Leadership Profile: Ho Nguyen on Healing and Quiet Leaders

This essay was written in December 2016.

The first time I met Ho Nguyen, she was speaking at a local Pro-Choice leadership gathering where she spoke with humor, confidence, experience, and with a concise analysis of the issue she was presenting on. After she spoke we made a very fluid and easy connection with one another, and she quickly took me under her wing both as a friend and mentor (a very strange move for a Minnesotan). When I asked her what she is thinking of leadership as right now, Ho told me, “I think that within a true Buddhist tradition of everybody being able to be enlightened and a god within themselves, I feel like everybody has the ability to be a leader within themselves.” I cannot think of a better way to introduce you to Ho Nguyen who is now a program manager the Minnesota Coalition for Battered Women.
Some of Ho’s first memories associated with leadership come from her high school experience, a place where she was alienated, because of her identity as a Vietnamese person, “I remember joining the National Honor Society, and everybody being like ‘we’re gonna be leaders!’ I was like ‘I hate you all’ and I dropped out of it.” Ho is a first-generation child of Vietnamese refugees, and in her household leadership was not something to aspire to instead, “Coming from such a war-torn country my parents saw leadership as unsafe, [if] ‘you’re the loud one, you’re making too much noise, people are going to try and kill you,’ and people start wars because of ideals and ideas.” Yet, she was called to action when she attended Hamline University she, “Joined every organization … possible, getting deep into [activism], and not really thinking of it as leadership.” Instead thinking, “I [got] to make a lot of noise with really cool people.”
In her junior year, Hamline recognized her activism by presenting her with three leadership awards. Ho reminisces, “That was the first time I really remember being like ‘holy crap’ and feeling recognized. In that moment… I felt like ‘ok, I’m a leader. I’m a leader.’” Further on in her undergraduate career, she had a public falling out with a fellow student leader, and she received censure from her mentor. It was at that moment she experienced that leaders are subject to accountability, “I remember that to me that felt like there are repercussions, there [are] responsibilities. It means something when someone publicly recognizes you as a leader…there’s suddenly a responsibility that I didn’t want that…I wasn’t ready for.” This moment caused her some embarrassment, but also provided her with a point in her development where she is able to hone in on where she learned about what is appropriate behavior for a leader.
While Ho describes her early leadership style as “bombastic,” she’s now recognizing the silent leadership of those doing the day-to-day work, “I see the quiet leadership of people who are doing like the grunt work to get [new voices] prepared for them to be front and center.” When thinking of people that exemplify this type of leadership at this moment she brings up two examples. One, “I think of the three Black queer women who founded Black Lives Matter.” Two, “I think of people who are healers like the People’s Movement Center in Minneapolis, I think of yogis at this time, I think of people who are just getting together and just trying to heal one another… they’re doing all the work to push people into a place of sanity.”
When asked what she thinks leadership will look like in the future she stresses the importance of obtaining new voices for political offices, and in nonprofit leadership. She emphasizes that in both fields, new voices are missing a support system, a “leadership pipeline.” When it comes to supporting young political leaders, “The conversation needs to get re-directed to what are the real lived fears of running? What are the real lived risks of running, and being in the public eye, and holding office?” While in the nonprofit sector, “Running a nonprofit is more than ideals, and nobody is teaching that, and the people who have that knowledge are not passing it on. There’s a wealth of knowledge to be gained and given. How do we create pathways in which there is mentorship?”
In the ways that I’ve experienced Ho’s leadership, I see her possessing leadership that is ethical, and strategic. I also see Ho growing her process leadership based on her current musings around leadership. Recently, Ho explained to me that she is creating a program that helps women in formerly abusive relationships gain financial stability. She explained that there were stipulations that required their clients to learn about financial investments, but Ho questioned whether that was pertinent to their clients based on their clients’ current circumstances. To her niche-financial topics seemed very out of touch with their clients’ lived reality, as in many abusive relationships, one partner has full financial control over the other partner, and when a person leaves an abusive relationship, they often do so without many resources. Additionally, she mentioned she wanted to design a program that listens and responds to her clients’ needs. Paraphrasing her, she did not want to further oppress her clients by forcing a program onto them, but rather she wants to create a program that allows them to reclaim their autonomy. Even though a financial class may seem small, to her she recognizes the power of small choices for disempowered people. In essence, she “ask[ed] the group to consider the moral implications of the actions themselves” (O’Connell).
Ho is involved in progressive movements and advocates for LGBTQ liberation, reproductive justice, healthy relationships, Black Lives Matter, ending the Asian model-minority myth, etc. Much of our conversation was around “the movement” for radical inclusive progressiveness and this is where I see her strategic leadership, or the “ability to develop effective strategies for both short-term and long-term change, and putting those strategies into action” (O’Connell). To me, this is particularly visible, when she discusses how important it is for future politicians, and executive directors to create leadership pipelines, so we can have effective leadership that works for and with the people.
I see Ho developing process leadership for herself when she states, “Right now I’m interested in thinking of the dynamics of when do you follow and when do you lead? When do you take a step back, when are you the loudest person, and when to be the quiet one?” A process leader, “creates strong participatory organizations in which members develop their ability to participate in decision-making, resolve conflict…and feel a strong sense of belonging… They understand the connection between group identity and effective collective action” (O’Connell). Her questions not only illustrate the beginnings of process leadership, but also that she is reflective, or that is “develop[ing] the capacity over time to understand [herself], the people with whom [she] work and the social context in which leadership takes place” (O’Connell,). She also understands the dynamics of working in team in a hierarchy, “You can’t necessarily lead without a follower, who would you lead if you didn’t have a base of supporters, or a base of followers?” Ho instinctually gets that leadership not only gives direction, but also takes direction.
          With the election of Donald Trump to the position of President, the communities that Ho and I are a part of are prepping for an assault on our rights. When we were talking about her family, she states that she is the only activist in the family, because for her when it comes to people in want to harm you, “Not being seen does not keep you safe, because they will see you eventually.” To me, this illustrates a keen resiliency to resist silence. This is a characteristic that was not only fostered, but also that exists within her, innately.
I really liked that Ho mentioned that healers are also leaders, I had never considered that before our conversation. So much of societal weakness comes from shame and isolation, the shame of mental illness, poverty, queerness, immigration status, sexuality. Healers help us come together if not in community, then in community with our own minds and bodies and that’s very powerful to think about, especially given that the new regime wants to take away our ability to heal.
Leadership is not one person, instead, returning to Ho’s quote, “I feel like everybody has the ability to be a leader within themselves.” We do have that ability, we also have the ability to practice reflection to think about who is not present, or who is silently present, and how do we let that inform our leadership practices? We are going to need each other in the coming years, if politics is how we care for each other, so is leadership.

Nguyen, Ho. December 5, 2016. Personal Interview with Ho Nguyen.
O’Connell, Thomas. Community Leadership.