In honor of International Women’s Day, Porter Novelli’s Global Talent Leader Mindy Gikas challenged everyone on the talent team to embrace #beboldforchange. As I considered this, I remembered my involvement with the Atlanta Comfort Women Memorial Task Force, a noble cause and something that could be my check-box to this challenge. But it’s not something that requires much boldness, I thought. When I was first asked to serve on the task force, it seemed like a no-brainer commitment. I mean, who wouldn’t want to honor this well-documented story of hundreds of thousands of women who were trafficked and forced into sex slavery during World War II? A major civil rights organization had already agreed to house the memorial on its grounds. All that would now be required would be a few task force dinners, a photo op at the groundbreaking and—voila!—all done.
Well, I was wrong. The truth is the Comfort Women story makes people very un-comfortable – so much so that powerful people will go to great lengths to erase history.
For background, the intent of the Atlanta Comfort Women Memorial is to remember the history of the 200,000 girls and women who were trafficked and sexually enslaved during World War II. Euphemistically known as the “comfort women,” the stories of girls and women from Korea, China, the Philippines, Burma, Thailand, Vietnam, Malaysia, Taiwan, Indonesia, East Timor, the Netherlands and Australia, who were abducted from their homes for military “comfort stations,” have been largely hidden in shame by all those involved. This memorial sheds light on one of the largest known cases of human and sexual trafficking in the 20th century. International human-rights tribunals, UN groups and rapporteurs have all affirmed the history of these victims and the violation of their fundamental human rights. We remember, not to exact blame, but to acknowledge our history so that we are not doomed to repeat these atrocities.
My parents Yong Hyok Kim and Seok Ja Kim grew up in their homeland of Korea during the Japanese occupation. For a time, they were forced to adopt the names Suzuki Kiyoshe and Oizume Kimiko. Each school day began with chants of Japanese supremacy and declarations that they themselves were Japanese. They told me stories of young girls, who had raised their hands to earn money for their families, unwittingly conscripted into sex slavery. They spoke of girls abducted off the streets and taken to Japan and China. Girls as young as 11 years old were hurriedly married off in attempts to avoid being gathered and shipped away to Southeast Asia. The poorest families were always the most vulnerable.
I want to warn you: Caring is fashionable right now, but it comes at a cost. We bandy about words like bold, big, hairy and audacious because it allows us to puff up our chests and think we’re doing something courageous, but everyone wants to be bold until it’s time do what bold people do.
At Porter Novelli, we focus on making a positive social impact on the world. That seems easy enough when we apply our childlike naiveté and clear sense of right and wrong to a situation. But often it can be hard. We have to ask ourselves: are we willing, even in those situations, to do the right thing when there are political, social and economic costs? Because that’s what our audiences, consumers, stakeholders, colleagues, clients and prospects want from us – to be true to our word, to say what we mean, to walk the talk. That’s what brand and purpose alignment mean for us all, whether we are an individual, an organization or a brand.
Going back to the Atlanta Comfort Woman Memorial issue, the Task Force received the deeply disappointing news from its site partner on March 2nd that they would not honor their commitment to permanently house the memorial. The external reasons are what they are, but the truth is there was intense pressure from those with economic interests in Atlanta, afraid of economic backlash. And that is how it happens: Powerful people make threats. Organizations reliant on external funding buckle under the pressure. Management makes seemingly safe choices. Good is silenced. Bad wins the day.
In closing, I want to leave you with important faces from history: Addie Mae Collins, Cynthia Wesley, Carole Robertson and Caroline Denise McNair. These four innocent girls, ages 11-14, were killed in the Birmingham, AL church bombing in 1963. Martin Luther King, Jr. described this as “one of the most vicious and tragic crimes ever perpetrated against humanity.”
I want to leave you with the familiar face of Anne Frank, whose diary “reminds us of the lost promise of children killed in the Holocaust.”
And, I want to introduce you to Bok-Dong Kim, who at 14 was forced to leave her family to support the war effort at a sewing factory. Instead, she ended up in Japanese military brothels in six different countries as a “comfort woman.”
As tragic as these stories are, I’m grateful for them. As I continue to work on the Atlanta Comfort Women Task Force Committee, I have to remember all these young girls. When we see atrocities in our midst, whether they are victims of hate crimes, genocide and war, we must see within the statistics, the demographics, and even the bronze statues, so that these atrocities never happen again. Caring comes at a cost. To truly care is to be bold, and it’s really our only option.
Today, as we celebrate International Women’s Day, I want to recognize all these brave girls and women, including the Comfort Women, and tell them, past, present and future, they mattered and they matter, still.
For more information on Comfort Women, please check out: “Arirang Special “Comfort Women” One Last Cry” https://youtu.be/5yHHfYOGumI