First published in the Sept. 18 print issue of the Burbank Leader.
Some of us have really vivid memories from our kindergarten days.
Alicia Cho, a 17-year-old senior at Burbank High School does and, unfortunately, it is not a good one.
“My first racist encounter happened when I went shopping at the Grove in Los Angeles with my mom,” Cho recalls. “We were getting things for my first day of kindergarten and while we were walking around, two men approached us, stretched back their eyes and began making karate poses.”
Cho also remembers the men using racial slurs, mimicking an Asian dialect and laughing.
“I was confused. I really didn’t comprehend what they were doing or why, but what I did understand was my mother’s hurtful and scared reaction,” Cho said.
Cho, who was born in Los Angeles to parents who emigrated from Seoul, South Korea, said that as the years went by, she continued to experience racism and hurtful remarks regarding her ethnicity.
“It was prevalent throughout my youth — through elementary and middle school,” she recalls. “I remember I used to throw my lunches away because other students would gag and tell me my Korean lunch smelled. I also remember when our dog died, someone asked me if we ate it. I would react by laughing it off, but I was not laughing internally. I have pictures of me when I was a young girl and, although I look amused and happy in them, when I look at them, I find it ironically upsetting that during that time I was experiencing anguishing racism.”
Cho, who has lived in Burbank since age 6, is today the president of Burbank High School’s Kiwanis Club supported Key Club, the Associated Student Body auditor and the team president of SkillsUSA, a national partnership of students, teachers and industry leaders who work together to ensure America has a skilled workforce.
She says that, while she finds her school to be a safe place — where racism isn’t tolerated and support is offered — things have, sadly, not changed.
“I have still have peers who call me and other Asian classmates names,” she said. “I’ve even had a member of my own student body tell me I wasn’t wanted because I was a minority. However, one thing has changed: how I approach these types of incidents. Instead of being hurt and discouraged, I now view them as opportunities to educate those who believe these actions are OK.”
With the influx of anti-Asian hate crimes that have targeted the Asian American and Pacific Islander (AAPI) population across the U.S., Cho felt a need to do more than just repost reports of such things on social media. It inspired her to create the Meraki Magic Project through which she sells handmade beaded jewelry.
“Crafting and making jewelry has always been big with me, and there’s a current fashion trend with young people to wear the kind of beaded jewelry that was popular in the early 2000s. So I decided to create Meraki, which is the modern Greek word that refers to the soul, creativity or love put into something,” Cho explained.
Along with her jewelry, Cho has also created an opportunity to raise awareness and funds for her cause. She donates 100% of the proceeds from her sales to Stop AAPI Hate, an organization which provides funds and aid to Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders who have endured racially motivated hate incidents.
“I also put in the effort to play an important role throughout my school community promoting more Asian representation throughout campus,” she said. “By taking the initiative, I have been able to find amazing groups of educated, open-minded peers who have been so encouraging and supportive.”
Cho believes that addressing racism toward the AAPI community is important because ignoring the issue fuels and encourages bullying and violent hate crimes. She will soon be bringing that message to the Burbank YMCA’s Social Impact Center, where she will hold interactive jewelry-making activities while educating youth on the importance of being kind.
A Key Club member since she was a freshman, Cho said the organization appealed to her because of the impact its members have on their community.
“I worked my way up the ranks and hope to go on to become a member of Kiwanis,” she said with exuberance. “Many of the current Kiwanis members joke with me when I attend their meetings and say that I will be a future president.”
Kelly Peña, the current president of the Kiwanis Club of Burbank and BHS Key Club advisor, said she is sure that will happen.
“I’ve had the pleasure of working with Alicia for the past couple of years and she has been an outstanding officer who has led with distinction,” Peña said. “She is driven toward excellence in everything she does. She understands that leadership goes beyond individual achievement and has demonstrated her ability to inspire others to serve, lead and reach their full potential.”
Peña was so impressed with what Cho is doing to support Stop AAPI Hate that she asked her to do a presentation on her project for the Kiwanis Club of Burbank.
“Her presentation was so impressive that club members had their checkbooks wide open and ready to donate to this important cause,” Peña said.
Cho is currently working on establishing an online website. Until it is finalized, you can get a link to purchase jewelry from Meraki, donate funds for supplies, or learn more about promoting her project by emailing her at email@example.com or calling (213) 705-8255.
DAVID LAURELL may be reached by email at firstname.lastname@example.org or (818) 563-1007.