How immigrants are redefining 'American' in Southern California

At USC, incubator program grooms Korean-American leaders of tomorrow (photos)

73844 full

For a first-time candidate for California's State Assembly, Sam Kang has an unusually far-reaching political machine backing him.

Meet-and-greets have been thrown for him in New York and Washington. This year has seen six Kang fundraisers throughout California, including one this week in Los Angeles.

All events were organized in part by Kang's colleagues at the Network of Korean-American Leaders. Known as NetKAL, the leadership incubator at USC has turned out more than 150 fellows since its inception in 2006 - top professionals from the worlds of finance, technology, law and more.

Alumni of this program receive intensive training sessions over half a year. But arguably the biggest perk of joining NetKAL is the built-in network of individuals working across different fields to strengthen the Korean-American voice in American life.

"They were absolutely pivotal," Kang, a civil rights attorney, said of his fellow alums. "Not just coming to the fundraisers, but actively organizing the entire network to make sure my campaign got off to the right start." 

NetKal alums also helped get former fellow Ron Kim elected to the New York state legislature last year, and supported another one - John Choi -  in his high-profile, though unsuccessful bid for a seat on the LA City Council.

The consensus is that the Korean-American community could use more of their own in public service. Kang points out that no Korean-American holds city-wide, elected office in Los Angeles. 

"And we have none even in Sacramento, in the state of California, where’s there’s the biggest (Korean) population outside of Korea itself," Kang said.

If elected, Kang could be just the third Korean-American ever elected to the California state legislature. (At least one other Korean-American, Young Kim, of Fullerton, also is running for state Assembly.)

Leadership vacuum

In 2005, officials at USC’s Center for Asian Pacific Leadership wanted to work with the Korean diaspora in southern California, numbering about 386,000 people, according to the U.S. Census - the largest outside the Korean peninsula.

They noticed a leadership void: Koreans didn’t start coming in large numbers to the U.S. until the 1970s, after immigration laws were liberalized in the mid-1960's. There hadn't been as much time to build up the leadership structure enjoyed by more-established ethnic groups, said Angela Killoren, formerly the associate director at the Center for Asian-Pacific Leadership.

"I think Chinese-American community, Japanese-American community have much longer histories of political empowerment, political leadership," Killoren said.

Setting up NetKAL at the Center for Asian-Pacific Leadership was a way of developing Korean-American leaders "faster," Killoren said.

Killoren and other administrators set their sights on the second-generation Korean-Americans and 1.5's - the Korean-Americans who arrived in the U.S. as children.

"What does the Korean-American community need?" Killoren said. "It needs leaders that can bridge the Korean-American community and outside that community."

NetKAL at a Glance

  • The program has selected more than 150 fellows of Korean-American heritage since its first class in 2006
  • The acceptance rate is about 30%. On average, the program receives about 60-80 applications each year from across the country and selects 24-28 fellows.
  • Fellows commit to six weekends of leadership training
  • USC pays about for about half of the program; the other half is covered by NetKAL members and advisors, foundations and corporations. 

    Source: NetKAL

NetKal’s growing influence parallels the rise in civic engagement by other immigrant groups. But there are unique features to this brand of Korean-American empowerment, says political scientist Karthick Ramakrishnan who runs the National Asian American Survey out of the University of California at Riverside.  

"We see in our survey that Korean-Americans tend to have relatively strong levels of ethnic identification,” Ramakrishnan said.

This sense of solidarity, Ramakrishnan said, is reinforced by the specially strong role that Korean churches and Korean enclaves play in community life.

Ramakrishnan has also studied a desire by children of immigrants to affect change in American society in a way their parents and grandparents - bound by language and cultural constraints - could not. 

"Their parents might have experienced discrimination but they didn't have as many skills to do something about it. But the generation that's born here -  they know enough about the political system and are motivated enough to do something," Ramakrishnan said.

Coming of age during the LA riots

At no time was the leadership void more apparent than during the 1992 LA riots.  Real estate lawyer and NetKal member Hanna Yoon was in eighth grade at the time, and remembers how rioters targeted Korean-run businesses.

"We knew so many church members, so many other relatives that were impacted. Their businesses were burnt down and to see that, I mean, it changes you – it really changes you," Yoon said. 

She asked herself: "What can I do right now as a professional with the resources that I have to make sure that a moment like that is never duplicated?"

She joined NetKal, and several civic groups, including the Wilshire Center Koreatown Neighborhood Council.

In fact, four NetKal members are on the council; Alex Cha is the new president.

Like Yoon, Cha is also a lawyer who spreads himself thin: he sits on the city Commission that deals with rent disputes, the Korean American Chamber of Commerce and the Korean American Democratic Committee.

From where he stands, Cha feels like Korean-American political might is starting to crest.

”You know, a lot of us are in our 30s and 40's, and our time should be in the next 10, 20 years hopefully,” Cha said.

Cha doesn't say if he'll seek higher office. But whether he does that or sticks to neighborhood council, Cha said his goal is to help the community.


blog comments powered by Disqus

Enjoy reading Multi-American? You might like KPCC’s other blogs.

What's popular now on KPCC