Katherine Dachtler and Kim Park Nelson receive top regional leadership grant | By Martha Vickery (Summer 2023)
Among the recipients of a prestigious leadership grant are two mid-career Korean adoptee professionals who have both spent many years in leadership: Katherine Dachtler of Grand Forks, North Dakota and Kim Park Nelson of Minneapolis.
The Bush Foundation made its announcement about the 2023 fellows in June. This year’s fellows are 24 community leaders chosen from a field of 590 applicants. Each will receive a grant of up to $100,000 to be used over one or two years. The Foundation chooses recipients from its service area of Minnesota, North Dakota, South Dakota and the 23 native nations in the same geographic area. The flexible grants are designed to help recipients take their leadership skills to the next level.
Park Nelson is best known for her work in researching and writing about Korean adoption. She also became a labor leader while working with her faculty union (the Interfaculty Organization) over the two years she has been a professor of American Studies at Winona State University (Winona, MN), and during the 13 years she worked at Moorhead State University (Moorhead, MN).
She said the Bush Fellowship will allow her to concentrate on an area of union organizing she wants to learn more about — the issue of how marginalized people in unions, including disabled members, members of color, and queer members, can have stronger influence in their labor organizations. Unions are gradually growing into more diverse organizations, Park Nelson explained, but they traditionally have been dominated by men who are older and white. That demographic is shifting in recent years.
Dachtler, who grew up in Fergus Falls, Minnesota, now lives and works in Grand Forks, North Dakota as a mental health counselor for both children and adults. She has worked in related fields such as crisis intervention and finding alternatives to incarceration for juvenile offenders. Earlier in her career, she worked with a law firm on immigration-related issues, and with an organization doing refugee resettlement. Parallel to this career, she has developed her leadership in community projects and many governing boards. She was a member of the Grand Forks City Council from 2018 to 2022, and beforre that, served on a Grand Forks school board. She has also worked with many community-building organizations and initiatives over the last 17 years.
Among her work with non-profit organizations, Dachtler has been associated with Kamp Kimchee, a Korean culture camp located in Brainerd, Minnesota. She was a camper as a kid, and stays in contact with some of her fellow campers today. She is presently a Kamp Kimchee co-director.
Through her Bush Fellowship, Dachtler said she will free up time to earn a Ph.D. in a degree specialty called “Leadership for Change Equity” in an on-line program with the University of Central Arkansas. As a part of that program, she wants to concentrate on her own group – transnational adoptees – and possibly do research whether they are successfully accessing appropriate counseling and other mental health services in rural areas.
Dachtler also wants to explore her own identity as a leader by delving into her own identity as a Korean adoptee. This exploration will include a 2024 first trip back to South Korea.
Getting up to two years off to devote to the prestigious fellowship will require some rearranging of her life, Park Nelson said. Although she had applied for the fellowship and knew there was a possibility of being a recipient, being chosen for it was still a surprise. She had applied for the 2020 grant and was not chosen for it at that time. Her 2022 application for the grant beginning in 2023, was very similar, she said.
“You don’t apply to this thing thinking you’re actually going to get it!” Park Nelson said. “So, when I found out was a semi-finalist at end of March, I thought …what am I going to do if I actually get it?” The academic calendar is planned out far in advance, she explained, and rearranging all the classes she had already committed to teach would require some adjustments. That is part of this summer’s work.
The fellowship starts August 1. Park Nelson said many recipients use the fellowship to obtain an advanced degree, but, she added, she does not need any more degrees. Instead she is crafting a personal fellowship plan to learn from others in her field of inquiry.
So far, her union organizing skills have been learned on the job, of necessity, as a faculty union leader. She never had time for a deep dive into how organizing is done; she has been learning from peer union members. “It will be a new thing, which is exciting,” she said.
In her faculty union, Park Nelson co-authored that group’s first plan for diversity, equity and inclusion (nicknamed DEI). During her fellowship, she wants to dig into how unions can carry out such plans through the examples of organizations that have successfully done DEI work. The fellowship may include “shadowing other labor leaders, improving my facilitation skills, and maybe learning some intercultural mediation work,” Park Nelson explained. She also plans to seek out labor leaders of color and find out what success looks like to them.
Park Nelson said she has observed that many labor unions are interested in the idea of DEI, “but in many cases, they are not exactly sure how to pursue it.” The product of this combination of sincere desire and unskilled and/or incomplete follow-through “ends up being a lot of superficial tokenizing kinds of gestures. That can be supportive in some ways, but it is not really the structural changes that are needed to create a racial justice reality for these organizations,” she said. “That’s what I am interested in doing.”
The way to get marginalized workers at the table is to put leadership power directly into their hands “so that they can be in a position to really transform their unions and get the institutions they are working with to actually be better at DEI in real, lasting structural ways,” Park Nelson said. In her adoption studies research, she explained, she found that the top experts on what transracial adoptees need were the adoptees themselves. She anticipates applying this principle to union organizing in learning how to recruit leadership from under-represented groups.
