Today (Thursday) marks a decade of community service, youth leadership, political activism and civic engagement in Virginia by the Hamkae Center.
Over the last 10 years, the local nonprofit has dedicated itself to achieving “social, racial, and economic justice” through Asian American mobilization and advocacy at both the state and local levels, per its website.
“We want to not only help meet the immediate needs of Asian Americans living in Virginia, but we also want to make lasting change,” Hamkae Center Director Sookyung Oh said. “…What we really want is for Asian Americans to be actively engaged in society, in this democracy. If we can create those on-ramps for folks to be able to do that and be a political home, then that’s what we’re striving for. ”
Though it works around the state, Hamkae Center is based in Fairfax County with offices in Annandale and Centreville. Its mission has expanded alongside the local Asian American community, which has grown from 17.6% of the county’s population in 2010 to over 20% — one-fifth of the population.
“Over the years, Hamkae Center has really become much more pan-Asian,” she said. “So if you look at our staff and board, we have folks who are Korean heritage like me…but also Filipino, Indian, Pakistani, Chinese, Vietnamese, Taiwanese. It’s really expanded so that we were becoming more of an Asian American group.”
A Virginia affiliate of the National Korean American Service & Education Consortium, the group was founded in 2012 as NAKASEC Virginia with the goal of organizing with undocumented Korean Americans, according to Oh.
It was among the organizations that advocated for undocumented immigrants who attended high school in the state to be eligible for in-state tuition rates and state financial aid for college.
“It’s our work with undocumented Asian Americans that we were able to push those changes through the state General Assembly in 2020 and in 2021,” Oh said.
Oh also expressed pride in Hamkae Center’s education-related activism, including its role in leading a “statewide, multi-racial, multi-faith” movement against proposed revisions to Virginia’s history education standards.
On a more hyperlocal level, the Hamkae Center functions as a community resource, offering assistance with citizenship and public health benefit applications. According to Oh, it recently launched an Asian American Small Business Counseling program to help Korean Americans in Northern Virginia navigate complex corporate procedures and language barriers as they kickstart their own businesses.
“To date, I think we’ve supported about four entrepreneurs in starting new businesses, and that’s pretty cool,” Oh said.
To reflect its evolving focus, the group rebranded in 2021 to “Hamkae,” the Korean word for “together.” Oh says the new name aims to “honor [their] Korean American roots” while making it clearer that the organization works with all Asian Americans, not just Korean Americans. Read More
The Fairfax County School Board passed a resolution on inclusive education at its meeting Thursday (Oct. 20), leaving aside an earlier version that included references to social justice, equity and antiracism.
The 7-4 vote came with much back and forth about topics including board procedure and the resolution’s timeline.
The four members who voted against the amended resolution — Mason District Representative Ricardy Anderson, Hunter Mill District Representative Melanie Meren and members-at-large Abrar Omeish and Karen Keys-Gamarra — had expressed support for its original iteration. Providence District Representative Karl Frisch was not at the meeting.
As passed, the resolution affirms the county’s support for teachers and administrators when it comes to “inclusive curriculum and instruction.” The resolution is symbolic and does not change county policy.
“….the School Board commits to protect and support teachers and administrators as they deliver FCPS-approved curriculum and classroom resources that are inclusive, and meet the high aspirations of our students, families, and the Fairfax County community.”
Amendments also left out a reference to “recent events” that have “caused many FCPS educators and school-based administrators to fear that implementing these necessary curricular improvements could lead to personal or professional harm,” according to the text of the original resolution.
Anderson, who introduced the original resolution, said the amended version would not adequately support teachers and cited the removal of the words truth, antiracist, equity and justice as among the reasons she would not support it.
“There are some essential components that are missing from the version being provided that I just cannot support not including in this kind of resolution,” she said.
The school board’s student representative, Michele Togbe, opposed the amendments.
“Amending it to the weak and hollow statements and words, where originally it was strong and clear, it doesn’t make sense to me, and I don’t see the progress that can be made by going forward with it,” Togbe said.
