Bushwick coffee entrepreneur Sahra Nguyen has always used her platform to fight for social and racial justice.
In the last few weeks — as publicity rises around a national surge in anti-Asian hate crimes — this has increasingly meant using it to offer support and advocacy for the Asian-American community.
“Scan our Instagram,” Nguyen says: a challenge. “Scan it and you’ll see, we’re always early. We don’t hesitate to advocate for our communities, because it’s a part of my DNA.”
The CEO of Nguyen Coffee Supply — the first specialty Vietnamese coffee importer and roaster in the U.S. — is right.
Look at the Instagram account of the business she started in 2018, and you’ll see post after post advocating for Black lives, Black businesses, trans and LGBTQ rights, educating on cultural appropriation and celebrating diversity.
And now: Fighting the soaring number of hate crimes against Asian-Americans.
A life’s work
Nguyen, a child of Vietnamese refugees, has been organizing since she was at high school in Boston. She went on to major in Asian American Studies at UCLA and did a semester of study at UC Berkeley with the late ethnic studies pioneer Ronald Takaki.
Nguyen held a director role at UCLA before leaving to write and produce stories, ending up making two documentary series on Asian-American issues for NBC News, including the award-winning Deported.
“I’ve dedicated my entire life’s work to social and racial justice,” Nguyen said.
After moving to Brooklyn in late-2012, Nguyen started to notice the growing fascination with Vietnamese food and culture. She co-founded Lucy’s Vietnamese Kitchen in Bushwick in 2015 (which she is no longer affiliated with), and in 2016 started research for what would become her coffee company.
The mission: to bring awareness and respect to Vietnamese coffee.
Nguyen had noticed two things. First, she couldn’t find single-origin beans from Vietnam at any retailer in NYC.
Second, with the rise in interested in Vietnamese products, hipster cafes around Brooklyn were selling “Vietnamese coffee” — coffee made with sweetened condensed milk — that didn’t use Vietnamese beans. “If you’re trying to profit off that cultural cachet, then Vietnamese producers should be a part of it,” she said.
Nguyen Coffee Supply launched in 2018, with Nguyen roasting the beans right here in Brooklyn.
Coming of age
While her parents were initially concerned about her doing Asian American studies, protesting and quitting her prestigious job at UCLA — all concepts “so unknown to them” — she said they’ve been “insanely supportive,” especially with the business.
“That’s something they could understand: You buy a bean, you sell a bean,” she said.
With her mom owning a laundromat, and her dad owning a floor-sanding business, they’ve helped Nguyen immensely with advice. “They know a lot of instinctual stuff around how to make decisions and develop and forge relationships. They have so much wisdom,” she said.
Nguyen has noticed Brooklyn’s love for Vietnamese products has only grown since she started the brand. (And those pretending to sell Vietnamese coffee seem to have disappeared.)
“A big part of that is because my generation is coming into age,” she said, referring to children of Vietnamese refugees who came to the United States in the 70s and 80s in the humanitarian crisis following the Vietnam War.
“We’re the first generation in our 30s to open up businesses and now, not just be a part of the cultural conversation, but be able to shape it.”
Shaping the conversation
Recently, that has meant talking about the surge of anti-Asian racism in the United States seen in the past year.
An organization that tracks violence against Asian-Americans and Pacific Islanders recorded more than 3,000 reported incidents from the start of the pandemic, at least 260 in NYC. The xenophobic surge is partly attributed to President Donald Trump’s frequent use of racist language to refer to the coronavirus.
Nguyen said anti-Asian violence went back to the start of Asian immigration to the U.S., but it hadn’t been adequately reported on, for various reasons.
“On one end people don’t want to record and report these issues because they don’t think it’s valid,” she said.
“And at the other end, many Asians culturally don’t wanna report these crimes. They think it’s shameful and they don’t want to bring attention to themselves.”
But as incidents spike, Nguyen is doing what she can to stop it, and encouraging others to do the same. First, as the New York mantra goes: If you see something, say something.
“There’s a video of a woman being pushed in Flushing, and this giant-ass man is just standing there just looking while it was happening and as she fell… like, where is the f**king humanity?”
Nguyen encourages people who witness racism and violence to check on the victim. Then report it, first asking how the victim would like it to be reported.
If you don’t see violence, you can still call out anti-Asian hate crimes on social media. You can also use your privilege, platform and influence to make change.
Nguyen has suggestions on where you can donate money today to support Asian-Americans who are victims of racism.
And to find out more? Just scan her Instagram.
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