Yanyi Weng is a hospice worker and therapist, and has been involved with BCNC since she came to the U.S. She talks to us about the dire need for better nursing homes and more mental health resources for people of color.read more
Tell us about your background. How did you come to Boston? Were you born here? If not, where are you from?
I’ve been sharing my story with people lately, because I just started at Boston Chinatown Neighborhood Center in June.
I recently shared my background with my staff. I was born an orphan in South Korea. My parents are from South Jersey. They were unable to start a family of their own and so they were excited to adopt, then found out through their church that, rather than waiting for an American baby, which would take much longer, they could adopt a child from Asia.
So, through divine intervention, luck and a million other things, I was connected with my parents through adoption and came over in March of 1978 about eight months after I was born. I flew into Philadelphia International Airport with a number of other Asians. There’s this wonderful picture of me at eight months old with a seat belt around my waist sitting in the middle of an airplane seat.
I grew up in southern New Jersey and I tell people that’s the actual garden part of the Garden State. I grew up on 21 acres of land next to a lake and played outside a lot—I had a wonderful childhood. My sister is also adopted, but she’s Caucasian. The joke was people always said she looked like my mom. So, I was very lucky to have a family that loved me. My parents were working class. My mom was a pre-school teacher.
I grew up in a community that was primarily White. There was only one other Asian boy in my school. His family stereo-typically owned a dry cleaning company.
So, it wasn’t until college that I was exposed to more diversity.
I made my way to Boston when I was thinking about college. I was dating a girl at the time whose brother when to B.U. Law School, and I thought I wanted to go to law school in the future.
When I was at B.U. in the early 2000s, there were a lot of Japanese students and some Koreans, but not a lot of Chinese students yet. It did introduce me to my cultural heritage, though, and I was president of the Asian Pre-Law Society, but I wasn’t sure about being a lawyer. So, after B.U. I was a counselor for adjudicated teens in Alabama before returning to B.U. where I proudly earned a master’s in theology the same school Martin Luther King attended.
I was fortunate to start my arts administration work at Greater Boston Youth Symphony Orchestra. It was a wonderful opportunity for me to continue to work with youth. I loved helping young people develop and grow and achieve their passion. I learned so much about music.
One thing that has been fortunate throughout my career is that there have always been doors that open at the right time for me to take the next leadership role and learn and grow.
The Music Director at GBYSO was the music director of a small professional string ensemble called the New England String Ensemble—and they needed a new Executive Director.
It was in 2008-2009, when the economy collapsed, and so it was challenging to be an Executive Director during that time period. It was a real trial by fire. It was a challenging position. One of the first decisions I had to make was to let go the only other staff member. It was a heartbreaking decision to have to make.
But we made it through with a lot of hard work and I learned a lot. But I was the only employee and commuting up to Wakefield, Massachusetts and sitting in a small office by myself every day.
Fortunately, again, when I was at the String Ensemble, we had collaborated with Boston Children’s Chorus. BCC was going through their first executive change. So, I was able to join them and spend nine wonderful years there learning about not only choral music, but social justice and much more about the history of Boston and, through Hubie [Jones founded the BCC]. He was a mentor. I started out as Director of Programs, but by the time I left, I was Chief Strategy Officer. I got to travel around the world to Germany, where we learned about the holocaust, to Southeast Asia, where we learned about the Vietnam War, the United Kingdom, and to Jordan to learn about the Israelis and Palestinians.
It was an amazing experience for myself and obviously for the young people. At the time of my departure, I was overseeing a lot of our work with the wider community and the funding community.
About the same time, I got married to a woman from Taiwan. We actually got married at the BCC offices. It was a justice of the peace. We had already had a 500-person banquet in Taiwan before, then we got married at BCC, and then we had a small wedding party at a board member’s house later. So we had three events as part of our marriage.
We were able to buy a home in Roslindale and then a baby came along. My wife’s water broke at 21 weeks, so that was very challenging. He was born at 28 weeks old, which is still quite young. He was in the Beth Israel NICU for three months. Fortunately, he’s very healthy now at two and a half years old.
So, the next part of my career was at the Boston Public Library as Director of Strategic Partnerships. I had met David Leonard and quickly found myself fortunate to have another amazing opportunity that worked well for my family. I had always been a library person, so the opportunity to be a public servant, but also work for an organization that is such an integral part of every Boston neighborhood, was wonderful. It was also interesting to work at a larger organization. The BPL has 500 staff and 22 locations and is doing such important things in the community—from birth to older adults. It gave me a strong sense of the needs of the city. Part of my role was to relaunch a philanthropic initiative called the BPL Fund. It was great to work with so many people across the city. The Boston Foundation was very supportive throughout that whole process.
