Trang T.K. Tieu, a native of New Orleans, is a professional engineer who is presently the Director of Community Development for the New Orleans City Council President & Councilmember At-Large Arnie D. Fielkow. She represents the Councilmember at meetings and events throughout the city on a daily basis. She is responsible for advising and responding to the community and constituency groups in New Orleans and often facilitating regional matters. Outside of her full-time job, she is preparing to rejoin the United States Navy Reserve as a Seabee Officer. Previously as an engineer, she has worked on the design and construction of several high profile projects in the major sporting industry. Trang holds degrees in Civil Engineering from Texas A&M University, Business from Blinn College and is currently a student in the Masters of Urban and Regional Planning program at the University of New Orleans. Her professional affiliations include the American Society of Civil Engineers, Society of Naval Architects and Marine Engineers, Project Management Institute, National Society of Professional Engineers, American Planning Association, and a charter member of the National Language Service Corps.
My interview with T.K. is a little different than the others in this series. I first met T.K. several months ago at a New Leaders Council retreat in Alexandria, and I was immediately impressed by her story, her wisdom, and her resilience.
And I am honored that she is willing to share her story and her perspective.
Lamar: Let’s begin at the beginning, if you will. You’re a first-generation Vietnamese-American. How would you describe your personal history?
TK: Thank you Lamar for this opportunity, and I just want to say upfront that everything being said here are my personal thoughts alone.
I truly enjoy my job working for Councilman Arnie Fielkow, because I have learned so much about the community where I grew up. But more importantly, I’ve learned much more about myself. I can never thank Councilman Fielkow enough for giving me an opportunity to get back on my feet.
My personal history really started before I was born or was even conceived.
Immediately after Vietnam fell to Communism, my family immigrated to the United States, and shortly afterward, I became the first person in my family, my generation, to be born in America under a democratic government with precious freedoms and unimaginable rights that the history of my family never had before.
A good part of our history here in America revolves around immigration. I imagined most immigrants were faced with similar challenges– finding a place to live, getting a job, learning an unfamiliar language, and trying to understand another culture.
Families now and, throughout America’s history, have immigrated here for various reasons. I believe America is a force for good in the world. There is one undebatable reason why we welcome immigrants, why people come here in order to flee war, violence, or poverty. Because we, Americans, believe in the dignity of every human being, and that’s what makes people around the world believe in America.
Lamar: What was your childhood like?
TK: Growing up in New Orleans, my family knew only of the Asian culture, but, at the same time, they were trying to navigate through an entirely new culture.
So, my American culture WAS the New Orleans culture. I was raised in a Vietnamese Catholic family and embraced more traditions than I could probably handle. Back in those days, the New Orleans Vietnamese community had something like a second line band, and I played in it for years– at weddings, funerals, all sorts of celebrations. It was great!
My mother worked at the Wembley tie factory, and my father worked all the time. I was the oldest of six children, and I pretty much had to take care of my siblings because my parents had to work extra hard to keep us all going. We all went to public schools in New Orleans East and every time we went on a school field trip, it was so special because I got a glimpse of what the other parts of New Orleans were like.
When I turned 13, inspired by the life of St. Theresa Little Flower, I entered a Catholic convent in San Antonio thinking or hoping I had a special calling from God to devote myself to a religious life. But when high school was over I decided to enter college instead with an interest in military service.
Lamar: From a convent to college. Where did you go to school, and what did you study?
TK: Texas A&M University in College Station, TX.
I had a few choices, including coming back to New Orleans, but I wanted to study engineering and A&M offered a great engineering curriculum and a unique atmosphere with lots of Aggies traditions.
Being from New Orleans, traditions and culture were aplenty, so adding another one to my list was just as well. I went from a Catholic convent to the Corps of Cadets at Texas A&M. When I graduated, I didn’t take my commission into the US military just yet, and instead, I pursued a professional career as a civil engineer.
Lamar: What did you do after college?
TK: I worked in design and construction in the North Texas (Dallas-Fort Worth) region, entering the profession around 9/11. I started out when things were slow, but I used that time to learned all the basics. Equipped with everything that I’ve learned and practiced, when the market went up and was booming, my career as an engineer started taking off, and I was full speed ahead.
Lucky for me, I had a boss and mentor who allowed me to capitalize on my potentials by taking on challenging projects. I learned so much more from the challenges than from my success as an engineer.
I worked on some of the best and most complex projects the region had to offer. The best projects were those in the sporting industry: ball fields and stadiums, like a minor league ballpark, a MLS soccer sports complex, and the new Cowboys Stadium.
Developments for major sporting venues were the bulk of my experience. Other projects were in municipalities, residential and commercial industries. As engineers, we always aim to design and build things that will outlast us.
Lamar: So I’m about to move to Dallas. What’s better, Dallas or New Orleans?
TK: Big D vs. Big Easy. The Dallas metro region is a wonderful place, because in my opinion, of the various professional sport seasons. It’s one of the few areas I think that people can enjoy all the different major sports all year around without having to travel too far: football, baseball, basketball, hockey, and soccer. Texas college sports are just as great.
And New Orleans is getting there I believe. It’s an ideal city for a booming sports industry in many ways.
And maybe one day we can even host the Olympics; wouldn’t that be a stimulus for this region? New Orleans is great– greater than cities like Dallas because of our unique culture that is so diverse; the food and arts here by far are the best anywhere. Personally, the relationship with my family, with a family of my own, is closer than ever after coming back home to New Orleans.
