North Texas’ Korean American population — the largest in the state — isn’t meeting its potential for public service and advocacy work, they say.
Since moving to Dallas-Fort Worth more than 40 years ago, Charles Park has tried to increase votership and civic engagement among Korean Americans in the area.
Park, 84, came to the United States through San Diego in 1970, when fewer than 70,000 people of Korean descent were in the country, according to U.S. Census estimates.He remembers feeling like he was starting life for a second time when he became a citizen in Oklahoma in 1976, two years before he moved to Texas.
Charles Park, who has lived in North Texas for four decades, has poured himself into voter-engagement efforts. “We have to demonstrate and exercise our power as citizens,” he said of Dallas-Fort Worth’s Korean American population.(Rebecca Slezak / Staff Photographer)
Dallas-Fort Worth has Texas’ largest Korean American population, many of whom live in suburbs north of Dallas, including Coppell, Carrollton and Richardson. The Pew Research Center estimated in 2019 that about 41,000 lived in the D-FW area.
While the community has grown, Park and other community leaders and advocates said they would like to see more Korean Americans take part in public service and political activism.
Most important, Park said, more Korean Americans need to vote in U.S. elections.
“We have to demonstrate and exercise our power as citizens,” said Park, who lives in Garland.
Park sought out training and volunteered in local elections. He tried to connect with members of the local NAACP chapter to learn more about other communities of color. He also ran for a Garland City Council seat, though he wasn’t elected.
Park in 2004 helped launch the Dallas chapter of the Korean American Coalition, which was created in California in 1983 to promote votership and civic engagement. The organization holds annual citizenship drives and voting seminars.
He said it’s important to take lessons from Black and Latino communities, which vote in larger numbers in elections than the Korean Americans in Dallas-Fort Worth.
“The democratic system is about everyone working together and voicing our needs together, and we have to participate in that process,” Park said.
Keeping one’s head down, not complaining and working hard — these are the characteristics that together shape the “model minority myth,” a generalization that Asian Americans are high achievers because of an inherent respect for authority and appreciation of education.
The myth, since it was conceptualized in 1966 to describe Japanese Americans in a New York Times magazine article by sociologist William Petersen, has been falsely applied to other Asian communities over the years, including people who are of Korean descent.
Some scholars argue that the essay was an attempt to play down the generational harm that systematic racism can have and the success of civil disobedience campaigns of the Black civil rights movement. Others say the myth pits Asian Americans and other communities of color against each other.
It can also cause people who are of Asian descent to dismiss the potential impact they could have in politics, volunteerism and public service, according to Stephanie Drenka, a Dallas-based activist who is of Korean descent.
“Historically, it has been used as a device to separate, divide and pit people against each other to the benefit of white supremacy and whiteness,” Drenka said.
Drenka, 35, said her work in social justice is motivated by her wish to bust the model minority myth. She is the communication director for Truth, Racial Healing & Transformation, a social justice nonprofit, and is also the founding editor of Visible Magazine, a publication dedicated to telling stories from the perspective of historically underrepresented communities.
Drenka said the core of her work, her day job and the motivation behind her advocacy is racial equity.
As a transracial adoptee from Korea, Drenka said she understands better than most the importance of being able to have agency over one’s story and identity.
The model minority myth, in addition to driving a wedge between communities of color, steals that agency from Asian Americans by imposing false expectations on them, Drenka said.
“All of these things are working together, and one of the most powerful ways we have to fight against that is sharing our story, and modeling what it looks like to live outside of the stereotype and demystify what it means to be Asian American,” Drenka said.
Sinmin Pak, 52, said she was inspired to become more active in her community after 2016, when she learned about the low number of Korean Americans who were voting in U.S. elections.
“When we don’t vote, politicians don’t pay attention and we become voiceless,” Pak said.
Pak’s family moved to the U.S. when she was 10 years old. After leaving Texas for college, Pak worked as an interpreter during the 1988 Olympics in Seoul and later lived in South Korea after getting married.
Now back in the U.S., Pak said she wants to bridge the gap between first-generation Korean immigrants and people like her, who have become accustomed to both cultures.
Pak said more needs to be done to connect different generations of Korean immigrants so they can work together to increase civil participation and community involvement.
“The first generation of Koreans and the younger generation of Koreans aren’t really working together,” Pak said. “There is a disconnect.”
John Jun in 2020 became the first person of Korean descent to be elected to the Coppell City Council.
Jun said his story, along with many others in the Asian American community, is not one that plays to the tune of the model minority myth.
“It’s not uncommon to find second-generation Koreans who were born here and raised here who are not the ‘model minority’ that a lot of people might think they are,” he said. “Some people might think, ‘Oh they’re Asian. They’re smart and have their career set.’ But that is not true in more cases than people know.”
Jun, who joined the U.S. Navy after graduating from high school, said he credits his military service and his faith as a driving factor behind his achievements later in life, including his law education and his run for office.
As a parent, Jun said he wants to see younger Korean Americans in Dallas-Fort Worth embrace political activism and public service, in addition to career success.
“A lot of parents want their kids to be lawyers, doctors, scientists, and there’s nothing wrong with that,” Jun said. “But they never say, ‘Hey go out and volunteer and go think about changing our community and our local government.’”
A ‘responsibility’ to raise the bar
Chase Park is president of the Dallas-based Korean American Professional Network. The group hosts events throughout the year for students and young professionals to help with career advancement. He also is director of finance for Highland Park ISD.
As the leader of the organization, Park said he wants to teach members how to break barriers that Asian Americans face in corporate America.
“It’s our mission to kind of take that to the next level and start taking the hard work that they’ve made to provide us a stable living here,” he said. “It’s our responsibility to really raise the bar so that the Asian American voices can be heard and accepted more in society.”
Park, who grew up in Coppell, served in the U.S. Army as a commissioned officer for four years, during which time he learned the value of effectively communicating ideas and leading in high-stakes settings — values he teaches members of his organization.
He said that time in the military taught him that he doesn’t have to be defined solely by his profession. He hopes younger Korean Americans, regardless of occupation, search for ways to lead their communities.
“We have to become better and raise the bar for ourselves,” Park said. “We have to put ourselves out there to really start banging on that door.”