NetKAL IV Fellow Connie Chung Joe once set her sights on international human rights work, but discovered that the Korean community in Los Angeles needed her more. Now, she is the executive director of Korean American Family Services (KFAM), a nonprofit organization that helps thousands of area immigrants overcome issues ranging from domestic violence to acculturation stress. In a recent interview with Eliza Gallo, Ms. Joe shared how NetKAL helped her and other Fellows to launch a program which finds Korean foster families for children in Los Angeles.
EG: What are the goals of Korean American Family Services?
CCJ: KFAM is a community-based organization that has been serving Korean immigrant families since 1983. Our purpose is to be a resource center for Korean immigrant families who are facing acculturation stresses, anxiety, or whatever they’re struggling with in their adoptive country. There really weren’t very many resources available to Korean-Americans that were linguistically and culturally appropriate. Women and children who were facing issues such as domestic violence or child abuse often had nowhere to go and no one who could help them because of barriers with language and cultural stigma. So that is how the agency came about.
KFAM started out as being mainly about providing services for domestic violence and family violence, and from there it became a larger counseling center that provided mental health services and additional social services. Our center now serves about 7,000 individuals a year through our counseling, family violence and social support services. This includes direct services as well as prevention, outreach and education.
EG: Why did you choose to participate in the NetKAL Fellows program? What was the experience like?
CCJ: Because I run a Korean community organization, I thought it was important to meet the up-and-coming leaders in the Korean-American community, especially here in Los Angeles. A lot of people who have been associated with NetKAL have gone on to become very prominent members of the community. I was looking for some way to be involved with other predominantly second-generation Korean-American professionals. Even though I do run across other Koreans or Asian-Americans in the nonprofit field, I was longing to have a larger cohort of professionals who were at a similar point in their lives. Even though we are very different as far as the work we are doing, there is a camaraderie among NetKAL Fellows that comes from having similar backgrounds, growing up second-generation with immigrant parents and working really hard at school.
The NetKAL Fellows Leadership Program was far better than I could have imagined or expected — and I heard that from everyone in my class. I think a lot of people came in with similar reasons: they thought it would be an important networking opportunity or they wanted to learn about structured leadership. However, I do not think most expected the camaraderie and personal relationships to be quite as strong and important as they ended up being for our class. It was surprising how much self-examination was involved. I know people who made life changes, both professionally and personally, based on what they learned through the NetKAL Fellows Leadership Program. It seemed to have a very profound effect on many of us.
EG: What influence did NetKAL have on your work?
CCJ: One of the biggest things was that we launched our Korean Foster Family Initiative (KFFI). One of the components of the NetKAL Fellows Leadership Program is a competition, with a $5,000 prize for the winning proposed community service project. The class was divided into three teams, and, of course, everyone wanted to win. We’re talking about a lot of highly competitive alpha types! What happened in our class was that we realized that all three groups were competing for the same end goal: to raise awareness for and recruit Korean-Americans to become foster parents. This was such an important issue for all of us. The winning team, titled Hansori, decided that this was not just an issue for competition; they wanted to continue moving it forward.
It is very well-known that there is an absolute dearth of Korean foster families and zero active, licensed Korean foster families in Los Angeles County. It is something that has been on my radar for a long time, but how do you do anything about it without funding or resources? The determination and dedication of the volunteer group that came out of NetKAL helped me to find the resources, the time and the additional support needed to actually launch this idea. Our agency worked with Hansori’s volunteers to research the issue, as well as organize surveys and focus groups which helped us to pinpoint the challenges foster parents faced in the Korean community.
When I told the Department of Children and Family Services (DCFS) about the project, the director was very impressed by how this group of Korean-American volunteers who, in addition to their own busy lives, were finding the time to work together on this. In January 2014, KFFI was launched as a formal project. DCFS provided support that helped us to hire a full-time project manager to run the program. The response to the project from the Korean community has been amazing! To date, 39 people have been through the orientation, which is the first step to becoming a foster parent. We hope that by the end of this year we will have gone from zero to 10 or 20 foster parents, ready to help Korean or other Asian children who might otherwise lose their language or face the trauma of being separated from their culture. I am really proud of what this project has become and that the catalyst was the NetKAL Fellows Leadership Program.
EG: What is the value of building ties among Korean-American professionals? Do you find yourself networking with fellow NetKAL alumni?
CCJ: One of the really wonderful things about NetKAL is that there is a tremendous diversity in the careers and experiences of its participants. There are very few opportunities available that provide the level of combined education in finance, IT, the government sector and the arts. I never really get to work with people in those fields. Many of the NetKAL Fellows who work in the private sector had never had much opportunity to hear from people in nonprofit, working directly with vulnerable communities. So there was a lot that we could learn from one another and a lot to be shared. Additionally, due to the caliber of NetKAL Fellows, when they share something — whether it is a new project they are working on, a new Web site, a mobile app, or an article they wrote in the newspaper — I know it is going to be something valuable. NetKAL has been an amazing way to open my mind to new ideas, careers and fields.
I network with NetKAL Fellows all the time. I see members of my class both through NetKAL-hosted events and less formally. For example, if someone is working on something special, the other Fellows want to support that.
EG: What advice would you give to a young Korean-American who is just starting out?
CCJ: I have realized through being in the professional world for 10 or 15 years that it is not just about grades. In the Korean-American community, that is always a major emphasis. Korean parents instill this value that you need to do well in school and go to a good college. I do agree, wholeheartedly, that this is important, but it is not the be-all and end-all. There are other qualities that are incredibly important for success, including social intelligence, good interpersonal skills, and the ability to work with others. So I often urge people to get an internship or part-time job, because what you learn from your textbooks and lectures is only part of what will help you excel when you go out into the professional world.
Also, it is so important to be open-minded, to try new things and not be stuck doing just one thing. I changed my career path so many times. I started off thinking I was going to work in international human rights, then I was a lawyer for seven years, and now I’m working in the nonprofit sector. Some of the other NetKAL Fellows in my class had wanted to do other things, or had been toying around in other fields and just weren’t ready to pull the trigger. I was surprised to see how many of them ended up changing their careers, and they said that NetKAL helped them to do that. It helped them get past their fear that they had to do what was traditionally successful, and, instead, to look at what they were passionate about and what they loved and think, “I can take that risk.” They felt emotionally supported by their colleagues and, in some cases, the other Fellows actively helped them get into new areas and develop business relationships. The NetKAL Fellows Leadership Program had a tremendous value for a lot of us. It helped us open our eyes to new things or take risks that we didn’t think we could.