Meesoon Han helps bridge Alabama-Korea divide

Her son was upset. More than that, he was confused.

He explained that he got into a fight with a classmate in his adopted hometown of Montgomery after being called an insult, an insult typically directed at people of Chinese descent. “I’m Korean,” he told his mother.

More than 20 years later, Meesoon Han smiles as he describes his son’s confusion that day as a way to illustrate how much has changed in central Alabama, an area that is now booming. with Korean business, culture and people. Kimchi lines grocery store shelves, and once-closed storefronts have reopened under Korean banners in a city where Hyundai and its suppliers employ thousands of people.

Census data shows that from 2010 to 2020, Montgomery’s Asian population jumped 56.4% even as the city as a whole lost residents, and the percentage of Asian residents in the nearby community of Pike Road has almost quintupled at the same time.

Han was a computer science teacher. But she has spent the past decade leading a nonprofit she co-founded to build bridges between communities here as the region continues to evolve. This work has helped create some of the region’s only Korean language courses in public schools, sparked a STEM teacher exchange partnership with South Korea, helped immigrant families overcome educational barriers, and Moreover.

Following:Koreatown: Finding a “second home” in Montgomery

His non-profit organization has hosted Korean arts, food and music events here, from Hanji craft workshops to K-pop concerts. He has taken local teens to Korea to study, runs a youth leadership program, and runs a summer language camp that teaches Korean to dozens of children every year, paving the way for local jobs while providing university credits.

“Our job is to bridge the gap. I’m not changing you. You keep who you are. Your identity is important as much as my identity is important, ”said Han, executive director of the Alabama-Korea Education & Economic Partnership.

For a decade of building these bridges, Han was named the Hero of the Montgomery Advertiser Community for January. She’s always eager to talk about how much work she has left, but she’s just as eager to talk about the passion of others who have built and supported this work over the years, since when she was just a ‘a concerned relative.

“She came to me with and wanted me to be someone to lead it,” said A-KEEP co-founder and State Senator Gerald Dial, who helped the organization form and strengthen its international links. “She just works her butt, and that’s so important. … This is so important to our children.

The principal of Alabama schools regularly sits on numerous boards of directors, usually working through a liaison officer. But current Superintendent Eric Mackey has said he takes a personal interest in his role with A-KEEP after forming a relationship with Han. “Meesoon is a very persistent person,” Mackey said. “… She wants to come in and explain it, and now I understand why.”

With the help of A-KEEP, the state has formed partnerships with half a dozen Korean universities to strengthen the ranks of teachers here. Meanwhile, they have implemented Korean classes at schools in Montgomery and Pike Road, among the first such classes in the state.

It’s a slow process, one that takes a lot of work and a lot of understanding on both sides of the globe.

Korean teacher Hyewon Na helps her after students at Floyd Middle Magnet School in Montgomery.

Replace fear with facts

Hyewon Na admits she was nervous at first after what she heard about the Montgomery students.

The South Korean student had spent her time in confinement watching documentaries about Korean teachers making a difference in urban America. They showed the impact on the behavior and mental state of the students. In the end, she decided to travel to Montgomery and teach similar courses at the Floyd Middle and Bear Exploration Center through A-KEEP.

Before her first day, people in the community warned her to expect rude children in public schools here.

What she found was the opposite. The children waiting for her at Floyd were sitting upright and attentive, to the point that she had to relax them. “I don’t want them to be too polite,” Na laughed. Once the barriers fell, the questions began. “They were very curious about Korea.” Soon after, the students requested optional Korean lessons.

A group of enthusiastic elementary school students in Bear presented a different challenge but still charmed their teacher. “They are really sweet and they are tough (hardworking). They wrote everything down and they wrote down the pronunciation, ”she said.

Korean teacher Hyewon Na works at the A-KEEP office in Montgomery, Alabama on Tuesday, Jan.4, 2022.

A-KEEP offers similar courses for Grades 2-12 at Pike Road Schools and has offered classes for Grades 5-7 at LEAD Academy. All of these partnerships – and courses – are new to the region and the state.

