Who we are – both individually, and the fabric of our communities – has been undeniably shaped by the influential, inspirational women in our lives. While each woman’s story is unique, we all have shared triumphs and struggles that unite us.
Washington Women Who Dare is a new YWCA series celebrating our collective strength as women. As our 125th anniversary celebration continues through 2019, stay tuned for exclusive interviews with local women who are shaping our region in important ways.
Martha Choe enjoyed a highly accomplished career over the course of her professional life, with an impressive resume of roles ranging from high school teacher and Seattle City Council Member, to the Director of the Washington State Department of Commerce and Chief Administrative Officer for the Gates Foundation. Martha was the first Korean-American elected to the city council, the first to serve in a public office in the United States, and has won a slew of lifetime achievement awards from publications such as Crosscut and Seattle Business Magazine.
She spoke to us about the inspiration she draws from her mom, the role we all can play in uplifting our communities, and her hope for the women of Washington.
YWCA: Name a woman who has inspired you in your life and share why.
Martha Choe: My mother. She was one of the strongest women I have ever known. She was an immigrant from South Korea, first coming to the US by herself on a Rotary scholarship after graduating from college. Single women from anywhere, especially from South Korea, just didn’t do that back in 1948! But she was drawn to the promise America held for opportunities she couldn’t realize in Korea then, and my mother had this amazing spirit of adventure and courage. My father had immigrated to New York to help set up the first Korean Consulate in the US in 1948 as well. My parents met in Korea, then got re-introduced in the US. They got married and my mother moved to New York, where I was raised. As is true with many immigrants, especially immigrant women--it was a very challenging and lonely time for her. She was without friends or any kind of support and didn’t have anyone to turn to for advice on how to navigate a new country, a new culture, and a new language. She didn’t have the support system that I have taken for granted. As a result of her isolation, she suffered from mental illness and for a short time was institutionalized. My father struggled to take care of my brother and me while my mother was away. Eventually, my mother recovered and came back home. Throughout her life, my mother was a tremendous force in terms of role modeling her ethic of giving back and of service to the community. I saw her do that in many different ways. She was always an inspiration. Her life story taught me so much about giving back and how important community is.
YW: What’s at stake if we do nothing to address the gender and racial inequities across our region?
MC: Can anyone honestly believe that we live in a world where inequity doesn’t exist? How did we get to this place? By too many people doing nothing and or choosing to ignore what’s in plain sight. If we truly care about equity, doing nothing is simply not an option. We see the widest disparities in income, health and education than we ever have. Seattle’s median income is now $93,000 a year, but for African-American households, it is $37,000. Women still earn only 80% of what men earn for the same work. These disparities reflect ingrained, institutional discrimination based on race and gender and will only widen if we don’t take action to address the conditions that created those gaping disparities in the first place. We can stick our heads in the sand but that means ignoring the lasting impacts of racial and general inequality and seeing those disparities widen.
YW: What advice would you have for your fellow Washingtonian women looking to make a difference in their communities, but don’t know where to get started?
MC: A good place to start is to look around and listen to what communities are telling us about what they want and need-- and then see where we can best be of service. Each of us can share something that we care about, whether it’s helping someone learn to read, volunteering at a food bank, delivering hot meals to senior citizens, clearing a favorite hiking trail, or reaching out to a neighbor or friend in need - there are so many opportunities. If women aren’t sure, a good place to start is to contact the YWCA about volunteering opportunities where they can lend their time, resources, voices, skills and passion. It just takes the first small step of asking others what they need, and deciding how you’re going to give back to making the community better.
YW: What do racial/gender equity mean to you?
MC: Racial equity and gender equity means first of all being honest and willing to face up to the fact that we have had a history of institutional and systemic racism and sexism that continues to exist today and impacts many people in our communities. It means being willing to be uncomfortable talking about racism and sexism and inequity, it means facing up to my biases - conscious and unconscious - that I have and may contribute to inequity. It means working to understand and change conditions, systems and institutions to create a future where people of color and women aren’t “otherized, “ aren’t scapegoats and aren’t marginalized, but are valued and recognized for who we are, what we contribute to our community, and given opportunities to realize our potential.
I’ve jumped into an opportunity to do something to address these equity disparities: co-leading the Washington Fairness Coalition to approve Initiative I-1000, which would level the playing field for underrepresented minorities, women, veterans, seniors and small businesses. It means Washington would join 42 other states, including Alabama and Mississippi, to put back in place important provisions without quotas to allow qualified applicants to public colleges and universities, government contracts and jobs to have their race, gender, veteran’s status, and age be considered in addition to their qualifications for consideration.
YW: What makes you feel empowered? How can we help empower our neighbors?
MC: Empowerment means helping others understand the power they already have but may be unsure of. It’s about sharing power. It’s about helping women, in particular, realize power doesn’t have to look a certain way but that quiet influence can have as much impact as more traditional forms of power. The secret to power is giving it away because the more you give and share, the more you have.
For people in our circles, look for ways to lift them up, shine a spotlight on them, and advocate for them--whether it’s voting for them, nominating them for jobs, or passing their names on for opportunities where they may not be known.
YW: What is your hope or vision for women in Washington?
MC: My hope for the women in Washington is they are recognized , and treated as equals--whether that’s in status, pay or position--and that they are respected for all that they bring to making this community a better place to live, work and play.
YW125 is a year-long celebration of YWCA’s proud commitment to serving women and their families in our region for the past 125 years. By shining a spotlight on diverse local women and their stories, YWCA hopes to make 2019 “the year of Washington women” and lead the way in creating a new, bold vision for women across our state.
Feeling inspired after reading? Visit ywcaworks.org/get-involved to learn about the many ways you can join us in our mission to serve and empower women and girls across our region.