(In the evening of Dec. 7, 2018, Dan Koh delivered keynote speech at annual fundraising banquet Harry H. Dow Memorial Legal Assistance Fund in Boston Chinatown.)
To the Board, to Geoff, to all of you — thank you for having me today. It’s an honor.
Before I begin I just wanted to recognize my incredible wife Amy. She’s been through so much being married to me — far more than she’s bargained for. Amy, I love you, thank you for being here.
Over 70 years ago, my grandfather sat in a fishing village on an island off the coast of Korea. He dreamed of a better life. Of a country free from political turmoil and military violence. A country where dreams became a reality.
And so he took the risk of his life. One that all of our families did. He immigrated here, to Boston. While in school he heard about the only other Korean woman he knew of in America, who was in Pennsylvania — and immediately took a train down to meet her. They were married soon after.
My father grew up as one of six children in a poor but hard-working household. He became a doctor and met my mother, whose grandmother had come from Lebanon almost a century earlier. They’ve been married now for almost 40 years.
They were welcomed. My family has been welcomed. And that’s why the Dow Fund is so important — because immigration is the backbone of who we are as a country.
We could go around the room today and each one of us could tell a similar story. It’s what makes this country so great.
But I’m here to tell you tonight that our stories didn’t happen by accident. We need to stand up and fight against what we’re seeing happen to this country. All of a sudden, many feel the American Dream isn’t within reach, and worse, others feel that many Americans themselves don’t deserve the American Dream.
But that’s why we are here. To support one another, and stand with each other, to say that the America we know and love is here to stay, and we refuse to have it any differently.
So tonight, I’m going to tell you a little bit about how the Asian-American community’s support has changed my life, and how we need to continue to take care of one another, make our voices heard, and continue the Dow Fund’s groundbreaking work.
I have the tremendous honor of being here today representing the next generation of Asian-Americans in Massachusetts. We are the ones who grew up having you all as role models. We are the ones didn’t always see ourselves pigeon-holed into certain career paths. We are the ones who didn’t see the same kind of discrimination that many in this room did. We are the ones who weren’t always growing up as the only Asians in the room. And for me, it has made all the difference.
If not for the work of my father in public service, I literally wouldn’t be here today. He served as Commissioner of Public Health of Massachusetts from 1998-2003, the first Asian-American to do so. Although he faced many challenges, one of them wasn’t being recognized. Walking through the state house as the only Asian-American, people would all remember his name. And as far as all the white guys walking around — well they all looked the same to him.
Early on in his tenure he met a young representative from Dorchester, named Marty Walsh. My Dad and Rep. Walsh worked together on a number of substance abuse and mental health issues, topics very dear and personal to the Mayor. My Dad remembered his incredibly genuine kindness and demeanor but didn’t think their paths would cross again.
But, 15 years later, it all came full circle. The story of how I got the job as Mayor Walsh’s Chief of Staff was pretty funny, if not incredibly lucky. I had been given the Mayor’s e-mail address by a friend, and was told to e-mail him. I did, and heard nothing back. I wasn’t surprised, as I had absolutely no connection to his campaign, and he owed me absolutely nothing. I thought about just letting it go, but the Asian-American in me reminded me that persistence often pays off. So I decided to e-mail him again, on a Sunday morning. Little did I know — and this story is true — that at that very moment, Mayor Walsh was in church, on his knees praying, because it was a little over 2 weeks to go before he started his term and he still didn’t have a Chief of Staff. He got out of church, opened his phone, and my e-mail was at the top of his inbox. A few days later, I was hired.
It’s a cool story, but there’s something more subtle in it that it’s important to highlight. When he saw my name in his inbox, he recognized my last name and made the connection that he knew my father from 15 years earlier. I don’t know if it was the deciding factor, but it certainly helped.
This idea of network effects is important because it has been a privilege afforded largely to white people for a very long time. Typically, Asian-Americans wouldn’t have had the chance of those opportunities and connections. This was a rare example, and perhaps a sign of the times, where we did.
And so we need to continue doing that. Networking with each other, and helping each other.
It happened to me when I joined City Hall. I was embraced by so many of the leaders of the Boston Asian-American community — Geoff, Paul Lee, Leverett Wing, Frank Chin — they all went out of their way to make me feel welcome. And I did my best to reciprocate by hiring as many Asian-Americans as I could to City Hall, to give exposure to those kids who may otherwise have not have had the chance at an opportunity.
I was fortunate that I was able to work closely with City Councilor Michelle Wu, who I grew close to during my time at City Hall. She and I worked together to help increase opportunity for Asian-Americans in government. It was the least I could do — to pay it forward after how amazingly I was treated. To Geoff, Paul, Leverett, and all the others here who were so good to me — thank you. I will never forget it.
This generosity, and the mindset of taking care of one another, got even better at the end of 4 years as being the Mayor’s Chief of Staff, when the opportunity to run for Congress came about in the district in which I grew up.
Immigration was a key issue, especially since this was an election during the midterms of Donald Trump. I talked about my family’s story, and drew pride in my Asian-American identity.
And once again, the Asian-American community had my back. I mean this with utter sincerity — out of all the groups in my life from various parts of who I am — race, school, etc. — the Asian-American community was by far the most generous with their time, resources, and more.
