Sarah is a passionate leader, educator and activist driven by her own personal Why. Recounting past traumas and difficulties growing up, it is evident she developed into a strong and resilient woman.
A: Tell me a little about yourself.
S: I was born in Worcester, Massachusetts to two resilient immigrant parents from Pusan, South Korea. When others ask me to share my story, I start with naming that I come from a lineage of Korean freedom fighters born from the womb of Han. There is no literal translation to the meaning of Han but it’s a concept of emotion that has many interpretations including beauty of sorrow or both sadness and hope that emerges through a sense of shared suffering of the Korean people. It was a term that didn’t exist until Japanese occupation. It’s not something you can define, but
something you feel. So when my parents immigrated to the United States, they carried that Han with them shaped by the intergenerational trauma that was passed down from the destabilization of Korea when it was colonized by Imperial Japan, followed by the hardships experienced during US occupation and the Korean War.
I was born in the US but I have a unique history as a satellite child. Satellite children refer to a phenomenon where young children are shuttled across one country to another between different sets of caregivers. When I was 6 years old and my sister was 5, my parents didn’t have the cultural and social networks to support them in acclimating to the US. They came to the US with very little; they were not college educated; and they didn’t have fluency of English to be able to navigate their new lives in this country - it was very challenging for them. As a result of financial
struggles, lack of affordable childcare, and their desire that we were immersed in our cultural roots, my parents sent us to live with family in Korea. As young children, my sister and I experienced abandonment by our parents because we didn’t know we were going to be separated nor did we know when we’d be reunited. My unique experience as a satellite child as well as experiencing the long-term impact of that family separation has shaped my sensitivity and empathy towards
children who experience the trauma of being separated from their parents during the critical part of their developmental years.
In 1989, my sister and I lived in Pusan, South Korea with our aunt, uncle, grandmother, and cousins who were essentially strangers to us. I lived there from the ages of 6-8 years old and went to school there. I didn’t know a word of Korean. It wasn’t until I was surrounded by peers that looked like me, that I discovered my feelings of difference because I couldn’t speak the language and didn’t know much about the culture. I was forced into learning the language and culture out of survival. Two years later my parents came back for my sister and me. At that point we forgot who they were and they brought us back to the US and we went back to the school that we were originally enrolled in. We became English language learners as a result of forgetting how to speak English. My personal experiences as a child informs my ‘Why’, in terms of the work I do now as an advocate for historically marginalized children navigating school systems that were not designed to serve them. It’s why I became an educator and became an avid advocate for Asian American students. It’s the entry point of how I got into education trying to translate my personal ‘why’ into a public issue to advocate for children who oftentimes get rendered invisible. It’s important that we elevate the experiences and voices of those who are most proximate to the issues of educational inequity to address the opportunity gaps that we see in our educational system.
I attended school in Korea during a time when they practiced corporal punishment. As a result, learning the new language and assimilating was a form of survival for us. The school didn’t have remedial classes to support kids like my sister and me whose first language wasn’t Korean. I have a vivid memory of being asked to come to the front of the class and being hit because I didn’t complete the homework. The teacher didn’t make the connection that it would be difficult for me to do the homework because I couldn’t read or write Korean or understand what she was saying to me.
I went to a low income, diverse school in the US, with an emerging Southeast Asian population. There was an emerging Vietnamese student population and my sister and I were the only two Koreans at our school. I recall the teachers and principal assuming we were Vietnamese and sending my sister and me home with a parent handbook in Vietnamese. The ELL program was specifically catered to Spanish speaking students. I was blessed to have a 3rd grade teacher named Ms. Geradi who actively sought out a Korean American college student to tutor my sister and me to supplement the ELL program at school. Ms. Geradi put me in a dramatically different
path by doing that. . She also recognized I needed socio-emotional support. When I returned to the US, I was being bullied at school because I dressed differently and I couldn’t speak English. Instead of sending me to recess, she had me stay in the homeroom and had me draw and I communicated through my art. She submitted my art to the local art museum, to the local Worcester Gazette magazine, got published and won a scholarship to the Worcester art museum that gave me a sense of confidence that translated to other facets of my experience in school. It helped build a greater confidence to learn. I felt seen by that teacher. She followed me all the way through high school, and sent me art sets. As a result of understanding the profound impact that a culturally competent educator has is what informs the work I do now.
I work for education nonprofit called Teach For America for 7 ½ years now. It’s a nonprofit organization that works to identify a diverse network of incredible educators who make an initial commitment in the classroom and help to foster systems change leaders. I currently serve as the Vice President of the National Community Alliances team and am responsible for driving our organizations external engagement strategy with national civil rights and identity based organizations, leading and working alongside a team of diversity, equity and inclusion senior leaders. My portfolio includes AAPI-American Asian and Pacific Islander alliances, BIPOC-Black Indigenous People Of Color alliances, DACA initiative, Latinx alliances, LGBTQ initiative and our Native alliances. I lead a team of BIPOC leaders doing work to build relationships and partnerships with civil rights organizations among the BIPOC, AAPI, LGBTQ, DACA, Latinx and Native alliances to ensure that our network of 60,000 plus educators are able to learn from the inside resources and opportunities of those organizations to help shape a child-centric educational equity ecosystem. When we think about the US education system, it was never designed with students among the groups I named. We are team that works to help transform that through intersectional partnerships, advocacy, resources and opportunities.
