Termination looms for halted nationality room

By Cassidy Davis / Staff Writer

For the many cultural groups who have built Nationality Rooms in the Cathedral of Learning, the rooms represent pride in their regional heritages. But in-fighting among the city’s Filipino community now threatens to prevent the development of its own room.

The Filipino American Association of Pittsburgh originally started planning for the Philippine Nationality Room 10 years ago, but changes to the group’s bylaws in 2010 created a divide within the organization that has caused University administrators to halt progress.

The argument, which has persisted for two years and regards changes to the FAAP bylaws made by the organization’s board in 2010, led the University to decide to terminate the project, for which the group had already raised $270,000 and finalized floorplans.

Pitt has said it will hold the $270,000 for the room’s creation already supplied to the University until it determines the people to whom Pitt should return the donated money.

Larry Feick, director of the University Center for International Studies, said the University tried to give the group time to work out its disagreements but had to take action when that failed to happen.

“The University deeply regrets that this controversy in the community makes it not able to go forward with the room,” Feick said. “When we get the audit done, we will start sending the money back. And when that happens, it will be really hard to get this thing started again.”

The FAAP’s internal conflict

The controversy within the group began when Warren Bulseco, formerly the chair of the Philippine Nationality Room Committee but not a member of the FAAP board, lost his role as committee chair because of changes the board made to the organization’s bylaws in 2010.

Jaime Abola, current president and former secretary of the FAAP, explained that two years ago, the FAAP decided to abrogate, or heavily revise and readopt, its bylaws. The modifications included the addition of a rule that each chair of a subcommittee within the FAAP had to be a member of the FAAP board.

The Philippine Nationality Room Committee, in addition to being an official Nationality Room committee under the jurisdiction of the University Center for International Studies, is a subcommittee of the FAAP. As such, under the new bylaws, its chair had to be a board member.

Bulseco ­— who was also the architect of records for the Nationality Room committee — said he was not informed of the implications of the bylaw changes before they took place.

“They did not notify me that I would lose my position,” Bulseco said, referring to organizers of the FAAP.

But Abola claimed that Bulseco was aware that he would lose his position as chair after the bylaw changes. Abola provided an email he said was sent to members of the FAAP and the Nationality Room committee by the former committee chair.

“I have NO issue with this, as the proposed bylaw revisions are an improvement and betterment for the FAAP organizations, and I hope the revisions are approved,” the email, signed by Bulseco and sent from what appears to be his email address, said.

Bulseco declined to comment on the email or to say whether he had written it.

Abola said he originally objected to the abrogated bylaws because he feared Bulseco’s ousting would create a divide in the group, but he said he withdrew his objection after receiving the email from Bulseco. According to Abola, the members of the FAAP voted on the changes at the group’s annual summer picnic in 2010, and the board selected Teodora Schipper as the new chair of the Nationality Room committee in October 2011.

The vote at the annual picnic — the organization’s one general meeting of the year — has now become a point of contention among the group members.

Cathy Manalo, a current member and former president of the FAAP, said that as far as she was aware, none of the members of the FAAP knew changes to the group’s bylaws were coming before they were voted on. She also takes issue with the actual vote, which she claims took place without the quorum of members required for a vote by the group’s constitution.

But Abola stated that the amendments have been in the process of becoming finalized since 2005, and he does not believe that people were not aware of the changes to be made. He said all documentation for the changes is available online, including original documents, and that the group’s organizers send out an FAAP newsletter regularly that included an announcement that the vote would be taking place at the summer picnic.

Regarding the vote, Abola acknowledged that the FAAP’s constitution states that two-thirds of the group members’ votes are needed to pass an amendment to the constitution. However, Abola said that since the board was not amending the constitution but adopting a modified set of bylaws, the voting process could be governed by a different rule that states that a simple majority vote of the organization’s general membership is needed to pass bylaws.

And although, as Manalo pointed out, a quorum of voters did not actually place their votes at the picnic, Abola said that since the 51 percent quorum of members was present, the board could consider the vote valid.

