We first met Kyung Yoon at the 13th Future Leaders Conference, hosted by Overseas Koreans Foundation, where she gave the keynote speech. During the conference, she presented inspiring stories about the Korean-American Community Foundation (KACF). When we returned from the conference, we had an excellent opportunity to interview Kyung as our first “Follow The Leaders” interview in New York. We’d like to share her inspirational life story as well as the community services that KACF provides.
Early experiences as a Korean-American:
Growing up in the suburbs of Washington D.C., I remember being the only Asian kid in the classroom. I felt very disempowered as a Korean, or even as an Asian-American. I remember other kids being very cruel sometimes. They made fun of two things that I could not defend - my Korean ethnicity and name. Calling myself “Karen Yoon” for most of my childhood, I wasn’t interested in my Korean identity until I entered college. When I did, I started introducing myself as Kyung Yoon. I’ve never gone back to using the name “Karen” since then.
Your thoughts on Korean-Americans today:
I remember hearing someone say, ‘The first generation is often a “manual” generation whose dream for their children is for them to be a “professional” generation. But beyond this, we need to think about the following generation being a “policy” generation.’
I’ve seen the first generation Korean-Americans making huge sacrifices for their children’s educational opportunities and successful integration into the American society. We are now at the point where we ask ourselves the question: “What can we as 1.5 and 2nd generation Korean Americans do for the next generation?” I look at my 14-year-old son, and without a doubt I want him to receive a good education and do well in this country. However, as a parent, my vision needs to extend beyond the individual success of the child to ask, “What kind of work can we do to create a better future for all Korean-Americans?” The “model minority” stereotype that Koreans are all diligent high-achievers is misleading in that it fails to capture the full picture of the Korean American experience. Many people are struggling, especially in these difficult economic times. 1.5 and 2nd generation Korean Americans can play a unique and necessary role in helping to raise awareness about critical issues in the community and connecting resources to support grassroots solutions that are improving the lives of individuals and families. It’s an important way for us to connect and give back to our community.
Your choice of study – What made you want to study Development Economics?
I was always very interested in issues of economic development and poverty. Being Korean and seeing, in my life time, the transformation of Korea from being a war-torn and poor nation to one that is now a donor nation to other countries, I thought there was much to be learned here. I really wanted to understand the causes and solutions to poverty better, so I studied Development Economics. My first job out of graduate school was at the World Bank, where I worked on economic analysis and development projects, many in East Asian countries.
Your career - What was so intriguing or compelling about a career in journalism?
I didn’t set out to become a broadcaster. My first job out of school was doing economic analysis, specializing in the field of poverty. I was eager and idealistic—in a hurry to solve world hunger before I turned 30!! Soon after I started working at World Bank, though, I realized that it wasn’t a good fit for me. Working for a large bureaucracy seemed very limited so I started exploring other fields that I was interested in.
Then I saw Connie Chung on television, the only Asian-American broadcasting role model at the time. She was my inspiration. Making a complete career shift in 1989, I started as an unpaid intern in the Fox 5 newsroom in New York. At that time, Fox was a very small, but growing local news channel, so my work evolved with various opportunities. I was at the right place at the right time. I think I would’ve never had that many opportunities had I worked in one of the more established networks. My first paid job was as a production assistant where I spent most of my time fetching coffee, ripping scripts and running videotapes to the control room. But while doing menial work, I stayed focused on my dream to become an on-air reporter. After hours, I worked very hard on perfecting my craft in order to become a better writer and learning on-air skills. I studied other reporters’ scripts and reached out to those who might be good mentors or role models for me. I asked them if I could shadow their jobs, which included accompanying them out in the field to observe the way they reported stories. Some of the reporters were very nice and helpful. Eventually, I was able to work my way up from being an unpaid intern to a production assistant, a news writer, field producer and ultimately an on-air reporter.
