On Teaching Social Justice: An Interview With Minh Ha

Local organization Brown State of Mind is fully committed to creating space in Austin for people of color, by people of color.  In the second installment of its award winning Brown State University, Brown State of Mind is bringing together local artists, business owners, scientists and activists to provide accessible education to the Austin community. In partnership with Brown State of Mind, we are highlighting two of their members to explore the themes of culture and diversity, and dig deep into their creative process and personal motivations. 

For our second feature I spoke with Minh Ha, Vietnamese-American community organizer and instructor of Brown State University’s class Counterculture America and the Vietnam War. 

This post was written by #BBATX committee member Vittoria Criss.

Photo of: Minh Ha

Photo of: Minh Ha

You’ve moved around quite a bit, what originally brought you to Austin?

Mihn Ha: I grew up in Denver born and raised, then I went to school just outside of Boston, then moved to Portland, Oregon, and I moved here in early 2015. I was working in politics and just got burned out and wanted to try something new. I have a really short attention span! So I ended up getting a software job here like every other yuppie. Austin was a pretty strategic choice. I knew that I wanted to be here to watch Texas turn blue. I knew the demographics were changing, and there was a cultural shift that was happening here. I just wanted to reconnect with my identity, and experience new things. Portland is really really really white. That mindset was not healthy. 

How did you make the switch from working in software to a nonprofit? 

Ha: I worked at a nonprofit when I was in Portland, so I kind of knew that life. Working in politics and working at a nonprofit are the two places that experience burnout faster than any other industry. So when you combine those two when you’re 23, they’re going to work you to the bone. I wanted to see what it was like to get paid a living wage for once, and I learned so much. But I wanted to be more community-oriented, and I wanted to find something that brought me back to a more intentionally socially oriented space. 

Did You see a lot of similarities in the cities you’ve lived in?

Ha: Like Denver, Boston and Portland, Oregon, Austin definitely makes me feel like I stand out. I joke that I'm on my hipster tour of America, living in yet another city where the population is still predominantly full of fair-skinned folks and rapidly gentrifying. They're also all extremely proud of their liberalism, so much so that sometimes I feel like it stands in the way of the true potential of progress—where communities can come together to solve some of those bigger challenges like families getting pushed out of their homes—because we're too busy reminding new transients that "Austin is blue." Austin is also home to the capitol building where some of the strangest policies pull us back and is the most racially segregated city in the country. It's also the convergence of where hella brown communities from San Antonio, Dallas, Houston and beyond across Texas can come together. It can be all those things, but I think we have to acknowledge all of those aspects rather than be selective. 

Photo of: Minh Ha

Photo of: Minh Ha

What does being Brown mean to you? How has the Brown experience shaped you? 

Ha: For me, being brown is how I choose to acknowledge all the labels that the world has put on me. It's really interesting from a Vietnamese perspective, because my parents always talked about us having yellow skin when I was a kid, which I don't identify with at all. I get mistaken for Filipinx a lot, and in a way that I don't quite understand, I feel really connected to my Flip homies. While brown means one thing to me, it means something completely different to my college best friends who are South Asian, and the same goes for others in Brown State of Mind. I like that "brown" can mean all those things all at once. 

What kind of impact do you envision Brown State of Mind having on communities of color in Austin in the future?

Ha: When I talk about Brown State of Mind's impact, I always go back to our founder Adrian's words: "I just wanted to create a safe space for PoC." That's at the heart of what I want to see us achieve, and everything else that we accomplish in addition is icing on the cake for me. In Portland, I have a chosen family that I miss and think about every single day, but it was so isolating to walk around that city and not just feel like I stand out but isolated and alone. At least because of Brown State of Mind, navigating Austin has made me run into fellow homies that are brown and/or down with brown that make me feel like I belong. Isn't that what everyone ultimately wants? To feel like they belong?

What can people expect from your class?

Ha: A lot of social justice language. But that’s just one piece of it. For me it’s more about tying history to movement and art specifically. I think that artistic expression is so related to whatever turbulent time we’re experiencing in our communities and our societies. I think one of the most beautiful things being a child of immigrants from a Communist country, the thing that you learn to appreciate so much about the United States, for all of its faults, is that freedom of expression. And out of that freedom, and that basic inalienable right, it has allowed for so much beauty to come to light and so many avenues for people to come together. I want everyone who comes to that class to be able to understand how tied that is to what we are experiencing on a political, historical and sociological level—to feel those connections to what’s happening today. People can probably expect a lot of inner turmoil, to feel personally connected, to feel something passionate enough to express themselves however they choose to. 

You work in a really emotionally charged field. Do you have any routines or rituals you do to combat that feeling of burnout?

Ha: I’m naturally a person who will take care of everyone in my life before I take care of myself. And the thing that I naturally do is watch out for other people. When I got hired where I work now, the CEO asked me “Why are you doing this? Where do you want to be in 10 years?” And I don’t ever have an answer to that question. Mostly because I grew up in political rebellion. But also the only thing I’ve ever cared about is making it easier for other brown women to break down the barriers of whatever it is that we’re trying to do. So my only goal in life is to make it easier for whomever looks like me that comes after me. A lot of what I do to take care of myself is to make sure that I’m taking care of that community. Because that is what nourishes me. That is what replenishes me. 

Photo of: Minh Ha. Instagram: @guan_minh

Photo of: Minh Ha. Instagram: @guan_minh

Curious about Minh Ha? Keep up with her work here.

Curious about Brown State of Mind? Keep up with their community events and learn more about the organization here.