Abola said that the proposed changes received a majority of the vote at the annual picnic, which is why the bylaws passed.

Shortly after the new bylaws were adopted, however, the University contacted the FAAP stating that administrators were concerned about Bulseco’s elimination from the committee. Manalo said that when the disagreement with Pitt was brought to the FAAP board’s attention, the group’s organizers failed to notify the rest of the membership.

“Nobody was expecting it, nobody knew. The FAAP never notified members that there was a controversy. They started to deal with the University and tried to ensure their side was the only side,” Manalo said.

The University gets involved

As soon as she was informed that the changes were installed, Maxine Bruhns, a representative from the Nationality Rooms Program for Pitt, took action.

The FAAP received a letter from the University, written by Bruhns and now posted on the FAAP website, requesting that the board maintain Bulseco as the Nationality Room committee chair, “to ensure that the quality of service and design required by the Nationality Rooms Program and the University of Pittsburgh will continue.”

Bruhns said that with the change to its bylaws, the FAAP violated the spirit of the Nationality Room committee rules, since the general ideals require that the committee be an open-membership group without any outside organization exerting authority over it. She said the FAAP rule within the group requiring that the Nationality Room committee chair be a member of the group’s board limited the ability of non-FAAP board members to contribute.

She also said this was the first time plans for a Nationality Room have ever been terminated.

While Manalo and Feick both pointed out that a number of donors to the fund for the proposed Nationality Room were not members of the FAAP, a “Perspective and Response” to the issue posted on the group’s website insists that Pitt acknowledge the FAAP as “the owner of the [Philippine Nationality Room] project.”

“For over 10 years, the FAAP worked tirelessly to make plans and raise funds necessary for the room’s completion,” states the perspective issued by FAAP organizers.

Abola said the problem has persisted because he doesn’t know with whom to work within the FAAP to solve the problem, since he doesn’t know who his opposition is. He speculated, however, that Manalo is leading the opposing front.

Manalo stated that she is not leading a faction against Abola or other members of the FAAP directly, but that she is voicing her opinion for many others who agree. She said that originally, the committee accepted everyone who wanted to partake.

“There are many others that are upset, as well, and I have chosen to be the spokesperson,” Manalo said.

In June 2012, after several meetings organized by Feick between Schipper, Bulseco and other members of the FAAP board in attempts to resolve the contention, the organization received another letter from the University announcing the termination of the project.

“As no meaningful progress has been made within the Filipino community to resolve the enduring impasse relating to the composition and governance of the [Philippine Nationality Room Committee], the University has come to the conclusion that this situation is irreparable,” stated the letter, written by Feick.

“I write to you with the knowledge that this project has been a labor of love for many individuals in the community, and I am deeply saddened by this unprecedented and very disappointing turn of events.”

Resolutions remain

Abola has started an online petition to push this mission further. The petition asks the University to withhold termination to see if the FAAP can try to resolve the issue by itself. Voting closed more than six months ago, with 228 signatures from people who believe the Nationality Room should be built. People from as far away as California joined in the signing of the petition.

Manalo commented on the online petition, calling it “a joke.” She said that putting up an online petition where you can tell all your family members to sign is not an accurate representation of the community, adding that she could double those numbers with people who are actually involved in the project.

Manalo said she would like for the University to accept the original, long-standing Philippine Nationality Room Committee in its entirety to complete the room. She wants those who started the project to complete the project.

“The [Nationality Room] committee that has put over 10 years of time and effort into this process should continue and finalize the last year to get this up and running. It shouldn’t be about grandeur, it should be about hard work,” Manalo said.

Abola has said his solution is sitting down with the opposing members of the FAAP and discussing the present issues. He’d then formulate a solution that doesn’t insist on who’s right or wrong.

“After a while, it has become personal,” Abola said. “We have a really serious problem here. It doesn’t reflect very well on our community.”

Feick said that leaders of the project could avoid full termination if the community can resolve its internal issues and come to a consensus.

“They still haven’t come up with the ability to speak with one voice,” Feick said. “I’m hoping the community can get together.”

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