A Powerful Movement Requires Movement Marathon Runners

A

(A lot has changed since I wrote this, originally meant for KRC Staff and Board. For updates, please refer to the main November 7th Statement).

Yongho Kim 10-25-2019

Korean: 강력한 사회운동에는 다수의 마라톤 주자가 필요합니다

My name is Yongho Kim. I started at KRC as a volunteer in 2005, and have taken on elections volunteer work, Medicare Part D enrollment, organizing the Seniors Group, website, college consultation for undocumented students, organizing undocumented students, immigration reform and DREAM Act, civic engagement, organizing the Korean LGBTQ+ and Allies group, database, press, and administration.

Regarding the current situation at KRC triggered by the budget deficit crisis, I felt that both sides do have some valid points, but when I think about the strategic directions KRC should be taking, I agreed that it’s best that DJ leaves the organization. It took me a long time to put my thoughts in order on this subject, which is why I write this letter now.

I am generally very thankful for the early experiences I’ve had at KRC – described below. However, I still believe that DJ leaving is for the best.

While attending college in Minnesota, I joined the Centro de Derechos Laborales (CDL), a latin@ immigrant rights organization, as volunteer and unpaid intern. I was doing article writing, websites, coalition meetings, interpretation and worker consultation, and for a lot of the work, I faced bureaucratic and technocratic barriers within the organization, and saw a lot of my work become useless. Around my graduation, the department director told me that there had been an organizational schism shortly before my arrival at CDL and people had left the organization. When they saw someone who was not even latino approach CDL wanting to volunteer, they thought that maybe I was a spy sent from the other side. That’s why I had seen the barriers. Then she added “you seem pretty good in the field – would you like to work with us after graduating?”

I think it’s okay to distrust people – that’s fair. But you shouldn’t distrust people enough to not rely on them, while also having them work for you. I think that is an unethical action – trying to get two things at the same time – just taking what is convenient to one.

I then came to LA. As I was running out of my savings, I met KRC, and had two positive experiences at the organization. One was participating in the million people march on March 25, 2006. At KRC we felt that this protest would be a major watershed moment in stopping the anti-immigrant wave of that time. During the two weeks preceding the march, we worked until midnight every day calling and educating thousands of people to join, got old school first-generation Korean American organizations like the Korean Fed, Apparel Association, or the Churches Association to join the march, and succeeded in creating an atmosphere where almost for the first time, Korean Americans felt that immigration reform, previously thought of as an “Mexican issue”, to be recognized as a community-wide issue for Korean Americans. Our goal was to have 1,000 Korean Americans to join the march. We think we made it, but it was very hard for people to find each other at the site… so we are not so sure to this date.

My second experience was around the website. I was tasked with updating the website, but found that the inner components of the website were so antiquated that it was necessary to replace it wholesale with a more modern component. (WordPress). I proposed the idea, and then Executive Director Dae Yoon approved it. Which is weird, because I would have never approved something risky like that today. A website is the organization’s public face – how do you trust an intern that has been around only 5 months with a project like that? What if things stop working? I’m not so sure why it was approved. I think DJ decided to trust the judgment made by the person in charge of running the operations with the website, which was only myself. And we managed to revamp the site for almost free – a project that could have cost thousands of dollars if contracted out – and we have been using it since then.

I think I have been staying at KRC due to the two experiences above. First, I recognized that KRC had the power to make significant contributions for the movement, not only in the Korean American community, but in Los Angeles generally – in the city that is the face of multiracial organizing in the U.S. Once an elected officer and a labor union approached me with a hiring offer, but I felt that KRC was having a bigger impact in the field. Secondly, unlike an organization of this scale, I valued the fact that the organization was willing to take risks, trust front-line staff and experiment with tactics. Once, I unexpectedly ran out money, and personally borrowed a large amount of money from DJ. (I think I borrowed about $1,000 for a month). I’m thankful for the opportunities I received at KRC.

Current financial situation

Regarding KRC’s financial situation, I’d like us to take the time to hear together the external financial analyst’s take on it, which is happening next Tuesday, October 29. As someone who was involved in this situation, and director in charge of finances, I interviewed with them, answering questions. As I answered the questions, I realized how risky it had been that someone like me, with no financial background, (my first question when I did a finances run-through with the Financial Manager was “what is accounts receivable?”) had take on the role of overseeing KRC’s finances.

