Tag Archives: non profit

To everyone who ever thought Asians make terrible leaders…

Holy crap! Last week was crazy. And I’m not talking about the Seahawks whoopin’ on the Panthers type of crazy (which was awesome btw). I was offered the Executive Director position, which I accepted on the condition that they let me keep my standing desk. You can read the Board President’s announcement if you’re curious. And also, as an ED newly born into this world, you can read my  adorable first words.

Everything is still very new and happening fast. I’ve only been on the job three days and have had to make 128 decisions so far–from the mundane “What kind of socks does a new ED wear?” to the philosophical “How to honor the Vietnamese culture and heritage while being inclusive of other communities?”

I’m very excited for this new position and am honored to have the opportunity to serve the Vietnamese community at this level. I promise to use all of my skills and experiences to help advance the successes of the Vietnamese and broader Asian American community. I’m especially grateful to everyone who has supported me on this journey.

Anyways, I’ve been getting a ton of emails, Facebook messages and texts on my phone since the announcement went out, and have been doing my best to keep up and respond to each and every one of them. Many folks have been asking me questions about the new role, and I’ve summarized a snippet of them below.

How’s it feel?

It has been a roller coaster ride of emotions that range from “another plain ol’ day at the office” to “Holy crap, I’m on the edge of my seat freaking out because I might actually be slipping off but I need to take a selfie first, omg what do I do?” (aka, Disney’s Space Mountain).

The other night I literally had my first ED nightmare. I dreamed I was trying to lead a staff meeting but everyone was jumping up and down on the tables, drinking and partying. “No one respects me,” I thought. “I’m a terrible ED.” Times like these I just want to be swaddled.

Why did you choose now to become an Executive Director?

This was something I was on the fence about for a while; I was very hesitant and went back and forth. My rationale, at the time, was that I was already able to serve the community in meaningful ways. I was very happy and comfortable where I was at.

Ultimately, after the previous ED left, the space and separation gave me a chance to practice my leadership in new ways within the organization. It helped me visualize my potential role as a new Executive Director, and the skills and perspective that I could contribute to the position.

We had to navigate complex partnerships and I thought “I can do this.” We had to make difficult decisions of types of funding we wanted to pursue or not and I thought “I can do this.” We had to say goodbye to some really wonderful staff and I thought “I can do this.” I had to email the staff to let them know that we ran out of ice cream in the freezer and I thought “I can do this.” Then the staff mutinied, demanded more ice cream, wanted my head on a pike, and I thought “This sucks.”

What kind of leadership do you bring to the organization?

I previously wrote about task-oriented people and relationship-oriented people. If you ever came to me with a problem, my first instinct would be to break the problem down into small steps, and move through them one by one. I’m super task-oriented. This is a strength that I bring to the organization.

Overtime, I also learned that I needed to develop my “people skills” in order to strengthen my leadership. I practiced skills like “active listening” and “compassion” and “empathy.” For example, before when people wanted my time and attention, I would ignore them…like parents to me. Now, whenever someone talks to me, I reply with “Uh huh” and nod my head. Effective leadership rocks!

Are you vegan like your predecessor?

A lot of folks have wanted to take me out to lunch to celebrate and have been asking, “Your last ED was a vegan. Does that mean you’re one too? Are all EDs vegan? James, do you want carrots and hummus?”

My definitive answer is “Heck no.” I enjoy the taste, smell and look of meat. Honest to goodness, I can stare at a piece of meat for hours without blinking. I admit, however, that I have recently switched to a “no cooking meat at home” diet, which has been a great exercise in more sustainable cooking. At the same time, it’s increased my meat cravings tenfold as well as my obsession with zombie flicks.

Wow, your parents must be proud of you!

They are! I think…

Their initial reply was “Executive Director!!! Why not Mayor? Or City Council? Or Amazon, like your sister.” Ugh, that brought me back to my school days when even an A- would disappoint Asian parents.

What vision do I see for the organization and for the community?

Ok, this is a big question. In this blog, I’ve written about challenges that impact that Vietnamese and broader Asian American community. For example, the need for more inclusive early learning programs, promoting civic engagement in the Vietnamese community, transforming how we approach youth development, and broader social justice issues.

I also want to focus internally on the organization. It’s critical we have an organizational culture and structure that will support and nurture our staff and volunteers, and provide a safe environment where everyone can work with dignity and be compensated for their skills, passion and service. For starters, disconnecting people from their work email when they’re not at work!

What are you going to do in your first month?

Huh? Is this a test? Quit asking me so many hard questions. Realistically, I’ll be spending the first month checking in with all of our staff and board to listen to their vision and dreams for VFA and the community, where they see themselves growing, and any anxieties or concerns they may have about me as ED…because I probably have them too!

