by Eric Card and Stacy Nguyen
It’s a transition that Vu Le has been looking forward to — though he is quick to note that his days are just as busy as ever, just in a different way. Le’s calendar used to be packed with meetings, whether they be appointments with community leaders, funders, donors, other nonprofit executive director — or whether they were ardent reminders that he needed to give himself enough time to get to the airport and through security so that he didn’t miss flights that took him all over the country and the world to speak on the importance of building up powerful voices for grassroots and community-based organizations led by POCs .
Today, Le’s focus is oriented toward his two young sons. His days are no less busy. “I am off for the holidays, and the kids are, too,” said Le, his voice steady in its dry amusement, “which means endless parenting.”
Last month, Le stepped down as the founding executive director of RVC, a Seattle-based capacity building nonprofit that serves POC communities, to give it over to the next generation of leaders as well as to spend more time with his family and kids.
How RVC came to be
“There’s a lack of POCs in the nonprofit sector,” Le said. “Only 18% of nonprofit professionals are POCs, and the organizations led by POCs are really struggling to survive and get resources. They do critical work that no one else could do.”
Early in his career, Le himself took part in a fellowship program for Vietnamese people interested in nonprofit work, where he received mentoring, coaching, and leadership support. He landed at one of its host organizations, Vietnamese Friendship Association (VFA), where he later became its executive director.
During his time at VFA, he thought a lot about why it’s so difficult for POCs to get involved in nonprofit and grassroots work, especially in leadership roles. And he thought about why it’s so hard for grassroots organizations, led by POCs and supporting underserved communities, to stay afloat. He brought these concerns to a group of POC leaders struggling with the same questions.
“I remember about eight years or so, I was strategizing and struggling to grow FOCS (Families of Color Seattle) beyond a drop-in, place-based cultural arts program for families at the Hillman City Collaboratory,” said Amy Pak. “I remember being there, seeing and watching Vu have meetings with hundreds of folks, from foundations to community elders to driven-POC leaders — and I kept wondering, what is it about this guy? What is this about this vision? What is RVC?”
Pak is the founder and former executive director of FOCS. She was drawn into her involvement with RVC early on, starting with input and brainstorming and evolving to the point where her nonprofit became a partner of RVC once RVC was established.
“RVC’s founding was centered around the vision of bringing together community-based organizations’ leaders of color and allies to address entrenched issues of inequity — and that group met intensively as volunteers to co-develop and create the vision for RVC,” said RVC Interim Executive Director Ananda Valenzeula. “This deep community collaboration is crucial to RVC’s success.”
“Vu was really good at pulling in folks who believe the same vision — that this work cannot be done alone,” said Pak. “So we did this together. You go through something like this together — it’s really beautiful.”
RVC was officially founded about six years ago with the intention of creating a pathway for young, talented POCs into leadership positions at host grassroots organizations. The idea was for these future leaders to bring their passion and talent and for RVC to provide a livable wage, benefits, and ongoing professional development training. These ideal came to fruition in the form of RVC’s staple program, called the Community Impact (CI) Fellowship program, helmed from the very beginning by RVC’s Fellowship Programs Director Abesha Shiferaw.
“The launch of the program was a beautiful struggle,” said Shiferaw. “It was a labor of love from the community members who activated seven committees, staff who juggled their role and played facilitator during training and retreats, and fellows who were deeply committed and dedicated to making this vision of our communities having the power to fulfill their dreams come to reality.”
The CI Fellowship continues to place and support fellows into two-year, full-time positions at local grassroots organizations led by communities of color today.
However, RVC didn’t stop with leadership development.
Expanding RVC’s mission
“Grassroots organizations led by POCs need capacity building support,” said Le. “The normal model hasn’t worked. It’s not enough for funders to provide financial support to aid with technical assistance, provide consultants for organizations, or send organizations to workshops. These resources aren’t implemented effectively, because organizations don’t have the capacity. They need actual staffing.”
This problem is what Le calls the “Capacity Paradox.” An organization can’t build capacity without funding and it’s hard to get funding when the organization doesn’t have the capacity to do what is necessary to secure funds, such as dealing with complex grant writing. It becomes a toxic cycle.