I also felt that everyone involved in KRC’s finances, including me, had been administering the organization in a precarious situation where we were relying on the relatively incomplete financial knowledge we each had, but without the professional knowledge and analytic skill that is required when overseeing a complex and now a middle-sized nonprofit organization like KRC, which does both community organizing and social services.

Summer finance discussions

This year in the Summer, DJ noticed something strange with the finances, and upon analysis discovered that there was a major financial deficit, and notified the Executive Team. We then spent two months discussing finances with DJ and Inbo.

I summarize their position back in July as follows:

  • There is a major financial deficit that has accumulated over the year.
  • Before it’s too late, we must recognize this and take bold steps to reduce personnel expenses.
  • The later we layoff people, the bigger will the deficit be, forcing us to an even bigger layoff.
  • The Executive Team must present a personnel reduction plan immediately.
  • We are not proposing laying off staff inhumanely – let’s find them jobs in other organizations, and lay off primarily staff who would be able to be hired elsewhere.
  • We cannot rely on verbal or email assurances from program officers that they plan to award us grants, without having an MOU in hand. Relying on them can mean KRC could be in an even greater financial trouble if a major grant turns out to be a fluke. We should discount those grants, and only count grants with MOUs in hand as our income.
  • Grant income must be always be evenly split monthly over the grant period, saving up a portion for the future, so that we run stably in the future as well. To do otherwise is financially irresponsible.
  • The Exec Team says we can step up the fundraising. However we see the staff are at their limit with their work already. Asking them to raise more money is irresponsible. We must make the call now and cut personnel.

I still remember how Inbo, to emphasize his point, using his left fist, loudly smashed into his right palm saying “We must make the Cut! Cut! Cut!” (Here is where he rhythmically smashed his fist three times. I have to say, it’s a powerful communication technique.)

To this, we agreed with some of the analysis, and proposed the following solution:

  • We recognize that administrative mistakes have caused confusion in KRC’s financial reporting processes.
  • Part of the deficit is a naturally occurring one in nonprofits that rely on foundation grants – and this will be resolved when some of the late grants come in later in the year. However, we have a higher deficit than anticipated, so we propose a revised plan where we will secure more grants and increase the community fundraising component.
  • Massive layoffs is a short-sighted mistake, because next year our programs will expand, and we will need the experienced activists and organizers. Layoffs can also drop morale that will impact the fundraising. However, we agree that we should freeze hiring.
  • It is not fair to not give staff even the chance to commit to a higher level of fundraising, and move to the layoffs. We should give staff a chance to show their capacity.
  • We will revise our expenses to minimize the Programs and Operations expenses.
  • In a deficit situation like now, we should make exceptions to allocate some of the grants, if we meet the grant deliverables this year, in full for this year to meet the deficit.
  • We recognize that there is the possibility that some grants may not come through. As a compromise, we propose classifying grants into tiers. When calculating our expected income for the year, we will calculate grants with MOUs at 100% of the grant amount (“Confirmed”); grants with every indication that we would get them at 80% of the grant amount (“Pending”); and grants where we have no such assurances at 50% of the grant amount. (“Will apply”)

But DJ and Inbo were not satisfied with this proposal. And on August 24’s Board Meeting, they repeated their horror story abut how KRC was bleeding money and there was no way out of it without major cuts. They did not share the Executive Team’s revised budget plan, which DJ, Inbo and the Exec Team had been working together on, which showed that the deficit would be solved with the grants and the increased community fundraising. They did not share the fact that the budget plan would solve the deficit. They did not share that the Exec Team had already minimized Program and Operation expenses. Instead, all they did was to wave around the $280k deficit document, and insinuate that the deficit could grow ever larger. I think this meeting was a textbook case of limited-information agitation.

The board requested that the Exec Team present cut plans at $50k, $100k and $150k ranges. At this point, after two months of meetings, we were embattled. We presented the cuts plan. This is what we wrote as the introduction to the layoff scenarios:

Based on the KRC Board’s request from the August 24th meeting, KRC’s Executive Team has explored the following three layoff scenarios to avert a financial deficit. We believe that layoff scenarios for $90,000 and $150,000 represent major setbacks for KRC’s goals and funding commitments for the year. We therefore strongly recommend Scenario A.

