Alumni Spotlight: Ari Pak, AALEAD

Posted in News Story Spotlight

Ari Pak is the Programs Director at Asian American Youth Leadership Empowerment and Development (AALEAD). Ari participated in our Summer 2020 Nonprofit Management Executive Certificate Program and received a Crimsonbridge Leadership Fund Scholarship. The Center for Public and Nonprofit Leadership spoke with Ari about their experience in the Certificate Program.

CPNL: The nonprofit sector is vast with many important causes to champion, what led you to pursue a career working with Asian American youth?

Pak: I started working with AALEAD as a volunteer with the elementary school program in Washington D.C. My volunteer work came from a desire to work with a program that I wish I had the opportunity to participate in as a young person. I really wanted to give back to the community and do work in the region that I grew up in. I grew up in Northern Virginia and we had general after school programs but nothing that was really specific to the cultural needs of Asian American youth. I saw the way that AALEAD structured its programs and was able to build relationships not only with youth but with families. They provide long-term support academically while also developing young people’s identities, their sense of self, and their leadership skills. I really felt committed to continuing doing that work.

CPNL: As a program director with AALEAD, you work with diverse communities and individuals. Why is diversity important in the nonprofit sector, and in what ways can the sector improve outreach to specific communities?

Pak: Diversity is such an interesting topic. It almost feels like a buzz word these days. I see it on websites for colleges and companies who just want to outwardly display that they have some sort of awareness. AALEAD first and foremost is an organization that was founded because of the needs of Vietnamese immigrants in the DC region as they were coming from a war that America was a part of. There were major gaps in the support for the Vietnamese refugee population, not just for young people, but for adults as well. There was a need to connect people to basic resources for survival.

When we think about what diversity means, it’s really about listening to people and what they need. If we are not in contact with the folks we need to hear from, we need to find ways to bring them into the room and into the conversation. Finding ways to make resources accessible to people is an area I think all organizations can grow. At AALEAD, we are working to ensure we are not just engaging the youth who are excitedly joining our programs, but we are also connecting with the youth who are harder to reach. Who are the youth who are not in schools, or the youth who are not as connected to resources? How do we make sure we are supporting folks who can benefit from programs and not just the folks who are the easiest to access. I think that when we look at how nonprofits are able to serve communities, we have to consider the connection to the community and the ability to be a partner and an ally for community members. This is a priority that can really be strengthened and is critical to support diversity.

For AALEAD, we need to think about the diverse groups that constitute the Asian American community and ask ourselves who we are reaching. We also need to consider language access barriers, and low income Asian American youth. It’s not a checkbox to say this is diversity and this is not, but a constant process of asking questions to focus on equity and access. We have to ensure that we aren’t getting comfortable doing what we’re doing and we are continuing to take action. So, we need to constantly engage in that conversation and create certain actionable steps to back up what we say we are doing with our work.

CPNL: What is one significant challenge you have faced as a local leader in the nonprofit sector?

Pak: Very broadly, identifying and securing financial resources is challenging. At AALEAD, we have the benefit of being deeply connected with the community that we serve. We have a very strong program identity; we have strong program staff; and we have youth who are part of our alumni and family networks who are advocates for our program. But there is still a challenge even when foundations are aware of our program, we still have to apply for funding on a yearly basis. The resources that are required of us to have staff capable of doing that work can be a challenge. The insecurity of always having funding being up in the air can be difficult. Even if the organization has received a particular grant three years in a row, things can always change. So, I would say financial stability and security, and allocating financial resources to ensuring that security, can be a challenge. We could spend all that time and money just building out our programs and working with communities, but it is crucial to secure those resources.

I would add that with COVID-19, a lot of our grantors have been really generous with what our grant deliverables will look like this year. Going into the next fiscal year, it has felt very uncertain thinking about what grantors are expecting. For example, if we served 1,000 youth last year, is there the same expectation as we go into a completely virtual environment? We have faced challenges in discerning what our difficulties are going to be in the upcoming year – I think everybody is sharing that challenge. We have already started a successful after school program, so, the heart of our program is the same, but everything else is different, and we are still figuring that out.

CPNL: How has the Certificate Program helped you in your career?

Pak: It’s hard to name one way! Being able to spend a full week diving into curriculum content, as well as have conversations with people in the field. It was so different than just reading an article and getting the information. We were able to take that knowledge, go into a classroom setting and digest the knowledge, then discuss with classmates about how this is relevant to what we are dealing with currently. I think having that facilitated learning environment was extremely helpful. I gained a number of connections with folks and we were able to talk through some of the things we were going through during the program. And we can still reach out to each other now to be allies in the work that we are doing today.

The professors and the way they structured the course was extremely engaging, not only was it a great learning opportunity, but it was a very useful model to see how virtual learning can occur. I was able to take those lessons and then apply them to the virtual programs that we are now leading in our own organization. And some of the higher level knowledge pieces that I would traditionally learn on the job, being able to step outside and look at them from a different perspective was very helpful. For example, what does budgeting look like for an entire organization across a fiscal year? What are critical checkpoints and benchmarks? I was able to obtain tools that were so relevant to the work that I was doing and apply those skills. I also shared them with my team, providing additional training for staff members on how to use them, so we can make our jobs easier and roll out the exciting projects we have planned.

The Certificate Program is by far my favorite professional development opportunity that I have participated in. It was the perfect mixture of content and presentations from the professors paired with the chance to grapple with the content and learn how to bring it back. I’ve always struggled with professional development opportunities where it is all participant-led. We are just being asked about the challenges we are facing, and then on the other hand some courses are too lecture heavy with no way to bring the skills and knowledge back. I have recommended all of my managers to apply for the upcoming cycle because I think it will help them be successful in their careers as well.

CPNL: What advice would you give to other professionals who are considering participating in the Certificate Program and particularly applying for the Crimsonbridge Leadership Fund scholarship?

Pak: I would highly encourage people to carve out and protect time to participate in the program and commit 100%. I was still doing work on the bookends of the program, but I did join most of the office hours and social events and those were as useful as the class periods. Class has to end at a certain time, and those sessions were an opportunity to engage with the material that is most relevant to you, to hear from the professors and your classmates who are going through similar things. And you can forge relationships with people in the class for future collaborations and strengthen your own work.

Something I gained that I didn’t expect was the network of support from folks who were working on similar issues, and really strengthened the collaborative approach to community based nonprofit work. I was able to understand we are not one organization doing this one thing amongst other organizations doing something entirely different. I was able to see the common threads and take the time to work together. Even if you think you know everything there is to know about finance or another field, it is always helpful to see another model. And have fun! It is such a great program.

Specifically, for future Crimsonbridge scholarship recipients, I would encourage you to lean on your fellow scholars, as well as the Crimsonbridge Foundation staff. The Crimsonbridge staff are incredibly committed to supporting their scholars with any sort of professional advice and connections. So, if there is anything you would want to collaborate on or any advice that you need, I would really encourage folks to just ask. Their goal is to support their leaders, and they are there to help you. I have always felt extremely supported by their staff. I would also encourage you to share your story in the application. We all have resumes, but what is your passion and your reason for doing this? How is this going to impact the communities you work with, as well as your own sense of purpose. I read a lot of applications and I would say that it is important to put your heart into any application.