3 Top Leaders Quit LA's Biggest Asian American Advocacy Group To Protest Layoffs

Former staff and supporters protest Thursday evening outside the annual dinner for Asian Americans Advancing Justice-LA. From left: Billy Yates, Thang Diep, Sally Chen, Minju Cho. (Courtesy of American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees)

Asian Americans Advancing Justice-Los Angeles is losing three top staffers who oversee class-action lawsuits and some of the organization's most broad-reaching and defining programs — the latest in a string of setbacks that include budget woes and major layoffs.

The three senior staffers — Laboni Hoq, An Le and Eileen Ma — resigned in a joint statement this week to protest how management laid off 19 of their co-workers in a "callous manner."

Their resignations are a blow to the efforts of one of the country's largest Asian American advocacy organizations to advocate for civil rights, raise awareness on the upcoming Census, and promote Asian American voting participation.

Layoffs announced last week also have cut into the nonprofit's ability to offer the same level of civics education, immigrant youth mentoring and in-language legal help.

The three senior staffers wrote that decisions of management and the interim leadership "have devastated our ability to carry out our commitments to our communities."

"These cuts," they continued, "have irreparably diminished the organization such that it is hardly recognizable."

Their last day will be Nov. 1.

Katherine Ku, a member of AAAJ's board, said she could not comment on personnel matters or confirm whether layoffs were made because of a $2 million budget shortfall as reported by staff.

She acknowledged that the organization has been "going through some challenges" and the goal is to put AAAJ-LA "on more sound financial footing to ensure that we can continue to do our work."

"Our mission hasn't changed," Ku said. "We will continue to provide critical services to the Asian American community. It may look a little bit different because we've consolidated some programs for efficiency."

'DEVASTATING' LOSSES

An Le has been AAAJ-LA's lead on the census and worked with people coordinating outreach among California's Asian Americans, who risk being undercounted as a group.

"This is a critical time for census work," said Alison Vu, AAAJ's former communications director, who was among the 19 staffers who were laid off. "To lose someone who is doing the work and made the connections is very devastating."

Eileen Ma headed the voting rights program, which worked with other organizations around the country to promote Asian American representation at the polls, Vu said.

Laboni Hoq was in charge of litigation for the organization, which participated in such hallmark cases as the lawsuit brought against Harvard University for its use of race in student admissions.

To protest the layoffs, two Harvard students who testified in the admissions case declined an award that was to be presented to them Thursday at AAAJ-LA's 36th annual dinner at the Westin Bonaventure in downtown Los Angeles, and instead leafletted with former and current staff outside the hotel.

In a statement, the students, Thang Diep, formerly of Reseda, and Sally Chen, condemned the layoffs and the departures of lawyers who assisted them in the Harvard case.

"We cannot in good faith accept an award for this work that would not have been possible without them," Diep and Chen wrote.

Ku said despite their rejection of the award, the two Harvard students were still honored during the dinner.

"That's what we stand for," Ku said. "The value of advocacy and dissent and pursuit of justice."

A spokeswoman for AAAJ-LA said during Thursday's dinner the organization's founder Stewart Kwoh and the chair of the board of directors, Nita Song, also addressed its challenges and committment to the providing services to the community.

SEVERANCE PACKAGES AND PLEAS FOR DONATIONS

Eighteen union members and one non-union member were laid off last week, according to Vu. They include civics teachers, a lawyer and hotline operators who could speak Vietnamese and Tagalog.

Vu said Friday was the last day for 10 of those laid off, including herself. Vu said she lost her ability to access her email or the AAAJ building on Wilshire Boulevard within hours of learning she had been let go.

The union has several asks of AAAJ-LA management, including a request that it reinstate the job of a receptionist who is three years away from retirement and to strengthen the severance packages for the most financially vulnerable staffers, including an individual whose spouse has late-stage cancer. A GoFundMe page has been set up for the laid-off employees in the most dire financial situations. More than $21,000 has been raised so far.

The union, which formed a year ago, is also demanding its first collective bargaining contract.

Ku said she could not discuss negotiations with the union but added that "we support our staff, the current members of the staff, the former members of the staff, and we want to do right by them."

She said the board is currently searching for a permanent executive director. Sylia Obagi has been serving as the interim head since May after Kwoh stepped down as founding director. (Full disclosure: Kwoh is an honorary life trustee for Southern California Public Radio, which operates LAist.)