Asian Pacific Islander Social Work Council (APISWC) Report: Standing Up

By Jenny Kwak

I stand up for the disenfranchised. I stand up for those who cannot speak English, and for immigrants. I stand up for those who are marginalized.

I stand because I refuse to sit on the sidelines. I am awake because I can’t go back to sleep. My sisters and brothers are being treated like criminals, but their only crime is wanting the American dream.

My family immigrated when I was two years old. We were lucky to leave South Korea legally in 1972. If we hadn’t, my father may have been jailed. He was a pro-democracy professor at Korea University during the time of dictator Park Chung-Hee’s regime. We were lucky my mother was a pharmacist and the U.S. was accepting applications from professionals like pharmacists and nurses. We were granted entrance, and moved to Seattle where we made our home. Despite experiences with racism on a daily basis, we persevered. My sister and I learned English quickly and we tried our best to assimilate.

My parents were not so fortunate. Their English proficiency never improved much. They owned a grocery store and bought property so that they could succeed despite their limited communication ability.

They are the American dream because they worked hard so their children could have a future. I became a social worker because I also saw the cracks and the nightmares that immigrants face early on. I have been a social worker for 26 years. My life has been filled with joys and sorrows. I have borne witness to the most beautiful life-affirming events, and have also seen evil — sometimes in the same hour — doing the work and standing up for justice.

You see, I am a woman warrior. I am not a shrinking violet who doesn’t rock the boat. My mother didn’t understand this power I possessed at 17 when I fought off men. I was told to behave and, instead, I unleashed my fury. I felt that, at 17, my family wanted me to stay silent. Now I am almost 30 years older and have tried to save so many others’ lives. I am true to my own. My mother is proud of me now for standing up for those who can’t speak.

You see, her Alzheimer’s disease has taken away her voice. It has only strengthened mine.

I will not sit down while others are being told they no longer have a seat at the table.

The Asian Pacific Islander Social Work Council (APISWC) has been in existence for more than 20 years in the San Francisco Bay Area. The social workers in our Council stand up for the various API communities that we represent. These communities — many of which are primarily immigrant communities — came to this country to make a better life for themselves and for their families. In the process of doing so, these communities have made our country much stronger and richer in culture, bringing greater diversity and new ideas. This statement by Jenny Kwak, one of our Council members, speaks powerfully to this experience.