KAGC Alumni Spotlight: Lucas Uhm

Lucas at the 2020 KAGC U Leadership Summit

The feelings I felt during my childhood are encapsulated by this quote by Malcolm X: “Sitting at the table doesn’t make you a diner. You must be eating some of what’s on that plate. Being here in America doesn’t make you an American. Being born here in America doesn’t make you an American.”

I was born in America to a family of immigrants. My grandpa, who escaped North Korea by himself at the age of 18, took my mom and my aunt to America to get away from the political turmoil of 1979 that followed the assassination of the long-time president Park Chung-Hee. He sought to secure a prestigious American education for his two daughters. My father came to America alone at the age of 18, hoping to secure an American education, too.

Growing up, I was reminded of my Korean heritage and the importance that politics had on my family’s history in Korea time and time again through the stories of a legend in my family: Osan Yi Kang, my great-great-grandfather who worked with Ahn Chang Ho in the Korean independence movement. I was heralded with tales of how he had dedicated his life to a greater cause, fighting against the oppression under the rule of Imperial Japan, leading by example, and mobilizing a fragmented Korean population while he lived in the U.S. and Russia. With this rich family history rooted in the political struggles of the nation they left behind, politics had always played an interest in my life.

Yet, living in America was a different story. While I wanted to get involved, join politics, be a force of change as my ancestors had been before me, I did not know where to turn. There were no Koreans I could point out to who represented me in politics or in popular media like TV shows and movies.

Osan Yi Kang, Lucas’s great-great-grandfather, led the Korean Independence Movement

I lived in a space of limbo between two worlds — the white community I grew up in and the Korean-American “identity” I was meant to carry since birth. Yet, I shunned both these communities. I was like a chameleon: I knew how to get along with the white communities I grew up with, going to majority-white schools my entire life. I also could relate to other Korean-Americans, but I didn’t grow up in a Korean-American community as did many of the Koreans I have come across. Because of these differences, I felt like I couldn’t relate to either community.

This feeling of loss, and a sense of not belonging anywhere, grew into a resentment for America as a whole, where people like me couldn’t find acceptance. I felt resentful towards the Korean-American community, too, which I saw as being weak culturally and politically, complacent in its place of sociopolitical subservience.

When I got to college, I decided to channel this anger to help Korean Americans get elected to office as much as I can. I was painfully aware that only one Korean-American had made it to Congress up to that point, and this had to change. I felt a ceiling had been placed on us Korean Americans, shutting us out of our government, and it was up to people like me to push through that ceiling.

My first attempt at breaking through this ceiling was in 2017 when I volunteered for a congressional campaign of a Korean American candidate in Los Angeles, CA. It was the first time I was ever made aware that people who looked like me and shared my identity were out there fighting for the representation I yearned for. I felt elated from the first day when I got to knock on the doors of Korean Americans to get out the vote and eat kimchi and rice with other volunteers in the office. I didn’t even care to look at the candidate’s position, because I was so excited that he looked like me. The following summer, I decided to work on the campaign of another Korean American man running for Congress, this time in my hometown of Orange County. Both candidates lost, and since my support for them was grounded solely in the fact that they are Korean American, my motivation deflated shortly after. I accepted it just wasn’t our time. There was work to be done, but where?

Lucas at the Los Angeles City Hall during his internship

It was around that time that I came across the Korean American Grassroots Conference, when a friend asked me to attend the 2019 KAGC National Conference with them. Initially, I did not want to go, because I was afraid of being around so many Korean Americans and of going out to the East Coast by myself.

So when a couple of weeks before the event, KAGC staff asked for confirmation on my attendance, I responded with “no” and a phony excuse. I told them I didn’t want to spend money going on a trip, and I thought that would be the end of it.

