Martha Choe has done it all throughout her storied career and life — as a teacher, banker, politician, administrator, and activist.
Today, instead of retiring, Choe prefers to say that she is “rewired” to new pursuits focused on helping the community, especially young and Asian Native Hawaiian Pacific Islander American (ANHPIA) groups. She currently serves on the board of the Group Health Foundation, an organization focused on advancing racial justice and equity in Washington State, and is working on a project with International Community Health Services (ICHS) to provide medical and behavioral health facilities for elderly ANHPIA residents in Seattle.
Choe was born in New York City to Korean immigrants. Her mother moved to the U.S. through a rotary scholarship with Oregon State University, and her father helped establish the first Korean consulate in New York and was an activist against the Japanese colonial occupation of Korea.
In eighth grade, Choe’s family moved to Seattle after her father got an engineering job with Boeing. Her experience growing up in New York City — the so-called cultural melting pot of the U.S. — contrasted starkly with the dearth of cultural diversity in her new home of North Seattle.
Being one of the few BIPOC students in her school during the civil rights movement was an epiphany. Through this experience, she developed an appreciation for multiculturalism and was inspired to take an active part in supporting ethnic minority issues early on in life.
“At the end of the first week [of school], I came home and I asked my mom where the rest of the kids were because there was something missing here,” said Choe.
When Choe’s father was laid off by Boeing during their large-scale downsizing in the early 1970s, he remained unemployed for a year, putting Choe’s family in a precarious financial situation. Her mother returned to work at a cafeteria to help keep them afloat. These periods of hardship motivated Choe to stay strong and determined throughout her career.
Choe attended the University of Washington where she double majored in Ethnic Studies and Teacher Education. After graduating, she moved to Eugene, Oregon to teach.
“Through it all, her personal demeanor and the way she connects with people is one of her bigger assets and abilities,” said Teresita Batayola, a long-time friend of Choe and former CEO of ICHS.
In Eugene, she was deeply engaged in the BIPOC community, participating in numerous protests and helping to establish ANHPIA heritage celebrations there. Later on in her political career, she would continue to be a vocal advocate of national and local ANHPIA issues.
After teaching in Eugene for a few years, Choe moved to work at the Bank of California in a management position. While there, she was selected to chair the board of Western Washington University, which she said was a “really important growing experience for me,” as it was one of the first major public leadership positions she held.
During this time she was a member of the Asian Pacific Women’s Caucus (APWC) — a mutual support network for ANHPIA women based in the Seattle area back in the 1980s and 90s when professional opportunities were restricted for ambitious people like Choe.
Batayola, another member of APWC, said: “She would see things that may not necessarily be obvious to me, and I would say that she brings those same qualities to community issues.”
Many others saw this same leadership potential in Choe, and when a seat on the Seattle City Council opened up, she was encouraged by many of her associates to run for office.
Her relationships with community leaders throughout Seattle, along with her experience in political activism and advocacy made her an ideal candidate for public office. Choe felt that she could utilize her multifaceted skill set gained from the many different professions she worked in “to be a voice and ultimately to make a difference.”
The commitment to campaign for a year full-time without pay for the council seat was daunting. However, at this moment, the memories of the struggle her parents endured as first generation immigrants gave her the courage to pursue this path.
“It really wasn’t much of a risk compared to what my father and my mother did,” she said.
Choe would go on to win the election, becoming the first Korean American member of the council. Friends like Batayola, who inspired and supported Choe, are who she thanks for her success. “Who you’re surrounded with is really the key,” she added.
After serving two terms, Choe left office to work for Gary Locke at the governor’s office, assuming a position as chair of Washington State’s International Trade, Economic & Community Development department. After five years there, she yearned for a change, leaving that role without a clear plan.
“I was sort of excited about not knowing and figuring out where I could use what I’ve learned to make a difference,” she said. In this moment of transition, the Gates Foundation invited her to be the Director of Global Libraries, where she worked for ten years.
Throughout her ever changing life, Choe’s devotion to the community, passion for her work, and endearing personality have remained constant.
Tenets of Buddhism and East Asian spirituality helped Choe maintain several core values and traits that she continues to live by.
“It’s very human to be attached to two things, status, and position, and I think it helped me understand that the title or position that I held was transitory or temporary,” she said. “Change is the only reliable, true thing that happens.”
To survive in this constantly changing state, Choe tries to avoid focusing on herself or indulging her ego. Instead, she lives according to the natural “tempo of the universe.” When she feels that a position or endeavor has run its course, she is capable of letting go.
In addition, community, family, and friends are central to her life and pursuits, with memories of her mother fostering this outward orientation.
“Even though she didn’t make much money, she would slip a $20 bill to a family,” said Choe tearfully. “Her example of compassion, kindness, and selflessness was really an early role model for me.”
As the International Examiner’s 50th Anniversary Gala approaches, we look back at Choe’s extensive career. She is — as always — looking forward.
“My aspiration [for the IE] is that it continues to thrive, continues to be strong, continues to be supported by the community, and recognized by the broader journalistic community for its integrity, its rigor, and its unique ability to tell the story of our community,” she concluded.
This year’s Community Voice Awards benefit dinner will be at the Joyale Seafood Restaurant Oct. 26, 2023. Tickets, both in-person and virtual, can be purchased online: https://cva.maxgiving.bid/about-us