2016 IGR Outstanding Alumni Award Recipient: Theresa Q. Tran

Photo of Theresa Q. Tran

May 1, 2016

IGR presented the 2016 Outstanding Alumni Award to Theresa Q. Tran at the Graduation Celebration. Below is a short biography that describes Ms. Tran's accomplishments and skills.

Born and raised in Metro Detroit, Theresa Q. Tran is the daughter of Vietnamese American refugees who came to the U.S. following the Vietnam War, an important lens through which she approaches her social justice work. Theresa received her Master of Social Work from the University of Michigan – Ann Arbor where she studied community organization with children, youth and families. She earned a bachelors degree in Psychology with a minor in Asian/Pacific Islander American studies, also from the University of Michigan. During her time at Michigan, Theresa was involved in the Program on Intergroup Relations, as a peer facilitator, summer youth dialogue facilitator, and as a Graduate Student Instructor coaching undergraduate peer facilitators.

Today, Theresa serves as the Executive Director of Asian & Pacific Islander American (APIA)Vote – Michigan, a nonpartisan organization committed to justice and equity for the Asian American community through grassroots mobilization, civic engagement, leadership development, and coalition building. Under her leadership, APIAVote-MI was recognized as the inaugural recipient of the Coulter Community Partner award, a national honor for an APIA-serving community based organization effectively working at the intersection of grassroots and public policy. Prior to becoming Executive Director in 2014, Theresa worked as the youth programs manager at the Michigan Roundtable for Diversity and Inclusion, a Detroit-based nonprofit civil rights organization dedicated to creating opportunity for all. There she established the Regional Youth Internship program that brought together youth across metro Detroit over the course of 15 months, to learn about social injustices and build skills to develop campaigns that created or enhanced solutions for the world they wanted to see.

Below is the full text of Theresa's remarks and address to the 2016 graduates:

Thank you Kadija and Shana for that warm introduction.  And thank you to the Program on Intergroup Relations for this award.  I’m truly humbled to be receiving this because I feel like I should be the one giving IGR an honor for all the ways in which this program helped me to come into my own consciousness and learning about the world around me.

If you did the math, I’m now ten years out of undergrad, 6 years out of graduate school.  When I think about my time at the University of Michigan a decade ago, some of my fondest moments, my a-ha moments, happened because of IGR.  I entered into the University of Michigan back in 2003 thinking that I was going to be a corporate attorney.  I had my heart set on business school, and making a lot of money when I got out.  But then IGR came along. 

IGR along with my course work in A/PIA studies really changed by trajectory.  I’m happy to report that today, I may not be rich in money, but I’m rich in how fulfilled I feel through serving my community as an advocate and an organizer. I utilized a lot of the skills I learned through IGR in my work, particularly facilitation, workshop design and development, and navigating challenging conversations.  But more importantly, since leaving the University I’ve realized that IGR set the foundation for me to learn a few critical lessons that I want to share with our graduates here today:

Firstly, don’t take for granted the importance of storytelling – telling your own, and hearing others’.  At the core of IGR is the acknowledgement that individuals are the experts of their own lives.  That it is through their stories that we build heart connections to one another and can learn to expand our own understanding of the world.   I have spent the last ten years since IGR mustering the courage to tell my own story, a process that has been both informative from a historical perspective, but also incredibly healing.  I’ve learned that my family’s immigration story is one that isn’t often told, nor often heard and I’ve been intentional about telling that story, not just for the sake of understanding, but also connecting that to current movements to be an ally by also being vocal.  I speak a lot about what it means to be an Asian American working in majority black communities when I grew up in a context that promoted alignment to whiteness as a marker of success, something my community is reluctant to talk about. 

Second, challenging injustice is a choice.  I urge you like I’ve urged the many youth I’ve had the privilege of working with this: No matter what field it is you choose, I hope that you approach your work and your relationships with a lens of justice, equity, and solidarity.  You’ll find yourself constantly faced with choices.  You can choose to invite people into difficult conversations or ignore it.  You can speak up about policies and practices that systematically exclude communities, or you can ignore it.  I’ll be honest, you’ll find yourself really, really frustrated, but like Roger Fisher once told me, you have the privilege to be in the spaces where others are not – it’s your choice how to use your voice, and I hope you choose justice. 

Finally, the greatest lesson I learned: Transforming our world begins with transforming ourselves.  Make space to reflect and reconnect with your values.  It will be easy to lose sight of them because of time and other commitments, new relationships you form where those values aren’t the basis of your friendship.  Create sacred space to honor the things you’ve learned here, and acknowledge when your behaviors aren’t in alignment with those values.  I’m telling you, it’s hard.  Really hard.  But the dedication to personal transformation is what has made me so rich in my life today.

Again, thank you for this honor, and congratulations to the graduating class of 2016.  I know that through this program, our world is equipped with more individuals who can change this world for the better.