Steven Choi

Executive Director, New York Immigration Coalition

How old is your organization? 31 years old
What sector do you work in? Nonprofit, immigration
How long have you been working in this sector? 20 years
How long have you been with your current organization? Six years

If you have worked with CRE in some capacity, what impact did it have?
I’ve long been a big fan of CRE.  I’ve gone through the CRE Leadership Caucus, and have used CRE to help facilitate retreats, goal-setting sessions, and 360-degree evaluations over the last 10 years.  They are a unique, valuable presence in the NY landscape for nonprofits and social justice organizations.

What has been the greatest challenge during the last 40 years?
It’s hard to imagine anything that feels as apocalyptic as the Trump Administration’s assault on our communities and our country.  From the immigration perspective, this has been a trying, painful time that has shattered much of the progress that we’d thought we’d made, and unmasked a virulent, frightening anti-immigrant white supremacism that we thought was in retreat.  Finding a way to fight back, and also hold accountable New York elected officials trying to present themselves as the protector of immigrants, has been a totally different fight than we’ve ever had.  

Describe a key event that has impacted your sector in the last 40 years?
The fight against the Muslim Ban showed me that we were in a new era.  Traditionally, we’d spent weeks – if not months – trying to organize our members and their constituents and we’d bring out 5,000 people.  But the Muslim Ban unfolded in real-time – the detentions and people being held at JFK, the response to that via social media, our calls to mobilize and organize being met with 5,000 people coming to JFK followed by 25,000 people coming out 12 hours later to Battery Park via a Facebook invite – in a way that solidified that we were in a new era where social media could not be ignored.  

What have been the biggest trends affecting your sector in the last 40 years?
Working with technology has been a huge shift.  As a statewide organization dedicated to a footprint on the ground from Brentwood, Long Island to Buffalo, it’s been a struggle – but a necessary one – to figure out how to best engage remote staff and ensure they feel fully supported.  Using technology – videoconferencing, remote document sharing, task management systems, databases – in the right way to maximize its value and make staff feel included and integral parts of the operation has been a real learning experience.  

What is the single greatest challenge you face today in your sector?
As an advocacy organization, we need to adjust to a news cycle that has accelerated beyond recognition in just the past couple years.  Now, politics is played out over social media that is instantaneous, powerful and uses a whole new lingo and methodology that all must be learned and mastered – while at the same time being successful at the bread-and-butter, painstaking human-level organizing it has always been about.  This is a huge challenge that advocacy organizations must master.

What leadership qualities are necessary to succeed as a nonprofit executive today?
Leadership hasn’t changed much from what it has been – the ability to think deeply and long-term, the flexibility to respond to day-to-day crises, the internal sensitivity to understand team and organizational dynamics, with the endurance and perseverance to stick to right choices through thick-and-thin.  And the nonprofit executive who demonstrates all this is a rare bird – I’ve yet to find one good at all these! 

How do you see shifting views on race, gender, sexuality, age, immigration status, educational achievement, wealth, poverty, and health affecting your organization in the future?
Evolving to new social norms remains a work in progress.  As with many organizations – and many social justice organizations – we will be engaging in a deep, potentially wrenching, yet necessary conversation on equity and inclusion.  What do we value, and why? What are the ways in which we deal with these evolutions, while at the same time performing the mission that we’re bound to do? This will continue to be a process for us.  

What are some of the trends you’re seeing today that will impact your nonprofit and your sector in the future?
One trend that we’re noticing is that immigration issues have become sexy now – but they might not be in the near future when Trump is out of office.  There are huge segments of our society who see themselves as true stakeholders and on the “side” of immigrants that haven’t been in the past – and might not be in the future.  How do immigrant nonprofits maximize this current situation, and also build and prepare for a future where we’re having a very different conversation around immigration?

Where would you like to see your sector in 40 years?
Ultimately, our sector – advocacy organizations – must accelerate the shift into engaging directly with politics.  The lines between nonprofits, political organizations and politicians have become blurred, in ways that both imperil nonprofits and potentially empower them in ways they’ve never imagined.  The organizations that succeed are the ones that embrace this shift, ensure they stay on the right side of the law – but also aren’t hamstrung by overly cautious and conservative approaches.  

Why did you join this sector?
I joined this sector out of a deep, personal connection.  My family came to this country with the proverbial “couple hundred dollars” in their pockets, knowing no one.  Their challenges – as recent immigrants with no linguistic or cultural fluency, starting at the beginning of their career – and the early difficulties they faced are constant touchstones for me in thinking about how to fight for better lives for other immigrants and people of color in this country.  

Why did you want to become Executive Director?
I actually never wanted to become an Executive Director, and I still wonder whether I’m the right fit!  And yet I feel that’s been important for me – not being too comfortable with myself, always pushing myself to improve, and seeing there is so much more room for me to grow as a leader.  

What was your breakthrough moment in becoming a leader?
My most important moment was early in my first ED job at MinKwon.  As an attorney, I thought my jobs was to demonstrate why my way and logic was correct, and better than others.  I very quickly learned as a leader that this kind of thinking was precisely the wrong way to think! Being able to re-orient my thinking and instead be a listener, open to new ideas, was my first real step in becoming a leader.

Please name three qualities that are inherent in being a strong leader.
Vision, a willingness to make tough choices, and the ability to listen.  

Find out more:
New York Immigration Coalition Website
Steven Choi Twitter

En Español »