As an organization run by volunteers, we at Hyphen like to celebrate the great effort and dedication it takes to work damn hard for a good cause. This new column highlights leaders in the Asian American community who give of their time generously as leaders, rabble rousers, pioneers, activists and all-around highly passionate do-gooders so that our communities can be stronger, healthier, safer, fairer, and happier.
We are proud to introduce our inaugural hero, Vina Ha.
I learned through my chat over the phone with attorney, nonprofit founder, DJ and all-around overachiever, Vina Ha, that my interviewing skills are rather, uhhh… subpar. Like a good interviewer, I researched as much information as I could about him online. However, as I interviewed him, I quickly realized that even the internet could not contain all of his vast achievements. As Vina revealed on more yet undiscovered detail after another, I had to think of additional questions on the spot, and then found myself at a loss as to how to ask him precise follow-up questions about the many specialized types of work he does. With my mostly literary background, how was I to know the differences between “media” and “entertainment” law, or that DJs “deejay” not “perform,” or what his desire to go beyond “ad hoc” solutions means? So there I was, uncomfortable with each prolonged second of silence as Vina thought about either (I’m too embarrassed to know for sure) how to politely correct me, or how to understand my question.
I figure the whole endeavor would have been MUCH easier if the man just went ahead and bragged about how badass he is. But for Vina, it’s almost as if talking about his accomplishments only takes time and energy away from planning his next project.
This began to make sense when he shared his parent’s refugee history. “My parents didn’t tell me and my brother much about their experiences fleeing the war in Vietnam,” says Vina (whose name is an abbreviated form of “Vietnam”). “My parents are very forward-looking so it was more about focusing on the future. Rather than dwelling on the past, there was a lot of emphasis on school and homework and working toward our future.”
And indeed, Vina’s background is one streamlined arrow-aim toward many more target successes. Born in San Francisco, Vina double-majored in sociology and ethnic studies, and then received a master’s degree in ethnic studies at UC Berkeley. Political events that took place during his high school years heavily influenced his academic interests: “I remember the Rodney King and LA riots [in 1992], and these I think were moments when we as a nation had to confront racism and racial inequalities. I had many questions and felt that I needed to explore that inequality.”
He went on to study law at Boalt Law School at UC Berkeley. Currently, he works as a media and technology attorney for Google in New York where he negotiates commercial deals for the advertising group.
Vina Ha as a Student at UC Berkeley's Boalt Law School
The most animated part of our conversation began when I asked him about DM Public Interest Fellowship, the nonprofit organization he founded along with his Boalt friends Daniel Kim and Eunice Koo. DM Public Interest Fellowship invites law firms to annual dinners to honor selected alumni. The money raised by DM Public Interest Fellowship supports Boalt-alumni lawyers pursuing public interest work that address issues primarily surrounding Asian American communities. DM Public Interest Fellowship has helped fund various causes including immigrant rights, elder and health care matters, and economic justice. In over the six years since its inception, DM Public Interest Fellowship has raised enough money to create an endowment to help fund future scholarships. “We founded DM Public Interest Fellowship because we saw a need for a stable pool of funds that could be made available to public-interest attorneys,” says Vina. “Another goal is to build a network between recent and past Boalt grads, celebrate public interest work and find inspiration in each other to continue that work.”
When Vina finds some down time, he likes to DJ at various community events and friends’ get-togethers. Inspired by the thriving hip hop community at UC Berkeley, Vina learned how to spin as a college student. Soon after, he was a staple at several clubs and weekly lounges, taking his DJing skills as far as Shanghai where he deejayed with DJ V-Nutz, one of China’s DJ champions.
DJ VNA in Action
These days, Vina still spins regularly for community events. This Friday, September 13 at FAME (435 Broadway Street in San Francisco), Vina will be spinning at the Hyphen PJ Soiree party.
When I asked about how he envisions his future, he responds with his usual economy of words: “I’ll probably be back in the Bay Area, who knows. Hopefully I’ll be playing with nephews and nieces.”
I continue to pry, so Vina adds: “I wouldn’t mind being part of another documentary or film project in the next ten years. In college, I helped conceptualize and edit a documentary on the ethnic students strike at UC Berkeley in 1999.” Surprised by this unexpected bit of information, I press him for more details about his interest in film: “I was in the screening committee for the San Francisco Asian American Film Festival for four years from 2005 to 2009.” And that was that. He refused to gush or toot his own horn. The man is a river, always intently moving toward a new destination without even a moment’s pause to sit on his laurels.
Despite his steadfast modesty, I keep pressing him for a preview of his life to come: “I wouldn’t mind improving my cooking skills,” he says, and leaves it at that. The cooking, however, will have to wait. Vina’s current projects are just in their early stages of success.