Then I’ll meet with all of our board members to thank them profusely for hiring me, and to beg them even more profusely not to fire me within the first month.

Finally, I’ll reach out to our community members, supporters, funders and donors to discuss the vision and direction that VFA is headed.

Oh yeah, buy some more ice cream for the freezer too—lest I want another revolt.


Anyways, thanks again everyone. If you have any advice for me on how to be a good leader, how to honor our communities, and what kind of ice cream I should buy, I’d love to hear it! Leave your comments below or on the Asian Slant facebook page.


Besties or frenemies? The real story behind government, foundation and non-profit partnerships.

This past week I was on a panel discussion about understanding and connecting with communities. As Seattle becomes more diverse–economically, culturally, linguistically–there has been a rising interest in how to better engage, and ultimately serve, these emerging communities.

On the panel were representatives from City government, a gentleman from a local Foundation, and me–speaking from the non-profit perspective. Together, we represented “the big three.”

The moderator asked questions like, “How do you use data to understand the community and shape programs, investments and strategies” and “What tools do you use to understand your community?” We each shared how our respective institutions uniquely approached community development. Sometimes our work and vision clearly align (besties!), and other times we butt heads  (frenemy).

Rather than going into too much technical detail, I decided to write a fairy tale to explain the magical world of government, foundations and non-profits.


The Immigrant versus the Three Magi

A long, long time ago, far away in sleepy land cursed with eternal rain and little sun, there lived three magi: Government, Foundation and Non-Profit. Together, they watched over the entire kingdom with good intention and grace; each blessed with a different gift.

Government was born with the gift of influence, and lived in great hall filled with cubicles so massive they are rumored to steal one’s soul. Any man, woman, or child unfortunate enough to mistakenly wander into the hall would be lost and forgotten beneath reams of paperwork for all of eternity.

Foundation was blessed with wealth and lived in an ivory castle high above the clouds. There, she enjoyed a life filled with gold, jewelry and retirement benefits. Though Foundation had many suitors with whom to share her wealth, she was always hampered by a fear of long-term commitment.

Finally, Non-Profit–the smallest but most beautiful of the three–had neither influence nor wealth, but was given the gift of heart (and lavishing skin with perfectly symmetrical facial features). Non-Profit lived in a humble abode, which he had to split with other two roommates because he couldn’t afford rent.

Once a year the three magi emerged from within their walls to meet with the kingdom’s inhabitants, and each other. The gathering was known as the Great Equity Summit, an annual celebration where the magi granted audience to the people, listened to their needs, and offered solutions to their problems.

“Send in the first citizen,” announced Government.

“Your majesties, I am a poor shopkeeper who recently came to this Kingdom from across the eastern ocean, in a place called the Orient. I was able to find moderate success selling gluten-free water at the local market, but recently the cost of living has risen faster than my income. Now I can’t support my family and I am worried we will lose our home. Other families are growing anxious and more desperate too. Please help us.”

“Your words have moved me stranger,” replied Government, “and if what you say is true, then we must begin by carefully studying this problem. I shall appoint an independent Royal Assessor to collect data on other citizens in your neighborhood. We will conduct surveys, organize focus groups, and host community gatherings to get the input we need for a written report. Only then will I be adequately informed to make a decision.”

“We must act now!” interrupted Non-Profit. “What you need are new skills and opportunities for leadership. I shall create a job training program to teach you English and math, and find you an internship with the local masons. With hard work, you will earn a higher income, save your home, and strengthen your family.” Non-Profit spoke with passion and determination. “But first, is there anyone in this great Kingdom willing and able to volunteer as a tutor, case manager, and/or web designer for the shopkeeper?”

“No, no, no.” said Foundation. “That won’t achieve lasting impact. We need to be strategic and create a road map that will guide our work. I offer a grand competition for people, or corporations, to submit proposals that will address this urgent problem. We will gather new, innovative ideas and rank them according to factors like board composition, spelling, sustainability, and overhead. The champion will be announced in six weeks, and afterward we shall feast on lobster tails sprinkled with gold dust.”

“Foundation, you need to check your privilege ,” cried Non-Profit. “Your ‘grand competition’ always declares the same White Knight as champion.” Foundation felt hurt that her love and kindness was rejected by Non-Profit, who she secretly admired. In anger, she scratched his eyes and put him in a headlock.

“Let me go at once!!!” said Non-Profit. “Biases! Biases I say! Let me go.”

“Say ‘collective impact,’ then I’ll let you go,” yelled Foundation. “Say it!”

Government stepped in to break up the fight. “Friends, be civil, please. Let’s put this to a vote!”

