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Tradition and Transition: The Innovative Evolution of CAPI

In times of transition, whether due to leadership turnover, strategic planning, budgetary crisis, or another major shift, organizations often feel the pinch of significant change. Their process of community engagement helped CAPI focus on organizational priorities and to increase its impact and effectiveness.

Centre for Asians & Pacific Islanders (CAPI)

In times of transition, whether due to leadership turnover, strategic planning, budgetary crisis, or another major shift, organizations often feel the pinch of significant change. CAPI has experienced many changes over the past several months: a growing number of strategic service partnerships, a leadership transition of the Executive Director, and a major building renovation. Their process of community engagement helped CAPI focus on organizational priorities and to increase its impact and effectiveness through this period of transition.

Colorful artwork lines the walls, and dozens of proud smiles fill the freshly painted rooms. At the open house in August 2008, the chair of CAPI’s board, John Eaton, welcomed the enthusiastic crowd of supporters, constituents, partners, and staff. He shared how CAPI is becoming more intentional about its social justice work, to truly have an "overall goal of achieving social change" in every service and program that CAPI embarks upon. Staff and clients also shared their personal stories of CAPI’s strong impacts. The new Executive Director, Pham Thi Hoa, expressed that CAPI’s new space is an end of a capital campaign but a beginning of its next era, in which success will be measured in the positive, meaningful, and lasting change that the agency can bring for its diverse communities.

CAPI was established in 1982 to respond to the resettlement needs of Southeast Asian refugees. With a mission of providing culturally grounded services to communities in transition, the agency has always been multicultural, beginning as Pan-Asian and then expanding services to Pan-African immigrants and refugees in the past decade. CAPI fulfills its mission with a diverse staff of 32. Today, CAPI has evolved into a unique, multi-service mutual assistance association that annually assists 3,500 refugees to become increasingly self-sufficient and contributing members of our community. The organization provides a unique space for diverse refugee populations to get more culturally competent services.

"Today there is a tendency to broaden theoretical thinking from a narrow social service client viewpoint towards a broader, more network-oriented view that plans social services squarely within the context and frame of social change and building social movements. In this case, the goal is to engage constituents, not just clients, to bring about lasting change." —Sally Worku, member of CAPI Board of Directors

In CAPI’s recent community engagement process, staff members interviewed 142 Hmong and Vietnamese former and current clients in nine focus groups, as well as an additional focus group composed of CAPI staff. The feedback from the focus groups varied by age, by cultural/ ethnic group, and between newly arrived refugees versus more established groups. In terms of age, many seniors talked about obstacles such as loneliness, isolation, depression, and post-traumatic stress. Participants discussed ways to bring seniors together socially on a regular basis, allowing them to discuss problems, have meals and recreational opportunities, and address their Medicare and insurance questions. On the other side of the spectrum, many youth and parents broached ideas of programs to develop youth leadership skills, help them with homework, and provide other types of after-school programming. Such ideas were envisioned to reduce the possibility of youth becoming involved in gangs. In addition, focus groups participants suggested programs that emphasized strengthening whole families, partially because this was seen as necessary in successfully acclimating into broader American society.

Beyond the ideas for better serving communities’ needs, CAPI constituents discussed how to be more intentional about addressing the root causes of those needs. For example, staff noted how many South and Southeast Asian teen girls wish to become mothers, but that this trend contributes to perpetuating the cycle of poverty for their children. Thus, there is a need to work more closely and in a more in-depth way with these girls. In addition, there may be opportunities to set up mentoring relationships between new refugee families and those who are more established in the community, thus helping to empower them. CAPI staff and management are very interested in further analyzing how the organization could help ensure families’ future success by addressing preventative issues related to gender and equity.

Although the primary focus of CAPI’s open discussions was on the effectiveness of its past services, what came out of community engagement is now helping to drive CAPI’s direction for the future. For example, while CAPI has been very successful in delivering services, it has been less attentive to developing and strengthening aspects of its overall organizational capacity. For instance, the organization’s major service program areas currently have somewhat of a "silo identity." Programs have each developed and grown successfully, but the connective organizational structures are considerably less well developed. Recently, CAPI management and board identified the need for more strategic alignment and evaluation to be able to address whole needs, rather than piecemeal services. The approach is to empower the staff with increased capacity, the constituents with greater awareness of their power, the funding partners with shared vision, and the communities with the most prominent voice in the processes for systemic change.

With the recent downturn of the U.S. economy and a greater sense of self-awareness, CAPI is positioning itself to meet the growing needs of its clients holistically and meaningfully. However, the organization is also honing their lens of how to contribute to larger systemic change. With the arrival of new leadership and feedback from clients and staff, CAPI is looking forward to strengthening their work for the future. The "fresh face" of CAPI is not only reflected in the new sign on its building and the new artwork on its walls, but ultimately in the words and hopes of those who serve and are served by the organization’s work.