Walmart co-manager, Mary Brinkley in her store in Richmond, Va. (AP Photo/Steve Helber)
For three interns at the Organization for Chinese Americans, the largest Asian-American civil rights group in the country, a summer to learn about politics and advocacy ended abruptly with their dismissal two weeks ago.
The interns say they had been critical of some of the organization’s partners, including Walmart, over the course of the summer. And when a video was posted on one of their personal social media accounts depicting the interns making a rude gesture at a Walmart logo, they were told to pack up their bags and leave the organization.
The incident may shine light on the ways in which established civil rights organizations have fallen under influence of business interests. Large corporations—including McDonald’s, Sodexo, Wells Fargo and Walmart—forged close ties to leading civil rights groups with hefty donations. In the case of OCA, which was founded in 1971, some critics fear that these relationships have compromised the organization’s direction.
Lisa Lei, a student at the University of California, Irvine and one of the former OCA interns fired for disrespecting Walmart, told The Nation that she had raised concerns about Walmart’s efforts to build a new store in downtown Los Angeles, near Chinatown, at a meeting with coworkers. She says she was shut down by her supervisor and told not to criticize the organization’s sponsors.
Later, at the OCA convention in July, which was underwritten in part by Walmart and attended by Walmart’s outreach staff, Lei and two other interns posted a short Instagram video of themselves making a rude gesture about Walmart. The video, which was cross-posted onto one of the intern’s personal Facebook accounts, was discovered, and according to the interns, OCA staff swiftly summoned the students involved. The video was deleted off both of their personal social media accounts. The next morning, says Lei, “We were not given any time to ask why and were told it was because of the video. In less than ten minutes, I was escorted out of the hotel. Within thirty minutes, all three of us were watched and escorted out of the hotel.”
The interns say they were surprised at how harsh they were treated over the video, which was not intended for public dissemination, and that they are dissappointed that OCA has become so close to a company like Walmart.
“I’m not sure if there’s a whole lot I could share with you because this is a personnel issue,” says Tom Hayashi, OCA’s executive director. “The bottom line here is is that these interns were not dismissed because of their particular politics or any of their statements they may have made during the program.”