“Everyone be quiet!” yelled the shopkeeper. “Stop fighting with each other; it’s not making anything better. None of you ever listen to the community. You’re always just set in your own ways. Government, you’re paralyzed by process and analysis. Foundation, you spend more time in the clouds than with people like me. Non-Profit, I appreciate all of your energy and enthusiasm, but your volunteers are unreliable.”

The three magi were stunned–no one had ever dared to raise their voice against them before. They all felt embarrassed and thought about the shopkeeper’s words. “Perhaps…it would be best if we worked together,” admitted Government, who agreed to set new affordable housing policies. Foundation decided to use her wealth to support grassroots champions of all colors and creeds. And Non-Profit committed to hiring permanent staff to provide services.

Everyone celebrated this huge milestone, for it represented what could be accomplished when Government, Foundation and Non-Profit used their gifts and talents to support one another.

“Lobster tails for everyone!” Foundation said joyously.

“Finally, a summit the resulted in action!” echoed Non-Profit.

“Wait a minute stranger…” interrupted Government. “You mentioned that you came from the Orient. My data says your people are college educated and high-income homeowners. What gives?”

The shopkeeper, having had his wished fulfilled, ran out the door and yelled “I’m Southeast Orient. Learn how to disaggregate your data, jerk face!”

***The End***

You got served by an Asian! Got a problem with that?

By far the most common question we get at the Vietnamese Friendship Association (VFA) is, “Do you only serve Vietnamese people?” When VFA was founded, our mission and services were clearly aligned; we supported Vietnamese war refugees and helped them with resettlement in the United States. “Psst. Hey. Hey you. Are you Viet? Need some help?” It was pretty straightforward, and we largely succeeded in this regard.

As the Vietnamese community has continued to grow and mature, so too has VFA shifted our programs to focus on emerging needs, such as positive youth development, parent empowerment, civic engagement, and a brief stint at animal rescue when found one lost puppy a new home. So it comes as a surprise to many people when they learn that VFA’s largest program, the Saturday English School, serves a majority non-Vietnamese youth. Over 13 different languages are spoken in this program! It’s like a mini United Nations, but instead of trying to achieve world peace, they’re busy SnapChatting.

VFA has been wrestling with our identity for the past couple years as a result of these demographic changes. As a Vietnamese organization, what is our role in serving other refugee and immigrant communities? Even though Vietnamese-Americans have been living in the United States for about 40 years, there continues to be numerous barriers that disproportionately impact our community. Which…ya know…kinda makes VFA still relevant. At the same time, we feel a responsibility to support newly-arrived refugee and immigrant communities because of our own experiences. We know what it’s like to be refugee ourselves. Is it possible to honor our history and heritage while serving the broader refugee and immigrant community?

This brings me back to an experience I had last year. VFA and our partner, a Latino organization, submitted a proposal to provide job training to 58 refugee and immigrant youth. To my knowledge, this was the first time a Vietnamese and Latino organization has ever partnered together on a grant. It was pretty epic and I’m convinced all of the other community organizations would have given us a power couple name like “Latinamese” or “Vietino”. Unfortunately, our proposal wasn’t funded, for a variety of legitimate reasons I’m sure, such as the Executive Director’s vegan diet may actually impair his judgment. That makes sense to me.

But one of the funder’s concerns was that Vietino wouldn’t be able to connect with youth from other ethnic groups like the East African community. It was frustrating feedback to receive, especially when we have a good track record of working in solidarity with many East African groups from youth programming to advocacy.

The YMCA was awarded instead; and for good reason. They do some amazing work. But what about the Young Men’s Christian Association makes them better suited to serve refugee and immigrant communities!? No one questions the YMCA when they propose to serve people who aren’t young, Christian or men. Just because they are an organization that is largely and historically White led, does not mean they automatically know how to effectively serve communities of color. Again, this isn’t to knock on the YMCA, they are a very capable organization and their award was well deserved, but Latinamese can get stuff done too!

This issue extends beyond community organizations too. Are women worth as much as men in the workforce? Is President Obama really American? Why are White actors cast in Asian roles? Is Jeremy Lin a basketball fluke? This societal double standard is incredibly frustrating, and marginalizes many communities who feel like we are playing under a different set of rules and benchmarks.

The questions around identity, and the unique privileges it either brings or denies, is extremely complicated and sensitive. VFA is going through this reflective process right now. What percentage of Vietnamese clients do we need to serve in order to still be Vietnamese organization? I don’t have an easy answer to this question. But I do believe no one has a monopoly on social justice and service; it is a shared responsibility that requires a shared vision.

I think our Director of Development summed it up best when she said “VFA is an organization rooted in the Vietnamese community that is pushing for a better life for all refugees and immigrants.” We canhave a multicultural impact too. And if that fails, there’s always animal rescue.