Union activity was on the rise five years ago or more, Park Nelson observed, but there has been more energy in recent years. “Labor is having a moment right now,” she said, more so than any time she can remember. Before the pandemic, the plight of the worker, particularly in some sectors such as education and health care, was getting noticed.
“I think, in some ways, COVID pushed that,” Park Nelson said. A lot of institutions and systems that were stressed before COVID fell apart during the years of the pandemic, she pointed out. At the same time, labor unions were seeing a high mortality rate from COVID among workers in public-facing services, and raised the alarm about the increasingly unsafe working conditions for the people in these sectors, many of whom are unionized.
In terms of increasing the power of marginalized union members, Park Nelson said, now is a key time for that kind of push as well. In many places, including Minnesota, she said, “people feel much more comfortable being queer, and being people of color in the workplace and actually having something to say – instead of telling themselves ‘I can only be a person of color at home, and I’ve got to act white at work.’ So that’s very exciting.”
Doing meetings while kids wait at the back of the room
Dachtler said she was looking around when her city council term ended in 2022, and asking herself “what’s next?” Before city council, she was on a school board. Her eight-year-old son was two when she started her term on the city council – he does not remember any other pace of life. “He’s lived what he sees as his entire life with me being in elected office, and doing that kind of work. My kids used to sit at the back of the room with books during my meetings. They’ve grown up with it.”
After city council, she said, she had a sense that it was time to re-focus. She heard about the fellowship, which she thought could help her to explore leadership in a more deliberate and non-traditional way. She also wanted some time to be present for key moments in her kids’ lives.
In choosing a leadership Ph.D. program, Dachtler sifted through a variety of programs – most assumed that the candidate would be planning to lead in either a business setting or an educational setting. The program she chose concentrates on leading in the non-profit world, a better and more familiar fit. She also wanted to relate her leadership studies to her personal goals of building community, identity and belonging through leadership.
Dachtler said she will also do the training needed for a certification in “permanency and adoption competency” at the University of Minnesota. On the fun side, she wants to do training with her dog so that it can be certified as a dog therapist (for people, not other dogs).
There are some intangible goals too, Dachtler said, including taking time to rest, reflect and heal – which, as a mental health counselor, she knows is necessary for growth. “I want to develop more self-care practices so I can sustain my leadership,” she said. “It has been full bore for the last few years. I went back to school, finished undergrad and finished my master’s degree, was elected to the school board, then was elected to city council, all during COVID.” There were difficult issues before the city council during her tenure, she said, including “a very explosive dialogue about a development that was going to come to my city, then was not going to come, and that issue had a lot of racial undertones.”
The challenge of doing something completely different
In addition to studies, Dachtler said, she wants to take advantage of the freedom that comes with receiving a grant that has no specific requirements for deliverables. It is a rare grant type – wonderful and strange at the same time, she reflected. In her experience, Dachtler said, grants always include the responsibility of proving – usually in numerous ways – that the money went to its intended purpose and achieved specific results. “It’s not that the Bush Foundation doesn’t value that, but it’s just that this particular fellowship really looks at the leader, and trying to get the leader to invest in themselves in a way that doesn’t have to have a tangible deliverable,” she said.
One of her exercises of freedom will be to take a first trip back to South Korea since her adoption. Only her husband will go along with her, she said. The three kids will stay home. “I’m hoping that in the future, there will be more trips, but for this one I wanted to make sure I could be very present for myself,” Dachtler said.
That trip will happen in the summer of 2024, so there is still time to plan. She will visit a good friend she has known since childhood (a fellow Kamp Kimchee alum), and a couple other Korean nationals she met in the U.S. Other details on this first trip back to her country of origin are still to be determined.
Nelson said she is also exploring the edges of the new-found freedom of the grant. She is trying not to have a specific research goal, but “since I am an academic, and always I think about research, I would not be surprised if I produced something that was research,” she said. Mainly, she wants to learn from others, which requires reaching out, asking for new relationships, and requesting people’s time for mentoring and other informal opportunities to learn. She is not sure yet what form it might take.
The Bush Foundation website addresses the idea that improving leaders’ capacity benefits the entire community. Although awardees are diverse group of leaders from three states, what they have in common is “their desire to strengthen their own leadership so that they can drive change to make our region better for everyone.”
Park Nelson wants to plan a year (or possibly two) that will take full advantage of the Foundation’s invitation. “One of the beautiful things about the fellowship is that they really want us to focus on personal development and what is it you need to get to the next level where you see yourself. For me, that looks like a chance to learn more.”
Martha Vickery is a long-time professional journalist and long-time amateur Korea watcher, co-founder of Korean Quarterly, and editor since its founding in 1997. She has raised three now-adult children, two of whom are adopted from Korea, with the help of the Korean American community in the St. Paul-Minneapolis area.