During this time, I also got very involved with the Asian-American Journalists Association, whose mission is to increase the representation of Asian-Americans in newsrooms. I believe this type of organization is very important because as individuals our ability to break the glass ceiling is limited. It makes a tremendous difference when we speak up with a collective, unified voice and in this way, we improve our odds of being heard and extending our influence.
What kind of advice can you give to young students who want to pursue their careers in Journalism?
The media industry is currently going through tremendous changes so it’s important to be flexible and innovative as the old business models for print and broadcast journalism are constantly shifting. But some basic tenets of what makes a good journalist remain unchanged: You have to have curiosity, tenacity-- that is not being satisfied with the first (or easy) answer--, and be a good storyteller and writer.
I was always involved in community work. Even as a busy working mom, I always felt that it was important to give back. For many years, I was the Chair of the New York Asian Women Center (NYAWC), a nonprofit organization that helps women and children affected by domestic violence in New York’s Asian community. I first became involved with NYAWC when they approached me to emcee their fundraising event. I was so impressed with their work that I became a volunteer and joined the board. Through this experience, I gained firsthand knowledge of the challenges that nonprofit direct service organizations encounter. For NYAWC, there was always a critical need for funding but never enough resources. For example, we always had waiting lists for people needing beds in our shelters. The NYAWC staff had the expertise and passion to carry out their mission but it was always frustrating to see the executive director having to spend so much time and effort fundraising. And this is a challenge facing all community based organizations. That’s why I was excited to help start a community foundation in 2002 to support nonprofit organizations and to help alleviate some of this burden. The Korean-American Community Foundation (KACF – www.kacfny.org) provides grants to nonprofit organizations that are making a difference in the lives of struggling individuals and families in our community. We have been raising funds to support this work by cultivating a movement of philanthropy and volunteerism in the Korean American community of New York. We really wanted to create a vehicle for Korean Americans to plug into so that if you had an hour to volunteer or a dollar to give back to the community, you can accomplish this through KACF and be assured of maximum impact.
We are not a direct service agency, but a funder in the community. We currently have 19 grantee partners that are working in five priority issue areas. One is health which includes physical and mental health. What we have learned is that the Korean American community has among the highest uninsured rate in this country because many Koreans are small business owners. As a result, people don’t get regular checkups and health issues are generally detected very late. So we wanted to help fund solutions to address issues of health inequity and to provide connections to resources for a healthier community. Regarding mental health, we recognize that there is a lot of stigma around even talking about depression or suicide, although there are very high rates of these and other mental health issues in our community. A second funding area is senior empowerment, recognizing that the elderly face particular issues of linguistic and social isolation in this country. A third priority is youth empowerment to promote healthy decision-making and learning, particularly for low-income young people. The fourth area is safety, funding organizations working with women and children affected by domestic violence and trafficking. The fifth area is economic security, and we are looking to support programs that help individuals and families find sustainable ways to work towards self-sufficiency and security.
KACF’s annual gala
KACF held our first gala in 2006 and when we embarked on this model of fund-raising, it was a scary and nerve-racking experience. I was one of two gala co-chairs and I remember we had to guarantee to the venue that at least 250 people would attend, and we had no idea if we could meet this commitment. Well, in the end, 750 people showed up at our gala and we raised over $500,000!. On this night, we experienced the incredible power and potential of the Korean American community. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon and New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg attended our gala the following year. Within a short span of time, the KACF gala had become the largest and the most influential annual gathering of supporters of the Korean American Community. Our latest gala in 2010 was attended by nearly 1000 people and we were honored to have Washington State Senator Paull Shin as our keynote speaker and Ms. Sung Joo Kim, the CEO of MCM Group Worldwide as our corporate honoree. Last year, our keynote speaker was Dr. Jim Yong Kim who is the new president of Dartmouth College. We have had some of the most inspirational leaders of the Korean American community come out and speak to show their support for KACF.
You talked about the Steering Committee and the younger generation of your organization. What are you doing to encourage and discover young leaders of your organization right now?
