Vina Kay prepares to lead SEARCH


Vina Kay, an attorney, writer and immigrants advocate has started a new roles this week as the new Vice President of South East Asian Refugee Community Home – a professional and culturally appropriate mutual assistance association that is entering its 18th year. 

“I feel like my personal experience and my life and my work are coming together and that is exciting,” said Kay, who will transition to President of SEARCH in one-year, as founding President Hoang K. Tran announced his intent to retire in 2011.

SEARCH ( began by serving Southeast Asian refugees, and has expanded to serve successive waves of new Americans from Africa and other nations with social services and other barriers to integrating into employment, self-sufficiency and civic life.

Kay said the staff is a motivated group and also sincere about listening to the experiences and challenges of clients. She said that Tran and the SEARCH Board are preparing the organization to move into the next phase of its development.

“Mr. Tran has done very well to ensure the staff reflects the community that the organization serves,” said Kay. “This lends a great deal of credibility to the organization.”

“I am grateful to have this year with Mr. Tran still there in the office and to have this chance to learn from his experience,” she added.

Over the next year Kay said that she would study SEARCH program operations, the communities being served, and is working closely with managers in order to develop effective relationships and a “sincere, truthful and authentic” voice for the organization.

“It is a multi-step process,” she added. “I would not have joined SEARCH if I didn’t think the mission is one that I believe in myself and that it has a story worth telling to others.”

Kay said she is reviewing the SEARCH mission and its objectives as she begins outreaching other community organizations, government agencies, funding sources and individual donors that work with them. Even as her knowledge and leadership becomes second nature, Kay said she would rely on managers to provide cultural expertise on the issues of the communities they serve.

“We have to stick to the SEARCH mission and also remain flexible to adapt to immigrant needs of the time,” she said.

As vice president of a nonprofit organization Kay said she works closely with and reports to the SEARCH Board of Directors, adding that they present a range of ethnicity and professional experience. This helps, she said, in revising the next strategic plan.

She said the board is in a position to ask the right questions and has an opportunity to dream about all the possibilities. She likes that it places a lot of trust in leadership and will look to them for guidance.

“I am getting to know the board and I am so impressed with how invested they are in this organization,” she said. “A volunteer board can go in so many directions; ours is truly a working board that cares about mission.”

Kay said she is confident that SEARCH will continue its work to address the broad spectrum of needs in the immigrant populations, particularly with the youngest and eldest that tend to be the most vulnerable.

She said the youngest struggle to go to school and dream of a future. They face language and cultural barriers and need support to be successful. She can see SEARCH doing more to help students get back on track if they are struggling with academics or behavioral issues.

At the same time, Kay said that exceptional youth need support to keep their motivation and to achieve their highest potential.

“The youth program is not really big right now and it is one of the things that I would like to see grow,” she added.

Kay said it is also vital to continue to provide services to an increasing elderly immigrant population. This group is at risk of isolation in an unfamiliar environment, where they social and work barriers as age makes ESL and cultural adaptation more difficult than for their working age children.

“I would like to collaborate with area organizations that are working with aging issues,” she added.

For working age immigrants, Kay said SEARCH would continue with job placement program as an important piece to ensure people have the opportunity to succeed and contribute successfully to American culture as well.

“Employment is big part of it,” she added.

The dream of America as the land of opportunity often becomes a nightmare for struggling immigrants and Kay said that organizations like SEARCH are critical to help people build a more realistic foundation of access to opportunity.

She said unskilled immigrants with language barriers are succeeding with childcare training programs. They learn regulations and business practices that can help them develop a stable livelihood that would take years longer to develop comparative skills for other occupations.

Kay said it helps that the SEARCH office location at 1113 E. Franklin Avenue, Suite 212, Minneapolis, is centrally located on the bus line and also with ample parking to make it more accessible to a diverse clientele.

Kay’s past work with helping organizations in transition helped prepare her for SEARCH. She started her career as a legal fellow at the Institute on Race and Poverty, first as a project director in Housing, Education and Persistent Segregation and then as a project supervisor. She continued at the Institute as a senior researcher and director of the Racial Justice/Regional Equity Project.

Before joining SEARCH, Kay also worked as a grant writer for Ascension Place/St. Anne’s Place in Minneapolis. This emergency shelter and social service center was the refuge for several Hmong families that ran out of support after coming from Thailand in 2002.

Kay was born and raised in Omaha, Nebraska, the eldest of a Thai immigrant family. Her parents were math educators who met in the U.S. and settled in Omaha. Her father would open a successful portrait photography studio – a business her brother now runs himself. Her mother still operates a Thai restaurant.

She recalls a very small community of immigrants, and no community of Thai other than their family. The family spoke Thai at home until she entered pre-school and discovered she could not yet speak English. They spoke English from then on and Kay said she regrets losing that element of their culture.

“I had to learn early on how to basically ‘fit-in’,” she said. “For my parents, survival was assimilation.”

Through it all Kay said it was a wonderful and supportive family base that helped to overcome any obstacles while growing up. In her memoir, she writes about the idea of ‘home’, and ‘what is homeland?’

She said her father continued to call Thailand home even as he rejoiced in building a happy and successful family in Omaha, a community he also helped to build as a teacher, businessman and as a participating member. She said immigrants have to create community on their own in America while the children inherit community while growing up in neighborhoods and schools.

The refugee experience is different but similar once they are here and working for a future, she said. What they need are networks to fill in the gaps and to support the diversity of the school community on all levels, she added.

“(Omaha) didn’t have the network that I see in the Twin Cities now, and I find that inspiring,” she said.

Kay’s post-secondary education began at Carleton College, where she earned her bachelors degree cum laude, with Honors in English and Women’s Studies in 1991. She went on to study Social Policy at the University of Minnesota Humphrey Institute of Public Affairs on a Graduate School Minority Student Fellowship, and then received honors for legal writing as she earned her Juris Doctorate from the University of Minnesota Law School in 1995.

“I loved law school and feel that I have always used my law degree in ways to advocate in the nonprofit sector,” she said.

Kay now lives in South Minneapolis, where she raises two sons, ages 13 and 9, with her spouse, an attorney with Ameriprise Financial.

Kay chairs the Multicultural Alumni Network (MCAN) at Carleton College.  She has served on the Lake Country School and Bright Water Montessori School Boards, as well as on the boards of the Center for Independent Artists, and Skewed Vision Performance Company.

She also involved herself with several community groups, including the Lake Country School Root & Shoots program, Habitat for Humanity, Obama Works Twin Cities, and the Bush Foundation’s Educational Achievement Design Lab.

Kay is also a professional writer and has taught a memoir writing class. She received the Loft Mentor Series Award in Non Fiction for 2006-2007, and received Honorable Mention in both the Fourth Genre Editor’s 2006 Prize for Best Essay/Memoir, and the 2005 SASE/Jerome Awards.