Leader to Leader: Wayne Ho
Leader to Leader: Wayne Ho
Leader to Leader is a monthly column that looks at issues of leadership in the New York City nonprofit sector. Each month, the column will feature a conversation with a different nonprofit executive who is wrestling with an interesting challenge. How do you take a good idea up to scale? What are the best ways to raise money without losing your soul? When is it time to hang it up? Leader to Leader will explore these questions and more.
Over time, the goal is to cover a broad range of organizations in various stages of development, from start-ups to mergers to agencies in need of top-to-bottom overhaul. Leader to Leader is written by Greg Berman, who served for nearly two decades as the executive director of the Center for Court Innovation.
Wayne Ho is the chief executive officer of the Chinese-American Planning Council. With 35 locations across New York City and more than 700 staff members, CPC is one of the largest Asian American social service agencies in the country. I met with Wayne in CPC’s Chinatown headquarters just days after a fire had ravaged a nearby senior center operated by his organization. Wayne was also dealing with the new coronavirus, which was affecting turnout for CPC’s programs and creating new obstacles for Chinese Americans across the city. Our conversation touched on these crises, recent political controversies, and the challenges of balancing the organization’s commitment to providing social services with the desire to do more advocacy work.
Berman: So first tell me about the fire.
Ho: The fire started on the fourth floor at 70 Mulberry St., went up to the fifth floor, half the roof collapsed and when it collapsed it went down to the third floor. We have a senior center on the first floor. So we were fortunate that we only had water damage. Right now the water is still not fully drained from the site. We're evacuated. We're not allowed in. We've relocated our program – we're fortunate that three blocks away we have another senior center of ours. But that means that senior center is more than beyond capacity, because they used to see around 400 seniors a day and now they're serving 600 a day. The fire is just one challenge we are dealing with. With coronavirus and all these fears and misunderstandings around it, it hasn’t felt like the most celebratory Lunar New Year.
Berman: How are you handling coronavirus?
Ho: We've gotten calls from supporters asking if we are canceling our events and we said no, we're going to go as is. We brought in folks from the Department of Health and Mental Hygiene to train our program directors on what to do. We want to make sure our staff have best practices around health and safety. We also need to educate our community to dispel myths, to clarify what's going on. I think the unfortunate thing is a lot of this is turning into bias incidents and discriminatory incidents.
Berman: What kinds of things are you seeing?
Ho: I was walking along Canal Street in Chinatown on Friday and one of the souvenir vendors was trying to get people to come into her store and a tourist walking by says, “No, I don't want coronavirus.” This morning at a subway station in Lower Manhattan, there was a Chinese woman walking with a surgical mask on her and someone punched her and called her a diseased bitch. This story is floating around now online. We need to send a strong message that this is a public health issue. It's not a racial, ethnic or immigrant issue.
Berman: CPC has something like three dozen locations across the city. I'm curious about how you think about balancing the need for uniformity of practice with a desire to promote innovation at each site.
Ho: My predecessor David Chen was the executive director for 26 years. He wrestled with the question of how do you maintain being a grassroots organization while you are growing to become a citywide agency. When I came in three years ago, there was a lot of innovation, but there was not a lot of unity or consistency or formal structures. I don't want us to be bureaucratic, but I do think we need systems and we need things to make sense.
Berman: Was there pushback internally?
Ho: At the beginning some people did tell me that they started feeling like it was bureaucratic: “If I'm reaching out to an elected official, why do I need to go through your policy director?” “If I'm trying to organize a fundraising lunch that I've done every year for 30 years, why do I need to go through the development department?” But I think most people realize that at the end of the day we're trying to support you to do your work. We're trying to get you more resources, get you more support, get you more publicity.
Berman: It seems to me that CPC has been doing more advocacy work of late. Is that a fair characterization?
Ho: That's a fair characterization. The strategic vision that the board came out with before I joined was that CPC should be the premier service and leadership organization. In order to be a leader in the sector, you have to be at the decision-making table. I feel that we have a responsibility to do high quality services while at the same time being a voice for social change too.
Berman: How do you balance those two?
Ho: At the beginning, there were people internally asking, “Why are we doing advocacy?” But I think the moment we started getting twice as much City Council funding, the moment we got more legislative funding from the state, the first time the words “Asian American” were ever the state budget … I think it started to resonate about why we have to be at the decision-making table.
Berman: It's interesting that you highlighted the use of the term “Asian American,” because I think that expression obscures as much as it reveals. Gov. Cuomo recently vetoed a bill that would have required state agencies to disaggregate data so that we could look at the various different communities that fall under the Asian American umbrella. What's your take on that?