We worked our hearts out for a year, knocking on over 200,000 doors and raising over $3 million dollars, in what was a 15-way race. Our polling showed that people resonated with the immigrant story. Heading into the final week of the campaign, our internal polling showed us up. We were optimistic that were going to win on election day. Perhaps the most important gauge for whether or not we were going to be successful was that Geoff’s son, Theo, had been working on our campaign for months and had given us a big boost.
Election day came, and the Asian-American community was there big. I remember seeing so many people come by to knock doors, and give me well-wishes. I thought of my grandfather — and what he would have thought of all this — throughout the day.
Then election night came, and the early returns were slow. We couldn’t really make sense of what was coming in. At first, we were up by about 1,000 votes, but then trailed behind. I spoke to the crowd around 12:30 AM to let them know that we weren’t going to know the outcome that night, that it was too close to call.
When we woke up, we were trailing, out of 90,000, by 52 votes. A margin of 0.058%. I couldn’t believe it. You prepare for a victory, you prepare for a loss, but this margin was difficult to prepare for. We had 3 days to gather the necessary signatures for a recount, after the staff and the exhausted volunteers had gone through a grueling campaign. I wasn’t sure we were going to do it.
And then something incredible happened. The Asian-American community rallied around the campaign. The signatures were gathered. The volunteers assembled. And we were able to fill thousands of recount shifts in a matter of days. Geoff was a lawyer at recount sites and helped recruit so many more. Although unfortunately were unsuccessful with the recount, it was once again a reminder of how our community takes care of its own.
Yes, we do take care of our own, even in the bad times. What they don’t tell you when you run a campaign is how much work happens after you lose, particularly moving out of your offices. But in perhaps the most emotional example of loyalty I’ve ever seen in my life, I’ll never forget walking into my headquarters the day after we had officially conceded — and seeing Theo there, helping to clean everything up. If that isn’t loyalty, I don’t know what is. Theo — I will never forget that. Ever.
So what are the lessons to learn from this?
First, Asian-Americans need to continue to go out of their way to take care of one another and to provide opportunities. I wouldn’t be here if not for the incredible generosity of the people in this room. But if we let up, even just a bit, we risk dropping the ball. So for all of you who have Asian-American colleagues, or know of those younger than you who you haven’t spoken to in a little while — reach out to them, give them a call, and help them. The domino effects of your actions may not be known for years, but they may make all the difference.
Second, Asian-Americans can’t expect more representation in the halls of government if they don’t run. I lost by the closest margin in the history of Massachusetts congressional races — and the closest this cycle nationwide — but never have I been more optimistic about democracy, and never once have I regretted running for office. So if I can still say that after what happened to me, then that means any one of you in the crowd who has ever considered running for office should do so. Fortunately, we have trailblazers we can follow — most recently evidenced by the amazing REPRESENTATIVE Tram Nguyen, who defeated an entrenched Republican opponent this cycle. As a result, the Asian-American community will be better represented, and more importantly, generations to come in our community will be helped as a result of policies Tram will help set in place. That’s critical to our future, and only happens if more of you run, and if all of us get out the vote and support those candidates.
Third, we can’t get to where we need to be to take care of and look out for one another if people can’t afford the legal services to live in this country. That’s where the Dow fund comes in. There are so many barriers that immigrants must overcome, just like our ancestors who came here did — language, race, culture, status — that there literally can never be enough resources to go around. So please, please, give generously. You will be changing the lives of people who need it most.
I’ve offered some thoughts today about the Asian-American community, where it has been, where it is going. But I want to leave you with one story that I think sums up who we are as a community, and why it’s necessary to give so much time to the Dow Fund and other groups with similar missions.
Decades ago, war destroyed large swaths of the forest in Korea as the need for firewood grew. What was once a country of dense forest became a near desert, causing erosion, flooding, and other consequential disasters. So the South Korean government launched a reforestation initiative to restore their country’s environment. And citizens begun planting tree after tree. It became a sense of pride; a civic duty. Today, 65% of the total land area is once again covered by forest.
Change doesn’t happen overnight. Leaders can make a huge difference in launching an initiative, but true change happens at the ground level — tree by tree, step by step, constituent by constituent. Helping each person as an individual — treating each person like the person who will ultimately bring about the change you are looking for — will bring our community far.
In closing, for a large part of my life, I’ve wanted to articulate, concisely, what Korean culture is all about. I didn’t quite have the words until I met one of my native Korean uncles for the first time, who is a general in the Korean army. He gave me a ceremonial watch, and on it was Korean Hanja script I’d never seen before. “That’s our family motto,” he said. “It reads: talent must not come before character.”
To me, that phrase sums up Korean — and Asian-American — culture, and so many of the role models we are lucky to have, from our own families and beyond. Talent must not come before character. We’re an incredibly passionate, driven, and dedicated group of individuals — but we have the humility, grace, and honor to put humanity before all of that. It’s why we speak up. It’s why we are persistent. It’s why we give back. It’s what makes us who we are — and why we as a culture excel. And it’s why, every single day, I am so incredibly grateful to be able to proudly say — that I am an Asian-American. Kamsahamnida, and thank you very much.