By Janice Nesamani
NORTHWEST ASIAN WEEKLY
Life in public service as the director of a nonprofit was not something that Dorothy Wong dreamed of. Her calling to an illustrious career in the nonprofit sector goes back to her roots. Her maternal grandfather was a teacher and helped students with their difficulties, and her paternal grandfather, who immigrated to this country, helped form family associations for the immigrant community. “I always remember people coming and congregating around our house,” she said.
Wong lost her grandfather and her father at a young age, and her mother raised her in a country that she knew nothing about. Which is why when she talks of her experiences, she doesn’t come across as American-born. “People say I am more like a one and a half generation old because of all the immigration challenges in my family. That did influence me a lot. We saw discrimination, and knew what it was like to be treated differently,” Wong explained.
Fortunately, she grew up during the Civil Rights Movement and went to the University of California, Berkeley, where she earned her bachelor’s degree in Psychology. “I saw the importance of being part of a large movement to address systemic wrongs. I became involved in the movement and that dictated what I ended up working for,” she said.
After graduating, Wong worked with social services and became associated with drug treatment programs and the chronically mentally ill. It was here that she saw serving people in need, understood the kind of work it was, and developed a genuine appreciation for people who decided to make it their profession. Wong said, “There’s something about nurturing a greater humanity, helping those who need it, helping people develop their full potential. This was something that I felt was a cause I believed in and was supportive of the kind of person I would like to be.”
Wong’s first job as director was in San Francisco at the Asian AIDS project, where she worked to spread awareness about the prevention of HIV/AIDS among the Asian Pacific community. “I decided what kind of director I would be. I decided I was going to be someone who supported the mission for which I worked.” Wong had help from a member of the community and slowly built an organization that met the needs of young immigrants coming into the country with no understanding of the HIV/AIDS epidemic. Under her leadership, the organization grew to become the third best HIV service, as evaluated by the San Francisco Department of Public Health AIDS Office.
After this success, Wong moved to Seattle in 1993 as the Executive Director of International Community Health Services (ICHS). An urge to travel and live in another place brought her here. Wong was impressed by the vibrancy and strength of the Asian Pacific Islander community. “They were very well organized politically and knew how to work together to leverage their political influence. This fascinated me. The community health center movement was really taking off at the time and the community really did all it could to make sure that its clinic would not disappear. I got to know many community leaders and grew professionally. I was fortunate to be able to grow the organization to a point in 2005, where it was briefly the largest Asian Pacific Islander clinic,” Wong recalled.
After her success, Wong decided to take a break and live in Washington, D.C., where she took up a job and cared for her ill mother. But Seattle beckoned again and she assumed the role of a project consultant with the Chinese Information and Service Center (CISC). It was then that 2009 wreaked havoc. “I saw the impact this had on many people. I myself had trouble finding work. It was devastating to think that I had worked hard all these years and developed skills and training not knowing if I would have work again at the same level. I could imagine what mid-level managers or anybody who lost their jobs were going through,” Wong said.
Being in her line of work doesn’t guarantee wealth and Wong had to face the fact that she may have to leave the profession and decided to get an MBA. “What I learnt from an MBA was that the management skills of running an operation can readily be applied to running a nonprofit, as processes of doing things efficiently and effectively are required here, too,” she said. Wong discovered her strength was organizing and analyzing. “I didn’t think of it at the time, but my strength was strategic thinking. I was one of those people who got the whole picture,” she said. And she put this into action as the Executive Director of CISC.
Today, Wong recognizes change in Seattle. The disappearing middle class, the influx of high paying jobs and resulting escalating prices, the elimination of low-skill jobs with new technology. She wonders what’s going to happen to the people who rely on these jobs. What’s going to happen to mid-level managerial employees? At CISC, Wong is trying to build the system needed to support them. “We focus on the community and we will get services our community needs. People, especially new immigrants, come here and gain access to a full range of services we provide. Now, we’d like to see if we can reach out to other immigration populations. We have Spanish speaking, Russian, and South Asian communities on a small scale that we can branch out to on the eastside. We have to still figure out their needs and tailor our programs to fit their cultural preferences,” she said.
Wong is also very aware of the changing immigrant demographic in Seattle and is looking at how the organization will have to adapt. People are moving out of Seattle to the East, South, and also the North. “We are likely going to go out where the community is and will be in a few years.”
The first cut of immigrants, a traditionally low-income people unfamiliar with the system, are being served by her organization through support services, counseling, and skill building with the aim of making them self sufficient and contributing members of the community. However, Wong is also mindful and making an effort to learn about the newer immigrants. “They may not have financial challenges, but have similar problems of being in a country that they know nothing about. We could acquaint them with the systems here or help them develop communication or people skills. They are a silent, isolated group. You don’t see them, but their needs are there,” she elucidated.
Wong presently serves as the chair for the Asian Pacific Directors Coalition. She is a member of the Asian Pacific Islander Coalition of King County, and is on the board of Alliance of Eastside Agencies. She also served in an advisory capacity on a number of committees, such as the Immigrant Voting Rights Task Force and University of Washington’s OMAD’s Southeast Asian recruiter advisory committee. Wong says she isn’t a political person, but understands the importance of politics. “I really see the value of the nonprofit sector, executives, corporate folk, and leaders leveraging their expertise and commitment to address the needs in the community.” So she deals with systemic issues and with the law. Whether it is the recruitment of Southeast Asian students at the University of Washington, dealing with the public education system or the police, or ensuring that the sizeable API community exercises its privilege to vote, she’s on board making sure the voices of this community is served.
Dorothy Wong will be honored on Dec. 1 at the Northwest Asian Weekly’s annual Top Contributors Awards Dinner, held at the House of Hong Restaurant in Chinatown.
Janice can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.