AAPIP Voices

Building Something We Can’t Measure



By: Jon Jee Schill, AAPIP-Minnesota Chapter Co-Chair

A few years ago, a friend and I applied for a grant from A Large Anonymous Foundation (ALAF) for the small nonprofit whose board we served on. Like many applications, the online portal gave us a drop-down menu of possible program categories. After some discussion, we reluctantly chose “Arts & Culture.” Our mission and programming was to build and foster community for Korean adoptees in Minnesota, which has the highest population of Korean adoptees in the world. The diverse needs of the community and the ambiguity of “community building” meant that coming together to teach ourselves how to cook Korean food and write a few words in Hangul could classify us as Arts & Culture, Human Services, or Racial Justice.

It was rewarding work but often felt small and unmeasurable—were we really addressing separation trauma that manifests in transracial-adoptees having elevated rates of suicide or inordinately high rates of divorce (as compared with non-adopted persons)?  When I think beyond myself, though, when I read predictions of the impact that forced separations of families along the US-Mexico border will have on the children, when I read about the intermittent military posturing on the Korean peninsula resulting from the (never officially ended) war that created the need for Korean adoption, I realize that our community building work wasn’t a reaction to what was missing in our lives, but a celebration of empathy and self-organizing that remains irrevocably ours.


When journalists started paying attention to refugee families separated on American soil, the period of outrage was intense but brief—quickly replaced by the next political outrage. Americans expressed shock and dismay that U.S. policies could separate families, leaving infants and children without adequate protections at the border. Less familiar to many was that “benevolent” policies of family separation have long been directed at communities of color and that children of color (especially black children) are not perceived by white people to need the same protections as white children. As a transracial adoptee, I wondered if this would be the moment when there would be a large-scale conversation about the “benevolence” of these policies and practices.

While families are built and defined in many different ways, a lesser-known fact about Korean-Adoption is that its roots are in the United States’ colonization of Asia, a domestic anti-communist agenda, and anti-blackness. This is not an indictment of adoptive parents, but context showing family separations at the southern border and the conditions that created them are nothing new; this has always been who we are as a country. Economic and military policies create global conditions where relinquishing guardianship of their child may be a parent’s only viable choice.


Reports of children stuck in detention because their parents have already been deported or children lost because of poor recordkeeping evoke images of early Korean-Adoptions when Asian immigrants were prohibited entry to the U.S. even as paperwork was falsified by Korean and American and European adoption agencies to send Korean children overseas. I think about how we have no national policy of compassion, no enforceable mandate to recognize that we all do better when we all do better. Still, I believe people are ultimately good because individuals self-organize beyond individual giving to fill in the gaps of compassion where policy fails. Our love of people, our philanthropy, funds those gaps.

And, still, we fall short. Foundations’ desire to measure outcomes creates a culture where our love of people is quantified in dollars. We have no mechanism to recognize and support non-monetary work and its true impact. We can come up with a tangible number of children being kept in cages but we have no apparatus to truly measure the effect on these kids as they grow up influenced by separation trauma, let alone craft a proactive plan to address it. Concurrently, we have no way to measure the small ways people incarcerated along our border are showing up for each other right now: a sympathetic ear, a reassuring hug, or a shared meal. I have no citation for this but I have faith; people care for each other more than any policy ever could. 


We didn’t get that grant from A Large Anonymous Foundation (ALAF). The feedback we got was that we did not have enough measurable outcomes. I suspected attendance to community meals where Korean-Adoptees spent time together learning to cook Korean food from cookbooks and YouTube videos, instead of from our Korean relatives didn’t seem like a revolutionary action. We still managed. 

At the end of the day, it’s not about grant criteria or the end result of transracial adoptions or philanthropy’s response to the current state of affairs—those things are serving a more than reasonable amount of people more than reasonably well. Where we have room to change something and where we can take action is in how we make space for each other in order to expand our own worldview. Philanthropy exists because American structures were not designed to include unconditional love of humanity. AAPIP and its ally organizations exist because philanthropy was not built to include people of color. The reactionary in me wants to end this by saying “burn the whole thing down” but I know—we know—burning it down pushes those in the margins completely out of the equation in horrific ways. The world is still on fire; that will not stop us from building.


Jon Jee Schill is Co-Chair of the AAPIP Minnesota Chapter. He is Contract and Grant Specialist with the Amherst H. Wilder Foundation