By Jessica Kai Curry
Northwest Asian Weekly
Michael Byun is happy to be home and part of an organization that has been at the forefront of advocacy for Washington’s Asian American and Pacific Islander (AAPI) community for 45 years. As the newly installed executive director for Asian Counseling and Referral Service (ACRS), Byun is mindful that he has stepped into a position of honor and obligation.
“My main goal in coming in … as executive director is to honor the incredible work that has been done before I came onboard and also to honor the incredible team here [and] the amazing support that we receive from our communities.”
Byun is not one of those people that’s going to make changes just to demonstrate that there’s a new person at the helm. He understands that, having been away from this region for 17 years, it is important in these beginning stages to listen and learn. That said, he comes from a lifetime of advocacy and plays an instrumental role at the head of another nonprofit, Asian Services in Action, Ohio’s largest health and social services agency for that state’s AAPI population. Byun knows what he’s doing, he knows the current social, economic, and political climate, and he knows Washington state.
“I grew up in Puyallup on South Hill,” Byun said. “I went to school with Mimi Jung (KING 5) and Nick Harmer from Death Cab for Cutie. My roots are here.”
In college, Byun spent a great deal of time in Seattle’s International District, working with pivotal members of the activist community, such as “Uncle Bob” Santos and Stella Chao.
“I’ve worked in the basement over there by Maynard Avenue,” Byun related, describing impactful years spent on community programs addressing health issues, such as diabetes, breast and cervical cancer, and HIV/AIDS, and how these affect the AAPI community.
“My connection to community started in the late 1990s and I had the great fortune of working with some amazing folks at that time.” That included working alongside ACRS’ previous executive director, Diane Narasaki.
“Those were the folks who I looked up to,” Byun said. “These are the individuals that I grew up admiring and being inspired by.”
Byun has come home and he has already began taking the pulse of the region. Compared to Ohio, Byun said Seattle has a much more powerful infrastructure when it comes to organizations working for the AAPI community.
“We have some amazing advocates and community-based social justice organizations that are addressing the needs of our community. The movement here is more sophisticated.” Byun was especially heartened by the recent AAPI Legislative Day, when advocates numbering around 1,000 convened in Olympia to speak up for issues important to the AAPI population.
“It was a show of the force of the voice and power of our communities across the state,” he said.
That doesn’t mean Byun thinks the work is easy. He recognizes the challenges under the current administration to already established AAPI residents, as well as recent immigrants and refugees. He’s extremely interested in the increasing difficulty of finding affordable housing, in the gentrification that is pushing Seattle residents further away from access to culturally and linguistically appropriate services. He is also motivated to ensure that the community ACRS serves has options when it comes to primary and behavioral care.
“I’m very happy and confident that our organization continues to be on the frontlines of innovation in adapting and changing and being responsive to the community.” Byun said that ACRS has always valued a holistic approach to the wellbeing of families and individuals. “I’m excited about the opportunities that lie ahead in this landscape and very confident that ACRS, as well as other community partners, are going to be on the frontlines of exciting ways we deliver care to our community.”
Seattle has grown, and so has Byun. He tells of a moment in his career when he considered entering the medical field. He was in his last semester of Physics in Ohio when he decided that veering off the path was not the right move, and that he wanted to renew his commitment to nonprofits and helping the AAPI community. “You go through months in your life trying out different things and recognizing that your true calling is this particular area that you’re inspired by, that you’re passionate about.”
For this Korean American, whose parents came to the United States when he was a year old, life is about figuring out your true self, and that making sure you don’t leave any stones unturned is not a waste of time, it’s just part of the journey. Now, Byun identifies coming onboard at ACRS as a landmark moment of that journey.
“The arrival to this position has been extremely important,” he said. “The milestone in my life. I am so grateful to the community who have fully embraced me and have provided me 100 percent support … I also am very honored that the community has given me the opportunity to continue the social justice work of ACRS.”
Byun and his partner live in Belltown and are looking forward to making new friends, exploring the community, and trying out their teardrop camper in Washington’s great outdoors. There’s not a lot of time right now, though, for those types of pursuits. His home state and the AAPI community calls, and for Byun, it is a calling.
“We are at a moment in time where we have an administration that conveys anti-immigrant, xenophobic rhetoric that is harmful in splitting our communities, not uniting our communities. In spite of the challenges, the tremendous will of this community and the strength of this community will prevail.”
Jessica Kai can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.