Finding hope and inspiration in Viet Nam

On my first morning in Saigon, the headline at the top of the local English newspaper caught my attention:  “Youth are partners in growth, not just beneficiaries.” 

Intrigued, I turned the page. 

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The article went on to explain that Viet Nam currently has the highest proportion of young people in the country’s history (30% are between the ages of 10-29), and that youth empowerment was key to sustainable development.

The story was inspired by the fact that the United Nations had just held International Youth Day in Viet Nam.  Reflecting on the significance of the event a UN official said the day “should remind us all about the importance of empowering young people to influence policies and decisions that affect their lives, and their contribution to Viet Nam’s social, environmental, and economic development.”

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I was stunned to read about the importance of empowering youth to achieve sustainability so soon upon my arrival in Viet Nam, yet this article marked the beginning of a theme that would recur throughout my first week here.

I’m here in Viet Nam for two weeks as part of a professional exchange program sponsored by the US Department of State.  Back home in Charlotte, NC, I lead a non-governmental organization (NGO) called Sustain Charlotte, and in May we hosted a staff member from an NGO here in Saigon called CHANGE.  Now it’s my turn to visit CHANGE.  

The purpose of the program is two-fold: to share ideas that will mutually benefit our organizations, and to foster greater understanding between our countries.

For me, both of these goals have already been achieved. 

First, what struck me very quickly as I spoke with the staff at CHANGE, was how much more our organizations have in common than I imagined.  

In terms of our missions and how we further them, we both seek to inspire actions that will reduce threats to sustainability through creative and effective communications.  

Our teams are even similar in size and functional roles.  We both struggle to raise the funds needed to sustain our organizations; particularly the critical yet increasingly evasive unrestricted funds that pay for the things all organizations need to operate. 

For context, as I learned from my new colleagues at CHANGE, NGOs are not common in Viet Nam, and therefore fundraising is far from the norm as well.  

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CHANGE’s new fundraising staff of two is seeking to diversify their funding sources, and I was able to offer them new ideas and strategies that left them, in their own words, “inspired”. 

I also met with CHANGE’s founder and executive director, Hong Hoang, who has become somewhat of a local celebrity in Viet Nam.  At the age of 24, she became the first Vietnamese person to set foot on the Antarctic Peninsula.  This trip to the world’s most remote natural ecosystem changed her life and she began delivering speeches about climate change to schools and youth groups.

Hong shared with me challenges and hopes that I knew well from my own experience founding and then leading an NGO with a mission to create social awareness and change.  

However, she also has challenges that I do not share.  Namely, the challenge of trying to create social change in a communist country that likes to keep tight control of what is said about the government. 

Yet despite this massive challenge, Hong and her team persist. Their courage and tenacity in the face of these threats to their own security was incredibly inspiring -- and eye opening.  

While my team and I also must think carefully about how and when we criticize our government, we temper our words and actions to ensure effectiveness.  Here in Saigon, the staff at CHANGE must temper their actions to ensure they will not be closed down by their government -- or worse.

Hong’s words continued to inspire me.  Reflecting the hope for the future captured by the newspaper headline I encountered my first morning, she said to me, “we are doing all this because we think that we can make changes and it is possible with the participation of the young people.  I believe that they have all of the capacity and information -- and they are positive -- so when they are inspired they will contribute to the solutions. I’ve seen positive changes and I see hope for the future.” 

After one week here in Viet Nam, working alongside the team at CHANGE, it’s easy to share this feeling of hope for the future.  And I am inspired to do more to engage Charlotte’s youth in our mission upon my return.


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