Arriving in Melbourne from Vietnam in the 1980s without speaking English, Vivienne Nguyen has gone on to become one of Victoria’s most respected ambassadors for social cohesion.
Vietnamese refugee Vivienne Nguyen brings more than a quarter of a century of experience to her role as the new chair of Victoria’s Multicultural Commission. Appointed in August for a four-year term, she’s laser-beam focused on helping to create a Victoria where everyone can fully participate – no matter their background, religion or identity.
We speak to her about the aspirations of the commission, as well as her own role as Chairperson.
Can you give us an overview of how the Commission works?
I lead the Commission and along with 11 other commissioners, we regularly consult with multicultural communities to understand the issues they face and how to address them. We then provide advice to the Victorian Government to help influence policy and programs. Over the coming months, I’ll work closely with my team to identify key priorities for the commission which, together with the intel gathered from our community consultations, will inform our strategic direction for the coming four years. We also oversee a network of Regional Advisory Councils, and deliver Victoria’s largest annual multicultural celebration, Cultural Diversity Week.
How has your experience as a Vietnamese-Victorian helped shape your approach to your current role?
Growing up in Melbourne, I was fortunate to receive an enormous amount of support from English as a Second Language (ESL) teachers who taught me not only the language but also the way of life. I’ve experienced the good and bad of our multicultural society. I’ve been on the receiving end of racism with phrases like ‘bloody Asians are taking over Australia’. But I’ve also felt the warmth and strength of our multicultural community. For example, at my high school, Glenroy High, my fellow students were Portuguese, South Korean, Cambodian, Turkish and Lebanese. Together we played girls’ indoor soccer, sang George Michael songs and really embraced each other.
In community life and corporate life, I’ve experienced and seen many kinds of barriers for people from different backgrounds, not just people from culturally diverse backgrounds. From ignorance and unconscious bias to systemic and structural barriers, I’ve gained understanding to what women, people with disability, or those experiencing mental health issues face across all areas of society. I’ve become more empathetic and these insights have given me a greater sense of what some of our priorities should be.
I’ve also in the past attended rallies on human rights and other matters that I believe can adversely affect our society’s democratic values, justice and equity over time. These grassroots activities help me better understand how different communities approach advocacy or bring matters to the attention of leaders and decision makers. We need to pay attention to the ways our communities express their views and voice their opinion, not just those avenues we’re comfortable or familiar with.
You’ve been an active member of Victoria’s diverse communities throughout your life. Why?
I fundamentally believe in my civic responsibility and my community service as a member of our democratic society. Where we are today is not a matter of letting nature take its course, but the result of a great deal of work and sacrifice made by the people before us. It’s up to all of us to continue to ensure we leave our society in a better place, particularly for the vulnerable, the less advantaged and the voiceless members of our society. I’m also a big believer in multicultural Australia and express my gratitude to the late Prime Minister Malcolm Fraser and the people who took the road less travelled by accepting so many people from Vietnam and Indochina following the end of the Vietnam War in 1975.
Is Melbourne a successful multicultural city?
Undoubtedly. As Victorians, we have cultural heritage from across the world. Almost half of us were either born overseas or have one parent born overseas. You only have to walk down an inner-city laneway to experience an array of cultural influences. Whether it’s food, fashion or art, Melbourne is arguably Australia’s most multicultural city. Beyond the CBD, we have sprawling suburbs each with their own identity, some with strong cultural influences where Victorians of particular background have made their home, and other suburbs that are a truly diverse mix. I love Melbourne and our diversity. We have so much to offer each other and visitors. I am also conscious that this success should not be taken for granted and in this role I will make sure we continue to consult, advise and collaborate with the community, the government, peak bodies and other agencies to ensure Victoria continues to be the place that welcomes, celebrates and empowers each and every one to participate fully.
Finally, what do we get by embracing diversity?
It provides social, cultural and economic benefits to all of us. Our collective skills, experience and traditions have helped us build the successful society we all enjoy today. Our diversity gives us strength as a state and as a community. And for businesses, embracing diversity in the workforce and adapting customer services and products to suit Victoria’s diverse population makes good business sense. For me, and I’m sure for many people, the exchange of cultural traditions, customs and personal stories can be one of the most enriching experiences you can have. It’s what sparks our interest in travelling to faraway countries, yet here in Victoria, we can experience so many cultures without ever having to leave the comfort of our own state! I’m looking forward to promoting diversity through the work of the commission and supporting all Victorians to embrace, celebrate, preserve and share their cultural heritage.
Go to the website of the Victorian Multicultural Commission to learn more.