Grace Under Pressure

Grace Perez built an influential domestic-violence program. Then she was fired.

  On March 28, Grace Perez, the long-time executive director of the Violence Intervention Program, spotted the e-mail in her in-box. She was about to drive the 65 miles from her home in upstate New York to East Harlem, where she had built up a bilingual program for battered women, transforming it from a fledgling shelter into one of the city's largest domestic-violence organizations. Today, her multimillion-dollar nonprofit serves tens of thousands of Spanish-speaking victims throughout New York City and is known within domestic-violence circles for its creative and effective programming.

The e-mail had come overnight from her board of directors. On March 27, she had been scheduled to meet the six directors of VIP (as it's known) to discuss her 17-year tenure running the program, but fell ill.

Now, far from the VIP offices in East Harlem, she opened the e-mail's attachment, a letter dated the day before. "Please be advised that your employment is hereby terminated effective immediately," it read. According to the letter, the directors were canning their leader for what they described as "your actions in connection with the possible purchase of the building located at 145 East 117th Street"—a building Perez had pursued for months.

Grace Perez, anti-domestic-violence champion, and the building that proved her undoing
photo: Chad Griffith
Grace Perez, anti-domestic-violence champion, and the building that proved her undoing

Over at the VIP headquarters, the board's newest addition, Zarah Guzman, delivered the news to about a half-dozen senior managers. (VIP asked the Voice not to divulge the facility's location—it gives out only a P.O. box to the public for the protection of the battered women it serves.)

"Ms. Perez is no longer with us," Guzman told the employees. She explained that she did not have the authority to offer details, leaving the staff dumbfounded. The termination, as one high-level VIP officer explains, "seemed so totally unbelievable. Removing Grace from VIP is like taking Marian Wright Edelman out of the Children's Defense Fund. Grace is VIP and VIP is Grace."

In a neighborhood known for its vigilant activism, the news about Perez's firing spread fast. That day, a dozen East Harlem leaders—nonprofit directors and business owners—rushed to VIP headquarters to demand to meet the board. Five days later, activists began circulating a petition that calls not only for Perez's reinstatement, but also for the directors' resignations. Within two days, it had attracted 350 signatures. By April 12, a campaign dubbing itself the Community Supporters of VIP had begun.

At the Julia de Burgos Latino Cultural Center, on Lexington Avenue, beneath makeshift placards that read "You are not acting in the best interests of our community," 35 or so community members discussed what they call "the crisis at VIP." Mostly players with ties to the agency—former board members and staffers—they explained why they're rallying around Perez. For them, the outcry has a lot to do with her legacy. But it's fueled by something else: No one believes the board's reason for axing Perez. They see the dust-up more like a raid, a hostile takeover of an organization that Perez had cultivated for decades. And they pin the blame for her fall on the only man on the board at an agency that primarily serves women: Kenneth Diaz, who acts as its vice-chairman.

"This community is saying that this board has got to go," declared Elsa Rios, VIP's original founder.

"This board has got to go," offered the crowd in a muffled refrain.

The board has said little about the firing of Perez or its reaction. The Voice's repeated calls to each director went largely unanswered. Vivian Selenikas, who was elected the new chairperson last month, refused to discuss the matter at first. "The termination is an internal personnel matter and I'm not going there," she said. But then, several hours after a Voice reporter tracked down Diaz at his Queens apartment building, she sent a formal statement that ties Perez's sudden unemployment to the East 117th Street building. "Ms. Perez acted outside the scope of her authority and signed a contract . . . in violation of the Board's direction," she said in a prepared statement. "The board had no choice but to terminate her employment."

It's an explanation that few seem to accept. For reasons Perez and her backers may never uncover, what should have represented a high point in her career—finding VIP a permanent home—has turned out to be her biggest defeat.

Perez is driving her Toyota through East Harlem to 145 East 117th Street, the building that she had hoped would become the permanent home of the nonprofit organization she's been involved with for more than 20 years.

She discovered the program in 1986, when it operated out of a closet-sized empty room at the East Harlem Council for Human Services as the sole safe haven for Spanish-speaking women in the city. Then an outreach worker, Perez spent days posting purple stickers that read "Necessita Ayuda? Llamame" on phone booths. She soon climbed the ladder—first, working as a case manager; next, a program coordinator. By 1991, she'd assumed the top post of executive director.

On her watch, VIP has boosted its annual budget from $100,000 to $4 million. Staff and services have multiplied, too. Currently, the agency runs shelters and offers counseling, legal aid, and other assistance to some 750 women and their children in Manhattan, Queens, and the Bronx. It also operates the 24-hour Spanish domestic-violence hotline for New York State, fielding roughly 5,000 calls from Brooklyn to Buffalo per year. Meanwhile, its bilingual hotline for the city fields about 13,000.

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