The history of KCI reflects the evolution of the Korean community. San Francisco has always been a principal port of entry for Korean immigrants to America, but from the first immigrants to arrive in 1903 until the 1960’s they came in a trickle. After the repeal of severely restrictive Asian immigration quotas in 1965, when Lyndon B. Johnson signed the Hart-Celler Act, a Korean community began to emerge in the San Francisco Bay Area. In 1974 a group of community leaders who recognized the need for a non-profit organization to manage the myriad needs of newly arrived Koreans founded the Korean Advisory Council (KAC), which undertook projects of acculturation, employment and language training. These projects coalesced as the Multi-Service Center for Koreans (MSCK), which was incorporated in 1975 and rented an office on mid-Market Street.
The organization’s reach and impact in the Korean community quickly spread such that in 1980, in recognition of superlative community service, the executive director Youn-Cha Shin Chey was invited to President Jimmy Carter’s Ethnic Affairs Conference in the White House. In 1983 the center was visited by future president of South Korea and Nobel Peace Prize winner (for initiating relations with North Korea) Kim Dae-Jung during his period of exile in the US as a dissident and critic of the autocratic president Chun Doo-Hwan. In 1981-1983 a youth educational program, senior employment training, and computer programming classes (in affiliation with IBM) were added. During this period, in which Koreans were California’s fastest growing immigrant population, a campaign was also started to relocate the organization to a permanent location, which culminated in the 1984 purchase of our current center on Post Street, in a historic 4 floor Victorian house. This move resulted in greatly expanded classroom and meeting space, and creation of the Wu-Jung library.
During the later half of the 1980’s, with shifts in patterns of immigration and growth of the reputation of the organization’s very effective job training and placement programs, the organization attracted an increasing number of other underserved minorities, particularly Russians, Southeast Asians, African-Americans, and Latinos. The center embraced this change and while maintaining pride in its Korean roots nevertheless acknowledged that the center was no longer only “for Koreans,” and so accordingly in 1989 the name of the organization was changed to Korean Center Inc. In 1992, due to her work assisting Russian refugees, Executive Director Chey for the third time met a Head of State: former Russian President Mickael Gorbachev during his visit to the U.S. During this same period, following the 1988 Seoul Olympics and the emerging prominence of South Korea as a global economic power, KCI for the first time began to offer Korean language and cultural programs for interested non-Koreans. During the 1990’s KCI was also vocal in political causes, including publishing articles promoting the calming of racial tensions after the L.A. riots in 1992 and spearheading the movement that attained the designation of the Korean United Methodist Church in Chinatown as a National Historical Landmark (built in 1928, it was the first Korean church in the U.S.).
The 90’s saw dramatic growth of the Bay Area Korean community, whose number had reached 50,000 by the end of the decade (compared with less than 2000 in 1970) and the emergence of a second generation of Korean-Americans. Increasing demand for its educational programs led KCI in 1994 to create a new organization, the Intercultural Institute of California (IIC), to manage these services: English language, Korean language, business classes, and a new Masters in Korean Studies program. The Masters program granted degrees starting in 1996, began an innovative on-line program in 2001, and became the first fully accredited masters program in the U.S. dedicated solely to Korean Studies in 2004.
In 2012 KCI was awarded an affiliation with the Sejong Institute (세종학당), the newly formed international educational program of the government of South Korea, and so KCI’s Korean language and cultural classes were moved from the auspices of IIC and reformed with the new materials and standards of the King Sejong Institute of San Francisco. At the same time IIC, now a separate non-profit organization sharing one Board of Directors with KCI, made the decision to retire its Korean Studies Masters degree in order to focus on its highest demand service: San Francisco’s most affordable high-quality ESL program. Since then KCI has continued to work on refining and improving these programs to meet the needs of the community we serve.