The Value of Culture

When I first began working at the WINC last summer, I could only focus on all the ways in which the center could improve. They have never had the capacity to evaluate their programs, to set criteria for judging success, and had never attempted to glean feedback from the clients themselves. The staff was stretched thin just managing to stitch up the necessary funds to stay alive, and they treated their interns like volunteers who were on standby. The list can go on. I had so many criticisms, but I could never voice them because I knew the center was trying the best it possibly could.

But there was one aspect of the center that I did not understand. The center had changed its mission to serve all Asian women, not just Korean women. This transition was supposed to be a move toward larger and greater opportunities for the center—it was a sign that the center was adapting to changing times and to meet the needs of a changing community. If anything, the center could now apply to more sources of funding. I found this move to be strategic; it made sense. What didn’t make sense was how nothing else changed at the center but the wording of its mission. There were no efforts to hire other Asian women or to market their center as serving a diverse group of women. The center was still very much about maintaining its Korean cultural roots.

I interviewed several clients during my internship to measure how satisfied the clients were with the shelter services. One of these clients was Chinese—the only non-Korean speaking person at the shelter. One of the first questions I asked had to do with the programs the shelter offered such as art therapy, group therapy and culture programs. And to my surprise, this client had no idea these programs existed. Of course she didn’t know about them. They were all administered by Korean instructors who only spoke Korean when running these programs. She also told me how she would have to make her own food late at night because Korean food disagreed with her. Or how the two daughters felt uncomfortable during lunch when the staff and interns spoke in Korean. Her experience at the shelter was shortchanged by the fact that while the shelter opened its doors for any Asian woman, it did not accommodate all of their cultural differences.

I remember at my last week at the center, the Executive director and Case manager were discussion their need to hire a full-time intern for the year. One of the requirements was for the intern to be Korean and bi-lingual. After all, almost all the donors for the center were Korean which is why everything had to be written in both Korean and English.

The center needed to change as indicated by its new mission. But while the clientele base was changing, the volunteer and donor base was not. The two realities were incompatible with each other. I just couldn’t understand how the executive director and case manager didn’t see their current situation in the same way. For the executive director, maintaining the Korean volunteer and donor base was one of the most important aspects of her work.  All the board members were Korean, too.

Researching the history of the center to write a case study about this organization did a lot to deepen my understanding and sympathy for the center and the challenges it currently faces. I learned that the center originated from a grass-roots activist campaign to free a Korean woman falsely accused of murdering her child. The person who founded the organization was a feminist pastor. She built the shelter on Korean tradition and culture. What tied all the women in the organization together were their common cultural ties—it was at the heart of the organization; it was what gave it life.

To demand that the center compromise its roots to accommodate more clients and foundations seemed cruel upon this newfound knowledge. There was so much meaning behind the cultural practices at the center—the fact that there was a cook to make homemade Korean food every day; that everyone ate lunch together; that people took their shoes off at the door; that we talked about Korean superstitions about dreams over rice cakes and fruit; that we respected the elderly and attended to them first. These practices were what sustained the staff, volunteers and fellow Korean clients. The sense of kinship created the best holding space for Korean women seeking shelter. The space was familiar, comfortable and safe.

The larger question is what role does race play in all of this? Does it matter that the shelter calls itself an Asian Women’s shelter but prioritizes Korean women? Does it matter if these Korean women speak Korean? What if a bi-racial woman who spoke Korean appeared? Would she take precedence over a Korean woman who didn’t speak Korean? What assumptions does the staff have about the clients’ racial backgrounds and cultures that inform who gets access to what?

I know that if, for whatever reason, I ended up seeking a women’s shelter, I would seek out this one. Even though the shelter is small and the services far from perfect, the cultural identity of the place provokes a sense of security and attachment that I no other shelter can provide. To think that this unique place might eventually have to change due to changing demands of its clientele base saddens me.  There will always be a need for a Korean women’s shelter. But this demand may not be enough to sustain an entire shelter. Am I being too pessimistic and narrow-minded?


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