“Labor of Love” recognized for leadership in Korean American community

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Minnesota has the highest proportion of Korean Americans in the country, say Martha and Stephen Vickery, co-founders of the Korean Quarterly, yet that community mostly “flies under the radar.” When the couple, along with a small group from their Presbyterian Church, founded the publication over ten years ago, they were recognizing the hunger of the Korean American community to find a bridge between their Korean heritage and their lives in America. A large proportion of that community is Korean born adoptees.

Next week, the Council on Asian Pacific Minnesotans will recognize Mr. and Ms. Vickery for their dedication to building this bridge, through the Korean Quarterly, with its Leadership Award. The award will be presented at the Council’s annual Heritage Month Dinner on Friday, May 16th. The CAPM’s theme for this year’s Asian Pacific American Heritage Month is “soaring with the eagles,” a recognition of the contributions that the Asian American Pacific Islander community makes to the state and the country.

Martha and Steve Vickery have three children, Madeleine Joon-Young, Emma, and HanYong, the oldest of whom will soon graduate from high school. Two of their children were adopted from Korea and the third is their biological child. Why did they decide to adopt from Korea in the first place? They wanted to have a family, and “there are kids that needed families,” they said. Korean adoptions hit a high water mark in the 1980’s, and there were some strong connections in Minnesota, resources that were available here that were not available other places.

The impetus for the Korean Quarterly sprang from the recognition that there was no place for the large yet dispersed Korean American community to gather and forge a new identity. That recognition was right on, and there was a very positive reaction. After sending out a letter to determine interest in the community, the publication received six to seven hundred subscriptions before it ever published its first issue. The Quarterly has since become a non-profit organization, and it relies heavily on volunteers, grants, subscriptions and advertisements.

The Korean Minnesotan community is very diverse, they said, including Korean adoptees, bi-racial people and families, and even immigrants from Korea that have different ethnicities. Before the Korean Quarterly, there were many small groups, especially among students and churches, where Korean Americans could gather, but they were dispersed, they said. A small group at their church, encouraged by the Reverend Park, recognized that there was no forum for the greater community to gather and explore the complex reconciliation of their unique collective pasts and futures. “What do we have for the Korean community, unless someone is a leader?” they asked. The Korean Quarterly has been the only overarching group, representing the diversity within the community.

“We all have different journeys and as adults we make peace with our issues and children in different ways,” said Vickery, speaking as the parent of an adopted child. “In my experience among the adoptees that I have known, everybody has to come to grips with the fact that ‘I really am Korean’ and find a place somehow, nominally or wholly, with a piece of everyone’s identities.” The situation in Minnesota presents a special challenge, they say, because there is “no big Korea-Town,” no place for the new generation to learn about its heritage. “The new generation has to set its own path,” said Martha.

There has been a rebirth of traditional art and a renewed interest in culture in the younger generation, and it appears eager to reconnect with the heritage that has too often been put aside. Ironically, the Vickerys said, Korean children in the United States that were adopted are often more interested in learning about traditional Korean art and culture than second generation Korean Americans whose families immigrated to the US.

The Korean Quarterly has also become a way for the Korean American community and the community at large to connect and learn about one another. “There has been a lot of negative press about Korea – there was no positive voice in the media,” said Steve Vickery. The Korean Quarterly is a place for people to talk about issues that people don’t normally speak about, he said. “It’s a place to forge a new identity, to bust stereotypes about what Koreans are supposed to be,” said Martha.

The Vickery’s recognize, of course, that they themselves are not Korean American. However, “these are our kids – Korea is part of our future too.” They initially co-founded the publication for the kids, says Mr. Vickery. “We can just represent ourselves, but we can report on anything.”

Martha and Steve Vickery, managing editor and publisher of the Quarterly, respectively, stressed the importance of everyone that has made their “labor of love” possible throughout the years. Kim Dalrose-Jackson, the Art Director, has been with the publication from the beginning, they said.

“It was a complete surprise,” said Martha about being chosen for the Council’s Leadership Award this year. The paper has received many national and international awards, even being recognized by the government of South Korea. “We have never had local recognition before,” she said. “It’s good to have recognition from the community, a sign that this project should continue. It is motivation to make it [the Korean Quarterly] survive us.” One of the biggest questions now is how to ensure that Korean Quarterly can continue to fulfill its mission once Martha and Steve move on.

“This is the kind of thing that can’t go on forever without creating a sustainable organization for the future,” said Ms. Vickery. “We have grown into an organization with young organizational structure. We need a long-term plan and accounts that organizations have for a long-term future.” There are now subscribers all over the Midwest and North America, Korea, Australia, Canada and Europe. “Any place where there are Korean adoptees,” said Vickery.