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Interview with Nhu Richards

AFSC Twin Cities Healing Justice Cary Fellow

Nhu Richards, Cary Fellow in the Twin Cities
Nhu Richards, Cary Fellow with the Twin Cities Healing Justice Program Photo: / AFSC

Nhu Richards began recently as a Cary Fellow with AFSC’s Twin Cities Healing Justice Program. Nhu describes herself thus: “I am a Vietnamese adoptee from Saint Paul. I like to think that I am a lover of love, a storyteller, and a random fact monger. I work hard and try not to take myself too seriously. I am also quite short and a terrible basketball player. But what I lack in dribbling and free-throw skills, though, I more than make up for that with my bodacious smile and personality. I graduated in 2015 from the U. of Minnesota (U of M) with B.S. in Kinesiology with an emphasis in health and exercise science. I would argue that it is somewhat related to what I’m doing now in the sense of movement-- in that we must persist, resist, and continue to organize for our future.”

How are things going so far for you at AFSC?

It’s been great because of Shanene Herbert. She’s the AFSC Healing Justice Program Director. But also because I’m looking forward to what my team will be doing and what we have planned. It’s been a smooth transition.

What brings you to this work? Would you please share about your background and interests?

My life’s adventure led me here. Some people say you are born into this work and some people emerge into it. I would say I am a bit of both. My emergence into this work, social justice and activism, didn’t emerge until years later. But my birth in my motherland Vietnam and my adoption alone were the starting points. 

I’m a Vietnamese adoptee. My twin sister and I were adopted at four years old. My family is quite “diverse” or multicultural. My mum is Mexican, and my dad is, to be point blank, white. They had two kids of their own and adopted six more children from Europe, Asia, and South America.

We lived in a small town named Spearfish, South Dakota in the Black Hills. Living in that small town you could tell you were different because kids would point it out with racist sing-along-songs, or they knew how to make you feel left out in covert and overt ways. But at the time, I couldn’t really put it into words because my parents did a good job at home not making us feel different because of where we all came from; however, I’d like to point out that they did not raise us color blind.

When we moved to St. Paul because my parents were getting divorced, that’s when things started to escalate. The feelings of otherness or differences. I noticed it was way more diverse than I ever witnessed in the first 10 years of my life, I felt more the – I wouldn’t call them disparities, but the lack of acceptance of people of color or that there was something inherently wrong with just who I was because of the way that I looked. 

Just to get to the point. Fast forward now...for the longest time, I was what I would call a “closet activist.” By that I mean, learning about history outside of the history being fed to us in school. Or seeking resources that would validate my “otherness” feeling but not actually participate in conversations outside of a screen or textbook. I learned this term binary identity in one of my courses as a Post-Secondary student at the U of M and from there, I would say it was the catalyst for my emergence fully into this work or at least, my goal to be more engaged. It put into words the chaos I felt internally around who I was. I didn’t know if I was Vietnamese or white-- clearly, I would never be white because I have Asian features but why do I feel “white”? 

I was struggling with my binary identity as a Vietnamese adoptee raised in white society. I felt like if I didn’t know who I was or have an understanding, then I couldn’t participate in dialogue with people who knew exactly who they were and what they were fighting for. These were the main reasons why I didn’t go out and physically occupy those spaces until the past couple years when I gained the confidence to speak up and seek spaces that allow me to share similar feelings with others. I understand now that that has a lot to do with whiteness. It is a direct response to it in terms of my internalized racial oppression. The idea that I must concretely know or be perfect to be valid in certain spaces. 

Which has all led me to this work. I found AFSC’s Freedom School through a friend who liked the page on Facebook. I immediately reached out to Shanene because it was calling me and I had the time to fully participate in an event that showed up at the right time in my life; however, my main reason was due to the age range (14-23). I’m 27 and I feared I wouldn’t be able to participate because of it. When I went through Freedom School first as a participant and the next time as a facilitator, I didn’t know what to expect but let me tell you it blew all my expectations out of the water. It pushed me to get out of my comfort zone and go for things that matter to me and that have impacted my life in many ways. My interest lies in movement, whatever that maybe. Movement that moves us toward each other as a collective. Toward an eco-system and away from our current ego-system, and that means disrupting and dismantling systems that oppress us all.