I used to lead the AAPI alliances. I was the first person in the role to help launch the AAPI alliances at Teach for America driven by my personal ‘Why’. When we think about education, what I‘ve learned is the dialogue around educational equity often renders invisible the experiences of the most marginalized among the AAPI communities. Making the connections to my own experiences where having attended a school where the resources didn’t support me or support my parents of
limited English proficiency, our education industry are predominantly white. Students are not seeing mirrors of themselves in school leadership, what are the implications of that? When I engage in conversation with policy leaders, one story that comes up vividly, just a few years ago, a policy advocate spoke with a principal in the Midwest, who said the English language learner programs cater to Spanish speaking students. 40% of students are Spanish speaking and 40% of the students are of South East Asian population. The policy leader was able to make the connection from the aggregated data and questioned what happens to those students who are left out? Part of the work we do is elevating insights around those issues and connecting a bridge to resources to ensure that no student gets left behind.
A: How did you create the role as a leader of the AAPI Initiative?
S: I applaud my colleagues and staff members who advocated for the role to be created. It was from their organizing that the role was created. Before I joined Teach for America, I worked with the Asian Pacific American Scholarship Fund, which is now called APIA Scholars. The org was focused on serving low income AAPI across this country and the Pacific Islands. AAPI was born in 1999 when the Bill and Melinda Gates foundation came up with a $1 billion dollar grant to support the marginally underserved students. It was created only with Black, Hispanics and
Native communities in mind and left out the Asian American and South Pacific communities. They created this program in response to the college board who produced a report showing data aggregation that certain ethnic group, particularly the Asian group, poverty rates were the most dire. Part of the advocacy was to draw attention to the data. This relates to the model minority myth and it emerged as a political tool to pit other minority groups against one another.
A: What are some of the stereotypes of being Asian did you experience?
S: That I was universally successful without support, and that I came from a well to do family. As a result of that I felt invisible. The school assumed I wouldn’t need a more responsive option to my English learner classes was how they were upholding the model minority myth.
When I returned to the US, my parents were still financially struggling. I grew up in a low-income home, sharing a bed with my sister for most of my life and there was no heat in our home. There were assumptions made about my family class background, or I didn’t need attention for support, it made my experiences as a student very hard. I had to juggle three jobs to get myself through college. When I got to college, it’s when I realized I was different from my other classmates. It was difficult to fathom the idea of a spring break vacation. I feel compelled to elevate and work alongside working class families. My parents internalized shame for not providing us with the resources they would have wished they could have provided. I don’t fit the model minority myth. In my college years I learned about the model minority myth and later realized the dangers of the myth.
A: Did you always want to work in the realm of advocacy and education?
S: My childhood dream was to become an architect and interior designer. All through high school, I entered art competitions, I loved working with pastels and oil paint, but I stopped. After college I haven’t been doing much with art. If anything I dabbled in photography and would like to return to it.
I witnessed the death of my best friend, my first Korean American friend, in a tragic car accident, a negligent homicide that led to a four-year litigation proceeding. She didn’t have her seat belt on and I found her body on the other side of the highway. In college I thought I wanted to be a lawyer because of going to and prepping for the grand jury trial and I was very angry at the justice system. But I later realized I should go into education.
During the summer in our senior year, the night I was giving the eulogy at my friend’s funeral, I was raped by someone at church. I was never able to talk about the rape and the death of my friend. It was a very complex and difficult time, having to attend school and take the SATS a few weeks after the accident and the rape. It compelled me to make meaning of my experiences. I became an activist on campus on the issue of comfort women. During my freshmen year in college I first learned about comfort women who were referred to the 200,000 plus women in Asia that were kidnapped and forced into comfort stations or sex slavery of the Imperial Japanese army- because I was a rape survivor and had limited access and outlet to talk about it, I channeled my rage and trauma related to being a survivor into advocacy, around reparations for comfort women. In some ways, learning about the history of comfort women ended up being healing for me by channeling things that were very difficult in a productive way. I’ve realized the importance of sharing your
story is healing and silence when one must speak is the slow death of freedom. I found the importance of seeking mental health. It can be healing for somebody else, especially a young person, who can connect to my experiences of suffering and silence.
A: What does people of color term mean to you?
S: I identify as a person of color but I’ve been in this journey of moving towards referring to us as the People of the Global Majority, because POC still centers whiteness but People of the Global Majority, black and indigenous POC, represent over 80% of the world’s population and it makes nonwhite people’s identities independent of whiteness and it decenters whiteness and renders it irrelevant which transforms the way we think about our identities as nonwhite people and affirms nonwhite people‘s inherent power as the majority of the world’s population. When I learned about Asian American history and the contribution to cross-racial solidarity movements, to acknowledge the power in claiming myself as a POC because of shared solidarity to experiences where white supremacy has made the identities and experiences of those that are nonwhite to be rendered as sub human.
A: What do you want people to know about Asians or to be known for?
S: I want people to first acknowledge that we are not a monolithic group. We are a diverse community rich with many assets and stories. We represent a pan ethnic political identity. We are one that is powerful. We have been involved in civil rights movements and acts of resistance, have been involved in self-determined commitment to engage in coalitional work with other communities of color.
A: Do you consider yourself an atypical Asian?
S: I don’t see a typical way of being Asian. As I shared we are not a monolithic community. I think my response would change based on the context. If it’s in the context of my family and who I went to school with in college, I would be considered atypical. But because I’m in a field where I get to meet other Asian Americans who share the same values and common vision, in some ways I don’t feel atypical anymore.
A: What message do you want to impart to others?
S: Own your story and share your story because that puts you on the path to freedom. It’s very connected to my goals and dreams. My dreams also encompass the dreams that I have for my child or all the children in this world and for the future generations of children that have yet to be born, to live in a world that is free from white supremacy, patriarchy, other systems of oppression that tell you that you are less than, that you don’t belong. I wish for children to live in a world where they feel that they have a stake in the ground, where they can be free to be fully who they are, to be seen in their full color and humanity.