Kim: Cultural organizations can simultaneously foster, inhibit community

Justine Kim, Columnist

Many students on Northwestern’s campus, specifically white students, are unaware of the various Asian American cultural organizations that exist on our campus. In fact, two years ago, I never thought that I myself would become part of a cultural group at Northwestern. However, after spending two years in the Korean American Student Association and serving on its executive board as outreach chair, I both realize the benefits I have gleaned from this experience and have come to understand the need for further critique and reflection.

In the column “For cultural organizations, simply being is enough,” Yvonne Kim wrote that “it’s hard to find that balance” in just being a cultural organization while being cognizant of the social and personal factors of being in a Northwestern student group. And although I agree with and have strived to create that balance, it is crucial for members of cultural organizations to be aware of the implications of their actions and critique their structures from the inside out. As such, there are various systemic factors that can be detrimental to an organization’s culture. One of them is the application process to become a member of a cultural organization, which can be inequitable in how applicants are perceived or shallow in the manner in which they take “all members.”

For instance, KASA and the Chinese Students Association are two of the largest Asian American cultural organizations at Northwestern. Although the experience of no two cultural groups is equal, the two organizations have crossover between members and at times offer similar programming. The two groups differ drastically in size, however, and both have systems in which members fall into two categories: general members or junior executive. And like many student groups, both organizations have an application process for students to become members.

During this process, CSA applicants go through a week of networking and an interview. Most applicants in the fall cycle of CSA recruitment do not end up becoming JEs, and I have heard friends say that after being rejected from the JE position, they felt not “Chinese enough.” They didn’t understand why, as Chinese Americans, they were rejected from an organization that is supposed to represent their ethnic identity. Furthermore, CSA’s system provides JEs with most of the opportunities that are identified with being a part of CSA, perpetuating cycles of exclusivity. Cultural organizations should not be vetting applicants in an inequitable system with arbitrary standards. From my observations, however, there is certainly value in having small numbers and providing members with greater agency. CSA has created a tight knit community with its JEs, and the passion they have for the organization shows in the relationships they have formed with each other.

KASA also holds events meant to network students and hosts an application process, but all fall applicants enter as GMs and have the opportunity to become JEs after a quarter in the organization. But though this a more open policy, KASA faces its own distinct set of issues as a result: the membership has gotten too large to stay sustainable. One of our biggest problems has been that it is hard to clearly delineate between GMs and JEs, resulting in members feeling undervalued and underrepresented in an organization that is supposed to work for them, and not vice versa.

KASA’s membership experienced exponential growth in the past two years, and our solution to the growing numbers has often been the institutionalization of community. We had a deer in headlights moment when we realized KASA’s framework was able to nurture community, but only with a small number of people. The solution to the larger numbers? Controlled community, as we began to break up the organization to facilitate community in an organized fashion. But when our organization stands for a foundation as fluid as “culture,” there is nothing to ground members except the organic formation of community.

The ways we continue to navigate and make decisions about our organizations matter: for instance, the unique sets of problems faced by KASA and CSA are good examples to look toward when we think about open and closed student group policies. Of course, both CSA and KASA are consciously making efforts to further improve, and there is no perfect solution to simultaneously have tight-knit community while being all-inclusive. Cultural organizations have the same autonomy in their programming and application process, but that autonomy requires a greater level of consciousness of the ramifications of their actions. I am extremely conscious of my own complicity in the culture of KASA, but I hope this internal critique is an important step of growth for any cultural organization to understand.

Justine Kim is a SESP sophomore. She can be contacted at [email protected]. If you would like to respond publicly to this column, send a Letter to the Editor to [email protected]. The views expressed in this piece do not necessarily reflect the views of all staff members of The Daily Northwestern.