Rep. Andy Kim on Strengthening Democracy Through Service 
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Rep. Andy Kim on Strengthening Democracy Through Service 

“Profiles in Public Service” is honored to have Rep. Andy Kim from New Jersey’s 3rd District join us as the final guest of our second season. Congressman Kim is committed to empowering a greater belief in service, democracy, and a more mission-driven government. In 2018, Kim chose to apply his unique combination of experiences working as a career public servant at the U.S. Agency for International Development, the Pentagon, the State Department and the White House National Security Council to run for a seat in the House of Representatives. Once elected, he became the first Korean American Democrat elected to Congress. In this episode, Congressman Kim discusses his professional journey in public service, what he is doing to build greater trust in government among not only his constituents, but among all Americans, and his proposed legislation to aimed at “supercharging national service” and creating more pathways for all to enter government work.   

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Loren DeJonge Schulman:  From the Partnership for Public Service, this is “Profiles in Public Service”—a podcast that shares the stories of the public servants who work on our behalf every day to make our country safer, healthier and more prosperous.  

We talk to career public servants, emerging leaders, journalists and more to better understand what it means to be a public servant… the incredible variety of careers possible in government… and how public service impacts all our lives.  

I’m Loren DeJonge Schulman,  

Rachel Klein-Kircher: And I’m Rachel Klein-Kircher. Today we are honored to have Congressman Andy Kim from New Jersey’s 3rd district join us as our final guest of our second season! 

Loren DeJonge Schulman:  Motivated by a deep commitment to service instilled in him by his parents, Congressman Kim started out working as a community organizer with the Chicago Coalition for the Homeless while a first-generation student at the University of Chicago.  

Later, he became a career public servant serving at the United States Agency for International Development (USAID), the Pentagon, State Department, the White House National Security Council, and in Afghanistan as a civilian advisor to Generals Petraeus and Allen. 

Rachel Klein-Kircher: In 2018, Kim chose to apply his unique combination of experiences in the executive branch and as a career public servant, to run for a seat in the House of Representatives. Once elected, he became the first Korean American Democrat elected to Congress. 

With his commitment to being transparent and accessible to his constituents, Congressman Kim has hosted monthly town halls for his district, with over 57 town halls done so far.  

We will hear from Congressman Kim about his career journey in public service, what he is doing to build greater trust in government among not only his constituents, but all Americans, and his proposed legislation to create more pathways for all to pursue national service opportunities.  

Loren DeJonge Schulman:  Welcome Congressman Kim! 

Transition Music 

Loren DeJonge Schulman:  Our first question for you is one we ask everyone, and they all have incredible stories, but I am very eager to hear about your personal one. And that is what motivated you to enter a career in public service and work for the federal government?  

Congressman Andy Kim:  Yeah. Thank you. I think about that a lot. I don’t come from a family of people who worked in government and that kind of effort. You know, I’m the son of immigrants. My mom and my dad moved here from South Korea. They were born at the end of the Korean War and when they came here, they didn’t know a single person in the entire Western hemisphere of Earth. And so, I think about that kind of grit and the determination that they had, but also how they were able to survive here. They always talked about it as a community, and that sense of community was something that was not optional for them, like they needed it in order to survive and to be here. 

So, they often talk to me about this sense of service through that means. They often said, you know, service isn’t just a job, it’s a way of life. So, it’s not like a job you do and like you do it nine-to-five and then you like hang it on up on the coat rack and you pick it up the next day. The way they describe it to me is that it describes your fundamental responsibility to other people, whether they are family, friends, or strangers. That the only way they were able to survive here was that other people brought them in and they were all strangers. None of them were family, and initially none of them were friends. 

So, you know, my mom and my dad, like my dad was someone who grew up homeless in Korea and ended up getting a PhD in genetics here in America, and then dedicated his life to trying to cure cancer and Alzheimer’s. That was his service. My mom was a nurse. That was her service. I wanted to be of service to some level. I didn’t necessarily think it would be government, but I was a sophomore in college when September 11th happened, and I’m part of that generation of people, many people, that decided that we were going to make some big changes in our lives and step up at a time that our country needed us. 

If it wasn’t for September 11th, I’d probably be some mediocre microbiologist somewhere doing some of the research or something like that, but I instead decided to go the route of political science and international relations, always with the idea in mind that I would be in government at some point. So, it was interesting to see how much of a shift there was for me. 

Loren DeJonge Schulman:  I think you’re absolutely right. There are many in your generation of public servants whose lives just fundamentally changed in 2011. And so, Congressman, I’ve worked with you in a number of agencies before, but even just looking at your bio and your resume, I did not realize quite how many federal agencies and places in government you had touched before and that you had been a part of. 

Walk us through your journey in public service because this is not typical that the number of roles that you’ve held, though I guess maybe it was a little bit typical for the era at the time. How did you start in the federal government and what was your journey through that like? 

Congressman Andy Kim: Yeah, I was lucky enough to win a scholarship called the Truman Scholarship.  

Loren DeJonge Schulman: Yeah, a great program.  

