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Senior Program Officer Yungsuhn Park reflects on Asian American and Pacific Islander Heritage Month

The Irvine Foundation is fortunate to have talented staff with diverse backgrounds and life experiences, and we want to introduce some of our colleagues to you. We spoke with Senior Program Officer Yungsuhn Park for her reflections on Asian American and Pacific Islander Heritage Month, the 30th anniversary of the LA uprising, and philanthropy’s role in advancing racial equity. Responses have been edited for length and clarity.

Tell us about yourself. 

I was born just five months after my parents and older brothers immigrated to Los Angeles from South Korea. As new immigrants, my parents took on any work they could, from janitorial jobs to street vending, until they saved enough to buy a small business. Like many children of immigrants, I grew up interpreting for my parents and helping them to navigate life in the U.S. While I experienced privilege from being born and educated here, I witnessed the many challenges of immigrant life. I grew up seeing that work for my family was not just a job or source of income, but it seemed to consume every part of their lives and their health. I wondered, how could we change the nature of work and make it the empowering experience that it should be — especially for the most vulnerable? My family’s experience seeded my deep commitment to activism and advocacy, leading me to become a civil rights attorney, state government leader, and now my role here at Irvine.

Why philanthropy? How did you get into this work?

I spent the last eight years working in state government in the Labor Commissioner’s Office and most recently at the Labor and Workforce Development Agency. During the pandemic, I worked with the Governor’s Office on the COVID-19 Workplace Outreach Project, which funded more than 50 community-based organizations (including many Irvine grantees) to conduct worker and employer outreach about COVID-19. Although this project was part of the state’s emergency response, we incorporated capacity-building and coalitional infrastructure that we hoped would outlast the temporary emergency funds.

I joined Irvine because I knew I’d have the opportunity to strategically build on this experience and sustain broader impact. Fair Work leaders are doing tremendous work in enforcing labor protections, organizing workers, and improving working conditions. As we emerge from the pandemic, we have the opportunity to change low-wage work so that all workers can thrive. And I’m humbled by the opportunity to learn from and support workers and leaders who are making that happen.

What does Asian American and Pacific Islander Heritage month mean to you? 

As a second-generation, Asian American woman of color, I see this month as an opportunity to celebrate the Asian American and Pacific Islander community, but it’s also a time for deep reflection. This year, I’m experiencing fear and concern for the safety of Asian American women and elders due to the pronounced and extreme violence against our community members happening around the country. I’m yearning for safer spaces where I can rest and heal. At the same time, this is a time to challenge and confront racism, including anti-Black racism, that persists in the Asian American community. I’m learning to navigate the fear and vulnerability while continuing to raise my voice as a leader and take action against all forms of racism.

This year, Asian American and Pacific Islander Heritage Month comes on the heels of the 30th anniversary of the LA uprising or riots, also called Sa-I-Gu (“4-29″) in the Korean American community. Like many young Korean Americans, watching the city burn while the media blamed “Black-Korean conflict” changed the course of my life. This event led me, as a young student, to study the history of systemic racism and the broader social and economic root causes of Sa-I-Gu, which are many of the same challenges that we face today.

Together, I hope that Asian American and Pacific Islander Heritage Month and marking the 30th anniversary of Sa-I-Gu will allow our communities to heal, learn, and act.

How do you see philanthropy (and/or Irvine) and its role in advancing racial equity?

Philanthropy has a powerful role to play, and advancing racial equity should inform every aspect of what we do and how we do it. Racial equity principles should guide our internal organizational practices, anchor our staff culture—and show up in how we engage the broader community, work with grantees, and create opportunities for organizations that have not had equitable access to funding.  I feel fortunate to be in philanthropy and at Irvine in this moment where our commitment to racial equity has become more intentional and we are openly wrestling with how we can embody and practice racial equity.