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October 8, 2008    DOL Home > Women's Bureau > Speeches > Remarks at the Smithsonian Institution Korean American Centennial Commemoration Event

Remarks at the Smithsonian Institution
Korean American Centennial Commemoration Event
Thursday, December 4, 2003

Thank you for inviting me to speak today. It is such an honor to be here at the Smithsonian, an institution that does such a wonderful job of recording the past, present and future. What a great place to learn and share.

My mother who died 20 years ago would be so proud to know that I am the first Korean American Director of the Women's Bureau. She would never have dreamed that her little girl born in the horse year could have attained so much. In fact, she waited two weeks before announcing my birth, and by doing this, she could then say I was born in the year of the goat - a more tame domestic animal that men would prefer. She wanted to make sure I would find a good husband!

So my life was not about finding a career or even a job when I was young. But I found that I wasn't much good at housework when I got married! I kept breaking plates! And I had too much energy to sit at home. So I decided to get a job, and I have never regretted working. I love work!

As a political appointee, I feel it is important for me to point out that President George W. Bush has recognized the talent and ability of this community by appointing more Asian Americans to top federal government jobs than any other President in history. That includes two members of his Cabinet, Secretary of Transportation Norman Mineta and my boss, Secretary of Labor Elaine L. Chao.

Over 130 Asian Americans have been invited to serve in the Bush Administration, including 20 PASs (Presidential Appointees with Senate confirmation) like myself. I've been asked today to share a little bit about my political involvement, and how I got to where I am today as the highest ranking Korean American in the Bush Administration. Along the way, it has been important for me to understand what the community needs, how to build a coalition to address those needs, and how to create a win-win solution.

I am happy to say that I was a founding member of the Asian-American Coalition in Illinois. In February next year, Illinois Asian-Americans will host the 21st Asian-American Coalition Banquet. They are expecting more than 1000 Asian Americans and many politicians at this event.

Today we may think that Asian American coalition building is easy to accomplish, but in the early 1980s, it was regarded as a significant milestone.

Because of the revision of the 1965 immigration law and the end of Vietnam War in 1975, an increasing number of Asians came to the United States. By 1980, over one half of immigrants entering the United States came from Asian countries. This made Asian Americans the most rapidly growing minority group.

This sudden influx of new Americans from Asia presented a unique set of challenges - cultural differences, a language barrier, adjustment problems and discrimination. There were acts of violence, such as a Korean church and Thai temple being burned down by neighbors who did not want to have Asians in their community.

To address the needs of these new immigrants, the Illinois Asian American Advisory Council was formed in May 1982, and I served as its first chair.

In October 1982, I organized the first ever Asian American political reception in Illinois - Asian Americans for Governor Jim Thompson. Three weeks later, Governor Thompson was re-elected by the smallest margin in Illinois history, only 5,000 votes. We, in the coalition, were among the many who claimed to be part of his victory.

Then, in February 1984 the First Illinois Asian American Coalition Banquet was held with 1,400 Asian Americans and two politicians in attendance (Governor Jim Thompson and Republican U. S. Senator Charles Percy.) At this event, Governor Thompson announced my appointment as the Special Assistant to the Governor for Asian American Affairs. It was the first position of its kind in the nation.

I was given this honor because of my work in pulling together the very diverse Asian American communities in Chicago at a time when the communities were not very visible. I learned to reach out and work with others to bring everyone to the table.

I worked closely with Asian American Advisory Council members who were very capable, dedicated and politically savvy. We set out to achieve our goals of promoting equal opportunities and extending the benefits of government, education and economic development, and assisting the state government to be more responsive to the needs of Asian Americans.

The Council was successful because we did not ask for handouts. Instead, we went to the Governor as a partner. We focused on economic development, Chinatown development and expansion, international trade and procurement missions, an educational needs assessment of Asian American students, and leadership training through summer jobs and internship programs. As a result, the Asian American community leaders became very impressed with Governor Thompson's record and the work of his Advisory Council. They understood that our political relationship had to be a two way street. When the Governor was up for re-election, Asian American community leaders were very generous and they were there to support him. I found myself right in the middle of Asian American social, economic, and political empowerment activities.

For example, every four years, Korean Americans in Chicago would host a fundraiser for Governors Thompson and Edgar, both Republicans, and for the Mayor, a Democrat. In 1992, two months after the LA riots devastated many Korean American businesses, Korean American merchants in south-side Chicago faced the possibility of a similar scale of mass destruction. They were anticipating an NBA championship for the Chicago Bulls and a celebration that might include looting in an area where more than 800 Korean American merchants have stores. This could have caused several million dollars in business losses.

Because of this support from the Korean American community over the years, the Mayor and Governor were quick to assist the Korean American Merchant Association when they needed help. As members of Governor Edgar's Cabinet, Terry Gainer, Director of Illinois State Police (now, Chief of the U. S. Capitol Police) and I worked with the Mayor's office to implement a strategy to avoid the riots. When the Bulls fans left the coliseum, they were met by hundreds of mounted police, who steered them away from violent behavior. This prevented large scale rioting and looting. More than a million dollars in overtime pay was spent to support the Korean American businesses and the city of Chicago. I don't have time to mention all the details, but I am proud of my part in negotiating this solution to a potentially devastating event.

Then, in 2000, The International Republican Institute invited me to be a part of their Building Democracy program in Azerbaijan and Georgia, where I trained politicians about fundraising, coalition building and leadership skill development. On the 4th of July 2000, while enjoying a hot dog in the only American restaurant in Baku, Azerbaijan and having a wonderful conversation about the wisdom of our founding fathers, it dawned on me that Asian Americans in the United States were not taking full advantage of the opportunities for participation in our wonderful democracy.

So I went back to Chicago and coordinated Asian Americans for Bush/Cheney. I was honored to be a delegate to the Republican National Convention in Philadelphia. For me, this was truly living out the American dream.

Thanks to President George W. Bush and Secretary Elaine L. Chao, I was confirmed by the Senate on May 11, 2001 and became the 15th Director of the Women's Bureau - the first Asian American to have this honor. It has been beyond my imagination and expectations, and I am truly inspired by what I do each day.

As a member of Secretary Chao's team, I am fortunate to watch and learn from a great model of American diversity. Elaine L. Chao rose from being 8 years old, knowing little English to being the Secretary of Labor responsible for billions of dollars, 180 labor laws and 17,000 employees. She is the first Asian American woman to hold a position in the President's cabinet, and she has a commitment to bringing more Asian Americans into the mainstream.

In fact, the Labor Department has the largest number of Asian American appointees of any department. She has also provided leadership training to her management team and is looking to the future through her support of a vigorous internship program. She brings in people like Tom Ridge, Andrew Card, Mike Deaver, and former Secretary of State and Labor George Schultz to give us inspirational words of wisdom and advice. These great Americans believe that serving this great nation is such a privilege and honor. And I couldn't agree more.

At the end of the day when I have a moment for myself I ask why just me? Why not ten or a hundred more Korean Americans in political positions? In searching for a way to develop Korean American interest in public service and public office, I ask that every Korean American Church with more than a one million dollar annual budget support one Korean American for a government internship every year. Let's call it the 2nd Centennial Leadership Initiative.

We Koreans are known for doing things on a very large scale and are always in a hurry to get there. Once we embrace this idea I know we can get there together. I pray and hope that by 2010 we can have many young people ready for leadership.

One hundred years from now, I hope that many Korean American Congressmen and women, Senators, and maybe even a Korean American President will be standing here to be part of the Smithsonian celebration of the second Centennial.

Thank you for this opportunity to speak to you today. May God bless all of you.

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