Bee Nguyen: As the daughter of immigrants, I live between two worlds

"I quickly connected with Atlanta, my new home, a city haunted by the legacy of slavery and segregation, but buoyed by generations of leaders who believed in the unfinished business of justice for all people."

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Bee Nguyen
Bee Nguyen, then a state representative, speaks to protesters outside of the Georgia State Capitol in March 2021.

Photograph by Alyssa Pointer/Atlanta Journal- Constitution via AP

This essay is part of a series—we asked 17 Atlantans to tell us how the Civil Rights Act of 1964 has impacted their lives in honor of its 60th anniversary. Read all of the essays here.

As the daughter of immigrants, I live between two worlds. One is shaped by my clumsy Vietnamese tongue, my mother’s pho, and the aching trauma and grief borne by a country I have never visited. The other is foreign to my parents: My rapid English passes by their ears, and my attitude toward failure is a privilege they never dared possess.

My parents arrived here in 1979 with only the clothes on their backs, carrying the haunting memories of war and refugee camps. America promised the security and prosperity absent in their homeland. When we were young, my parents emphasized to my sisters and me the importance of education and economic stability.

I quickly connected with Atlanta, my new home, a city haunted by the legacy of slavery and segregation, but buoyed by generations of leaders who believed in the unfinished business of justice for all people. Motivated by a similar yearning, I started a nonprofit organization where I worked with high school girls whose lives were fraught with uncertainty. Their parents, like mine, had fled poverty and violence, many crossing the Rio Grande with babies on their backs. In America, they lived isolated, in shadow pockets, careful not to get pulled over for a broken taillight on their way to clean office buildings at night.

When the U.S. Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade in 2022, I felt paralyzed. But I thought of our beloved late congressman John Lewis, who at the age of 25 crossed the Edmund Pettus Bridge and was beaten by law enforcement until his skull fractured. I thought of my parents, not even 30 years old, navigating the perilous South China Sea on a makeshift boat. I thought, Who am I to feel pessimistic in this moment? As an American, I benefit from the work of Black Georgians and others who fought for my right to vote, own property, and attend desegregated public schools. As the daughter of refugees, I benefit from the sacrifices my parents made, from the freedom they gifted me to choose, to fail, to audaciously demand the same freedom for others.

The civil rights movement is enduring but fragile. Our region is fraught with income inequality and racial oppression, and many of our neighbors are far from enjoying the freedoms promised by the Civil Rights Act of 1964. I cannot undo the injustices that my parents, my high school students, or millions of other Americans have endured. But I am determined to bend the arc of the moral universe toward justice.

Bee Nguyen is a former Georgia state representative and the founder of Athena’s Warehouse, a nonprofit dedicated to educating and empowering young women. She is the state director for U.S. Senator Raphael Warnock.

This article appears in our June 2024 issue.

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