CHICAGO - The Asian American Institute went under investigation by the Illinois Department of Human Rights, the Illinois Human Rights Commission, and the Corporation for National and Community Service - Office of Civil Rights and Inclusiveness for separate cases of alleged discrimination towards Latinos, African Americans, and physically handicapped applicants.
The Asian American Institute, or AAI as it is commonly known, was established in 1992 by community members to unite the Asian American political and economic interests in the Chicagoland area. Located at 4753 N Broadway Street, Suite 904, it is considered to be a mixed blessing by both the Asian American community and mainstream society.
Over the last year and a half, numerous complaints against the Asian American Institute have come to light for discrimination on the basis of ancestry, national origin, and disability.
A 26 year-old applicant who alleges the Asian American Institute discriminated against him based on his name and background agreed to speak to Le Prestige du Monde about his experience. Jabari, as he identified himself, applied for an AmeriCorps Vista position with AAI in September 2011. He applied for a vacant marketing position funded by AmeriCorps and was soon contacted by Ashley Tsuruda, an AmeriCorps Vista Development Associate.
"Ms. Tsuruda contacted me and had trouble pronouncing my name," Jabari mentioned. "I didn't feel it to be a problem until she mentioned that my last name 'sounded too Spanish' - that should have been the first sign."
Jabari, who is of Latino origin, spoke with Tsuruda over the phone and set up an interview with Gina Lee, former Communications Coordinator for AAI. While on the phone with Tsuruda, Jabari claims that a conversation erupted on AAI's end of the conversation regarding the pronunciation of his name. "They were laughing and asking if I was Mexican," Jabari stated. "They were making really inappropriate comments about my last name, and a man's voice - slightly muffled - asked Tsuruda if I was a thug."
On September 9, 2011, Jabari was explicitly barred from engaging in the recruitment process for an AmeriCorps Vista Program position because of his national origin. Primary contact was done over email, and detailed evidence showcases that Gina Lee bluntly discriminated against an applicant based on his ancestry and national origin.
"...due to the Asian American Institute's policy on bridging ties with Asian American communities and mainstream society, we really wanted someone who was better representative of the mainstream. In general, we believe that someone of your particular background (I'm assuming you're Mexican or some sort of Hispanic) would not fit in with our standards and culture at AAI. We are primarily interested in hiring professionals and students of Asian American or Caucasian backgrounds and this is simply our preference within our organization. I hope that this is not a personal attack on your professional ethics."
While the young woman, who insists we not use her real name so as to avoid retaliation by the Asian American Institute, did not formally file a complaint with a state or national agency because her case exceeded the in-take window, she feels it is important to come out of the shadows regarding discrimination during the recruitment and employment process.
Monica, the name the 24 year-old resident of Avondale utilized throughout the struggle to have her voice heard regarding the incident, stated that the Asian American Institute did not formally give her a reason to bar her from applying for the position. "I personally walked into AAI's offices in Uptown and spoke to a young woman by the name of Ashley Tsuruda, who was very rude and hostile," Monica stated. "I told her that I was interested in applying for the research assistant contract job and Ms. Tsuruda first gave me a blank stare, then told me that the social services department was three blocks away."
Monica went on to mention that she initially did not pay much attention to Tsuruda's demeaning words, but instead asked to speak to the hiring director.
"She was rude, but then a young woman came out to greet me. This person stated she was the executive director of AAI and mentioned that the position 'had already been filled'. When I showed her on my smart phone that AAI's website still showed a vacancy for the position, she laughed and told me that I 'obviously didn't understand'. I'd become so upset that I asked for her business card and mentioned I was going to file a complaint, then left soon after."
A week after she met with Tsuruda and Tuyet Le, Executive Director of AAI, Monica tried to file a complaint with the Better Business Bureau but had no luck. "I spoke to Rhonda Drew, the Dispute Resolution Specialist, about my situation with AAI. Drew basically laughed at me when I called to file a complaint because she said that nothing would get done - "things happen" is what she literally said."
Drew, who serves the Chicago and Northern Illinois branch of the Better Business Bureau, is indeed the Dispute Resolution Specialist with the BBB. Le Prestige du Monde spoke to Drew regarding her contact with Monica back in January. Her response was brisk: "Oh yeah, some black gal called about how an Asian organization discriminated against her for being black. Get over it, nobody cares." According to their website, the Better Business Bureau’s mission is to be the leader in advancing marketplace trust and support best practices.
