Humanitarian Action.

I like all the classes because they relate to my interest as a practitioner, scholar, and activist in these areas. They keep me engaged and excited, allowing me to share my personal stories about doing this kind of work and thinking about the type of work we do. My teaching pedagogy is that collectively as a class, the students have so much more knowledge than I do as an individual. I structure my courses in a way that allows my students to not only learn new skills but allows them also to share their skills. It is an opportunity for the students at large to see a whole bunch of skillsets and be engaged in a variety of activities. I am enjoying this experience that allows us to learn from each other. There is also a lot of diversity in experience and background in my classes that will enable us to get a different viewpoint. For example, we had one class where we looked at a series of critical legislative dates on immigration, naturalization, and race in America. An international student made a parallel comparison to what has happened in her own country. It is interesting to make such connections where what is local is often also global and vice versa.

You have worked as an instructor, teaching assistant, and course developer in higher education. Based on your experience, why do you think students must learn about urban planning, community advocacy, organization, and development, especially at a Peace School?

We think a lot about violence, conflict, justice, and equity issues in a peace school. It is often conceptualized in a conflict zone framework and war. As an urban planner, I think a lot about how our urban environment’s infrastructure is violent and has violent pasts. We can visualize how urban policies have unequally distributed resources across our urban landscape in urban areas. In these communities, individuals who are under-resourced and disadvantaged are fighting not only for their lives but their children’s lives as well, and we need to help them achieve their goals. Studying such topics helps us think about how we help them level the playing field to get more attention for the things that they desire for their beloved and sacred communities. Advocacy and organizing are about reducing urban conflict and violence because when people do not have what they need to survive and thrive, conflict increases. The US is one of the wealthiest countries globally, but we still have homelessness, food insecurity, and undereducation in many of our communities. Teaching students about these topics will help reduce these urban conflicts.

Our readers span across the globe and consist of educators, school leaders, and researchers. Do you have any advice on what they should consider in urban planning and education?

When working in communities that we call marginalized, we need to embrace different types of knowledge systems and treat them as equals. It is not that these communities do not know things, but what they know is not valued by dominant knowledge systems. For example, it is not that they have limited English proficiency. They have command in another language, and the people in a position of power have proficiency in a different language; this, therefore, makes it difficult for them to communicate with each other. I often search for more language that is not dehumanizing and language that looks at systematic issues instead of individual problems, and the language example is one of them. Using the term-limited English proficiency is looking at people with a deficit, whereas the deficit is that the people in positions of power speak one language.

In contrast, the community they lead speaks a different language. There needs to be a way to create an understanding on both sides, such as getting more multi-lingual people working in government and education to communicate with the community and providing opportunities for the community to learn the language of the government, in this case, English. We need to shift from looking at people through a deficit lens to something more positive.

To learn more about Dr. Nguyen and her work please visit: