When a Personal Story Aligns with a Passion

Imagine growing up and looking nothing like your family or community. This is the experience of thousands of Korean adoptees, including Sung Ja Shin, the K-12 education program officer of Minnesota Humanities Center.

“I remember one of the first times I consciously looked in the mirror and realized I wasn’t white, which is a pretty typical experience for a Korean adoptee,” Shin said. “You know, it was really jarring for me.”

Mona Smith Sung Ja Shin
Mona Smith, left, media artist and creator of the Bdote Memory Map, poses with Sung Ja Shin during Minnesota Humanities Center’s program “Learning from Place: Bdote” on June 26, 2017. (Sung Ja Shin)

Shin was born in Seoul, South Korea, and came to the United States as an infant through Lutheran Social Services. Minnesota has the highest concentration of Korean adoptees of any state, according to the Minnesota Historical Society.

Shin says her life journey as a Korean adoptee prepared her for the job she has within Minnesota Humanities Center—a role she says dramatically changed her life.

Shin attended a workshop at the beginning of 2013 that asked her to reflect on her racial identity. She said that experience solidified her journey as a person of color and helped her realize her experiences were valid. It was really affirming for me to be able to step into identifying as a person of color,” Shin said.

This realization gave weight and credibility to her life experiences. Shin recalls the first time she went to the doctor without her parents and felt that the treatment was not the same.

“Proximity to whiteness was really a big part of my experience growing up, and once you remove that proximity, my life was really different,” Shin said.

Sung Ja Shin Kirk MacKinnon Morrow
Sung Ja Shin, right, and Kirk MacKinnon Morrow take a break from the registration table during the 2017 Veterans’ Voices Award Ceremony. (Sung Ja Shin)

The reclaiming of her identity and heritage adds to Shin’s excitement about contributing to the Truth and Transformation: Changing Racial Narratives in Media, a partnership with five other community organizations that focuses on narrative change, racial healing and relationship building.

    “Narrative change is fundamental to who we [Minnesota Humanities Center] are as an organization,” Shin said. “Especially given that we want to bring in voices that we have not traditionally heard or have been intentionally absent from a dominant conversation. It’s a really good fit for us to be a part of the project.”

At Minnesota Humanities Center, Shin works to increase engagement through an Absent Narratives workshop, which is an introduction to the absent narratives approach.

Four core values drive that approach: building and strengthening relationships, recognizing the power of stories and dangers of absence, learning from and with multiple voices, and amplifying community solutions for change. The Absent Narratives workshop is what Minnesota Humanities Center is bringing to the partnership, and it is personal to Shin.

“The absent narrative approach and the increasing engagement through the Absent Narrative workshop was something that put a language to some of the experiences that I had as a Korean adoptee,” Shin said.

Shin really wanted to be in a field where she was giving back and contributing to something larger than herself. That is why she says her current job is the perfect one for her.

Shin is passionate about making sure that not just her own narrative but also those of others are represented well and are thriving through the community. She also wants to encourage the community to redefine what Minnesota means by helping people understand all Minnesotans contribute to our story as a state.

    Sung Ja is her given Korean name, but not what her adoptive family called her growing up. Shin decided to change her name back to her Korean name about two years ago as a point of reclamation of her narrative. She says being able to name and identify how she wants to be seen and spoken about has been really powerful for her.

    “Navigating the world of a person of color and not having that identity acknowledged and recognized had a tremendous impact on my life,” Shin said. “It’s really important to me that my kids or others growing up, as well as people that have been living under the burden of these narratives for a really long time, have the opportunity to have their narrative affirmed and to see themselves reflected in our public domain.”