To my surprise, they corrected me, telling me everything would be paid for except food (which I knew, I don’t know why I thought my excuse would work). I was trapped! So, with great shame in my heart, I accepted. Little did I know, I would end up owing a lot to KAGC in making sure a random kid like me was prepared to attend, as KAGC would come to help me shift my own perspective and understand my identity in such a significant way—being Korean American crystallized into something larger, and being Korean American became more than being simply born Korean.

Through the opportunities KAGC provided, a Korean American consciousness sprouted within me, and the significance of my family’s history became more clear as I learned about the many interests that represented our community’s fight for equality and place.

The one issue that stuck out to me the most was family reunification. This had always been a topic of sadness within my family, since my grandfather had escaped North Korea, leaving behind his entire family and had only seen them once in the 1980s since then. It was quite a surreal experience that my haphazard acceptance to attend the KAGC event would open my eyes to appreciate the breadth of my family’s history that had led up to the specific moment when I stood in a Congressman’s office relaying the story of my grandfather and pleading for the reunion of war-torn families like my own.

Lucas at the 2020 KAGC U Leadership Summit

The Korean American consciousness that KAGC had begun in me only grew bigger and bigger in the months after the KAGC events in 2019. I delved deeper into my family history, finding out that my ancestor Yi Kang once too had struggled with a lack of Korean consciousness when he was sent to Russia by Ahn Chang Ho to help establish an independence movement there. The importance of his work fully realized in me when George Floyd was murdered and protests against systemic racism energized the nation. I understood the importance of creating a Korean American consciousness in America, and I understood that is what KAGC was built to do.

When silence is complicity, Korean Americans must be able to respond boldly and loudly to instances of severe injustice and inequality in our country. We must mobilize and stand united with our brothers and sisters, because as Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King poignantly stated, “injustice anywhere is a threat to injustice everywhere.”

I luckily found this united spirit in the peers I met at the 2019 KAGC National Conference and 2020 KAGC U Leadership Summit. Together we grappled with these tough racial issues that frankly not a lot of Korean Americans are equipped to deal with. Through KAGC and the conversations I’ve had with newly found friends, I see now what I had been missing when I was fighting for representation: love.

As Lucas and other CA students were visiting offices on Capitol Hill during the 2020 KAGC U Leadership Summit, they ran into Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez

Once I realized this greater purpose, a purpose that my ancestor Yi Kang had dedicated his life to when faced with the oppression of Imperial Japan, the feelings of resentment and disappointment that had festered within my soul from my childhood began to ease. Growing up, learning about the importance of politics at such a young age through my family history and yet also seeing American politics being cast to the wayside by my immigrant family and friends greatly contributed to this frustration and resentment.

But now, this frustration had transformed, and I see that the only way to fight for true representation and equality that I had craved all these past years was through a collective effort based on a pure desire and compassion for achieving equality and justice for everyone. The roots for a united Korean spirit that my ancestor Yi Kang and his fellow independence fighters had planted a century ago cannot be forgotten. It is time now for my generation to carry on that work and build our own resilient roots in our own country, so that the voices of the oppressed and underrepresented may not be silenced but amplified, eventually overcoming the barriers to justice and liberty for all, just as our forefathers had promised.

Through the growth that started with KAGC as I learned to love and forgive myself and others, this quote by Betty Shabazz, Malcolm X’s widow, has stuck with me now more than ever: “Malcolm used to say, ‘You cannot allow the salt of your tears to make you bitter.’”

Lucas graduated from the University of Southern California with a bachelor’s degree in Political Science. Throughout his undergraduate career, Lucas led United Voices for Trojans and volunteered for several political campaigns and community service efforts. At the suggestion of a friend, Lucas has attended the 2019 KAGC National Conference and 2020 KAGC U Leadership Summit. He has since been involved in a number of community service and advocacy projects.

Click here to learn more about KAGC, the largest nationwide network of Korean American voters for opportunities to share the Korean American identity, discuss the key issues of our community, and get our voices heard, counted, and reflected in public policy.

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