Members of the Uptown community - where the Asian American Institute's offices are located - have mixed reactions to such developments. "I'm honestly shocked because these people seem so nice," Maureen Richards, a staff accountant in downtown Chicago, told Le Prestige du Monde. "I know a few of the members and they're quite sweet, and I walk past their offices on my way to work - simply shocking."
Aaron Vo, a resident of Buena Park and current law student, expressed his concern. "Hearing about (AAI's) discriminatory behavior doesn't surprise me. Whether you're Asian, Indian, or Hispanic, no one should discriminate against another person based on stereotypes. I'm more surprised that someone didn't come forth sooner - the folks at AAI are rumored to be doing some pretty shady things around here."
The Illinois Department of Human Rights states that 72% of cases involving discrimination often go unreported due to lack of knowledge pertaining to agencies, funded by tax dollars, facilitating the filing process. In addition to knowledge of where to file a discrimination charge, there is a filing window period ranging from 30 days to 180 days after the initial discrimination began that must be considered.
Many victims also fail to file a charge with designated state and federal agencies in fear of encountering retaliation.
According to a Chicago representative of the Corporation for National and Community Service, one can file a complaint related to AmeriCorps VISTA with their Office of Civil Rights and Inclusiveness. A claimant is requested to file a charge "as soon as possible after the event that (one) believes was discriminatory. Failure to do so may result in the procedural dismissal of the complaint."
"I was a volunteer with the Asian American Institute for 3 years - I know many of these people who claim 'to do good' across communities," Teng stated with confidence. "I have written correspondence by volunteers, employees, and other members that shows just how corrupt the organization has become. $256 on cocktails at a downtown lounge? Do you really need to use our budget on a night out?"
Teng went on to mention that the Asian American Institute's policy on hiring new staff members was "self-defeating". "You're going to tell me that you would rather hire a girl from Indiana with no background in Asian and Asian American communities, history, and culture over the African American guy with a 3.7 GPA from DePaul majoring in Global Asian Studies simply because she knows how to use social media? Did (they) even get the poor guy's name?"
Teng isn't the only one who insists that the Asian American Institute's practices are questionable. Vinh Tran, a former volunteer with the Institute and current intern at a state agency working to foster greater immigrant and refugee rights, spoke of the blatant discriminatory practices common to AAI members and partners.
"I won't mention names out of respect, but our coordinators - after a few drinks at the office - would express rampant anti-black sentiment and say mean things about the disabled folk in Uptown," Tran mentioned timidly. "If this were a bar, then maybe someone would find it tolerable. AAI is an organization that claims to pride itself on 'advancing justice', but I think it's the other way around when their own members openly say such dehumanizing things."
A variety of students, advocates, and community leaders are said to be partaking in the conference, for which a stipend for accommodations, flights, and event fees was offered to a select few. According to a current AAI employee - who requested we not use her name - 7 students, 3 of Latino origin, 3 of African American ancestry, and 1 White American, applied for a stipend for the conference. Out of the 7 who initially applied, two stipends were offered: one covering room accommodations and the conference fees - offered to the white applicant - and another simply covering conference fees - offered to one black applicant.
The Asian American Institute has refused to comment regarding the investigations on charges of discrimination. While Jabari and Monica remain hopeful that justice will come, they share a common disappointment in the structures they worked so hard to empower. "I've worked with the Asian American community for years," Monica stated. "I can't help but feel slightly jaded that the people I've worked with to overcome barriers are now excluding me based on stereotypes and not on my ability to work."
Jabari, who is fluent in Mandarin Chinese and Vietnamese, expressed a similar concern. "I've worked under some of the most influential Asian American activists to bridge ties with the African American and Latino communities in Chicago...and now these folks don't even bother looking at me twice because my name was too Hispanic for them," He calmly stated.
"I'm honestly hurt, and it saddens me that on (AAI's) 20th anniversary they choose to go backwards. Forget advancing justice: they seem to be stalling progress by perpetuating the exact discriminatory behavior they claim to fight."
This is a developing story.