To commemorate AAPIP’s 25 years of building a more democratic philanthropic sector, we asked you to help us identify 25 leaders who are making a difference in your local community and/or nationally. The 25 Leaders in Action honorees represent a diverse group spanning a wide range of organizations, years of experiences, roles and sectors. We invite you to learn about these outstanding leaders, their inspiring work and what keeps them going in our blog post series.
Dae Joong “DJ” Yoon, Executive Director, National Korean American Service & Education Consortium (NAKASEC)
1. Why are you passionate about advocating for AAPI communities?
As a proud Asian American immigrant and someone who has benefited from AAPI peers & mentors, organization, and the community, I believe it is my responsibility to contribute as much as I can back to the AAPI community.
I was 18 years old when my family immigrated to the United States. As a teenager in a different, new land, I was particularly lost. I remember being frustrated by the laughter from classmates at my “broken English” and “funny” accent and told to “Go back to your country!” by customers at the drop-off laundromat where I helped my mother on weekends. My older brother was too old to immigrate and my father left us within a year of arrival. Unexpectedly, I was burdened with the additional responsibility of supporting my mother in our new homeland.
During this time, I was introduced to the Korean American Cultural Center in Chicago. I remember vividly the first time I entered the Center. Eight young people were playing traditional Korean drums in the basement. The sound was loud like thunder and I had never heard it before. My heart was shaking as if I was awakening from a deep sleep. From that moment, I participated in many of the cultural and educational workshops. On hot summer night in Chicago in 1990, I sat in on a workshop on the civil rights movement. We watched a documentary called “Eyes on the Prize.” As I watched the young African Americans refusing to leave the restaurant’s whites-only section in spite of being beaten by the police, my blood boiled and tears touched my soul. At that moment, I felt the power of an organized people and the excitement that comes from struggling to make a better society. Other workshops on the history of Asian Americans helped me feel that there was a place for me in this land. It was a tremendously emotional moment for me to realize that people who looked like me organized their community members in order to build a just society.
From that experience in Chicago to NAKASEC today, I have been taught to appreciate the deepness of ordinary people’s daily struggle, and the continued collective efforts by the community around us to make a better tomorrow. Whether it is high school students, undocumented immigrant college students or low income seniors, they come to community organization seeking help and in a matter of time, are leading workshops and telling their stories to the legislators. These community members remind me daily about my own early experiences of settling in America, motivate me, and teach me the value of collective community unity for a just and a better life. They affirm my identity and work with AAPI communities and continue to shape my vision for the future.
2. What do you believe are the most critical issues facing AAPI communities today?
I believe our country and community are at a critical moment when you think about the quality of life for low-income families, immigrants, and communities of color —- be it affordable housing, a living wage, or broken immigration system. Among those issues, I believe that immigration is a defining issue that is testing our values and what we stand up for as a nation. To me, immigration is about family – a family that is brave enough to give up everything and try to start all over in a new land for their loved ones. However, the current immigration system dehumanizes and separates these hard working immigrant families. It is very ironic to think about because America has a deep tradition and history of immigration. The data and facts clearly show that immigrants are strengthening the economy. With continued low birth rates and the baby boomer population retiring, immigrants are vital to protecting basic safety net programs and providing needed labor force.
Sadly, the political climate engenders inhumane rhetoric leading to misperceptions and fear amongst Americans.
The majority of Asian Americans are foreign-born and a high percentage of them are recent immigrants. That is why Asian Americans have much at stake with the current immigration debate. AAPI communities really need to share their own experiences with the immigration system — from stories of how their life has transformed and enriched since coming to America to the hardships and racism they have faced to what they have given back to the country. All of these stories make up the Asian American experience. We also have to be frank that historically immigration policy has and continues to be racist in its determination of who can enter and are considered “Americans.” I believe that the sharing of the Asian American immigration experience can bring diverse communities together.
Despite all the challenges, it is an exciting time we are living in. Americans, regardless of the country of origin, race or ethnicity, we are coming together as a united voice, uplifting the value of keeping families together and respecting the hard work of immigrants. Immigrants are making history and fighting for policy changes that are based on humanity, justice, and opportunity.
3. In what ways do you strive to address the unmet needs for AAPI communities?
From my perspective, the goal is to be more visible, vocal, and clear about a progressive AAPI agenda on many issues that affect our community. In other words, whatever the bread and butter organizing tactic such as door-to-door canvassing, in the churches, in schools, online, that the most critical baseline is having one-on-one conversations with people who are the most impacted. I have faith that if informed and given the chance to act, the majority of AAPIs will support policies that protect and advance the rights of immigrants, low-income families and communities of color.
As I write this, I m very proud to inform you that more than 14 Asian American, Latino and African American young people from Arizona, California, Pennsylvania, Texas and Virginia are touring eight southern states to call for communities to act and participate in support of immigrant rights and racial justice. These are young leaders who are choosing to resist being pitted against each other, and are working in coalition for a brighter future for our country. The young leader are calling themselves “Dream Riders,” and are hitting the road to engage in conversations with their peers and every day people from all walks of life. Through conversation, they seek to spark sustained community activism and civic engagement. This is how we hope to build a new generation of progressive leaders this summer. (Readers can check out pictures from the Dream Riders’ journey here)
4. What keeps you inspired?
At Korean Resource Center and NAKASEC, I feel very fortunate to work with many awesome organizers and to witness their development into community leaders is what keeps me inspired.
Lately, I’ve been working with twelve committed low-income immigrant seniors. These are senior members who fought for their right to receive SSI, food stamps and public health insurance programs. For more than two months now, senior organizers have been calling hundreds of Korean American seniors to inform them about the need for local city electoral reform, from at-large elections to district based elections. In this way, minority voters have a greater chance of being represented by candidates that come from their community. After many calls, the senior organizers have identified about 60 voters who have agreed to come to a community meeting in mid August. Each time a senior organizer secured a commitment, they rang a bell to express their excitement. For the next few weeks, these senior organizers will make final reminder calls to those who have pledged to come. They are also working to organize a membership meeting to motivate and attract new members.
These same seniors have also been organizing for affordable senior housing at the city and state levels for over 10 years. At any public hearing, they have been there to testify time and time again. One example of their success is the impending construction of two affordable senior housing apartments in Koreatown, Los Angeles. These two building are a joint project of the Korean Resource Center and Little Tokyo Service Center.
Our organization is a multi-issue and multi-service organization and it has taught me the importance of fostering community diversity and promoting multigenerational organizing; in this way we can draw from the rich experiences, expertise, and resources of our full community. Not only have we succeeded in purchasing our own building, our multigenerational organizing has enabled KRC to succeed in key grassroots mobilization campaigns that have significantly improved immigrant lives and bear the imprint of the Korean American community’s participation and contribution. Whether it is restoring SSI for seniors, food stamps for hungry children or securing the DREAM Act for young people, KRC has ensured that all generations understand and feel the issue as if it is their own.
Since 1991, Yoon has been working to educate, organize and civically engage Korean Americans and Asian Americans on issues related to immigration reform and civil rights. Prior to NAKASEC, Yoon was the executive director of the Korean Resource Center in Los Angeles for over 11 years, and a founding board member for the Korean American Resource & Cultural Center (KRCC) in Chicago, established in 1995. Yoon also served as a Community Advisory Board member for the County of Los Angeles Department of Public Social Services and an Advisory Board Member for the City of Los Angeles Mayor’s Office of Immigrant Affairs. Currently, Yoon serves as a member of the Board of Directors for Strategic Concept in Organizing & Policy Education (SCOPE) and as the president of the Korean Resource Center.