Nancy Yao, who was scheduled to start her role as the inaugural director of the forthcoming American Women’s History Museum in Washington, DC yesterday, June 5, did not begin her employment as planned. A Smithsonian Institution spokesperson confirmed that Yao’s start date had been delayed, citing an ongoing review of the allegations against Yao during her time as president of the Museum of Chinese in America (MOCA) in New York City. The spokesperson said that an official announcement would be distributed once the Smithsonian made a final decision.
Nancy Yao’s last day at MOCA was May 31. During her time at the Manhattan museum, Yao was accused of tolerating sexual harassment against female employees and wrongfully terminating employees in retaliation for drawing attention to this behavior. The Washington Post initially reported that Yao’s appointment to the Smithsonian Institution was under review, pointing to the three wrongful termination lawsuits that were settled in the last year and a half of her MOCA tenure.
In 2021, former MOCA employee Joyce Huang filed a lawsuit on behalf of two other female employees who claimed they were experiencing sexual harassment by a male supervisor and a male facilities manager on and off the clock. Huang alleged that she and her husband were wrongfully terminated from their positions at MOCA in 2019 in retaliation for speaking out against the harassment. The case was settled six months after it was filed, and Yao maintained that Huang and two other employees were terminated due to “severe budget pressures.” Grayson Chin and Justin Onne, two other former MOCA employees, also filed wrongful termination lawsuits against Yao and the museum that eventually settled as well.
The Smithsonian Institution is examining these allegations against Yao and MOCA with the help of the Mintz Group, a New York-based corporate investigations firm.
The accusations, however, are just a drop in the bucket of Yao’s controversial legacy at the museum. In 2019, it was revealed that Yao accepted a $35M “community give-back fund” from the Bill de Blasio administration on behalf of the museum in exchange for support of the expansion of a jail facility in Manhattan’s Chinatown neighborhood in the overarching plan to shut down the Rikers Island jail. Yao and the museum were also criticized for their connection to board co-chair and luxury real estate developer Jonathan Chu, who allegedly played a role in the closing of Jing Fong, the neighborhood’s beloved and historic dim sum restaurant, leaving 180 employees without work.
“Nancy Yao and the Chinatown elites she promotes, like the Chu family and those who benefit from exploiting and displacing Chinatown, are the new faces of Asian hate,” wrote the activist group Youth Against Displacement in an op-ed for Hyperallergic this April, after Yao’s new appointment was announced.
Yao’s acceptance of the fund and her connection to Chu were met with Chinatown’s residents protesting outside the museum for months. Since the onset of the weekly protests, Yao has accused the elderly protestors onsite of “being paid to picket,” and allegedly called the police on picketers for drumming on soy sauce buckets. Youth Against Displacement is continuing its picketing efforts against MOCA every Thursday through Sunday from 11am to 2pm.