Michael Byun is the executive director of Asian Counseling and Referral Service (ACRS). Before starting in December 2018, he spent 17 years leading ASIA, Inc., in Ohio advocating for the empowerment and rights of Asian Americans, Pacific Islands, immigrants, and refugees at local, statewide and national levels. He shares what motivates and inspires him, the challenges AAPIs face today, and lessons he learned early in his career.
How did you get interested or involved in social justice and advocacy for Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders (AAPIs), immigrants and refugees?
A few formative stories in my life have had a deep impact on me and why I do the work that I do. The first involves my mother and her path towards U.S. citizenship when my family immigrated from Korea. My father was fortunate to fast track his citizenship by enlisting directly in the U.S. military in the Army. That left my mother to go through the process of being a green card holder and spending sufficient time here. After her period of time required in the U.S., working and supporting her family, and contributing to the community, my mother had the opportunity to apply for U.S. citizenship. The citizenship application process required her to take written and oral tests, and she struggled very much. In fact, she attempted to take the test over three times. It wasn’t until her fourth try that she finally became a U.S. citizen.
In many ways, she had a working knowledge of history and civics of the U.S., but if she had support and opportunities to attend a citizenship class, like we offer at ACRS, she could have built her confidence. Having a formal class would really have allowed my mother to have the self-confidence to apply and be successful in passing, perhaps with less anxiety and fewer attempts.
Another important moment was with my maternal grandmother when I was 10. At the time, my parents owned a small teriyaki shop and were working 16-18 hours a day. My brother and I needed help at home, so like many other immigrant families who rely on family members to support taking care of the family, my parents sponsored my grandmother to come to the U.S.
We lived in a pretty remote part of unincorporated Puyallup. In the mornings, my grandmother got us ready to go to school. I didn’t realize until later in life that she spent six to seven hours alone with no support system around her. She had grown up illiterate and raised five children during the war. Fortunately, she was a resilient individual and a strong-willed woman who knew how to survive. If there were services like ACRS that were available to her to help socialize and connect with her community and her peers, it certainly would have helped her in her ongoing health and well-being.
These are two examples that remind me why it’s so important we look at ways to advocate for our community needs and services, and that we understand the struggles of our communities and their attempts to acculturate to the U.S. That’s part of the reason why I’m at ACRS.
Now that you’re back in Washington and in your new role as executive director of ACRS for six months, what have you observed and learned?
ACRS is a microcosm of how AAPI communities are resilient. They persevere, they do many creative things to address barriers in their lives. Every day we see clients walk through the doors and take that first step. For example, with ACRS clients receiving mental health services, they’re taking that initial step towards healing and recovery. With young people involved with our children and youth development programs, we see their challenges straddling two identities, those of their parents’ home country and those of their peers in the U.S. They build resilience as we help them develop coping mechanisms and tools necessary for them to thrive and be successful.
We advocate and do whatever we can for our families and our communities in many ways a lot of the mainstream community takes for granted. Every day at ACRS is extremely energizing and motivating and gives me the inspiration necessary for the work that I continue to do.
What is the biggest challenge facing AAPIs today?
The important challenge AAPIs face right now is the very toxic political climate. This administration has espoused anti-immigrant, anti-Muslim, homophobic rhetoric, trans-phobic rhetoric that hurts and divides our communities. It impacts our clients and the services and support they’re able to access as resources and opportunities are being pulled away. It’s also dividing our families and creating greater stressors for the most vulnerable in our communities where services are more difficult to access, and yet, they’re needed more now than ever before. We face a multitude of attacks on different fronts and new policies daily that separate families, disempower the poor and most vulnerable, and perpetuate anti-Muslim, anti-immigrant, and anti-refugee perceptions.
There’s also an invisibility of AAPIs in public discourse on politics, elections, policy and in communities, making it harder for AAPIs to see themselves in the issues that affect them. That’s further complicated by the multitude of languages it takes to engage and inform our community so they can be effective advocates for themselves, their families and communities. The result is AAPI communities feeling de-legitimized, undervalued and disconnected from opportunities to make a difference.
It’s absolutely important we work across different sectors and communities to build alliances. In this work at ACRS, I find much hope because it strengthens the resolution of different organizations to plan together, coordinate and act. And I’ve already seen changes in the state legislature with the largest class of state legislators of color elected, and more people of color, LGBTQ, immigrants, and refugees running for office. There’s a lot to be excited about. We’re in a unique time to fight along with communities for social justice, equity, and empowerment. At the same time, we’re seeing a major transformation with health and social services, and with collective action from our own communities, board members, staff and community leaders. We have the responsibility to share and direct policies and resources. It’s in our DNA and we are called upon to take action. It’s what ACRS does well and will continue to do.
What advice would you give yourself early in your career?
In your 20s, we’re still searching to determine who we are, and part of that is trying on different hats and exploring things. I encourage younger generation professionals to embrace that because it gives opportunities to develop a well-rounded perspective on what you feel is important in your life and your professional direction.
We are also often confronted with challenging situations, whether it’s a conversation with a peer at work, a boss, or in our community doing advocacy work where we may be in conflict or disagreement with a coalition or group. Despite obstacles we may confront along the path, stay constructive and find moments of learning in every interaction, whether good or bad.
This goes back to an experience I had as a third grader. A fellow student and I had a conflict and we both ran up to our teacher at the same time. We were both about to “tattle tell” when she stopped us. She looked at each of us and said, “What did you each do to contribute to this situation? What can you each do to resolve it?”
At that time I was totally confused by those questions, but in retrospect, I learned that we are all agents of change in our lives. Certainly, there are forces outside of our control, but for those things that are within our control we have every opportunity to do what we can for ourselves and to advocate for our community. It was this self-realization and building of confidence that allowed me to go into a situation and determine within my own control what I can do to help change it.