The former executive director of the Korean Women’s Association was harassed by the non-profit’s leaders and eventually fired because he’s gay and married to a man.
That’s the contention that Steven “Troy” Christensen is making in a lawsuit against the Tacoma-based organization that employs 1,200 people and has an operating budget of $45 million.
Christensen, 56, had a long history leading nonprofits that specialize in behavioral health, housing and health care when he applied for the job at KWA.
The KWA position appealed to him, he said, because of the similarities to his then job at the Metropolitan Development Council.
“Both of the organizations have programs in health care and housing for people who are low income,” Christensen said in an interview with The News Tribune earlier this week.
The KWA would not comment for this story.
TROUBLE FROM THE START
Founded in 1972 as a meal site for seniors, the Korean Women’s Association today provides housing, health and wellness programs to thousands of people. In 2017, it served 2,235 in-home care clients.
Christensen had an interview with the KWA board in July 2016.
“They told me they voted unanimously (to hire him) the night of the interview,” Christensen said. The next morning, they offered him the job.
Christensen started work at the KWA six weeks later. His annual salary was $155,000.
Sometime before then, board member (now vice chair) Eunsung Kelly Liu told another board member, Sunni Ko, that she had voted against Christensen, according to the lawsuit. Ko asked Liu why.
Liu told Ko she was Christian and couldn’t support a gay executive director, according to the lawsuit.
Ko asked Liu how she could ascertain Christensen’s sexual orientation.
“Liu told Ko that she ‘could just tell’ that (Christensen) was gay because of his mannerisms and his attire,” the lawsuit states.
“Liu added that, as a Christian, she could not condone (Christensen’s) ‘lifestyle choice,’” according to the lawsuit.
Ko, a Tacoma attorney, told Liu that it was unlawful to discriminate in hiring practices based on sexual orientation. Washington State law forbids discrimination based on sexual orientation including the right to obtain and hold employment.
At the time, Ko didn’t tell Christensen what Liu had said.
Ko has seen the complaint and confirmed to The News Tribune that all the statements attributed to her are accurate.
Christensen was married to a woman for 26 years. The couple separated in 2013. Later that year, he met his now husband, Randy Provencal.
They married in February 2016.
“It didn’t come up in the interview,” Christensen of his marriage. “If it had, I would have been open. I’m very open with everyone. If I’m having a conversation, I’m not afraid to refer to my husband. In this day and age, it’s pretty common. There’s no one I feel like I haven’t told.”
His relationship and sexual orientation also are clear on Christensen’s social media.
Christensen began working at KWA in September 2016.
In early 2017, Grace Park became KWA board chair, (Grace) Myung Sook Kim became the volunteer committee chair and Liu became vice chair. Christensen’s relationship with the three women and founding board member and senior advisor Sulja Warnick soured quickly, he said.
Warnick, Kim and Park began interfering with personnel decisions and discipline issues that were beyond their responsibilities, the lawsuit claims.
According to the lawsuit, in April or May 2017, Luana Hall, the KWA’s then director of in-home care, told Christensen that the board had considered withdrawing its job offer when they learned he was married to a man.
Hall told The News Tribune that she heard that information from a third party. She confirmed that the board turned hostile toward Christensen after Park became chair.
“You could tell it was contentious,” Hall said of the relationship between Christensen and the board.
Board members started interfering with daily operations, Hall said.
“It was harassment, actually,” she said.
“They were really aggressive with Luana,” Christensen said. “They were really aggressive with our domestic violence director. I kept asking them to stop.”
Christensen reminded the three board members that they needed to follow the chain of command and go through him rather than deal directly with staff.
Hall left KWA in January 2018 because of the interference, she said.
During a November 2017 meeting, Christensen asked the board if the statement Hall had relayed to him was accurate. Kim tried to cut him off. Later, Kim told Christensen that she was able to keep her personal beliefs to herself and behave professionally toward him, he said.
In December 2017, Kim, Liu and Warnick were re-elected to the executive committee, and their hostility towards Christensen increased, the lawsuit says.
“They began cutting me off more, yelling. A lot of yelling. Screaming,” he said.
They accused him of taking gifts and engaging in questionable financial dealings, including a kitchen remodel. None of the claims proved true, according to Christensen..
Later, during a meeting between Warnick and Christensen with board treasurer Young Sil Jaqua acting as a facilitator, Warnick told Christensen that he was “thin-skinned and weak.” It was a description she has used on him in previous board meetings, he said.
Adding to the tense atmosphere, board members told Christensen not to introduce his husband to frequently visiting South Korean diplomats. With few exceptions, the board members referred to Provencal as Christensen’s “partner” even after being corrected, according to the lawsuit.
Soon, Provencal stopped attending KWA events because of the cold treatment he received from KWA board members.
In December 2018, the 17-member board gave Christensen a $4,650 annual raise and $9,300 bonus. The previous year he had declined a raise and bonus, according to Christensen.
“I declined because the rest of the executive staff was making $100,000 less than me and that didn’t seem right,” he said. “The pay increase was the only reflection of my performance.”
On Jan. 11, Christensen was placed on administrative leave by Kim and Liu and other unnamed board members. When he asked why, Kim refused to say.
On Jan. 12, he was summoned to an emergency board meeting. He was asked to give his side of the story but not told what the issue was about.
He said he explained his perspective on a few controversies, including the kitchen remodel, and then was dismissed.
“To this day, I have no idea what I was accused of,” he said.
On Jan. 13, Kim sent Christensen an email informing him he was terminated. No reason was given.
On Feb. 25, the KWA announced that former executive director Peter Ansara had been reappointed to lead the organization. Ansara previously led the group from 2009-2016.
“Speaking on behalf of the KWA Board, we are very fortunate to have Peter as our new CEO and excited to get going on the work ahead,” Kim said in the announcement.
Christensen contends that Park and Kim became president and vice-president of the board with the intention of forcing him out.
“They created a hostile work environment, thinking I would quit,” he said.
Christensen never quit because he thought he could work through his differences with the women and the tension would die down.
He ticked off a list of successes under his leadership: Net and gross revenue increases, the addition of senior and community centers, the adoption of a $15-per-hour minimum wage.
“I spent my whole career building up to this position,” he said. “And then to have this happen and to be given no reason and to find out all this was happening behind the scenes …”
Christensen said he is being treated for a variety of stress-induced ailments, including depression and anxiety.
“I had none of those ever in my life before,” he said.
Christensen has not yet asked for damages.