The Board immediately followed up, requesting more information to implement the layoffs. We received responses that can be summarized as follows: (These are not literal – they are paraphrased and summarized)

  • “This is very tough! It looks like Scenario B ($90k) is the middle balance.”
  • “Let’s move to implement the $60k plan as soon as possible, and tell people about the deficit so that people understand where we are at. We should also be prepared to implement $90k or $150k depending on the situation.”
  • “Have the staff listed in the layoff plans been selected with a fair criteria? We want to know the specific reasons they were selected. And we want to ensure they will find jobs elsewhere. What other organizations are currently hiring or woud be willing to hire from KRC?”

Then later, when rumors spread that large layoffs were being considered, and the staff responded with anger, the Board took a 180 degree turn in their stance.

As we all may remember, these were the excuses the Board gave at the September 10th All-Hands meeting:

  • “We didn’t even consider the layoffs. We just asked the Exec Team for cut plans, and they only gave us layoff options. So we were just stuck with these options.”
  • “Helping people move to another organization is not a layoff. That is horizontal reallocation within the movement.”
  • “We told the Exec Team to reduce personnel costs. That can mean layoffs, but it can also mean reducing everyone’s salaries. The Board did not ask the Exec Team to layoff staff. The Board asked for “budget cuts”, but I think the Exec Team misunderstood this as “layoffs”

I think it becomes clear that these are lies, when we look at what happened after the Exec Team circulated the layoff plans by email – when we look at the Board’s responses.

  1. No one pushed back and said “Wait a second folks, we did not ask for layoffs. Why did you write ‘Based on the Board’s request… the Exec Team has explored the following three layoff scenarios’? That’s not on us.”
  2. No one asked “where is the plan for a salary reduction for all staff?”
  3. Instead, as soon as we produced the layoff plan as requested, the board quickly moved to implement them.

Is making a turnaround like this one of KRC’s founding principles?

I’m disappointed at the board’s manipulation.

On the other hand however, I believe that Inbo has always maintained that bold personnel cuts was the only solution to KRC’s budget crisis. I have to give it to him for standing by his words.

So in August, as we drafted the layoff plans, Jenny, JP and myself agreed that we could no longer remain in an organization that continues to hold unrealistic expectations and hurts people. We wanted to leave KRC, and engage in social justice activism in a healthier environment. However, we knew that if we suddenly left in August, knowing that a lot of grants were coming in later in the year, we would be blamed for the deficit while also not being recognized for the financial stability that would be brought by the later income. So we agreed to leave in December. I started thinking about possible work after being either fired from or leaving KRC. I started saving money. As I am not in good health, I was hoping to find something where I would be working less. I was pretty excited about trying something new.

Asking DJ to Resign

In September after the All-Hands meeting, a group of staff asked for my help. When I met them, they said that they wanted to ask for DJ’s resignation. I was shocked. Of course DJ has some management style problems, is stubborn, and pushes people to their limits; but is that enough to ask someone to leave the organization permanently? Hasn’t DJ been spearheading the work at KRC for over 20 years? And when pushing people to their limits, wasn’t it all with good intention? I thought that there had been just a lot of misunderstandings.

However, after reading the draft letters written by current and former organizers detailing the pressure and unfair treatment they received, and how it had hurt them, I felt I could not stand in the sidelines. Board members and DJ received these letters, most of which were signed with the staff’s name. I would like to make this point very clear – staff used their names to make their demands to the board, including DJ. It just happens that because they made their complaint to the board, that they did not disclose the complaints to the rest of the staff.

The Civic & Community Organizing Department is the result of many years of concerted effort to build a strong and stable powerhouse to bring change. We had several mid-career managers with over four years of experience in the field present in the room. And all of them can no longer work with DJ? I believe that currently, all the activism that is the public face of KRC’s movement activism is coming from this department. Confronting Trump’s anti-immigrant agenda, pushing a health care policy for all immigrants, growing the scale, number of constituents, and scope of the movement; in 2018 during the homeless housing fight, the few activists who were actively engaged were all present in the room.

There are long time activists at KRC who went through the 1980’s and 90’s fight together. People who joined long marches for peace, solidarity fasts demanding democracy, building a deep sense of comradery within the organization. This group of activists have been taking on key leadership roles including the board within the centers, and becoming the Executive Directors.

JP did not belong to this group, but he shares the principles and vision for the organization. I saw JP’s unique ability to lead campaigns and fundraise, and supported him becoming the Executive Director in 2018.

