APA Spotlight: Kathy Lim Ko, President and CEO, Asian & Pacific Islander American Health Forum

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).

Kathy Lim Ko is president and chief executive officer of the Asian & Pacific Islander American Health Forum (APIAHF), a national health justice organization which influences policy, mobilizes communities, and strengthens programs and organizations to improve the health of Asian Americans, Native Hawaiians, and Pacific Islanders. Kathy has worked in senior management positions in community-based and philanthropic organizations throughout her 30 year career.

Most recently, Kathy was the program director for the Community Clinics Initiative (CCI), a joint project of Tides and The California Endowment, which supports the infrastructure development of community clinics and health centers in California through grant making, learning and knowledge sharing, and data and research. The $130 million, 10 year program, has funded over 90% of all the community clinics and their associations across California.

Kathy is a graduate of the Harvard School of Public Health, as well as of Stanford University, with additional coursework at the London School of Economics and Fudan University in Shanghai.

Beyond her professional experience, Kathy has chaired and/or served on the board of directors of Angel Island Immigration Station Foundation, Oakland Chinatown Chamber of Commerce, Asian Women’s Shelter, and St. Paul’s Episcopal School, where her children have attended. Kathy volunteers with the Lao Iu Mien Culture Association, helping to build the first-of-its-kind national Iu Mien Cultural Center in East Oakland.

What is the mission statement of your life?

Building community institutions that are constructed from strong values, are robust, and make a difference. At APIAHF, our values are respect, fairness, equity, and health justice for all.

In health, we strive for well-being, even though so much of health care is focused on healing the body. But how do we heal the spirit? I have learned, through my own pain and journey, that healing the spirit is a delicate thing. But among the lessons I have learned is that healing the spirit requires fellowship and connection, it requires action and agency, and that for the spirit to reach well-being, and even to soar, it requires hope and aspiration.

So in every step of my professional journey, I have sought to connect, to act and to help others act, and to connect my aspirations with those of others, collecting them together to form our own agenda for agency, and to connect our agenda to those with the same values and aspirations for the spirit.

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

At an early age, my parents shared with me some key perspectives which still resonate for me. There is injustice in our society and, among other ways, it is race-based. And, that through civic engagement, we can have a hand in shaping our destinies.

I learned the responsibility and obligation of service from my parents. First generation immigrants from China, via Taiwan, they worked to build the Chinese community in Cleveland, Ohio. They helped to establish and build community institutions which would offer cultural preservation, fellowship, and service.

For 35 years, I have had the privilege of doing my part in building key community institutions. But what I’ve learned in my work in health and community service is that service is not enough.

It is not enough to be a direct service organization or a policy advocacy organization. We need to do both, because all of these things are interrelated.

We must identify the common challenges and goals within our diverse communities – and partner with other ethnic communities – so that we can support healthy families and communities all across the country. Together, we can continue to reach out to other activists, advocates and communities who have complimentary agendas, to build towards a just and multiracial society.

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

Gong Li from China. Someone who has a solid inner core.

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

Across all of our work we are working to nurture and strengthen a national network of Asian American, Native Hawaiian, and Pacific Islander organizations with one goal: building healthy communities through service and advocacy.

Our goal is to build a national network which can deliver on-demand 50,000 meaningful actions in response to a call to action by anyone in the network. If these actions are attributable to a single network, then we can call upon policy makers with a single voice, a united front.

People can join our national network by visiting www.apiahf.org and signing up for our health information network to receive updates about our work and policy advocacy action alerts.

We’re also on Twitter, Facebook, and YouTube, because we know that policymakers pay attention to what their local media and their constituents are saying, whether it’s in the newspapers or on the Internet.

Reach out to us and tell us how we can help you in your work. Give us your priorities for change and we’ll work together on the strategies, tools, and resources to achieve those changes.

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

The future I would like to see is one in which our communities are mobilized to bring about change across all kinds of disparities, including economic, educational, and others, to benefit Asian Americans, Native Hawaiians, and Pacific Islanders, as well as all vulnerable Americans.

An important part of this is increasing civic participation in our communities. Civic engagement is about more than voting, elected officials, and legislation. It is also about our communities taking action to improve their world in many different ways. We are working with our local community partners on the ground to organize people for local and state-level action. What if we had 50 of these local partners and they each could engage 100 people? And, then, what if those numbers grew to each engaging 250, then 500, and onto 1000 each?

And if all of those actions –those phone calls, those conversations with policy makers, those emails—were attributable to one network, how would that affect decision-making? What impact would that have?

As someone who tries to influence policy, I can tell you that the starting point is always numbers. Since 2000, the Asian American population, which includes over 15 million people, is the fastest growing racial group in the country. In the same time period, the Native Hawaiian and Pacific Islander community, which is more than a million strong, has grown by more than 40% in the last ten years.

If these rapid growth trends continue, we are expected to number well over 35 million by 2050. And despite what may be commonly thought, we exist in large numbers outside of states like New York and California, in cities such as Atlanta, Minneapolis, Houston and Cleveland.

It is up to all of us, whether we work in the community or in government, to address the challenges our communities face, to view advocacy not just in terms of elected officials and legislation, but by looking at the big picture on how to improve the health of our communities, working across issues, and across communities, extending ourselves beyond Asian American, Native Hawaiian, and Pacific Islander communities.

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

It’s all about values. Find out how you can contribute to a justice agenda, whether it’s in a paid or volunteer capacity. Do your homework. Get skills early and work hard to apply them in a variety of settings, to find the right match for yourself. Take risks. Get involved in your community and work hard at it. It will reward many times over. (No different for AA NH or PI professionals.)

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

Comfort food: ginger ale, ramen with egg, and rice congee.
Favorite food memory and experience: sitting down with the carcass of a roasted duck and having all night to gnaw away at it!

Bonus Question: What’s your guilty pleasure?

Best road trip food: Nacho cheese Doritos and Diet Dr. Pepper.

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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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