Against The Grain Productions was born from passion and necessity. Co-founder Tammy Nguyen Lee noticed something dire when she looked around Dallas, something she had to change.
“It was difficult to find anyone like me in Texas,” Lee says. “We just weren’t represented.”
By “we” Lee means the Asian American community that is often unnoticed and overlooked in Texas and beyond. The community was represented in Dallas, but it lacked the platform it needed to showcase its creativity and ingenuity. Intent on casting a spotlight on Asian Americans and benefitting causes close to her heart. The SMU grad is a producer, filmmaker and philanthropist, and was eager to leverage to talents to help others.
“I wanted to merge all of these things that made me who I am, and share it with people,” she says. “I wanted to help others feel a sense of completeness.”
Lee launched Against The Grain (ATG) Productions to promote unity, artistry and awareness of the Asian American culture.
Since its inception over a decade ago, the non-profit has created telling stories no one else would tell. Giving a voice to the voiceless became a recurring theme for the ATG. In addition to their current project--the doc Light of Day, which uncovers stories of domestic violence in the Asian community--the organization has created a scholarship to support Asian American art students, produced the lauded doc Operation Babylift: The Lost Children of Vietnam, and founded Fashion for a Passion, the annual charity event for which they became best known. Like all of their projects, the event began as a way to highlight Asian Americans with no prior platform.
“We wanted to showcase the talents of designers, but we thought, ‘What if we put a couple pieces up for auction?’”
Fashion for a Passion (FFAP) began with up-and-coming designers from various Asian American ethnicities, and quickly added creators with more notoriety to its talented roster. Notable veteran FFAP designers include Cac Lam of Cacdemode, Ann Hoang, Joann Hong, Nikki Duong Koenig of Cykochik, Danh Ta and Jerry Matthews of Nine Muses. In 2018, the show featured emerging designer Theresa Pham of TP Mini Me, Project Runway alum Shirin Askari, global designers Yeohlee Teng and Lie Sang Bong for Betty Reiter and an impressive collection from Khanh Nguyen of Nha Khanh. Khanh, who first worked with FFAP over a decade ago, has blossomed from a rising star into a fashion powerhouse. Her career has skyrocketed alongside ATG’s growth, and the non-profit and designer have each helped each other enhance their audience and impact.
These designers united to showcase their talents and raise funds for a wide variety of causes. The event was one-of-a-kind.
“Fashion events happened in the past, but there was never an event that said, ‘This will be your showcase. This is what’s going on in the Asian American community.’”
In the past decade, AGT has raised a quarter of a million dollars, and awarded $65,000 in scholarships since 2011. Fashion for a Passion turned 10 in fall 2018, then Lee and ATG decided to do the unthinkable: move on.
“We became known as the organization that created Fashion for a Passion, but our cause has become so much beyond fashion,” Lee says. “It was a great entry point, and once people got in the door, they realized all this community had to offer.”
As ATG has grown, they’ve listened and identified the needs of the people in their community. So what’s next?
Events like Groundbreakers Speak bring Asian American artists and entrepreneurs in front of a broad audience to share their gifts, talents and wisdom. Groundbreakers Speak became the bedrock of the Groundbreaker Awards, which honor Asian Americans doing meaningful work and giving back to their community. Lee views these programs as a way to continue highlighting talented members of the Asian American community--particularly people whose professions are not typically celebrated.
“Prior to ATG, most awards given were in the traditional realms of engineering and medicine,” Lee says. “It would be unfair for us to ignore the great contributions of those around us.”
Daniel Eng, a Dallas real estate titan and recipient of one of this year’s Groundbreaker Awards, loves what ATG is doing for Dallas and the broader Asian American community. The son of an immigrant from Hong Kong, Eng knows firsthand how important it is to give immigrants a platform. Like the other Groundbreaker Award recipients, he is driven by giving back to others, and by helping provide a home--in his case, literally--for Asian Americans striving to better their lives and the lives of their families.
“Any minority group is always trying to find where they fit in,” Eng says. “What ATG has been doing helps cultivate a culture where it’s okay to study design, film, art or whatever you’re passionate about.”
Future events and films are in the works, and as always, ATG will retain its mission to highlight and unite the Asian American community. Lee insists her work won’t be done until people who look like her can look around and see themselves.
“It was all about representation,” she says. “Telling untold stories, and trying to change the image of who we are.”
“There is someone out there that looks like you, that has a story like yours, can achieve great success.”
All images courtesy of Against The Grain Productions