As I observed how the current financial situation and previous administrative issues unfolded, I felt that the early generation of KRC has a set group of people whom they trust. I felt that as an Executive Director was needed, JP was accepted in the position, and now people have their arms crossed and look over his shoulders monitoring his actions. I think it is wrong to not trust people, while having them do work.

Members of Young Koreans United are now all over forty years old. I don’t think we can continue to “test drive” the work with someone new and then ping-pong it to another person when things don’t seem to turn out for the better for much longer. I think the current crisis is one of the last opportunities that KRC may have left to carry on the tradition of the movement.

Another related issue is the role of the former Executive Director. When someone is on the Executive Director’s role for a very long time, the board finds it hard to replace them with a new person. On the one hand, things run fine with the current person, so why should they seek a new person? On the other hand, a new person is likely to not operate things as smoothly as the previous director. For the former Director, it’s hard to not try to intervene, partly to improve things, and partly as inertia and to preserve how the work has been done before. And this causes problems In other words, DJ thinks he is intervening with the intent of helping the new director have a balanced operation, without realizing that it can make the organization’s operation much harder – it’s hard for former directors to stop themselves from dictating the new director’s every move.

One may be inclined to think that it’s helpful that the former director remains at the organization to support the new director – however, due to the above, in most organizations the former director does not remain in the organization – in successful organizations, the former director moves on to another environment from which they can continue to push forward for the movement. For example, at long-time KRC friend Community Coalition, the founding director Karen Bass ran for office and is currently a prominent progressive voice representing California in the House of Representatives, and the second director, Marqueece Harris-Dawson, is serving as city councilmember of Los Angeles. Based on DJ’s previous NAKASEC ED experience in Washington DC, I understand that DJ may not like the idea of running for office. But the important thing is that having the former director support the movement from a new angle is helpful for the organization’s health.

For these reasons, and other administrative reasons that I list below, I think that we need to protect the core activist foundations of KRC who will be leading the movement, by having DJ find a new angle from which he would be leading the movement. (I apologize for the hasty writing, for lack of time.)

This work is not sustainable

A former KRC organizer, who had been leading the immigrant rights work and youth organizing, suddenly resigned and then issued a public statement criticizing directors Dae Yoon, Hee Joo Yoon, and KRC in 2013. This statement was delivered to all KRC staff and Board, and hundreds of organizers, members, foundations and the press. This had a big impact – Korea Daily wrote an article about it, and a foundation that had long supported our work stopped supporting us for multiple years. I did not agree with all of his points, but he had a number of valid points.

One of his criticisms was KRC’s movement-like labor environment. Allow me to name this, “flexible hours system”. The rationale for the flexible hours system was this: We are at KRC to lead a social movement – KRC is not just a “job” where we make money. Therefore, we maximize our capacity to accomplish what is needed in the movement. When work is needed, we all jump in to help. Each person figures out how much rest they need. We help each other since we are in this together.

This flexible hours system was actually nothing compared to the heydays of Young Koreans United, when founder Yoon Han Bong was organizing people. From what I can glean in written interviews from the days, the young unpaid activists who gathered at KRC out of a sense of mission, would work at their own day jobs during the daytime, then donate most of what they earned to cover KRC’s operations, and then come to KRC at night to work at KRC. People were doing this because people were being tortured and killed in Korea under the military dictatorship. I read that many families were in crisis during this period. I recall a major discussion point in one of KRC Board Meetings in 2006: “How will we carry on the legacy of the KRC warrior-activist into today’s KRC?” I think some board members and activists had a hard time reconciling the fact that organizers at KRC now were receiving full time salaries, and that even their hours were becoming a normal 9 to 5 job.

DJ tried to reconcile their concerns. For the most part, we kept the structure of a normal workplace, but continued to remind everyone why we were in this line of work. What was hanging on the line, and who would be impacted if our campaigns failed. And he (and other old timers) gave the example by staying up until late working. He would constantly tell people “you should take a break.. You have done so much”, but then also give people a ton of new projects to work on. The staff would think of the immigrant communities under attack (and also see people every day) and feel the need to work overtime. And feel guilty when taking breaks. Since everyone in the team was overwhelmed with the amount of work that needed to be done, there was no clear sign that support could be provided by anyone else. When I requested help in 2007, DJ said “Yes, this is when we should ask the community to get involved! You should recruit volunteers, organize a meeting, and make a plan for what they could do”. That’s nice, but in the immediate days, that was more work than I could handle. This is a recurring theme among staff who asked for DJ’s resignation. These criticisms also came out after our March 25, 2006 march. An intern said that he was sick with cold, but felt he had to be out in the backyard making flags at night. Others felt drained, but they felt that would be an insult to immigrant communities under attack. Then they all spoke out in one evaluation meeting. And they all left KRC.