As a result of many internal and community discussions, RVC grew its shared leadership model, including bringing on Valenzuela as its ‘internal executive director.’ Valenzuela and Le collaboratively built systems and processes to handle that growth effectively. RVC also expanded its programming to help grow capacity building for grassroots organizations for and led by communities of color. RVC wanted to support these organizations in specific ways so that they can focus on what they’re really good at: services that are unique to the community they serve and are much-needed.
“The traditional, white-centric thought is, teach to fish, feed for a lifetime,” Le said. What if they’re not fishermen? What if they’re carpenters? We want them to specialize in their expertise. It’s okay to give them the fish, so they can thrive in what they are good at.”
To address this, RVC kickstarted its operations support program, which provides back-office and administrative support for organizations so that they can focus their energies on their mission and specialized services. In tandem, RVC also began capacity-building coaching and consulting. Instead of having a blanket approach to these services, RVC promotes doing so by working together, with an eye and an ear keenly tuned into cultural context, taking into account factors such as gender, religion, elders who have dealt with trauma, and so on.
“The capacity building ethos of RVC helped build the foundational backbone for emerging organizations like FOCS,” said Pak. “In the relatively short history of RVC, there have been more than 20 organizations that have been part of this growth — we’ve all massively benefited from not only the RVC fellows and their expertise, but also the relationship dynamics. The radical strategy of everyone involved, from the beginning, really helped ableize and build capacity to the next level of sustainability for these organizations that are doing super valuable and impactful direct programing.”
As RVC found its footing and expanded its services to advocate for future leaders of color and organizations led by POCs, it certainly didn’t work toward fulfilling its mission without facing its share of challenges.
Challenges and growth
When looking back on RVC’s founding and history, one of the more challenging aspects for the team has been managing the organization’s tremendous growth over the last few years.
“Our annual budget went from $500,000 to $3 million. This kind of growth requires a new strategy, and collaborative, distributed leadership. As more organizations want to partner with us in different ways, we have to interrogate our own assumptions about what approaches are ‘best’ and evolve in partnership with their needs,” explained Valenzuela. “It’s stressful sometimes, but these organizations are doing such great work.”
Despite all of this, rising to the challenge has been RVC’s way, and the shared leadership, collaboration, and camaraderie with team members and partners are things Le is going to miss very much.
“We’ve grown to more than a dozen full-time staff,” he said. “They all do such amazing work to navigate these challenges. The people I get to work with, it’s what I’m really going to miss about RVC.”
What RVC envisions going forward
“There are three parts to what we all wanted to do with RVC,” Le said. “We wanted to support organizations. We wanted to strengthen communities. And we wanted these organizations and communities to work together to effect systemic change in Seattle. We’ve done a lot of work in the first two areas. And we’re starting to see the third area take shape.”
Le knows that there are really exciting things going on with communities and organizations in building collective power to continue the fight for meaningful and equitable change.
He said this collective believes that the greatest impact to the sector happens when it is challenged. They believe in setting holistic and culturally responsive capacity-building models. They believe in continuing to refine a successful leadership program that supports young, talented leaders of color in the area. And they will continue to push for a fundraising philosophy that advocates building collective community wealth and power.
“I feel really excited about where RVC is headed and the impact it’s going to make,” said Le. “There are just so many talented, forward-thinking leaders associated with RVC, who will continue to push for social change in ways that we can’t yet conceive.”
“RVC will continue to do excellent work in our communities, because RVC’s brilliant staff will continuously take things to the next level,” said Valenzuela. “Vu doesn’t have to worry. RVC is safe in our hands!”
RVC’s annual fundraiser and farewell-goodluck dinner to its founding executive director Vu Le is taking place Feb. 22 at the Seattle Aquarium. Learn more or buy tickets at rvcseattle.org/veganroast.
Eric Card and Stacy Nguyen are content creators for RVC and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Featured image: Vu Le (blue jacket) in a team hug with RVC staff on his last day in office, Dec. 13, 2019 (Photo courtesy of RVC)