We all lead busy lives, and when in Dallas, my life was compartmentalized and perfect balance was never achieved. But now back home where I really belong, I’m able to approach the many different aspects of my life in an amazingly integrated way that New Orleans really encourages.
Maybe that’s just part of growing up and realizing that there is a certain convergence in life, but nevertheless: Dallas is big, and New Orleans is home.
Lamar: How did Hurricane Katrina affect your life?
TK: From building stadiums to building communities.
When Katrina happened, I was working in Texas, but my family was still in New Orleans, which will always be home to us. Everyone in New Orleans has a different Katrina story, how greatly it impacted us all, but we all realize that we are connected by this sheer force of will that brought us all back to rebuild.
I had to keep working, so that I could take care of my big family that was displaced and at the same time, expanding my role to prepare for motherhood. Nevertheless, I traveled back and forth quite often to render help as a building consultant in the community as we rebuilt.
Like many people, we rebuilt our homes sheet rock by sheet rock, nail by nail.
It was like, what we saw outside of us was a reflection of what was inside but I’ll tell you, the people of New Orleans possess such a will that… How can I explain? Well, you know. You’ve seen me throw punches back during sessions at the NLC Institute in defense of New Orleans, and the passion exerted is a reflection of that. And by the way, I’d really like to thank the New Leaders Council for giving me the chance to take what I’ve learned from working within the community and sharing it with people from the rest of the state, for allowing me to speak my mind, but mostly, for the self-realization that it is important to not only ask the big questions in life but to live them.
Lamar: So, let’s talk politics. How has New Orleans changed since the election of Mayor Mitch Landrieu?
TK: Since I work in the Legislative branch of city government, I’ll comment from what I’ve seen and experienced inside City Hall.
All of the internal restructuring has been good, and I’m sure the Mayor is still fine-tuning his organizational chart. I remember the weekend that he won his election, New Orleans also took home the Super Bowl Championship. The whole city was like… wow, you can imagine.
Lamar: Pardon the interruption, but yes, I know what you mean. I worked the phones for Mayor Landrieu on election day, went to his victory party that night at the Roosevelt, and then, the next day, as I’ve written before, New Orleans felt like the center of the universe. It was an incredible weekend. Anyway, back to Mayor Landrieu:
TK: Mayor Landrieu immediately went to work with teams and task forces, assessing the current state of the City. His inauguration speech was so uplifting in the midst of so many problems. I was sitting on the stands behind him at Gallier Hall, and remember being so inspired and honored that the City Council President, my boss, Arnie Fielkow, had given me an opportunity to take part in this renewal, a chance to recharge personally and possibly even reinvent my life. Since then, the Mayor has done alot of things differently, better and it’s going to get ever better. But physically, I hope he stays in good health because there are so many problems that he has to deal with and those problems get in the way, slows down our progress. But he is the right leader for the New Orleans of today.
Lamar: What is the role of grassroots activism in the recovery of New Orleans?
TK: From what I’ve gathered, I think that while our government plays a vital role in the rebuilding process, we can’t do the job alone and really depend on grassroots participation to help us, to guide us with input of neighborhood groups and support from community leaders. We especially need the moral leadership of community-minded individuals and businesses to keep moving forward. It’s that right mix of people, a diversity of participants with different approaches to the many issues, that will generate a variety of solutions. Grassroots organizations bring together community people with diverse, yet complementary skills and resources around a shared vision. There is no place in this nation where grassroots activism is as high as New Orleans. This is the Mecca of grassroots organizations. Democracy is such a wonderful thing! The power that people have when they speak together is amazing.
Lamar: So, I know you’re a married mother of two and a practicing Catholic. Yet you’re also a strong advocate of marriage equality. Why?
TK: Yes, I’m Catholic. Married in a Catholic Church, and I truly believe that we are all God’s children. Legally, as a married person, I know I have certain rights, and I think it’s wrong that couples of the same gender are denied these rights. Marriage is not just a vocation it’s a value.
We can have an honest debate on issues of taxes, economy, healthcare, unemployment and such, but there should be no debate over human equality.
Lamar: What is the future of New Orleans and Louisiana?
TK: I don’t have a crystal ball, but when I think about the future, I think of my two boys. I mean, you know, we do what we do every day, striving to do better each time– all because of and for our children. But if you’re asking me to be a visionary, I can certainly come up with plenty of thoughts on changes, improvements that will, at the same time, preserve our history and its precious culture. America is not America without Louisiana. And Louisiana will never be Louisiana without New Orleans.
Lamar: Where do you see yourself in twenty years, when your boys are in college?
TK: I’m not sure Lamar. I’m not sure where I see myself in 3 years. I enjoyed the private-sector, but I love public service. And all I hope to see when my boys are grown men is when they speak of me, they do so with a twinkle in their eye because they understood why I work so hard.
Lamar: And finally, what’s your favorite place in Louisiana?
TK: City Hall – just kidding. My favorite place in Louisiana? It’s a tie between New Orleans City Park and the Audubon Zoo. I grew up going to both places, and though Katrina destroyed all childhood memorabilia, it seems as though the memories are preserved and relived somehow every time I visit these places with my kids. And I’m sure they’re making memories of their own at every time. Right now, we live between both places, and if only the streetcars could take us to both places, from one Park to another, it would be the perfect experience. And that’s something to think about for the future – transit-oriented developments.