Alexandra Suh: a Changemaker Personified
Alexandra Suh: a Changemaker Personified
By Crystal Shaw
Liberty Hill’s 2014 Wally Marks Changemaker Award honoree, Alexandra Suh, will be recognized on September 6 at our Change LA 2014 event—a casual afternoon mixer designed to let participants meet and mingle. So if you come, you’ll have a chance to meet Alexandra, and you’ll discover, as I did, that she’s a “Changemaker” personified: fearless, a believer in community, a person who stands at the forefront but realizes that it’s everyone around who will make real change come to fruition.
Alexandra is Koreatown Immigrant Workers Alliance’s Executive Director. After becoming ED in 2011, Alexandra got busy refocusing KIWA’s work, bringing it back to being a real nuts and bolts worker’s center for not just Korean workers, but for every immigrant worker fighting for the rights they deserve. This move makes KIWA part of L.A.’s exciting worker center movement, which is having real impact in improving conditions for low wage workers, an urgent need in L.A. where, according to a recent L.A. Times report, “Last year, average wages in Los Angeles County declined 1.9% — tying Jefferson, Ala., for 302nd place out of 334 large counties nationwide.” And the projection for the future: “More than a million jobs will be created in the region between 2010 and 2020, and nearly half will pay less than $14.35 an hour.”
You may have heard about Alexandra’s fearless leadership through the success that KIWA’s has had with the co-sponsorship of AB 2416, the Wage Theft Recovery Bill, which has recently passed the California Assembly with a vote set in the Senate this week. KIWA is also an anchor organization for the Los Angeles Wage Theft Ordinance which seeks to strengthen the city’s ability to crack down on wage theft. We talked with her to discuss the award, KIWA’s creative and stand-out rally techniques, and her broad vision for KIWA, one that stretches all the way to Korea.
What does it mean to you to receive the Wally Marks Changemaker Award for having a significant impact on the social justice movement in Los Angeles?
When I first heard about this award I was incredibly honored and happy. It means a lot. I attended last year when Tammy Bang Luu (of Labor Community Strategy Center) was honored, and I had no idea that I would be honored this year. At the same time I think it really isn’t about me. It’s about our membership, our base, our community and the collective movement that we are building together. If I’m here, it’s because of our collective efforts.
We’ve always known that with Liberty Hill it’s a very special relationship in terms of how well you understand what social justice organizations are all about and why we do things the way we do and that’s one of the reasons why it’s been so great to work with Liberty Hill for all these years.
What was your vision for KIWA when you became a staff member in 2009 and how has that been realized? What more would you like to see done?
KIWA’s been around since 1992. I had become a supporter and been involved since 2002 when I moved to LA. In the mid-2000s, Koreatown was the site of really intensive gentrification and the housing crisis was really, really severe. And so KIWA listened to our base and did some powerful work around anti-gentrification and housing rights. When I became ED in 2011 one of the things I wanted to do was, building upon the housing rights work, still circle back to our original mission as a workers center and emphasize workers’ fights for justice, building powerful worker organizing. We had never stopped doing the workers’ rights work but it wasn’t as much on the forefront in our public campaigns for some years. To be moving back into it in a really powerful way it feels very right for KIWA.
You can say that again! KIWA has been at the forefront of the fight against wage recovery. What have been some of your proudest moments in that fight?
Whether it’s at City Hall in L.A. or at the State Capitol in Sacramento, when we mobilize a lot of our members to these actions and when we come together and meet with workers from other cities, other organizations and unions in the city, we all just come together for a single purpose and cause. That is extremely inspiring and powerful.
We have some member-leaders who have been really active in both our citywide and statewide work, and it’s inspiring to see them develop and change and come forward and speak out as leaders, spokespeople telling their own stories, but also providing a lot of the analysis of wage theft and why it’s such an important issue to take on. I get so excited thinking about it! That’s why we do this work. It’s just amazing to see low wage workers testifying before state assemblies and at City Hall and speaking out in public whether it’s to the media or to allies… Just seeing workers speak so movingly and eloquently about their experiences. They’re not just telling their story, they’re also making the arguments, providing the analysis, and shaping our campaigns.
A great example of that is with the Clean Carwash Campaign of which KIWA has been a supporter. What are your thoughts on their success?
