Diversity and Adversity at Mason District
By Jackie Bong-Wright
“I am protesting foreign signs.” “Too many signs are written only in Korean.” “The ___ café is a brothel protected by political favoritism.” “Asian food has an awful smell, and these Asian restaurants should be closed.”
These are just a few of the complaints received in the late 1990s by Mason District Supervisor Penny Gross. At one point, a visitor to her office even asked a Vietnamese staff member when she was going to return to her own country. The staffer was in fact born in Arkansas after her parents came to the U.S. as refugee boat people.
To address these sensitive issues, “Penny,” now a household name in her district, founded “Kaleidoscope.” That is the name she gave to the meetings she started in 1998 with civic association leaders and Mason District residents to talk about the challenges that new cultures and customs bring to Fairfax County. These monthly meetings brought together longtime residents and newcomers, County staff and spiritual leaders, legal experts and social service workers for wide-ranging discussions.
Korean leaders joined in, and invited Kaleidoscope members to sample food at Korean restaurants and attend Korean cultural events. The Koreans encouraged Korean business owners to start doing some things the American way. In the next few months, signs in both English and Korean were sprouting up, especially in the Annandale area.
In 2001, the U.S. Census Bureau reported that Fairfax County housed more than 10,600 Asian-owned businesses, employing more than 16,000 people with receipts of more than $1.87 billion (a figure that is much higher today). Trying to prevent problems and solve crises in one of the most diverse and densely populated districts in Fairfax, Gross is known for acting swiftly and moving forward wisely. She became a facilitator and mediator, calling on all sides to find amiable solutions.
Supervisor Gross had made residents in her community feel comfortable. Two years ago, she called on local police and the Korean press to help solve the grisly murder of Korean contractor Hak Bong Kim. His near-totally burned body was discovered in a wooded area of Mason District. The police, working diligently with a motivated and cooperative community, arrested the killer within 15 days.
Gross was also instrumental in gaining federal funding for three immigrant communities – the Hispanic Committee of Virginia, the Korean Community Service Center, and Boat People SOS – to create specialized and culturally-appropriate prevention programs for domestic violence. The idea was to strenghthen healthy families, promote victims’ safety, and hold perpetrators accountable. She wanted ethnic groups to work together like a “mosaic in a tapestry.”
Healing in Time of Crisis
Recently, an urgent, late-night phone call to the Supervisor’s home from Ilryong Moon, an elected Korean-American member of the School Board, had Gross driving to her office at midnight to find room space for an important meeting the next morning. The spur was the Virginia Tech murders by a Korean student. Gross put together at her Government Center an extraordinary meeting that included Virginia Governor Tim Kaine, Korean Ambassador Lee, Fairfax County Chairman Gerry Connolly, and 100 members of the Korean-American community who responded to a last-minute chain call.
The shocked Koreans feared retaliation against their community in Fairfax County and across the United States. Decisions were reached to hold prayers on campus, visit families, send words of apology and sympathy, and make financial contributions. These gestures from the Korean community and Korean government helped alleviate the grief and suffering of the victims’ families and of Americans at large.
Gross did similar work on the afternoon of 9-11. Four elders from Dar Al-Hijrah, a large Muslim mosque in the Seven Corners area, came to her office unannounced. Their families were terrified, they told her. “We are hiding behind locked doors and have closed the mosque.” The Supervisor was a calming influence. Noting that the national response was in the hands of the President, she said, “In this country, we often turn to prayer in a crisis.” She suggested that the mosque hold a prayer service for the community. She also arranged a meeting between the police chief and mosque officials and worshippers to ease their fears for their personal safety.
Gross explained, “We had gottten to know one another through Kaleidoscope, so when a crisis hit, we were already friends and could spend our energy solving the problems together. Trust established in advance can pay such dividends for everyone.”
A review of voting patterns in Mason District reveals more than 6,600 new Arab-American voters, followed by Latinos, Vietnamese, and Koreans. The 2006 American Community Survey showed around 160,000 Asians in Fairfax County. Of those, 37,667 are Koreans, followed by Vietnamese, Indians, Chinese and Filipinos, the smallest group.
Supervisor Gross’ outreach to these ethnic groups takes many forms. Last year, she supported the new collection of Vietnamese-language books at the Thomas Jefferson library on Route 50. She also helped amend the plans for library expansion to include a brick walkway area that will commemorate Vietnam’s heritage and contributions. Donors will get a commemorative brick in the walkway of the renovated library, scheduled to be completed in 2009.
To cope with the cocktail of languages and cultures in her district, Supervisor Gross has added to her staff Arabic- and Spanish-speaking employees. She also appointed the first Korean-American to the Fairfax County Convention and Visitors’ Corporation and supported a Korean-American for the County’s Human Services Council; placed the first Arab-American woman on the Human Rights Commission, and named a young Latina as Mason District’s representative on the Commission for Women.
Penny Gross has served as Supervisor of Mason District since 1995. “I ran for office because I am committed to public service and want to help people solve their problems. I love my job and want to be re-elected this year.”