Another Asian American Civil Rights Organization Splinters In LA

Embattled Korean Resource Center board president DJ Yoon takes interviews in a photo dated February 2014. (Courtesy of Korean Resource Center via Flickr)

Just weeks after major layoffs shook Asian Americans Advancing Justice-LA, a second Asian American civil rights organization in Los Angeles has fallen into turmoil — losing more than half its staff at a critical time in the fight to protect immigrant rights.

The Korean Resource Center, a leading advocate for low-income and immigrant Koreans in L.A. and Orange counties, has seen about 20 staffers leave in recent weeks.

Most former staffers have gone on record as having resigned in protest of board president D.J. Yoon. They have accused him of shoddy leadership and pressuring employees to work to the point of exhaustion. The board has also come under fire for not acting on staffers' calls for Yoon's immediate ouster.

Yoon, who has also served as KRC's executive director, said he's both made mistakes and been misunderstood. But he disputes charges that he overworked staff, saying that he urged people to take breaks after putting in long hours.

"Their well-being is the most important for the organization, because this is a long marathon," Yoon said.

The board of directors issued a statement Wednesday night maintaining that services would not be interrupted in these "challenging times" and announced a three-leader "transition team" that includes Maria Cabildo, former head of the East LA Community Corporation.

One board member, Angela Oh, in a personal essay shared with LAist, attributed the tumult at KRC to a generational, cultural and class divide between long-time immigrant activists with limited English and college-educated, American-born organizers who have become "insensitive to the mission and spirit of year-round organizing that has long been a part of KRC."

But Jenny Seon, who resigned as KRC's legal director earlier this month, said that the problems extend beyond intergenerational differences.

"We hear a lot that 'Oh, staff these days — they don't work as hard or they're not really committed to the movement,' which is disappointing to hear as we're giving it our all," Seon said.

DJ Yoon, board president, leads a meeting in a photo dated March 2015. (Courtesy of Korean Resource Center via Flickr)

DISCONNECT ABOUT WORK

Seon laid the blame on Yoon, saying he intimidated employees into working long hours with no overtime, backed by the board and his close friends on staff.

"Working people over their physical limits — it's very, very emotionally damaging," Seon said. "Sometimes I see people burn out, leaving immigrant rights altogether."

Worker fatigue at nonprofits that work with immigrants is a phenomenon that Kent Wong, director of the UCLA Labor Center, said he has been noticing more under President Trump.

The Trump administration has initiated strict new immigration rules and has tried to do away with various programs such as Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, known as DACA, which protects young unauthorized immigrants who arrived as minors, and immigrants' access to public services.

"There's a huge concern as the needs within communities of color or among low-wage workers increase, there is not a corresponding increase in the staff and resources to address those needs," Wong said.

Wong said that he has seen similar conflicts to KRC's at other nonprofits, where leadership may have different work expectations than staff.

"Sometimes, there is a disconnect between organizations that have been used to working very long hours and very demanding schedules in order to build their organizations and then understanding what it takes to sustain them," Wong said.

ALLEGATIONS OF BEING OLD-SCHOOL, INAPPROPRIATE

KRC staff allege working in the Trump era has been made even more stressful by Yoon's financial ineptitude. They say he fabricated a budget deficit that led him to plan for mass layoffs.

Yoon said that account is incorrect, and that the organization is seeking clarity on the budget with an upcoming audit.

Fears of layoffs motivated staff to unionize recently, but their grievances had begun to pile up over the years.

The Korean Resource Center's organizers worked on engaging youth in civic life. (Courtesy of Korean Resource Center via Flickr)

In a complaint letter about Yoon posted on a website created to explain their actions, staff say he showed favoritism to men and charge him with making sexually inappropriate comments.

Yoon, 49, acknowledged that he had joked during a 2016 outing with employees about having 'car sex' with his wife.

"It was never meant to really harass, or offend or hurt another person," Yoon said. "That is not who I am."

Yoon, who emigrated to the U.S. as a young man and has been affiliated with KRC for more than two decades, said he plans to leave the board early next year after helping new leadership on-board.

FAMILIAR WOES

There are parallels between the turmoil at KRC and at AAAJ-LA, which saw layoffs following months of internal conflicts and budget woes.

Like AAAJ-LA, KRC was founded in the early '80s. In both cases, dissatisfaction with aging leadership led younger staff toward unionization efforts. AAAJ employees joined American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees District Council 36 while KRC staff this fall sought to unionize with Machinists District 947.

But the infighting at KRC has been uglier, spilling out into open view of Korean-language media, which covered a protest held by older immigrant women staff picketing outside one of their offices with signs criticizing their executive director Jonathan Paik. Paik has since resigned and could not be reached for comment.

In her personal essay, Oh, a lawyer who became well-known for speaking out for the Korean American community after the 1992 riots, wrote about how older immigrant women staff felt "dismissiveness and intimidation" at the hands of their younger leaders and that they had been excluded from the union organizing effort.

Nara Kim, an organizer and union leader who has resigned from KRC, agreed that not all employees had been invited to unionize because some had expressed opposition to the idea. But Kim said the intent has always been to represent all employees. She accused board members of creating a toxic environment and "victim-blaming" a lot of the staff.

"For the sake of our own mental health and our own lives, we just can't really be there anymore," Kim said.

Kim has helped to set up a GoFundMe page to raise emergency funds for the newly jobless former staffers, including herself. The group is nearly a third of the way to its $30,000 goal.