Asian Americans Advancing Justice - LA

Building upon the legacy of the Asian Pacific American Legal Center

How I Used Language to Engage my Community

Friday, December 9th 2016

By Sophia Shin

I remember my grandma seating me on her kitchen countertop and handing me a freshly washed plum as she worked at the sink. Not only was she my plum-washer, my grandma was my math and language teacher while my parents were working. She taught my me and my cousins multiplication tables and Korean through laminated charts and cardboard flashcards, making us write out standards to keep us occupied while she made lunch. She forced us to practice our chopstick skills through timed tests of moving dried beans back and forth between bowls. Although I questioned her at times and would have to be bribed into learning with the promise of going to the market with her across the street, I ended up becoming her best Korean student.

The Korean I learned from her ended up serving me as well as others. Now, I talk to many Korean American senior citizens on the phone about voting. In my sophomore year, I joined Asian Americans Advancing Justice-Los Angeles (Advancing Justice-LA) as a phone bank volunteer in order to not only practice my Korean, but also to be able to inform senior Korean American voters about upcoming elections and encourage them to participate in our democracy. In the 2010 midterm election, only 30 percent of registered Asian American voters cast their ballots. Many of them feel that their vote won’t matter, are unaware of available language resources, or overlook local ballot measures that will directly affect their lives because they’re too focused on the big presidential elections. I joined Advancing Justice-LA in order to help improve this statistic.

It’s hard for me to not take things personally, even as a phone bank volunteer. When people hang up on me, when surveys are left unfinished, or when I’m criticized for my Korean (which was my first language), I feel like I have failed not only myself but my grandma as well. Yet this sense of rejection makes the positive calls that much more meaningful to me. When I inform an apathetic voter about how Prop 55 would continue to fund public schools for his or her loved ones and when this voter responds with genuine interest and a promise to vote, I am invigorated. I have become someone who can change a stranger’s heart just with one conversation. Amidst a sea of dial tones and hang ups, I feel my worth, in that moment, as a volunteer, with a single yes.

My phone banking experience has given me the courage to volunteer as a bilingual poll worker during the recent primary elections. As I helped the Korean elderly and those who had limited English skills, it felt as if I was helping my grandma or aunt. Many of them would feel relieved when they saw a common face and rush me over to them like I was their granddaughter or niece. I would assist them while they’d ask “Who taught you Korean?”, “Why are you doing this?”, and “Who are the Korean candidates?” and I would answer while they clung affectionately onto me. Similar to how I felt during phone banking, helping those few people break the language barrier that was blocking their vote gave me a sense of purpose at that very moment. I hold great pride in being able to change even a few lives and brighten someone’s day by making something that seemingly was impossible for them, possible.

Through her efforts to teach me Korean at a young age, my grandma provided me access to an entire culture for a lifetime. Language was the key to discovering my cultural identity and giving back to my community.



Disaster Relief Assistance for Immigrants (DRAI)
9:00 AM - 5:00 PM
Monday - Friday

For more information or to apply to DRAI, please call: 

Chinese (Mandarin/Cantonese)  (213) 241-8872
Khmer  (213) 241-8877
Korean  (213) 241-8873
Tagalog  (213) 241-8874
Thai  (213) 241-8875
Vietnamese  (213) 241-8876
English/Other, Non-Spanish  (213) 241-8880
Spanish/English** (CARECEN)  (213) 315-2659
Spanish/English** (CHIRLA)  (213) 201-8700
 (213) 395-9547

*This list will continue to expand.
** Spanish assistance available through CARECEN & CHIRLA.
***We are experiencing heavier call volume than usual. We highly encourage you to call your native language phone line, the wait time may be shorter. 

Our mission is to advocate for civil rights, provide legal services and education, and build coalitions to positively influence and impact Asian Americans, Native Hawaiians, and Pacific Islanders and to create a more equitable and harmonious society.