Ho: We were supporting the bill. When I ran the Coalition for Asian American Children and Families, we worked to advance that bill for eight, nine, 10 years. This past legislative season when the bill overwhelmingly passed both houses, we were assuming it was going to be signed into law. Cuomo vetoed it, unfortunately. I think there's some folks in the Chinese community who wonder whether this is a way for government to minimize our power or to make us look like we have smaller numbers so we don't deserve resources. We tell them it is actually the opposite.
Berman: What's your prognosis? Is the bill dead or is there a chance it will have another life?
Ho: We have had a few conversations with the governor's staff and they've said they're interested in finding a solution. All I can say is we hope that they come to the table sooner rather than later to talk about this because we are the fastest growing racial group and there's too many times we've been overlooked as a community.
Berman: Moving to another political issue – the proposed jail in Chinatown must have been a complicated issue for you. How did you figure out how to navigate that?
Ho: My old boss, Jennifer Jones Austin at FPWA, always likes to say when there's complicated issues, there's always two truths and both truths can be real. So one truth is that there has to be criminal justice reform. You know this better than I do. Rikers is problematic. We need to close Rikers. On the other side is the reality that the Chinatown community has been struggling. The small businesses are struggling. There's a lack of support from this administration. There’s been such disinvestment. Unfortunately, we probably need the four borough jails. But do we need jails as big? Our take is that Rikers has to close but we need to support the Chinatown community as well.
Berman: Have you taken a formal stance on specialized high school admissions?
Ho: Our formal stance is that we are open to a conversation about what is the best path to ensure that the specialized high school process gets a diverse population.
Berman: Translate that for me. What does that mean?
Ho: We feel that what the mayor put on the table did not include the Asian American community and was not informed by Asian American advocates. It is obviously a complicated issue. We did surveys and focus groups with a lot of the young people that we serve through our after-school programs. And what we found was that for those who got into the specialized high schools, there was a lot of mental health issues and financial struggles related to the amount of money their families invested into the test prep. For those who did not get in, they started telling us about their feelings of shame and guilt. The proposal that the de Blasio administration put on the table was not correct. But that doesn't mean the current process is the right process either. We are open to having a dialogue and figuring out what is the right process.
Berman: I hesitate to ask this question because asking you to speak on behalf of a group as large and as diverse as the Chinese community is kind of dubious, but with that caveat, what is your sense of the mood in the community these days? It seems like there have been a number of recent issues where the Asian American community has not been considered or consulted.
Ho: I think there's a lot of frustration. And it's just not this mayoral administration, I think it's with previous mayoral administrations as well. There is a lack of consideration of the Asian American community when policy decisions are being made. And when they do put out good policies, it gets lost in the Asian American community because they haven't figured out the right messengers and the right communicators and the right process to bring the community in.
Berman: So I want to pivot and talk a little bit about you. You run a large agency. It is a lot of responsibility. How do you carry that weight but not get dragged down by it?
Ho: I feel like you have to be authentic. I remember when I first started out as an executive director 16 years ago, I was trying to be so careful and not joke around or not have my own voice. Now I'm pretty quippy and sarcastic. There's a time to be serious. But I think there's also a value in having a sense of humor about things. When bad things happen, it’s important not to get too stressed out or lose your temper. I try to be positive because it makes people feel a little more reassured about things. The one advice I would have for executive directors is everyone needs to be authentic to themselves. Don’t try to play the role of executive director.
Berman: You have spent basically your whole career in the not-for-profit sector. Why have you made this choice?
Ho: I'm an immigrant. English is my second language. I didn't speak English until I went to kindergarten. I was one of the very few Asian kids in my elementary school. I had glasses. I had bad fashion sense. So it's like a “kick me” sign was taped to my back. I think all of us who do social justice work have some kind of chip on our shoulder in some way from feeling oppressed or discriminated as a kid. But I also know that I went to really good public schools and I was fortunate that my parents were well educated and had a good job. I felt like I had a responsibility to give back to the community.
Berman: If a young person is just starting out their career, hoping to be an executive director one day, what advice do you give them?
Ho: I always give people the advice that you need to look forward to Monday mornings as much as you look forward to Friday afternoons. I think working in the nonprofit sector is a privilege and a responsibility and you need to be good to your colleagues and you need to be good to the community. I also discourage people from starting their own nonprofits. Find a nonprofit that does some work similar to what you want to do and innovate within existing nonprofits.
Berman: Final question: What's the one thing you want to be able to say at the end of your run here?
Ho: I want to be able to say that under my leadership, we created a new headquarters that is great for the community and great for the organization. More conceptually, I would like people to know what CPC does. Udai Tambar, formerly of South Asian Youth Action, once taught me that it’s not who you know, it’s who knows you. I want the world to know about CPC and what we've done.