On a snowy Friday morning, just before the holidays this past December, the International Examiner had the privilege of catching up with Elaine Ko, who was spending an emotional last day as a legislative assistant along with other staff for outgoing Seattle City Councilmember Richard Conlin.
Ko has served on the boards of the IE (when Ron Chew was editor in the ’80s), King County Sexual Assault Resource Center, the Corporate Volunteer Council, Puget Sound Directors of Volunteer Services, University of Washington Certification Program in Fundraising, Leave a Legacy, and the Seattle Youth Symphony Orchestras.
In addition, Ko participated in Leadership Tomorrow and has been awarded the Donor of the Year from College Planning Network and Outstanding Volunteer from Denise Louie Education Center.
Thirteen years ago, the IE spoke with Ko about her community activism and about being recently appointed to Conlin’s staff. Thirteen years later, we’ve come back full circle to talk about what Ko has been able to accomplish in City Hall on behalf of the API community, what challenges we face today, and what’s in store for the future.
International Examiner: The last time you spoke with the IE in 2000, you had just come on board as part of Councilmember Conlin’s staff. What’s it like to come full circle and reflect on things?
Elaine Ko: At the time, I said my commitment is really to make sure that folks in the community have their voices heard by Richard [Conlin], who is a very compassionate and very effective legislator. I think to some degree, I feel very proud of a lot of things that have happened in terms of that. I worked a lot on health and human service issues for Richard, many things related to domestic violence.
IE: In your time as a legislative assistant, you’ve championed issues for refugees and immigrant survivors of domestic abuse. What are you most proud of getting done and being a part of in these 13 years?
Ko: I think it’s those kinds of things, making sure folks, who don’t otherwise get in, talk to councilmembers. … Whether it was mitigation on all the work being done on the light rail [or other issues]. Sometimes those kinds of things get overlooked.
IE: How do you feel now that there’s been a change in the guard? What do you hope for for the API community in moving forward?
Ko: I think that there’s a lot of really good groundwork laid. I think with the new mayor coming in I think there’s been some great hires. I think the hiring of Hyeok [Kim as his deputy mayor for external affairs] is going to be fantastic. … I think [Murray] is going to continue listening and working on behalf of the API community.
It was kind of a rugged campaign [against then-incoming Councilmember Kshama Sawant].
IE: Are you relieved that there’s an unexpected break? Are you going to get to do some things that you’ve been looking forward to doing?
Ko: I think it’s a good break for me to really figure out what I want to do. I was fortunate because I was able to work on some policy, whether it was a library levy or working on healthcare. I did a forum in the council chambers on the Affordable Care Act. It was really crucial at the time last year to make sure different representatives of different communities were able to talk to folks about their concerns and about the needs of marginalized communities. We had Teresita Batayola and Odessa Brown. We had different speakers come in and talk about the issues they saw. I saw that as a really important thing to do. And I really feel fortunate that I was able to make sure those voices were heard in the chamber and that people were invited to come in and listen.
Looking at what is it I want to do next, I’m not really sure. But there’s always going to be a part of me that has a lot of interest and concern about, frankly, this community and what happens in the API community and making sure those voices are heard and that they’re part of the bigger picture and that their needs are met. And there’s some incredible people in this community.
IE: Do you have any goals for 2014?
Ko: I’m just going to take some time and figure out what I’m going to do.
IE: The ways in which the API community addresses its struggles are quite different today than it was at the height of the civil rights movement, or even 13 years ago. What would you say are some of the biggest challenges for the API community?
Ko: I think it’s the torch being passed. It’s making sure that you have the younger folks who are also going to be involved, whether it’s in JACL or some of these other organizations that they continue on because, you know, [the work] is never finished. In some ways it’s easier because you do have folks like [Hyeok Kim] who are now part of the so called establishment, which is so wonderful. On the other hand you don’t want to forget the needs of refugee and immigrant folks who need to be heard.