I became very interested in the renaissance of libraries as one of the last democratic institutions that is trusted by Americans and that is free for all, no matter what your background is. You can come in and get what you need. It’s one of the first stops of people when they first come to this country.
I also used to volunteer through Boston Chinatown Neighborhood Center with students who needed counseling about how to apply to colleges and make their way through the system. The combination of all of my work, being a counselor, working in the arts, working with families on equity and social justice, turned out to be just the perfect combination for Boston Chinatown Neighborhood Center (BCNC). This opportunity came at a time when I was thinking that I wanted to use my experience in a much more impactful way.
Now that I’m here, I think it’s a perfect fit for me. I’m excited to be here. I started on June 1st in the midst of the pandemic. It was the week after George Floyd was murdered and the protests had begun. So, I had to address everything that was going on in a letter to the staff. I focused on the fact that any organization that supports and serves communities of color or works with immigrants, like BCNC does, is inherently a social justice organization, it’s inherently an organization that is working toward equity and inclusion. So, I reflected on all of that led to BCNC’s first statement on racism.
As you can imagine there was a lot going on with the impact of COVID-19 and Floyd’s horrific death and the protests that were affecting our entire country.
It’s such an important time for good leadership. I’m honored to be in that position during this time.
When you think about leadership, what qualities do you think are important for a leader to have?
One of the things that I hope I model, and definitely have learned from others, is really listening and walking in the shoes of others, not only what their needs are or what they’re thinking about or what their aspirations or desires are. We’re all human and our inner lives dictate so much about how we move through the world. It’s important not to always being in an office, because then you’re not really fulfilling your job. The listening part is critical. I’m a data person. I think getting data points, whether it’s quantitative or qualitative is really important to be able to make decisions that aren’t in a vacuum.
I think many leaders say this when they start new roles. They go on a listening tour with staff and supporters. But, as a new leader, that’s the only way you can figure out what needs to happen next and go from there.
It’s 2020 and the beginning of a new decade. When you step back and think about the issues, what rises to the surface as the most important issues that we should be thinking about confronting over the next decade? And how do you think we should go about meeting those challenges?
I think immigration is a very important issue, and obviously is getting a lot of attention now. The policies that were in place, even before this federal administration, don’t make people feel welcome. The challenges for immigrants, whether they’re documented or undocumented or refugees, once they’re here, they don’t feel welcome. Maybe in our collective American memory, we think we’re welcoming.
When I get the chance to talk to Yanyi or some of the young people we work with in the teen program, we need to make sure that they have legal access to information.
The narrative around immigration and what immigrants actually bring. I think about how Yanyi and her husband, who’s also an immigrant, contribute so much. She’s a hospice worker and a therapist and a photographer and they started a small business…
They obviously came here for better lives and that’s what they are pursuing.
Especially in Massachusetts, we have an older White population. We know the statistics that show that White families are having fewer children. And so when you look at the longer-term economic impact, we’re obviously facing a future with a smaller pool of future employees, which means a smaller pool of people paying taxes, and so all of these dynamics point to the fact that immigrants and immigration policy should be favorable toward people coming to our country.
The interesting thing for the Asian community, which is the fastest growing racial/ethnic immigrant community in Massachusetts, is how we will cope with our challenge.
One other thing that I think may come up in your discussions with other leaders is that there needs to be more representation of leaders of color. The representation at the front line of teachers, the representation at school councils and city councils… Out of 160 representatives in the State House, there are only six in the Asian American caucus. And of 48 senators, just two that identify as Asian.
You need Asians in all kinds of positions, especially those that have some power. We need to give our young people a pathway for themselves. Because when there are more Asians who are in positions of power, we know that they will know what our community needs. We need people in leadership positions who can listen and who can understand what is needed. Without folks in that position, things will never change.
My mentors were people who were African American, like Hubie Jones and David Howse, but not anyone who was Asian. David had organized an African-American leadership group and I thought it would be good to have an Asian leadership group. So, we got together a group of other Asian executive directors to support each other. So, I think things like that are important, because it shows the younger generation the possibilities.
Longer term, there should be more representation and more access for people of color. People like Yanyi have so much energy and so much to offer.