I think the Clean Carwash Campaign is a fantastic model for partnerships with labor where the unions have their very clear specific role, which is to form unions. But then for a worker’s center it’s to really address the whole range of issues and create a stronger community base for and with workers. One of the most exciting things recently for the Clean Carwash Campaign is the growth of their new Carwash Workers Center. They’re focusing on building it up and the workers are really excited about the center.
KIWA has used some great attention-getting techniques during rallies and marches like drummers and the giant puppets. Please talk about their significance.
If you look at the social justice movement around the world there’s been some incredible use of creative means of public demonstration and also incorporating culture into our movement. The drumming actually came from Korean traditional drumming that is something that people were doing thousands of years ago. It dwindled down in the late 20th century but then the social justice movement in Korea revived drumming in the context of movements for social change. So for Koreans it was going back to their roots and reviving the traditional drumming tradition but providing a new context, which is social change and redefining the nation as a more democratic place. The drumming is a significant part of Korean diaspora social justice public presence actions, rallies, and demonstrations. So I’m sure if you saw a Korean progressive organization in wherever --Germany, Argentina-- you would see the drumming there, too.
Giant puppets I think started in Czechoslovakia. And I know that social justice movements in the U.S. also had giant puppets especially on the east coast and midwest. The drums, the puppets and all of the ways that our movements incorporate culture--it brings that poetry, the lyrical side, inspirational side alongside the serious and political and it makes it actually much stronger.
If you had a puppet created for yourself what would it look like?
Well actually I did participate in the puppet workshop at KIWA. “Alex ajumma” has a bowl on top of her head that says justice inside the bowl, but you can only see that when the puppet bows down because it’s like 10 feet tall. I couldn't represent myself sitting at a desk, so the way that I embodied myself was in community with other puppets.
KIWA has been perceived as small in that it only deals with issues affecting Koreatown, but KIWA’s vision is much broader. Can you expand on that?
We’ve been based here in Koreatown and that is of course our center of gravity. But in terms of the workers who come to us, I would say about half of them live in Koreatown, half of them live outside; half of them work in Koreatown, half of them work outside. Koreatown itself is the densest neighborhood outside of mid-town Manhattan in this country. The reason it’s so dense is that there are so many low wage workers and their families who live here. We have members who might be say, a restaurant worker in Santa Monica, a parking valet in San Pedro, a landscaper in the Valley so they are actually part of the regional economy throughout the L.A. area even though they may live in K-town. We work with mainly Latino and Korean immigrant workers although we’re open to everyone and anyone. There are some great resources for Spanish speakers, but we’re the only [worker center] in the West or possibly in the country for Korean speakers and so a lot of people will reach out to us from afar. And our vision for justice has always been broad, never about just one neighborhood. Our original name says “southern California.” But it goes even beyond that. The campaigns we work on include statewide, national, and even international efforts.
Do you have any plans or any involvement with social justice organizations in Korea?
We have long-standing informal relationships and ties. In terms of formal work it really depends on the particular issue. Two examples have been when the U.S. South Korea Free Trade Agreement was under negotiation we worked with other Korean groups and other groups in the U.S. with organizations from Korea to oppose the Free Trade Agreement¾ unsuccessfully in the end. But we were able to build on informal ties that we already had and strengthen them. Our message was that free trade was hurting workers, residents and farmers in both countries. It wasn’t about Korea vs. the U.S., it was actually a trade agreement that was empowering large corporations in both countries at the expense of the people in both countries.
Another issue was that there was a group of guitar manufacturing workers who had been fired for advocating for their labor rights. And the company, Cort, was a guitar manufacturer that supplies a large number of the guitars for name brand guitars here like Fender, Ibanez and the mainstream guitar makers that you’ve heard of. And because of that connection, guitar workers had wanted to come to the U.S. to demonstrate at some of the music manufacturer’s gatherings, and so we supported them in their delegation efforts and supported them with some of their publicity and outreach and connected them with local unions here.
Change LA 2014: Saturday, Sept. 6; 3-5 p.m.
The Next Door Lounge
1154 N. Highland Ave.
Hollywood, CA 90038
For tickets and sponsorships, please go to registration.