June 24, 2011
Lan Diep, a December 2009 Pacific graduate, is already making a difference for an underserved community dealing with the complexities of the American justice system. For efforts first recognized in The New York Times, he was honored on June 10, 2011, by the White House Champions of Change program.
Diep's tale began a year ago. The Mississippi Center for Justice was looking for help reaching out to the Vietnamese fishing community after the huge 2010 oil spill. Despite a "requirement" of five years' experience, Diep applied for and got the job. "I knew I didn't have the experience, not even close, but I had the interest and the language skill, and I was willing to relocate," he told the Huffington Post.
Diep won an Equal Justice Works AmeriCorps Fellowship to fund his work. He moved to Biloxi, Mississippi, and began to delve into the legal complexities facing people who had lost their livelihoods because of the oil spill. The federal government had set up a multi-billion dollar Gulf Coast Claims Facility designed to get money into people's pockets so they could save their boats and their homes. But not all the money was getting through a bureaucracy undermined by unscrupulous lawyers who had "signed up" many claimants who could not speak or understand English well.
A native Vietnamese speaker, Diep visited a contractor whose job was to sign up people for a law firm, not letting on that he spoke English. He was told by the man that he could get money simply by filling out a form and handing over financial documents. He was given a retainer but not told that he was signing up for a lawyer nor was he allowed to keep a copy for himself.
Diep alerted the proper authorities then took it upon himself to educate many of the baffled fishermen who were signing their claim rights away to a third party. "So many didn't realize they were being tricked into signing binding legal agreements," he said. "I had to do something to help."
Diep does his best to assist the fishermen in their written communications with the claims office. His office fields hundreds of calls daily and he's become the go-to guy for many in the Vietnamese community. He also has started writing a monthly newsletter in Vietnamese explaining new rules and procedures in the federal claims program.
In early June, Diep got a call from a government official in Washington, D.C., informing him that he had been nominated for the Champions of Change program. A week later, he was invited to meet White House staffers in New Orleans for the National Conference on Volunteering and Service participate in a roundtable discussion at conference.
"I've been involved with the Vietnamese community everywhere I have lived in the past" said Diep, who grew up in Houston and the San Francisco area. "This has been a very rewarding experience, and I've been proud to tell clients, reporters and White House staffers that I have a law degree from McGeorge."
View a video produced by Equal Justice Works featuring Lan here.