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UC Berkeley graduate student named Champion of Change

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APRIL 30, 2013

The White House’s Champion of Change award is one of the highest honors an American citizen can receive, but for UC Berkeley School of Social Welfare graduate student Minh Dang, the honor was bittersweet.

Dang, an activist fighting sexual abuse and trafficking, was named a Champion of Change by the White House on Monday along with 14 other Asian American, Native Hawaiian and Pacific Islander women for their remarkable professional achievement, leadership skills and commitment to public service.

Dang’s own difficult childhood, during which she suffered sexual abuse, inspired her fight against social injustice. From the age of 10 until two years into her UC Berkeley undergraduate education, Dang’s parents sold her into brothels.

Dang tried to escape that trauma by pouring her efforts into schoolwork, soccer and community service in high school. Despite her situation, Dang found others in her life who helped her push herself to succeed.

“The false hope that I could make my parents love me was a key factor in surviving my struggle,” Dang said. “I also had lovely teachers, coaches and friends along the way that made it easier for me. They made me question whether or not I was unlovable.”

Dang’s efforts to escape became her avenue to higher education at UC Berkeley. As an undergraduate, Dang immersed herself in nonprofit organizations like the Cal Corps Public Service Center and REACH!, a campus group that works to help and empower Asian Pacific Islander students.

Mike Bishop, the assistant director of Cal Corps Public Service Center who nominated Dang as a Champion of Change, worked with her while she coordinated the Bonner Leaders Program, an education program for student leaders in social justice.

“(Dang) sees herself as part of a collective effort — a movement — and cultivates new leadership that acts for social justice,” Bishop said. “She is an authentic leader who speaks truth to power. To Minh, seeking justice for the exploited is not an individual pursuit. She represents the best of a public university by using her talents to serve the public good.”

After graduating, Dang continued volunteering and taught several UC Berkeley undergraduate social welfare classes. Today, she directs Don’t Sell Bodies, a campaign working to end sex trafficking of youth nationwide.

Last September, Haas School of Business professor Alan Ross invited Dang to present her life story in his political science colloquium.

“(Dang) comes across as completely genuine and someone who really wants to change the system,” Ross said. “She was just very matter-of-fact about what went on without trying to play on people’s emotions, and I think that’s what really resonated with the class.”

Even after becoming a Champion of Change, Dang emphasizes the collective battle against social injustice over her individual efforts.

“I really appreciate this award, and to me, it shows that it’s possible for someone to go through something horrible and to heal from it,” Dang said. “But it’s also a sad thing that we need Champions of Change to work against something that shouldn’t exist.”

Contact Yvonne Ng at [email protected].

MAY 01, 2013

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