Organizers would continue to join and leave KRC in less than 2 years. Every time we had a new organizer, we had to train them on the work, they needed to learn the trade. By the time they had the experience needed to take on something bigger, they were burned out by the workload, and disappointed at a decision making procedure that was not quite transparent, and would leave. When I see new staff, I no longer expect them to last long. Maybe this is what led me to try to move from the Civic Engagement program that I was overseeing in 2010, to the database work, which was less under DJ’s scrutiny. After I started specializing on the databases, pressure from DJ for unrealistic goals or timelines was lessened.

After his claim, we improved the hours system over time. The transition was overseed by the Executive Team first, and then by JP on his Exec Director role. The new system goes like this: Everyone should keep their work at 40 hours a week. If they enjoy it or feel called by the work, that has a value on its own – people should not be working more because of that. We should build a system where it is enough that managers, who have greater control over their programs, are the ones working overtime. (Managers do not receive overtime pay, and instead are on a “comp time” system, which is in a way a formalization of the previous flexible hours system.) When a non-manager staff has to do overtime work, we do pay the staff the overtime, in compliance with labor laws. Each time we have someone do overtime, we should make a decision on whether that work is necessary.

Of course this did not always work as intended. Some still reject the new system, and we have made mistakes. But we seek to build a healthier space for organizing through this process. There is a type of society that we seek to pursue through our work. Our shared values are community, family, health, justice, equality, self-determination and democracy. We want quality and affordable education, quality jobs, habitable and affordable housing, expansion of human and civil rights, and policies that treat immigrants with dignity. We are not stopping ourselves at winning these in society by internal sacrifices. We want these things within the organization as well, which is why we pursue a different working environment and working hour rules.

I felt that the 2017 DREAM Action where we pushed the White House to not cancel DACA represented an attempt to return the flexible hours system into KRC. Prior to the action, we heard multiple times from DJ why this was a historic moment, and how thousands of immigrant families were on the line. All of which is true. But from there, we jumped to the conclusion that in order to project maximum power, we had to organize a 6-week protest, protesting continuously day and night. Multiple people were taking shifts throughout the day, and people slept in the basement of a small church nearby. (I was able to sleep more comfortably than others during the action, thanks to the support of a board member.) Our action was covered in media outlets like the Washington Post and CNN, but nowhere did they say that we were doing a 24-hour-a-day action. I believe that partner organizations and activists wouldn’t know, either. It’s only ourselves, and close supporters that keep those memories. Why could we not limit the action to 8 hours a day so that people could take a break and recharge from day to day? Did we engage in self-harm and achieve greater political impact? I think people still was feeling guilty about taking breaks and making the work into a sustainable kind of work.

Can we raise marathon runners?

Many years ago, I met a leader who said that the movement needs marathon runners, not just short distance runners. That we need to continue to train organizers and activists who are not here for just a 3-5 year period, but over 10 years and are able to, as a group, build upon their experience and organizing capacity to create a powerful social movement. And this is how we will beat back on the right and build the kind of society we envision.

I believe that since 2016, the improvements on the work hours system and a year-round program that trains new organizers and activists, we are establishing the kind of environment that continuously raises experienced staff, and allows mid-career activists to be satisfied and proud of their work.

KRC has a unique characteristic that is highly valued within the movement. We are an organization that took the lead in taking down Chun Doo-hwans’ military dictatorship, and 30 years later we are still alive and kicking, carrying on the organizing tradition. This fact alone will continue to inspire and attract Korean American immigrants to join the work.

However, new people will join, will burn out, confirm their fears that their ideas carry little weight, and leave in a 2-3 year cycle. And each time, DJ has been saying: “well this time it didn’t turn out well, but let’s find new people and give this a try again”.

KRC Board have seen the letters sent by the concerned staff. I believe their stories, because some of their experiences match what I have experienced working with DJ. Does the board believe the staff’s stories?

I believe we need marathon runners to build a strong movement. And I think we are on our way to build the type of material and organizational infrastructure that will continue to train new organizers, and support organizers with the potential to become marathon runners in the movement.

Do you share this vision for the future of our movement?

# # #

By Yongho Kim 김용호