KACF has become an avenue for 1.5 and 2nd generation Korean Americans to connect with the Korean community. Many of them don’t speak a word of Korean and yet they are so proud of being Korean and want to give back to the community. It is not unusual to see 30 volunteers showing up after a long day of work if we call out for help, even at the last minute. They are so generous and willing to give back. I think the kind of model that we created is one that attracts and cultivates new leadership for the younger generations in the Korean American community. The young people who come to KACF don’t just stuff envelopes. They have the option to join the Community Grants Committee, learn about the issues of the community, go on site visits to grant applicants, and help make funding recommendations to our board. If they have particular skills that are needed by our grantee partners, they can also join our Capacity Building Corps and be matched to volunteer directly with them. In turn, they become more educated about the community and can be more knowledgeable philanthropists in the future. We have a structure for cultivating new leadership in the organization. By joining our Steering Committee, members can get involved with writing for our newsletter, volunteering at events and leading their own fundraising initiatives for KACF. The Steering Committee has a Summer Benefit fundraiser every year, and it has become a very popular annual event for Korean American young professionals in New York City. Throughout the year, they will host Circle of Friends events to raise awareness about KACF and our work to address issues in the community. We feel that building a pipeline for new leadership is very important.
At various times in my career, I’ve made hard decisions, especially when I decided at one point to stop working full time. As a mother, I felt the need to be around more often for my children. Recently, somebody asked me, “Why did you go back to working full time for KACF.” After some thought, I realized that I did it also for my children. As a mother and someone who really cares about the next generation, I feel that I need to do more than focus on the micro investments for my child such as violin lessons and SAT prep. We need to work together on the macro framework to change the “opportunity landscape” for the next generation. I hope that when our children walk into an office the way I did on my first day in the Channel 5 newsroom, we would have moved beyond being satisfied with having just one Asian-American person in that newsroom. Essentially, I don’t want to prepare my child to compete with your child for that one spot, but to work together to ensure more opportunities for all of our children. The Steering Committee members are in their 20's - 30's. My children are now 14 and 17. I hope that in 10 years time, many of the SC members will be KACF directors and young people like my children will be on the Steering Committee. Through this process, we can create a sustainable approach for the Korean American community to keep building through numbers, voice and influence. Without this process, we’ll be stagnant. We need a place for successive generations to come back to and connect in a meaningful way to build up a stronger community.
How do you promote unity among Korean Americans without promoting segregation from other cultures at the same time?
You raise a good point. Are we marginalizing ourselves by banding together? I don’t think so. In my opinion, we want to engage with America, but we also want to be part of defining who is included in America. My original perception of America was that it belonged to other people and didn’t include me. I felt like I was a foreigner. I don’t remember a single thing that I was proud of for being Korean. Korea was then a poor country and behind in every aspect compared to other countries. Now is a different time. It’s very cool to be Koreans now. We have Samsung phones and non-Koreans listening to Korean pop. Korea is an empowering place to be. Last year, I took my kids to the KACF gala. I was thinking about seeing the world through their eyes. Had I the opportunity to go to a gathering with 1000 other philanthropic, community-minded Korean Americans and to listen to the new president of Dartmouth University who happens to be Korean American, how different I would have felt about being a Korean American and how I might have stood up to those bullies who made fun of me. Going back to the start of my news career and choosing my moniker for television, I made a conscious decision to use my Korean name Kyung Yoon. Many people advised me that I should have a more “television friendly” name. They would say, “Oh you used to be called Karen Yoon, you should use that, it would be easier for viewers.” But I kept thinking about how kids used to make fun of my name. How great would I have felt, had I turned on the TV and seen someone whose name was like mine on television. More importantly, what kind of impact would it have had on those bullying kids to see someone on TV who had a name like mine? Why is Karen considered an American name? It’s because Europeans came over first. Along the same lines, Kyung is just as much an “American” name as well. It’s all in how we see ourselves that will determine how others see us.
