Photo: Jennifer Sun and Thomas Yu (center) with AAFE Board Member John Leo (left) and Board President Lydia Tom (right).

AAFE’s new co-executive directors, Jennifer Sun and Thomas Yu, say they’re excited about leading one of New York’s pre-eminent community development organizations into a new era — building on past successes and advancing a new culture of collaboration and grassroots engagement in communities throughout New York City.

On Friday, June 18, they spoke about their shared vision during a roundtable discussion with reporters at Asian American for Equality’s Lower Manhattan headquarters. Earlier in the day, the Board of Directors announced AAFE’s appointment of Sun and Yu after an exhaustive nationwide search. They officially become co-executive directors on July 2.

AAFE Board President Lydia Tom introduced the next generation of leaders, saying of Sun and Yu, “They have great expertise in community development, great talent, and we think their creativity and commitment to AAFE will be wonderful for all of the communities we serve in New York City.”

“They both come from immigrant families,” added Tom, “and they both know full well what it’s like to be an immigrant in a city like New York, but they also know what it’s like to dream, to be successful. So they embrace not only the dreams, but the challenges in those communities.”

Jennifer Sun, who managed the Rebuild Chinatown Initiative at AAFE after 9/11, comes back to the organization after more than a decade leading economic development and large-scale infrastructure projects at the New York City Economic Development Corporation and New York City Parks Department. Thomas Yu, hired more than 20 years ago as a planning intern, most recently served as AAFE Strategic Development Officer, overseeing the organization’s existing housing portfolio and developing hundreds of units of new affordable housing.

Acting Executive Director Doris Koo introduced AAFE’s new leaders at a staff meeting June 15.

During their opening remarks, Sun and Yu said they’re looking forward to working together as a team, but also deepening AAFE’s relationships in the broader community. “A huge opportunity for our work going forward,” said Sun, “is to build stronger partnerships with other community organizations, with city government, as well as with the private sector to really expand AAFE’s impact in a way that supports other partners.” 

Yu explained, “Jenn and I really want to reinvigorate AAFE’s grassroots, our core mission of community development, really working to tackle the issues that our communities face.” In returning to the organization’s activist roots, added Yu, “we’ll seek to bring everyone together through even more collaboration with many different groups in the community, more diverse collaboration, because we can’t do it alone.” 

They also spoke in more detail about the benefits of AAFE’s new co-executive director model.

To me,” said Sun, “it was very appealing to be able to share this leadership role with Thomas.” In part because they are both parents taking on big workplace responsibilities , she added, “I really believe it means we will be able to sustain our commitment, our energy in a way that is more effective than if a single person were to take on this role.” Yu noted that he and Sun have a track record of working well together, both at AAFE and when Sun was in city government. He also pointed out that collaborative leadership is a growing trend, and one that AAFE is committed to developing long-term.

Lydia Tom added, “There’s no reason not to have shared leadership when you have wonderful talent.” Explaining the thinking of the board, she said, “Why stop with one when you can have the talents of two people who bring so much to the organization?” 

AAFE’s new leaders talked about their own experiences growing up in immigrant families.

After Sun’s parents came to the United States from Taiwan, her father encountered discrimination in the workplace and, as a result, the family moved around frequently in search of new opportunities. “That constant moving around,” said Sun, “was very disruptive for me and for my siblings. It really accentuated the experience of being an outsider. I think now, as an adult, that has made me feel a great sense of empathy about the experience of immigrants and how challenging it can be to integrate into this culture and navigate the system.”

Yu recalled his early childhood in Hong Kong’s shanty towns, with no electricity or running water. “One night, the shack we were living in burned down, and that was an early memory I had as a child, being homeless.” After coming to New York, his parents found work in Chinatown garment factories, and eventually secured an apartment in public housing after several years in Chinatown’s tenements. “For me,” explained Yu, it hit home (during that time) how important it is to have a safe, affordable and secure place to live, so that a low-income family starting here, especially as immigrants, but all families, can really grow.”

“If there’s some way,” Sun explained, “working with Thomas and this organization, to make it better, easier, for immigrants to come to the United States and to really gain a foothold, to contribute to society without those kinds of barriers (that her family encountered), that is a big motivation for my work.”

Yu echoed her sentiments, adding, “Jenn and I, we talked about it, this is something that is core for AAFE — finding ways to lift up the entire community. This is why we’re even here. In a way it made us humble to be co-leaders. We’re serving the community. It’s not about us. We’re here as temporary stewards. We need to make sure that what we do is in the best interests of helping our neighborhoods and neighbors succeed.”