Dranesville District Representative Elaine Tholen, who brought the amendment with Braddock District Representative Megan McLaughlin, said she believed the amended version was “more inclusive of our board member views and less divisive for our broad community.”
Tholen added that she thought the message of support for educators should have been conveyed with “a simple statement,” but maintained the resolution format.
While the resolution is symbolic, the board has a controversial issues policy that outlines guidelines for administrators, teachers and students dealing with controversial topics. That policy, mentioned in the amended resolution, has been discussed at multiple governance committee meetings this calendar year, according to minutes from those meetings.
After the revision passed, several people spoke about the resolution during the community participation portion of the meeting. These included representatives from Free and Antiracist Minds (FAM) and the Fairfax County Council PTA, two of the many advocacy organizations Anderson said had been involved with the original resolution.
The amended resolution “was a great way of not having to vote no but also completely undermining the substance of the actual message,” said Kweli Zukeri, representing FAM. FAM called the vote a “craven display of systemic racism” in an Oct. 21 press release.
In a video testimony, Kara Danner, a member of the FCCPTA’s executive board, said the organization supported the original resolution for the sake of students’ mental health.
Other speakers accused the board of having political motivations and questioned its priorities.
Board chair and member-at-large Rachna Sizemore Heizer said she was glad to have the resolution to support teachers, but looked ahead before adjourning the meeting.
“At the end of the day I’m excited to get into budget season and looking at our strategic plan, because that’s really where we show our values,” she said.
A federal judge’s ruling that recent changes to the admissions process for Fairfax County Public Schools’ prestigious magnet school were discriminatory has inspired both praise and condemnation.
As first reported by The Washington Post, U.S. District Judge Claude M. Hilton issued an opinion on Friday (Feb. 25) finding that the elimination of a standardized test and other alterations to how students are admitted into Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology (TJ) were made “to the detriment of Asian-Americans.”
“It is clear that Asian-American students are disproportionately harmed by the [Fairfax County School] Board’s decision to overhaul TJ admissions,” Hilton wrote. “Currently and in the future, Asian-American applicants are disproportionately deprived of a level playing field in competing for both allocated and unallocated seats.”
Hilton also called the school board’s process for implementing the changes “remarkably rushed and shoddy” with “a noticeable lack of public engagement and transparency.”
The Coalition for TJ, a group of parents and alumni that filed the lawsuit in March 2021, celebrated the ruling as a victory “for parents everywhere who are questioning the unlawful acts of runaway school boards.”
“Coalition for TJ is thrilled by Judge Claude Hilton’s clear renunciation of racism and discrimination and his powerful defense of equality,” co-founder Asra Nomani said in a statement. “For almost two years, our courageous families have battled an incalcitrant and racist school board and superintendent intent on using ‘social justice,’ ‘equity’ and ‘anti-racism’ to perpetuate racism and discrimination against Asian students and families.”
The ruling was lauded by Gov. Glenn Youngkin, who made undoing the admissions changes part of his gubernatorial campaign, as well as advocacy groups like the Chinese American Citizens Alliance of Greater New York.
Today’s decision reaffirms that TJ’s admissions should be based on merit. We thank the parents who stood up for their children. We will work everyday to ensure that every student across VA has a quality education so they can dream big dreams and be prepared for success in life.
— Governor Glenn Youngkin (@GovernorVA) February 25, 2022
FCPS maintained that TJ admissions changes approved by the School Board on Dec. 17, 2020, are merit-based and race-neutral, noting that the first class admitted under the new system still had a majority of Asian American students and a grade point average in line with previous years.
“The new process is blind to race, gender and national origin and gives the most talented students from every middle school a seat at TJ,” FCPS Division Counsel John Foster said. “We believe that a trial would have shown that the new process meets all legal requirements.” Read More
Gone are the days of history textbooks being the dominant source for grade schools.
