Viet-AID members call for arbitration in Chu dispute

Drama continued this week between the board and new directors of Viet-AID and supporters of former director and Vietnamese community leader Hiep Chu, who was fired on July 18. Last Saturday, over 80 of those supporters and others coalesced as "Concerned Community Members" at a meeting in the Vietnamese-American Community Center.

"The problem is we cannot communicate with someone who's not here," said attorney Vy Truong, who has on office nearby on Dorchester Avenue, at the meeting. "They show us how disrespectful they are to us, the people who vote for them."

Though many were disappointed that none of the Viet-AID board or its two co-interim directors, Nina Nguyen or Quynh Dang, showed up, Nguyen and board co-chair Paul Romary said this week that they and the board were only formally invited the day before the meeting, and many of them had prior commitments including some who were out of town.

Much of the meeting was held in Vietnamese and translated to the Reporter, but through that translation and the English that was spoken, the meeting was clearly of at least two minds. One faction spoke directly of Hiep Chu's dismissal, citing his devotion to the community and asking how the board could possibly fire him without consulting the wider community first. Some called for getting rid of the board.

Another, perhaps larger strain, spoke of staying positive and building communication with the board in order to ask which direction the community development corporation's board and new directors are taking Viet-AID.

"We realize that [voting a lack of confidence in the board] would not benefit us all," said Vuong Nguyen, who worked with youth at Viet-AID in the past and recently returned from New York City. "The Viet-AID board has demonstrated that they are out of touch with the community. The Viet-AID board needs to resolve this conflict."

After dozens spoke--some also asking why the Viet-AID board and the board of the Vietnamese American Civic Association don't get along, a fact many acknowledge as true--the meeting took a vote on two possible resolutions. Nineteen voted no-confidence in the board, but a much larger majority voted to ask a Viet-AID's board of directors to sit with the "Concerned Members" and a third party moderator to discuss the outstanding issues. At-Large City Councillor Sam Yoon, who was present at the gathering, agreed to be that third party, as long as the demands on his time were moderate. Yoon called Nina Nguyen during the meeting to make that offer.

"I actually served on the Viet-AID board," Yoon told the meeting. "I am an Asian-American and I've also worked on CDC's. I know how important these agencies are to our communities. Each of us should not think of ourselves, but think about what is going on in the entire community… I care deeply about what happens at the end of this process or through this process. I have confidence that even though we disagree, the community cares enough that we will resolve this and move on."

Romary, who works as the executive director of Lemuel Shattuck Hospital, said the board is likely to be willing to meet with the members' group.

"I'm not sure what role an arbitrator would play, but I look forward to figuring out how they want to form that discussion," said Romary. "The important thing for the board right now is for the community to feel comfortable that the organization is still working hard towards its goals."

He ruled out talking about the specifics of Hiep Chu's termination, saying that the information was not public. He confirmed that Viet-AID is in sound financial condition, but said the organization is working hard to create an internal control system for insuring that integrity, looking carefully at how those finances are represented to funding sources, and making sure that the agency could properly report back to funders on how particular grants were spent.

"The organization is financially sound, but its ability to express that in a clear and transparent way was lacking," he said. "It's not a VACA situation by a long shot."

VACA, the Vietnamese American Civic Association, has reverted to an all-volunteer staff after serious financial deficits were uncovered this year.

"I've seen this play out in other communities and there's always a reaction," commented Joe Kriesberg of the Massachusetts Association of CDC's. "Relationships and projects can be disrupted. But even if the reason is that the board and the director doesn't get along, that's a reason... What's important for the community is 'What's the future of this agency.' But I'm not sure they're entitled to know every conversation between the board and the staff. Some things are confidential."

At the time of writing, Nina Nguyen hadn't called Yoon back to accept or turn down his offer of arbitration. She said she was at a closing for a client of her law firm when Yoon called on Saturday.