APA Spotlight: Ellen Oh, Executive Director of Kearny Street Workshop

APA Spotlight is a weekly interview of Asian Pacific Islander Americans (APIA) community leaders. It is a spotlight on individuals who have dedicated their careers to issues surrounding the APIA community with the goal of bringing much deserved recognition to their work and cause(s).

Ellen Oh, Executive Director of Kearny Street Workshop (KSW), has an M.A. in Arts Administration from Columbia University and over ten years experience working nonprofit arts organizations both nationally and internationally.

At KSW, Ellen develops and implements programs and workshops, manages fundraising efforts, directs marketing and outreach activities, cultivates relationships with other organizations and community members, and works with the board of directors to set the strategic vision and direction of the organization.

Previously, Ellen served as Associate Director of Marketing at Sundance Institute, where she was responsible for all publications, advertising, media sponsorships, merchandise, envirographics, and motion graphics. Prior to graduate school, Ellen worked in marketing and community outreach at the Asian Art Museum of SF.

Ellen’s additional experience includes working for the Atlanta Olympics, the Smithsonian, the Arts and Humanities Assembly of Boulder County, the Boulder Philharmonic, the Venice Biennale/Korean Pavilion, the Sydney Biennale, the Museum of Modern Art and the Whitney Museum.

The mission of Kearny Street Workshop is to produce, present and promote art that empowers Asian Pacific American artists and communities. KSW is located in San Francisco, California.

What is the mission statement of your life?

Follow your passion, take risks and don’t be afraid to get out of your comfort zone. And remember to have fun!

How did you end up doing what you’re doing?

I’ve had at least 15 different jobs in 7 different states. Some of these included managing volunteer programs for the Olympics and the Smithsonian; running fundraising campaigns for the Boulder Philharmonic and Boulder Community Network; and doing marketing for the Asian Art Museum and Sundance Film Festival. Along the way, I realized that I love working in the arts and figured out that I’m pretty good at organizing people and events. Living in San Francisco, I’ve come to recognize and appreciate my Asian heritage more. While my trajectory seemed rather haphazard (especially to my parents), looking back, oddly it all makes sense as a clear path that led me to my job at KSW.

Read the rest of the interview after the cut!

If Hollywood made a movie about your life, whom would you like to see play the lead role as you?

That’s a tough one… Are there even any hapa actresses out there? I guess it would have to be a combination of Ellen Pompeo and Sandra Oh, based on name alone.

How can people find out more about your organization or get involved?

Visit kearnystreet.org or email us at [email protected]. We are always looking for new artists, board members and volunteers!

If you had a crystal ball, what do you see for the future of the Asian Pacific Islander American community?

I think first we’ll shorten the name, because that is quite a mouthful… to something that is even more encompassing since I’m finding the community is harder and harder to define. I see a movement towards transnationalism.

Bonus Question: What advice do you have for young professionals? Would you give different advice for young Asian Pacific Islander American professionals?

Listen to your heart and do something that you love; we spend too many hours of our lives at work so at least make them meaningful.

Create opportunities for yourself. If you really want to work somewhere, call them up and ask for an informational interview or volunteer. It’s amazing how often something will come of it. Or, just do it yourself – curate an art show in your garage; host a concert in your living room streamed online; organize an impromptu performance in the park. Get hands-on experience however you can and employers will recognize your skills and spirit.

Talk to other young professionals to share experiences and ideas. If you are in the Bay Area, this is a good resource: http://sfbaeap.com/.  Help each other out, commiserate, and make change.

Bonus Question: What are your comfort foods and what memories do you have associated with them?

I’m originally from Wisconsin, so I’d have to say mac n’ cheese. I used to appreciate the fast and easy variety, although these days it has to be homemade and not from a box.

When I went to Korea for the first time at age 7, I brought back Hello Kitty chopsticks for all my friends and made them eat mac n’ cheese with them. That was a long and funny meal.

Bonus Question: What’s your guilty pleasure?

I have an 8 month old daughter, so between work and learning to be a mom, I haven’t had much time to myself this year. Every once in a while, I will sneak away while my daughter is with the nanny and go to a movie or go surfing. It feels so incredibly indulgent!

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About Koji Steven Sakai

Writer/Producer Koji Steven Sakai is the founder of Little Nalu Pictures LLC and the CEO of CHOPSO (www.CHOPSO.com), the first Asian English streaming video service. He has written five feature films that have been produced, including the indie hit, The People I’ve Slept With. He also produced three feature films, a one hour comedy special currently on Netflix, and Comedy InvAsian, a live and filmed series featuring the nation’s top Asian American comedians. Koji’s debut novel, Romeo & Juliet Vs. Zombies, was released in paperback in 2015 and in audiobook in 2016 and his graphic novel, 442, was released in 2017. In addition, he is currently an adjunct professor in screenwriting at International Technological University in San Jose.
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