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Updated: March 7, 2022 / The WBJ Hall of Fame

WBJ Hall of Fame: Sawyer is driven by love

Anh Vu Sawyer poses for a portrait photograph in a theater Photo | Matt Wright Anh Vu Sawyer, former executive director of the Southeast Asian Coalition of Central Massachusetts

Anh Vu Sawyer can list the top five best decisions she’s made in her 68 years of life.

They include, in no particular order, climbing over the gate at the U.S. embassy in Saigon in 1975, from which her family was evacuated just hours after the city fell; meeting her husband and having their children; helping to start People Express Airlines in the 1980s; and matriculating at Massachusetts Institute of Technology at the age of 65, on a dare.

And finally, the fifth decision: accepting the position of executive director of the Southeast Asian Coalition of Central Massachusetts.

She recalls she was in the Central Highlands region of Vietnam, working with trafficked Hmong women when a headhunter she knew called her and asked her if she’d be interested in the position. It was 2012. She decided to give it a go.

“I came down the mountain and had my final interview in Worcester,” Sawyer said.

It was rainy and gray that day, back in the U.S., she recalls. She stopped at the Worcester Public Library and then the Worcester Art Museum. She remembers being impressed by the art collection as she considered whether the city was the right place for her.

“I imagined I could give it a try,” Sawyer said, although she wasn’t sure, at the time, how long she’d manage.

She was concerned because of differences between herself and the majority of the Vietnamese population in Central Massachusetts: She hailed from the north, while those around Worcester largely came from the south.

Her fears ended up being unwarranted, though, which she sees as a sign of healing and diplomacy.

“This is a good way to show the Vietnamese move forward,” Sawyer said.

For nearly a decade since, she’s thrown herself into the Central Massachusetts community, as she is generally wont to do when presented with a challenge.

Under Sawyer, SEACMA maintains a vast program catalog aimed at supporting the area’s Southeast Asian population. Initiatives include direct services and referral programs, which, according to SEACMA, support 10,000 clientele annually; education and youth programming; and a small business ownership and entrepreneurship incubator.

The organization expands as needed, as it did during the COVID-19 pandemic, when it began providing a food delivery program to help people social distance, or making and distributing masks to hospitals, first responders, and other frontline workers in the face of massive shortages.

“If there were to be a person held up for being the epitome of the Heart of the Commonwealth, Anh Vu Sawyer would be it,” said Tim Garvin, president and CEO of the United Way of Central Massachusetts, which works with and operates out of the same building as SEACMA.

Under Sawyer, the nonprofit exudes a can-do attitude, with both the executive director and her staff always willing to say yes when confronted with an opportunity to help, Garvin said. He pointed to the organization’s COVID response, as well as its ongoing role in helping to resettle Afghanistan refugees.

“That doesn’t show up on a website, but I think it speaks to Anh’s leadership and how the entire Southeast Asian Coalition has followed her style and her passion in the community,” Garvin said.

It’s precisely those staff members, as well as the clients SEACMA works with, Sawyer wants to lift up. The region’s Southeast Asian population, she said, are underutilized as resources in the community, and she aspires to a cultural shift wherein the people in those groups are no longer considered needy, but needed.

SEACMA’s operations aim to make that dream a reality.

Shrugging off the idea of her leaving her own legacy, she views the organization as an incubator for Southeast Asian leaders.

She can easily rattle off names of staff members she views as rising stars in and around the Worcester community, noting they are paid as well as their private sector counterparts, and given the space to both lead and take pride in their work.

“I believe with all my heart that these people … are going to change the world for the better,” Sawyer said.

At the end of the day, she said, it’s love driving the energy at SEACMA, although she says she knows that may sound cheap to those on the outside. But it’s that love, and a deeply held personal faith, she said, that drives her in her work.

“If I don’t believe in miracles, I can’t do this job,” she said. “It’s too difficult.”

The WBJ Hall of Fame Class of 2022:

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