By Carina Nocon, AsAmNews Intern
With America in chaos amidst the pandemic, a call to address systemic racism, and anti-Asian hate, Connie Chung Joe saw joining Advancing Justice-Los Angeles as a now or never chance. Joe wasn’t expecting to change her career until the unexpected opportunity came knocking on her door.
“It just felt like this is a moment in our history that’s going to be going down in the books. Our kids and grandkids are going to be studying this,” Joe said to AsAmNews. “To be able to work at Advancing Justice today, and to be doing something around civil rights at this kind of critical juncture in our history just seemed like such an opportunity that I couldn’t let go.”
Reports of anti-Asian hate crimes quickly grew in America within months, and continues to be a strain on AAPI communities. The increase in coronavirus-related discrimination and harassment might be overwhelming for some people, but Joe saw what her community had to fight and let it empower her instead.
With her background in legal services, Joe said one of the reasons she felt pulled to joining Advancing Justice-LA was because of rising reports of harassment toward AAPIs. After 11 years as executive direcotor of Korean American Family Services, this issue drew her back to civil rights and inspired her to be a part of the solution.
Joe attended University of Southern California for her Bachelor of Arts degree. She then attended Georgetown University in Washington D.C. for law school.
From the time Joe was born in New Orleans, LA, she was a full-time army brat. Both of her parents immigrated from South Korea and served in the U.S. Army. She moved around the world with her parents to San Antonio, TX, South Korea DMZ, and Tacoma, WA. When she was 5-years old, her parents settled down in L.A. where she was raised.
One of Joe’s top priorities as the new CEO is addressing the anti-Asian discrimination that followed the pandemic so it is not continuous. This includes identifying what has led to AAPI’s being discriminated against in American history, such as the Chinese Exclusion Act and Japanese internment camps.
Alvin Kang, former board chair of Korean American Family Services (KFAM) and former board member of Advancing Justice, said, “I think [Joe’s] experience with the community is something that will help her as she works at Advancing Justice. The good part is that she’s going back to her roots with her legal background.”
Kang recommended Joe for the position at Advancing Justice-LA.
Joe said she will go into Advancing Justice-LA ready to learn, listen, and discuss what legal actions can be taken to combat issues of xenophobia and racism.
Joe hopes her new position as CEO at Advancing Justice-LA will serve as a clean slate and a fresh start for the organization.
Advancing Justice-LA is one of the five affiliates of Asian Americans Advancing Justice, a leading organization that advocates for civil and human rights for underserved AAPI communities.
In 2019, Advancing Justice- LA laid off 20% of the organization’s staff– an event that led to laid-off staffers speaking out about low staff morale, financial crises, and abrupt layoffs that gave staff less than two business days notice, according to former workers who spoke with AsAmNews at the time.
During the mass layoff, Advancing Justice-LA let go of 18 workers which included a labor rights lawyer, outreach staffers, bilingual phone operators, citizenship teachers, and a spokeswoman.
Some of these positions are roles that deem essential to Joe’s priorities for AAPI immigrants and underserved individuals.
While immigration has also been a controversial issue in America under the Trump Administration, Joe plans to continue the work of Advancing Justice-LA by offering resources for AAPI immigrants such as legal and linguistic aid.
“If it is not tailored to your language, if it is not offered in a setting that feels comfortable to you, where faces [don’t] look like you, and people [don’t] speak like you. It can be overwhelming. It can be a challenge that is just impossible to overcome,” Joe said.
She said her experience at KFAM taught her to provide services that do not pose linguistic barriers and are sensitive to cultural differences.
She began her work at KFAM in 2009 when one of the greatest recessions in America hit the market. Aware of Advancing Justice-LA’s past funding challenges, Joe is confident in her experience with leadership and working with agencies during economic downturns.
“It’s really important for nonprofits to really diversify its funding,” Joe said. “One thing I’ve noticed is that in times of crisis, you not only have the harder time, but you also see the best in people.”
Other priority issues for Joe include the upcoming election, voter engagement within the AAPI community, proper representation in the census, and immigration.
“We know that Asian, Pacific Islanders historically have been under-reported– I should say under-counted for the census,” Joe said. “And a lot of that has to do with language barriers, it has to do with cultural barriers, it has to do with fear of AAPI deportation or somehow used against them or their family members.”
For the upcoming election, she is focused on gaining support for Proposition 16, which would reinstate affirmative action that involves race-based or sex-based preferences in California in state education and contracts. She said this should be a priority for the AAPI community.
Joe was also a public interest lawyer at the Housing Rights Center and the American Civil Liberties Union. With her background in legal services, she’s excited to “[use] litigation to advocate for the rights of marginalized or unpopular groups,” Joe said.
Joe said over time and with her past experiences she’s learned “how to mobilize and motivate an organization of non-profit staff who really care deeply about the mission, care about that work, and how to keep them engaged, keep them encouraged, especially when times are tough like they are now.”
She finds inspiration from women leaders of color like Michelle Obama, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (AOC), Kamala Harris, and Ilhan Omar. “They are unapologetically open about their progressive values, about being women, and being people of color who are breaking through the old boys’ clubs,” Joe said.
Joe starts her position as CEO at Advancing Justice-LA on Aug. 1.
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