Was there anything else about the Freedom Schools that moved you and caught your attention? 

The history of systemic racism within the United States, PISAB’s thoughtful curriculum, and the stories shared with everyone who participated. They put into words things that I had felt and experienced but didn’t have the language for at the time. I think that’s what moved me and caught my attention. To give language or at least to feel heard with the stories that, as a young kid or even as an adult, you’ve experienced, and others have too. Mayhap not with the same depth or intensity, but the same, nonetheless. Lastly, I believe you will always learn something new despite how many times you participate. At least, that was my experience. I’ve gone through the program twice.

What are you doing now and what will you be doing with AFSC?

I’ve shared the following with the YUIR-Twin Cities Facebook page:

I believe we are having a lot of online discussion but not a lot of action. So how do we take that off the page and into our daily lives that is more impactful?  With my one-year fellowship, my intention is more social justice for the youth to instigate meaningful discourse that leads us off our screens and catalyzes into direct action within the greater Twin Cities area.

The project I will be working on seeks to engage youth around the topic of Asian and Black solidarity with a core emphasis on antiracist organizing that is strategic in disrupting and ultimately dismantling the cradle-to-prison pipeline. By the end of my time, my hope is to curate a beautiful zine co-created by Asian and Black communities within the greater Twin Cities area that would increase the level and depth of discourse around the cradle-to-prison pipeline, especially toward Asian and Black narratives. I hope to highlight the complexity of our communities and the lasting impacts our peoples face when the criminal justice system is valued over healing and restorative justice practice.

So the reason I focus on that, from what I know with AFSC in the Twin Cities, we’re trying to disrupt cradle-to-prison. Because a lot of the healing justice work tackles it after they get out of the prison system, but what are the steps we can take prior to that? I see it as preventative medicine. If we can prevent it and find alternatives, we can heal our communities in alternative ways that don’t involve the prisons at all.

We decided to focus on Asian and Black narratives, and my focus is more directed toward Asian narratives because I don’t know a lot of Asian American history. I know that as a Vietnamese adoptee, Vietnamese immigrants have been impacted by US Imperialism. I want to learn more of the historical context of how Asians have been assimilated in the US and why there are consistent Black and white narratives instead of Asian narratives. 

My focus is to include Asians in your activism because Asian narratives are missing, and they should be included because Black and Asian solidarity has existed, and it’s not lifted or told. It’s a forgotten piece of history that young people are not taught and therefore believe our communities struggles are not interconnected. Because with the high population of Asian immigrants and refugees who are funneled into Minnesota, specifically Hmong, Laotians, Cambodians, have higher incarceration rates than some pockets of Black communities within the Twin-Cities. That’s a big issue here and why are we [Asians] not included in the conversation?

You’ve told me before that Shanene Herbert, your supervisor at AFSC, is good to work with.

She is, she’s very understanding. I like that, as my director, she focuses on self-care. I’m almost coming up on a month with AFSC right now. Had she asked me what self-care looks like when I started vs. now, it would be very different. I see why she prioritizes self-care. As a whole organization, as volunteers and paid workers doing this work, it’s very taxing on us in ways we probably don’t even see– or we overlook it because our passion to do this work, to me, is very outstanding.

But it can come with a lot of psychological and health implications if you don’t take care of yourself. She’s really helped me see that. I really appreciate that a lot more. 

Are there plans for Youth Undoing Institutional Racism (YUIR) work in the Twin Cities?

Right now we’re in a planning phase for our next Freedom School. But there are a couple events we’d like to organize leading up to it. One will be talking about the process of socialization, and the next event would integrate movement. Movement in the sense of moving our bodies for self-care, movement in organizing and what that would look like, and then our ninth Freedom School. We’re just planting the seed now for the two events leading up to Freedom School. 

Thank you, Nhu, and all best wishes!


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