Viet-AID board fires director

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Jul. 23, 2008

After months of deliberation, the board of the Vietnamese-American Initiative for Development (Viet-AID) terminated its director Hiep Chu last week, sending shockwaves through the Vietnamese and Fields Corner communities where he is respected as a civic leader.

The move was described as a "difference in mission" by former board chair Nina Nguyen, now co-director for the interim, but Chu himself called that reasoning nebulous and said that he is not entirely clear on exactly why he was let go.

"They did not allow me to provide the information or the opportunity for the last four months to convey my differences with them," said Chu. "I don't think there has been any process normal to eliminating a director of a sizable non-profit. I think it is really unfair."

Chu added that in his view, the differences really escalated at the very end of Viet-AID's experience with the former St. William's Church on Dorchester Avenue. The organization bought the church in 2007 with aims to develop a mixed-use building, but sold it in June this year to a Seventh-Day Adventist church after the Columbia Savin Hill Civic Association objected to the proposed density of the Viet-AID project.

But Nguyen said the church was only one of several "differences" and symptomatic of a larger "communication breakdown" between the board and Chu.

"He does work hard," said Nguyen. "There is no misunderstanding on his commitment, but there is a difference in the mission between the board and [Chu]. Hiep really loves real estate development, we see his passion for that. We are really trying to say we are that and more."

Chu first entered community work in 1989 as assistant director for the Vietnamese American Civic Association (VACA) and later became its director for four years. In unrelated news, VACA recently disclosed its own financial crisis when it was discovered that its most recent director, Duy Pham, had kept on employees after the grants that paid them had expired. Pham stepped down last month.

Before becoming director of Viet-AID, Chu was also one if its founding members and the project manager that coordinated the construction of the Vietnamese American Community Center on Charles Street where Viet-AID's offices are today.

Several community activists expressed shock at the news of Chu's forced departure.

"Hiep Chu and Viet-AID were synonymous," said Ayn Nguyen, a community activist and, recently, the volunteer interim director of VACA. "He's helped build that agency up. It's shocking to hear. I don't know why the board terminated him. He's such a giver."

She added that Chu has been helping to rebuild VACA in their current crisis as a volunteer in his own free time, and that the Viet-AID board disapproved of that help.

"The board didn't want him to be too involved with VACA's situation, just because they have limited resources as well," she said.

"Hiep has been a transformational force in the community for years," said Ira Schlosser, who works for Dorchester House and sits on the board for Fields Corner Main Street. "He has to be credited with a lot of good things that have happened in the neighborhood. I don't have any insight into why [they fired him] and what happened."

Even Viet-AID board members have good things to say about Chu's record, some recalling how he helped them early in their careers, but according to board chair Nina Nguyen, the vote to remove him was unanimous.

Chu was first asked to resign on June 30, but he said three days later he sent a response stating that he refused to resign because he had not seen any proof of his doing anything wrong.

Then at last week's July 16 monthly board meeting, which Chu said he was not allowed to attend, a decision was apparently made. On Friday, Chu received a letter that said his effort on behalf of Viet-AID was very much appreciated, offering him two weeks severance pay provided he attend upcoming meetings about the proposed Bloomfield Gardens development on Geneva Avenue and help prepare for an upcoming audit.

In an interview with the Reporter this week, Chu said he was never given an "A-B-C-D list" of things the board wanted him to do.

"I believe they're still very vague when they talk about vision and direction and I'm not sure what they are talking about," said Chu. "If they're looking for programmatic direction, that would be the responsibility of the director. Direction or vision, those are two different things."

Additionally, he said, he has not had an opportunity to address a full board meeting in the last four months, and three of those four monthly meetings met without the presence of the director.

Asked precisely what areas Chu needed to improve in, or in what ways his mission differed from the board's mission, Nina Nguyen was only willing to lay hints.

"Viet-AID's mission has four components and we want to make sure these four components are working at the same level," she said.

Those four, according to the Viet-AID website, are "promoting civic engagement and community building; building affordable housing and commercial development; providing small business technical assistance and micro-enterprise development; and offering high quality child care services." All of which are represented in a list of Viet-AID's notable accomplishments since its inception in 1994 that follows the mission statement on the same web page.

Asked which of the components Chu fell short on, Nguyen said she felt it was not appropriate to discuss it in a public forum such as a newspaper, and pointed again to a communication breakdown.

Chu said the board did not approve of his last-ditch effort to save the St. Williams re-development project just before it sold to the Seventh-Day Adventist Church in June. He had floated the idea - in these pages and to the Columbia Savin Hill Civic Association (CSHCA) - that if Viet-AID was allowed to add a fourth floor and a few extra units on the rear of the property, it might become a financially viable project and save Viet-AID's plan for a mixed-use development.

Nguyen acknowledged this was a point of contention but stressed that it was one among many. The idea was not accepted by the CSHCA and the church was sold.

Around that time, Chu said, the board asked him not to start any new development projects.

When community meetings for Bloomfield Gardens, a long-envisioned project on Geneva Avenue, began happening in the spring, the board did not realize that it was a project that was already underway, according to Chu, and disapproved.

Asked about that, Nguyen said of the board: "Unfortunately we can only use the information we are given to make our decisions… If he really believes it was not fair and not clear, he should go back to the board."

Nguyen said Chu met with the smaller executive committee of the board on several occasions in recent months, but said could not recall if he had an opportunity to address the board in that time. To find out, she said she would have to find out if meeting minutes were public or private information and consult them. "I don't want to go against the bylaws," she said.

"In the two-and-a-half years that I was there they never had an evaluation process for me," said Chu. "They promised me one at six months when I was hired. Then I was promised a year by the co-chair, and nothing. Now, two-and-a-half years later, I am fired."

With VACA in the midst of a financial crisis and now Viet-AID seeking a new director, two of the Fields Corner and Vietnamese community's strongest non-profit institutions are in transition. Nina Nguyen, who has become Viet-AID's co-interim director along with Quynh Dang, also a former co-chair of the board, said that the CDC would continue with the Bloomfield Gardens development and all of its other commitments. A search for a new director is underway, she said.