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Civil rights group OCA accused of “culture of fear” and “toxicity”

By Sonia Tam, AsAmNews Intern

Current and former staff members at OCA – Asian Pacific American Advocates in an open letter signed by more than 200 people demanded that the organization make significant changes to its policy strategy and work environment.

Previously known as the Organization of Chinese Americans, the group is an AAPI-focused civil rights organization with the mission of “advancing the social, political, and economic well-being of Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders.”

“I think a lot of people are invested in the work that OCA does and give their trust to the organization to do important work for AAPIs, but I think what OCA is like on the inside and its actual priorities are very different,” said an anonymous former staff member about the letter. “It’s much more dedicated to protecting itself and its financial status.”

An issue of trust

“I felt like OCA didn’t deserve the trust that community members placed in it,” she added.

One of the major concerns addressed in the open letter is OCA’s relationship with its corporate sponsors.

Maddie Schumacher, former Senior Policy and Advocacy Associate at OCA, says that in their time working at OCA, they found that the organization’s priorities seemed to stray from its original mission as a civil rights organization.

“OCA was a lot more driven by the corporations that were funding the organization than it was driven by what our communities needed and what our vulnerable community members were needing and asking for,” they said.

Influence of sponsors

They noted that OCA had suddenly decided not to focus on advocating for ICE detainees, despite having done so in the past. They suspected that the decision was motivated by an adherence to the interests of corporate sponsors.

“For us to just neglect this issue area because there’s no funding potential for it is fundamentally wrong and unethical, for me,” they added. “OCA’s mission is supposed to be policy issue areas driven by the people, not by corporations and their money.”

The letter also raises concerns about a toxic work environment at OCA, including allegations of wage secrecy, misgendering, and improper handling of sexual harassment and anti-Blackness within the organization.

“As an intern, I definitely saw a lot of workplace toxicity,” said Cheyenne Cheng, a former intern at OCA. She recalled a convention in Houston, where she says OCA community members were verbally abusive to staff and interns.

She also says that interns were discouraged from talking about corporate sponsors, stating that the organization had built a “culture of fear” around the issue. OCA had allegedly punished and fired interns for discussing corporate sponsors in the past.

Anti-blackness ignored

Schumacher recalled a more recent incident in which a chapter member exhibited anti-Blackness in an email. When another staff member responded to the chapter member’s email by providing educational resources, the staff member was allegedly punished for doing so. They stated that other instances of anti-Blackness were also dismissed by OCA’s Executive Council.

“Letting the anti-blackness that was happening, especially over the summer, slide is in direct contrast to OCA’s mission as a civil rights organization and as an organization that tries to uplift AAPIs and all people,” Schumacher said.

Another former staff member, who wishes to remain anonymous, raised concerns about OCA’s lack of a Human Resources department and the way her own experience of sexual harassment at the organization was handled.

“I didn’t really know what to do or who to tell or what they would do if I told them,” she said. She says the incident was ultimately dismissed by the organization’s CEO as a “lovers’ spat” and her demands for formal policies regarding sexual harassment were ignored.

The staff member also says that she was not paid a livable wage, and the office space itself was “horrible” and “infested with rats.”

“I don’t think it was a healthy space to be spending eight hours in every day,” she added.

OCA’s response

OCA has not responded to AsAmNews’ request for comment despite three attempts over a one week period. The organization, however, has responded in a statement posted on their website the very next day after the issue became public.

“As members of the OCA National Executive Council, we take the contents of this letter seriously and support our staff’s rights to express themselves openly and freely,” OCA’s Executive Council said.

It also states that OCA has created a Task Force to address the issues and demands raised in the open letter.

“To ensure a full and thorough investigation, we ask for your patience, “OCA continued. “We want to ensure that our actions ultimately enable OCA – Asian Pacific American Advocates to become an even more genuine, transparent, and compassionate organization…you have our commitment to being accountable to our staff, members, and to the greater AAPI community.”

“I hope that OCA continues to update the community about this task force and the steps they are taking,” said Cheng. “We don’t want just this response, we don’t want this to go away without any sort of meaningful change.”

Schumacher noted that OCA’s own open letter was only posted to OCA’s website and was not sent to all of its community members, which they say is unusual for OCA.

The former staff members involved in writing the letter are skeptical of OCA’s willingness and ability to effectively meet their demands. They are unsure that OCA will be able to change significantly under its current leadership.

“I think it’s up to outside community members to put pressure on OCA. I don’t think OCA can meaningfully transform from the inside out,” said the anonymous staff member.

Schumacher similarly expressed hopes that OCA will be willing to engage with its community and discuss changes that need to be made to the organization.

“I think we’re ready to have that conversation,” they said. “I don’t know if OCA is ready to have that conversation.”

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