Tuyet Le, a voice for Chicago's Asian American community

May 24, 2012 2:41:09 PM PDT
In the Asian American community, the diminutive Tuyet Le is a voice that has been heard at Chicago City Hall and in Springfield. She was born in Vietnam, but didn't realize she was actually born to fight for the underdog.

"I do feel like injustices I see and what I want to do about them push me beyond my comfort zone," Tuyet Le.

Tuyet le acknowledges she's not the stereotypic quiet Asian. Instead, she's a leader of demonstrations, champion of human rights and fighter for Asian Americans. She is currently executive director of Chicago's Asian American Institute, a member of the National Asian American Center for Advancing Justice.

Life started in Vietnam. Tuyet is the baby in a family of five children. She was too young to be aware the Vietnam War was raging.

"We left the same day Saigon fell," Tuyet said.

Tuyet's family got onto an overcrowded fishing boat -- 200 people -- in danger of sinking, barely rescued by a Taiwanese ship.

"Each of us had just our I.D., ramen noodles, a can of milk. That's what we left the country with," said Tuyet.

The family ended up at a refugee camp in Ft. Chaffee, Arkansas.

"My earliest memory ... falling out of the top bunk into a box of shoes," Tuyet said.

Ironic because Tuyet had contracted polio when she was 11 months old. Her first steps were in that refugee camp... and she hasn't stopped walk, leading marches, protesting war, and fighting to get Asian Studies on the curriculum at Northwestern University.

A bright red boxing glove hangs on the wall of Tuyet's office today. A gift from someone applauding her drive to pick fights, but it was a gentler approach by her parents that led her to become a champion for the Asian American community.

"I came home from college and our dining room table was missing. Dad said, 'Someone needed it more.' I said, 'OK.'"

In 2004, the City of Chicago decided Asian American contractors did not need the protection of the minority contractors program. Tuyet surprised the mayor and aldermen by leading a protest.

"We were too quiet and wouldn't fight back and who ever didn't complain would just be written out," Tuyet said.

She won by fighting back. The city reversed itself and Asian American contractors now have minority protection.

"I don't think I imagined I would be changing the world, just do what I thought was right and if people followed, I was surprised by it. I needed to lead with what I thought I needed to do," Tuyet said.

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