Ben Vo, on Learning Critical Consciousness and Activism

Ben Vo, a second year student at De Azna College who recently earned his Leadership and Social Change certificate, grew up in San Jose, about a 25 minute drive away from campus. It was an interesting place to grow up, Ben says, in part because the city in many ways mirror many of the socioeconomic trends happening nationally, like widening wealth and income inequality. “Especially in my community, on the East Side of San Jose, which was more the working class side of the city.”

San Jose was also an interesting place to grow up, he says, because it provided him with ample opportunity to connect with and learn from his Vietnamese-American background. The city is home to more Vietnamese people in any one city outside of Vietnam—estimated around 180,000 residents. “So there was always a really big emphasis on my Vietnamese-American identity growing up,” Ben said.

“These weren’t things I was ever taught in high school, or if we were, maybe there was a single paragraph about it.”

It was partly this focus that led him, while a sophomore in high school, to apply to a summer program at the University of California, Berkley for Southeast Asian youth. The all expenses paid, five-day four-night program “taught me a lot about what it means to be Vietnamese-American in the United States, and all the injustices that Southeast Asians in general have experienced” he said. He noted, by way of example, the thousands of Vietnamese refugees that sought asylum in the United States during the 1970s, only to face discrimination in their new home as they tried to assimilate. “These weren’t things I was ever taught in school, or if we were, maybe there was a single paragraph about it” he said. “So it really got me on the social justice track that I’m on right now.”

Ben learned about the CLP-affiliated Leadership and Social Change certificate quite by accident—he enrolled in one of the program’s core courses, Critical Consciousness and Social Change, without realizing it was the first required class of the certificate. “I only enrolled because another course I was hoping to take didn’t fit my schedule, so it was kind of just lucky,” he said. “Looking back, I’m glad that I stumbled into something that I’ve been looking for this whole time.” One of the main skills he says he has taken from his time in the program is the ability to listen. “And I mean empathetic listening, which is harder to do than you think,” Ben said.

“We don’t talk about race without also talking about how it interacts with things like gender and ethnicity more broadly.”

Though he says he’s been inspired by much of what he’s learned through the certificate program, Ben says he was particularly moved by coming to understand how social movements and issues overlap. “It’s like how people used to think of ethnic studies as just its own thing—only focusing on the experiences of black, Latinx or Asian people by themselves,” he said. His De Anza coursework, he says, was intersectional. “We don’t talk about race without also talking about how it interacts with things like gender and ethnicity more broadly.”

Though Ben already had quite a bit of experience learning about advocacy and organizing through the Berkley summer institute, he says the CLP certificate helped him realize that it was possible to pursue any number of careers related to community change. As only a second year student, he is still unsure which path he hopes to take when he graduates. He sees any number of options in his future, including teaching, pursuing a law degree, or working in public policy. “Whatever I do, I’ll be taking the social justice framework I’ve learned with me,” Ben said. “If I do something like teach, I’m now going to teach from within this social justice perspective,” he said as an example. “It’s this outlook and framework I’ve learned from the certificate that will probably stick with me most.”