On a recent Thursday morning, Lina Park, the executive director of the Korean American Community Foundation of San Francisco, was visiting Asian Health Services in Oakland, a nonprofit medical clinic. Park had worked at the health center for three years, but she left the job to lead the Korean American Community Foundation of San Francisco as a full-time executive director last month.
Now she was back to meet with Emily Park, a community health advocate, to ask follow-up questions about a grant report that Asian Health Services had submitted to the foundation. The center is one of the foundation’s grantee partners, and receives funding from it to improve the lives of people in the Bay Area Korean American community.
“What are the prospects for engaging more young people moving forward?” Lina Park asked.
“I actually did reach out to a group in San Jose,” Emily Park responded, mentioning several Korean American youth organizations in the Bay Area. “I think they want to be engaged. It’s a matter of who reaches out to them.”
“Any particular takeaways regarding youth participants?” the director followed up.
The Korean American Community Foundation of San Francisco was founded in 2014, and raises funds from donors, which it distributes to non-profit organizations in the Bay Area. The foundation’s headquarters is located in San Mateo, but another office is in Oakland. Lina Park works at both.
The new director is one of two full-time staffers along with Saly Lee, the operations manager. Park said that she does “everything” as an executive director at a “small and entrepreneurial organization.” She discusses strategies with the board of directors—which is the governing body of the foundation—designs events, and reaches out to donors and the grantee partners.
Korean Americans are the sixth largest Asian population in the San Francisco Bay Area, with approximately 90,000 residents, according to the foundation. The foundation has been funding around 10 organizations a year, and has been distributing grants ranging from $10,000 to $30,000 per organization. “Our next goal is to build our organization so that we can actually start funding organizations more than we are right now,” Park said.
Park, who is 44, immigrated to the United States from South Korea with her family when she was 4 years old. As a child, she moved to many places around the country including New Jersey, Delaware, Ohio and Indiana. “Growing up, I think there were a lot of questions about where I belong,” she said. People would compliment her on speaking English very well, even though she considers herself an American. At the same time, she grew up with typical Korean food at home. “I remember just always having that tension of not knowing where I fit,” she said.
Park earned her Bachelor’s degree in English at Emory University in 1995. She worked mostly at public relations jobs in her early career, including being a senior account executive at Edelman Public Relations Worldwide in Dallas, Texas. But she was always looking for somewhere to volunteer. That was why she had earned her master’s degree in nonprofit leadership and management at the University of San Diego in 2011. “At a very late age, it’s kind of that I finally realized where I belong, in a sense,” she said.
After she moved to California due to her husband’s job, she looked for a role that would let her be part of an organization she wanted to belong to. That’s how she started to work at Asian Health Services. “I really liked what they were doing in the community,” she said. “They are helping so many people.”
For the three years at Asian Health Services, Park developed, managed and implemented communications and marketing strategies to improve staff communications, brand recognition, advocacy awareness and donor engagement. She also developed donor outreach and cultivation strategies. She said that the work that she previously had done in communications and public relations really helped her in working at the nonprofit field. “I was able to transfer a lot of those skills—the writing skills, the message skills—and help nonprofits,” she said.
At Asian Health Services, Park led the launch of a planned giving program and a new business council. The giving program was established to provide opportunities for donors to give through wills or trusts. The business council was launched as a way for executives to give back to the community by utilizing their leadership skills for the health center’s mission.
“Lina was instrumental in building key infrastructure for our communications arm of the agency and what will be our soon-to-be business council,” said Julia Liou, the chief deputy of administration at Asian Health Services. “A tremendous asset to our agency, she was both a team builder and leader.”
Park was recruited to the current position by the foundation’s previous executive director, Eun-Joo Chang. “She [Chang] recruited me based on where they wanted to go as an organization,” Park said. “Now they were at a point where they realized we need to get our name out, we need to increase awareness every way.”
Park said that it was a difficult choice for her to move on, because she loves what Asian Health Services does. But she decided it would be a good opportunity to help resolve some community health issues she saw while working at the clinic. “When I was there, I just saw how much need there was in our community,” she said. “It is a smaller community and tends to be a quieter community in terms of talking about their needs.” She said that felt that “this particular organization and this particular role, could potentially help close that gap and just really help the Korean American community.”
