Grace Under Pressure

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

Sandra Muñoz, another board member who served from 2002 to 2005 and who has signed on to the campaign, seconds that. "I believe he poisoned the board against Grace."

Muñoz and others see plenty of red flags. In 2005, they note, Diaz nominated two of his friends to the seven-member board. Then, 12 months later, the new board changed the organization's bylaws. In the past, the executive director had served on the governing body, with full voting rights. But in 2006, directors lessened Perez's influence, and kicked her off of the board itself. Both developments happened without her input; she was out on extended medical leaves.

"I believe he has an agenda," says Haydee Rosario, a longtime VIP volunteer who has applied to be a board member, expressing a common sentiment. Maybe he wants to control that $4 million budget, or maybe he's looking to employ his friends. "I don't know what it is," she acknowledges, "but it's not good for VIP."

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

It's all harsh criticism for a man whose colleagues outside East Harlem portray him as a do-gooder and devout Christian. "He's the kind of guy who just likes helping people," says Juan Martinez, of Progress, Inc., a nonprofit that Diaz and 24 other Puerto Rican leaders founded in 1980. Today, it's known for reforming the Progress High School for Professional Careers, in Brooklyn, a once failing city school turned educational success story. Diaz wrote the proposal for the school in the 1990s; he can still be found in its halls, volunteering at events, tutoring its students. One source familiar with the place calls him "a blessing." Sometimes, the source says, "you chat with him and you can see a sense of ministry come through him. I can see his persona and it's very unique."

After numerous attempts to speak with him, a Voice reporter visited Diaz at his co-op apartment in a quiet Queens neighborhood, and he agreed to a conversation. In person, he is the antithesis of hostility. A short, squat man who walks with a limp and uses a cane, he is soft-spoken and deliberate, pausing for long stretches at a time, as if to punctuate his points.

So what does he think about the portrait of him as the man out to undo Perez? "I don't appreciate people trying to see inside my head," he says flatly. He denies having any designs on VIP, other than to spread its anti-violence mission. As he tells it, he's simply a man of good intentions trying to live his life as his own missionary mother did. "My mother spent her whole life serving others," he says, "and that's the path I've tried to follow here."

Diaz suggests the maelstrom at VIP—the firing of Perez and the nixing of the building deal—stems from the right motivations. "It's a nonprofit's dream not to have to worry about where they will operate. It's the optimum," he recognizes. But when it came time for the board of directors to deliberate on the contract, he says, "we didn't think we were in a position to move ahead."

Asked how he and the rest made that decision, Diaz evades the question. "It's fair to say that we consulted people who have a knowledge of these things."

Like whom? "It's fair to say that these were individuals in whom the board had confidence and on whose conclusions we relied."

At one point, Diaz implies that he and his colleagues just got cold feet. "The board's decision wasn't to kill the project," he maintains. "The decision was, 'At this time, with what we know now, we're not going to move ahead.' If there had been additional money, maybe the project would have looked more favorable and maybe the board could have made a different decision." He then offers, "The people on the board are good people with good minds and good intentions, and they feel comfortable with that decision."

So are you comfortable firing Perez? "I don't know if I would use the word comfortable. This was a difficult decision." He sits quietly, staring ahead. Then, he turns and says, "Are we finished yet?"

If VIP's board thought it was saving itself from risk by not purchasing a building, its subsequent actions have only put it in far more danger. Since Perez got canned on March 28, the board of directors have left VIP without an acting chief. No one is guiding the staff and dealing with the funders on a day-to-day basis. "It's a pretty untenable situation," says one senior manager who, along with six colleagues, took the unusual step of writing an April 16 two-page letter to VIP funders. In it, the senior management team expresses a no-confidence vote in the six-person board, asking all of them to step aside.

Some funders are getting leery of the chaos. "We are watching whether our money is being funneled into services," attests Patricia White of the New York Community Trust, which has allocated $30,000 of a $60,000 grant for Queens services. White says that she found out about Perez's firing from the community's petition—not the board. And she hasn't had formal contact from the board yet. "I'd have to say that in the absence of an executive director we cannot release the rest of this money." Meanwhile, three internal sources report that at least one other foundation has already frozen a $50,000 payment; a May 2 memorandum from the senior managers to the VIP board confirms this and outlines other contracts that will expire by July 1, at the start of the new fiscal year, thereby jeopardizing various direct staff positions and programs in Manhattan and Queens.

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