“We’re basically creating our own Korean program,” said Brittany Payne, A-KEEP’s K-12 outreach coordinator. “I think there is now this need for students to learn this critical language. It can offer them government jobs, but it can also offer jobs here locally with Korean companies or even with American companies here that deal with Korean companies.

The federal government agrees. A-KEEP’s StarTalk Korean Summer Camp has been funded by an NSA grant since 2018 after learning Korean was identified as essential for world peace by the Department of Defense. The association worked with the National Foreign Language Center to develop the curriculum and motivate students to learn. Now it’s an accredited course that counts toward college transcripts.

In schools, they thrived wherever they could, including working with physical education and art teachers to teach their regular curriculum in Korean.

Other aspects of A-KEEP aim to help immigrant families adjust. Irene Do leads the association’s intellectual disability project, which provides interpretation and translation services to help families meet special social and educational needs.

Korean dancer SoJeong Kim choreographed Friday's production of

It’s an issue that Do says can create a “double barrier” for Korean families, and one that has become more difficult to overcome during the pandemic.

“Another challenge on this project is to open the minds of Korean families,” Do said. “Culturally, Koreans are shy and less active. In addition, Korean immigrant families and families with disabled members have already experienced bad situations and mistreatment from society, so many people have already closed their minds.

“A solution on the other side”

One problem seemed easy to solve, at least for Han.

Alabama needs more STEM teachers. In Korea, where birth rates are dropping and schools are closing, STEM teachers need jobs. “It took two years to convince both sides that there is a shortage on one side and there is a surplus on the other,” Han said. “They couldn’t see there was a solution on the other side.”

Now another bridge is under construction. State Department of Education works to create pathway for South Korean teachers to enter Alabama classrooms, while A-KEEP and Mackey’s office sign protocols agreed with the Korean Ministry of Education. This month, 23 potential teachers from South Korea come to Alabama for a month of teacher observation and class visits to Montgomery and Pike Road public schools.

A jersey and tickets are on display at the A-KEEP offices at Montgomery Biscuits Korean Heritage Night, where the Biscuits became the Montgomery Kimchi for the night.

It is a way of replacing rumors with reality.

From the archives:Cookies become Montgomery Kimchi to honor Korean heritage

“They heard these horrible stories, how American students behave badly in class,” Han said. “We are all human beings, and lessons are lessons, no matter where they are. Let them experience their own way, is it good or bad? Can you adapt to this different environment? This is what we are working on.

Han said they still need host families who agree to share their home with potential teachers for a month. They could stay in a hotel, but it gives them less information about life and culture in Alabama. “It’s just sharing ordinary life,” she said. “… This is how we connect to each other. “

This connection is key to the region’s future in more ways than one, Mackey said.

Whether it’s manufacturing, farming or lumbering, he said, Alabama businesses are now global and growing up in a more culturally diverse environment gives children here the skills that they need to be successful and help each other to be successful.

“Living in Montgomery, I have three sons from their teens to their twenties, and all three had very close friends who were Korean, whose parents were first generation (immigrants),” Mackey said. “They weren’t directly related to Hyundai but related to the Korean community that moves around Hyundai here.

“… I saw personally that it was really good for my children to have this interaction with someone from a completely different culture and background, and to learn in the end that we are all human. . We are all looking for the same things. We all try to work together. I think we need it in Alabama.

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Meesoon Han, executive director of A-KEEP, is featured at the organization's offices in Montgomery, Alabama on Tuesday, Jan.4, 2022.

Heroes of the Montgomery community

The 12-month Montgomery Community Heroes, sponsored by law firm Beasley Allen, will profile a person each month this year.

The 12 categories that Montgomery’s announcer will focus on: educator, healthcare, business leader, military, youth, law enforcement, firefighters / paramedics, nonprofit / community service, religious leader, senior volunteer, entertainment (arts / music) and athletics (like a coach).

Do you know a community hero?

To nominate someone for Community Heroes Montgomery, send an email to [email protected] Please specify the category for which you are applying and your contact details.

Contact Montgomery Advertiser reporter Brad Harper at [email protected]

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