Now, Fairfax County youth have the chance to help create historical markers that the county has been adding to the area since 1998.
The county government and Fairfax County Public Schools are looking for students from both public and private institutions, homeschool, and community groups to submit ideas for markers as part of their new Black/African American Experience initiative to collect stories showcasing the area’s diversity.
“We’re really excited just to give students an opportunity to think like historians,” Alicia Hunter, the FCPS K-12 social studies coordinator, said in a county TV program. “So it’s no longer just the memorization of dates and events and people but more so engaging in critical thinking, inquiry, research and also evaluating primary and secondary sources.”
Ramona Carroll, a program manager for the county’s Neighborhood and Community Services (NCS), noted that ideas could come from youth groups, such as a Boy Scout or Girl Scout troop, a classroom, or just one student, helping “elevate untold stories of African Americans in Fairfax County.”
Ideas can be submitted through March 31, and the county’s History Commission will review finalists.
The county launched the Black/African American Experience Project on Feb. 1, coinciding with the start of Black History Month. To support the historical markers contest, NCS is collecting residents’ oral histories, and FCPS is providing resources to support student research.
FCPS announced on July 16, 2021, that it had partnered with the Fairfax County Board of Supervisors to host the county’s first historical marker program.
“The inaugural program will focus on revealing the narratives and oral histories of our African American communities, whose rich history, culture, and accomplishments in the county, are underrepresented in our history books,” Providence District Supervisor Dalia Palchik and school board representative Karl Frisch said in a joint statement at the time.
They added that the county hopes to expand the program to include other communities in the future.
Students in Reston and Falls Church got statewide recognition last summer, when their proposals for highway markers commemorating local Asian and Pacific Islander history were among five winners of a Virginia contest.
Though they have cropped up with increasing regularity both locally and nationally in recent years, conversations about how to handle symbolic reminders of the Confederacy remain as emotionally charged as ever.
That was evident in the most recent meeting of Fairfax County’s Confederate Names Task Force, which has been charged with determining whether the county should rename Lee and Lee-Jackson Memorial highways.
“We have a nice taste of different people from different parts of Fairfax that want to weigh in,” task force chair Evelyn Spain said. “We value all of their opinions on whether this end result comes to change the name or not change the name of Fairfax streets.”
The two-hour meeting at the Fairfax County Government Center on Monday (Oct. 18) followed the launch of a community survey last week. Postcards advertising the survey are expected to roll out to residents across the county starting this weekend.
Also accepting public comments by email, phone, mail, and at four upcoming listening sessions, the task force will use the input to inform its recommendation to the Fairfax County Board of Supervisors.
“I don’t want people to be back here in 30 years because we made a wrong decision,” one member said.
The Financial Cost of Changing the Names
Changing the names of both highways could cost Fairfax County anywhere from $1 million to $4 million, Fairfax County Department of Transportation Director Tom Biesiadny told the task force.
According to FCDOT, there are 171 Lee Highway signs along the county’s 14.1-mile stretch of Route 29 and 55 Lee-Jackson Memorial Highway signs on 8.4 miles of Route 50.
The cost varies depending on each kind of sign, particularly ones on traffic light mast arms or other overhead structures. If a new street name is longer than the existing one, replacing the signs will require more work due to the added weight, Biesiadny explained.
“What we’re going to replace it with does matter,” he said.
Biesiadny also reported that, based on estimates from neighboring localities that have adopted new highway names, a name change would cost businesses about $500 each to update their address on signs, stationary, and legal documents, among other possible expenses.
Other jurisdictions are looking at providing grants to cover businesses’ costs, according to Biesiadny, who noted that the county would need to conduct a survey of businesses to get a more precise estimate.
What’s in a (Street) Name?
For the task force, however, the question of whether to rename the highways hinges less on money than on what the names say about a community’s values and identity.
In a facilitator-led discussion on street name criteria, several members cited inclusivity and reflecting Fairfax County’s increasingly diverse population as key concerns. Read More