To answer your question, there is an appropriate role for us as Korean Americans to organize ourselves, but not as separatists. Our gala is a wonderful way to come together to celebrate being Korean Americans. The next day, however, we’re all going to go out to our jobs and schools and will be integrating with the rest of the American society. Yet, we will be more empowered and we will be different in the way that we can engage with the American society, not in a superior way, but in a healthy and self-identifiable way. I want to work towards a day when the American community looks at the Korean American community and says, “Yes, that’s a community that made America a better place.” That is what we’re aiming to do. It’s really not about separating ourselves, but about empowering ourselves and going forth to make a difference in America.
Lastly, what does leadership mean to you?
There’s a lot of talk about role models when you’re a leader and people look up to and follow you. So what is it that we want people to follow? It’s not about individual success. Leadership has to be about cultivating a sense of community success. I’ve talked about this before, but in Korean culture, there seems to be a definition of success that is very individual oriented, the idea of being first in everything. I’ve heard it growing up and I’m sure you’ve heard it too that you have to do better than everyone else. This competition concept is about putting as much distance between you and the competitor pack while you are ahead - the greater the distance, the more successful you are. To me, leadership and success is not about that at all. It really is about, as you are achieving things, how much of the pack you can bring up with you. How much can you reduce the distance. This is the kind of leader that I respect and admire. More pragmatically, to be a good leader, you have to be very consistent. I’ve run across many people who get very passionate and flared up and only respond to certain emails or phone calls that are only in their best interest. The best leaders that I’ve seen are the people who are consistent and are responsive no matter how busy and important they may be and I try to take up this philosophy myself.
About Kyung B. Yoon
Kyung B. Yoon is a recognized community leader among Asian Americans in New York City, advocating for the health and safety of women, children and families for nearly two decades.
She is Executive Director and Co-Founder of the Korean American Community Foundation (KACF), a non-profit organization that provides grants and capacity-building assistance to organizations working to address the most pressing needs in the Korean American community and beyond. Through her leadership in promoting philanthropy in the Korean American community, Ms. Yoon has helped to spearhead a powerful new grassroots movement of Korean Americans as emerging philanthropic leaders who are embracing a strategic and collective culture of giving to their community.
Ms. Yoon is former Board Chair and current Advisory Board Chair of the New York Asian Women’s Center, an organization that provides comprehensive services to help women and children overcome domestic violence and other forms of abuse including human trafficking. Since the early 1990s, she has been a tireless advocate for women’s and children's rights to govern their lives free from abuse. For her contributions, she was the recipient of the 2009 Caring for Children Award from the Coalition for Asian American Children and Families. In 2006, Ms. Yoon received the Distinguished Service Award from the City of New York for her community leadership, and the Phoenix Award from the New York Asian Women’s Center. Most recently, in January 2010, Ms. Yoon was honored by the Korean American Association of Greater New York at its 50th Anniversary commemoration for her contributions in “creating bridges between the first and second generations of the Korean American immigrant community”.
Formerly an award-winning correspondent for WNYW Fox Channel 5 News, Ms. Yoon was the first Korean American broadcast reporter in New York. She went on to create and host the World Bank-sponsored Global Links Television, an international documentary series focused on global poverty and economic development, that has been broadcast in 65 countries around the world. Ms. Yoon has also served as Vice President of the New York chapter of the Asian American Journalists Association.
Kyung B. Yoon was born in Seoul Korea and came to the United States at the age of six. She holds a BA degree from Wellesley College and an MA degree from the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies. Ms. Yoon is married to attorney, George Wang, and they are the proud parents of two sons.
Kyung Yoon’s interview with Korean Beacon (approved by Korean Beacon)
Interview Date : Oct. 3, 2010
Interviewers: Yongsub Eric Shin, JungSup Lee
Photographer: Sung Yang
Editors: Phil Kim, Minha Ha, Alice Kim
The views expressed in the interviews are not necessarily reflective of KCLDC's opinion. Some pictures were provided by KACF and Kyung Yoon
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