According to her, one of the community’s biggest hidden issues is suicide. Many people experience mental difficulties such as depression and anxiety, she said. However, there are not enough Korean providers in most mental health clinics. “There is a stigma about mental health in our community that may prevent Korean Americans from pursuing a career in this field,” she said.
Because of this lack of providers, there is a cultural barrier in addition to language barriers between doctors and Korean American patients in many mental health clinics. “Many Korean Americans and Asian Americans did not grow up understanding their emotional health,” Park said. “So, in addition to the shame they may feel about discussing issues such as depression, there is also a chance that they have not recognized it as something to discuss with doctors.”
People in the Korean community may also face a social stigma about mental health issues. Emily Park recalls hearing community members tell her: “If someone has a cancer and tell people about it then gets sympathy, whereas someone who has mental health problem and shares it gets none of the sympathy.” This atmosphere makes people scared to talk openly about mental problems, she said.
Emily Park said that one reason why some Korean Americans won’t seek needed support from their parents is because they feel like the blame is on them. “When, let’s say, your parents learned that you have some type of problem, something mental health related, they get offended because they feel like they are being blamed,” she said. “They feel guilty and angry at the situation. It doesn’t occur to them that this is time when [their loved ones] actually need support.”
“If you go to counselling, you are considered weak,” agreed Lina Park. “Actually, that hurts our community as a whole, because what’s happening is people are dying.”
The Korean American Community Foundation provides funds to mental health clinics so that their staff can reach out to community members. Those grantee partners are seeking out more Korean American counselors and health providers, in an effort to teach more residents about mental health. The Korean Community Center of the East Bay, a non-profit organization based in Oakland, is one of the grantee partners. They used that money to produce a workshop on mental health for seniors.
According to the foundation, word-of-mouth has been the most effective in attracting partners. “This year, we’re also focusing on various other marketing and communications strategies including developing engaging materials and increasing our social media presence,” Park said. “We want more people know what we do and to apply for our grants.”
The foundation staff also want get their name out to other potential supporters, volunteers, and donors. “We really want to build kind of a movement of philanthropy,” she said. “That’s a very new thing for a lot of Asians. Philanthropy isn’t something that is very common in the Korean community or in the Asian community.”
Lee said that there are around 100 to 150 consistent donors to the foundation. “There’s also special events. We have newer people coming in, and donate small amounts of money,” she said.
Park said that one of the goals of the foundation is to bring the younger generation into philanthropy and volunteering. To do that, the foundation is holding first-ever “Korean American Community Conference & Solve-a-Thon” on two Saturdays on March and April at Google Community Space in San Francisco. The Solve-a-Thon is a workshop to design solutions for challenges such as providing mental health care. At the event, young Korean Americans will meet community leaders, and seek solutions for community issues.
Foundation members say they are glad to have Park as their new director. “We were very fortunate to find Lina, who brings a broad range of experiences and skills, both from her prior nonprofit work in the arts and education fields, as well as from her work in the private sector,” said Sophia Oh-Kim, the foundation’s board. “More importantly, she is bi-cultural and passionate about [our] mission of empowering the Korean American community. This combination of professional skills, bi-cultural sensitivity and passion for community work is a rare find among Korean Americans.”
Oh-Kim said that the foundation is excited about the new energy and perspective that Park will bring to the organization to help it grow. “Particularly, her expertise in marketing and communication will be helpful in our being able to effectively tell our story and appeal to a broader group of volunteers, donors and supporters,” Oh-Kim said.
Park said that the foundation’s vision is both “big and small,” meaning that they hope to help both individual people and the broader community.
“Through our partnership with our grantee partners, we strive to make an impact in the community,” she said. But she said that the impact is more than just the number of people they can serve—it’s also about making a difference in one more person’s life, whether it’s one victim of domestic violence who’s now thriving, or one child who’s life has been positively influenced through mentoring, or a senior who has overcome depression and loneliness with the help of a community.
“Like a butterfly effect, one individual or family that has been positively impacted can continue to pass it forward for generations to come,” Park said.