Congressman Andy Kim:  A great program. And, I was just recently appointed to the board, so I’m excited to now be able to support it in that kind of capacity. But you know, initially, it was a program that was meant to identify young people that were interested in service to some level, especially government service. I kind of thought of it more as just like support money for graduate school. I was interested in service, but I was thinking about it more in that way. I was just like, you know, hand me that like Publishers Clearinghouse giant check and I will go to graduate school. 

I didn’t necessarily think that the most impactful parts of that scholarship were actually not the monetary aspect, but it was the people. You know, I had Truman Scholars standing with me when I was getting married. They were friends, they are part of my life, but also it gave me that foot in the door. It got me started at USAID as an intern and I’m somebody that always dreamt of doing a internship for the federal government, but I could never afford to spend a summer in D.C. and have an unpaid internship. I just did not have the money in my account to accomplish that. So, the Truman Scholarship gave me free board for a summer and that allowed me to be able to come and do that. I caught the bug and, you know, was working on Africa issues for USAID. I was able to turn that into a longer gig and then went off to grad school. But again, always with the sense that, you know, that I’d be able to come back. 

So, you know, I had that opportunity at USAID to start with and that was under the Bush administration. And that really was an important reflection for me to work under that administration. And then I had an opportunity to come and work at the Senate for a little bit. And again, that was under a Republican Senator, Senator Lugar, who I had built a relationship with and someone that I was able to turn to for advice and thoughts and it was extraordinary to be able to work with him. And then after that, you know, was very much deciding that I wanted to come back in a career way. 

You know, when I was at the Senate, I shared an office with this mid-level State Department official who literally his first day was my first day at the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. And he would share so much about his life and what it meant to be a diplomat, what it meant to work at the State Department,  and he answered all my questions, and he became this, you know, mentor to me. He went on and was an extraordinary public servant. He ended up being an ambassador. This is Chris Stevens, who was tragically killed in Benghazi, someone who I feel blessed to have known him because he is the best of us. He was the consummate public servant, you know, someone who was willing to literally risk his life for the country, but always with just this deep energy and patriotism. 

So, you know, he was the one that got me inspired to try to start up at the State Department and I always try to honor his memory. 

Loren DeJonge Schulman:  Ambassador Stevens, I had no idea that you had worked with him. To build on that point, one of the things he did so well was when he met people who were in different levels of their career, whether he was approaching you as a mentor or not, he was always thinking like all right, how can I help you think about what happens next? Either in formal conversations or informal ones and saw that I think as a part of service that his service was not only the work that he was doing, but it was building an amazing group around him who went off to do incredible work in lots of different places.  

So, you went on after [State Department] to serve in Afghanistan as a civilian advisor to several four stars, to be at the White House National Security Council, to be at the Pentagon. And then ultimately, you know, several years later after you had started, you decided to make a move that not many people do: to run for office in the House of Representatives. And there were so many options that you could have taken, what was it that persuaded you that that was the moment for you and it was the choice that you wanted to make? 

Congressman Andy Kim:  I wish there was like a perfect moment, but, you know, I look back on it and I’m still pretty blown away by the decision that I made. It was tough. I was only 34 years old at the time when I first started running for Congress. I never ran for office before. You know, as I mentioned, I don’t come from a family of politics. I had no idea what I was doing. I had a one-and-a-half-year-old and a newborn. 

It was crazy when I look back on it, but I asked myself the same question that I asked myself before every other job I’ve ever had, which is this question of where can I be of most impact? And that was something that took me to Afghanistan and something that took me to the White House National Security Council. All of these jobs that I knew were going to be hard and tough but would potentially allow me to be very impactful.  

I guess the main difference that this time around was the fact that I was a dad. And all of a sudden I didn’t have the ability to just think about foreign policy and not really get too caught up in what was happening domestically. I was all of a sudden thinking a lot more about healthcare and education and other things like that inherently because I’m a dad now and I saw the country going in a direction that I was deeply concerned about. And in particular, I saw my representative of this home district of that I grew up in, you know, the district I now represent in Congress, the district that I ran for in 2018, it’s where I did my entire kindergarten through twelfth grade in the public school system here. 

You know, it’s where my parents are retired, where I grew up. This is our home. And I just felt like this is the kind of impact that I want to try for now. Initially, I didn’t think I could pull it off in many ways. I didn’t think I had a really good shot of being able to win. 

But what was interesting is that it didn’t affect my calculus too much because at some point I felt like I was willing to take that kind of risk. And that even running to start with was part of that impact that I could have. So, it was the toughest decision that I made in my career. Very, very difficult, but I’m proud of what we were able to pull off.  

Rachel Klein-Kircher: So, Congressman, listening to your journey, it is a little bit unusual when we think of your story against other members of Congress who have not served in other capacities in government. So, given your work as a career public servant and under both Democratic and Republican administrations, how do you feel that your experience in the executive branch influences how you think about legislation and oversight? 

Congressman Andy Kim:  Well, first of all, just in terms of my approach to the job, it has a very fundamental difference for me. The fact that I started my career in a nonpartisan career capacity is probably one of the most influential aspects of shaping how I see myself as a congressperson. You know, I worked alongside people for almost a decade in national security at the State Department, that still to this day, I don’t know if they’re Democrats or Republicans. 

You know, I often say when you’re in Afghanistan, no one there asks you if you’re a Democrat or Republican. You’re just serving, you just serve the country. And that approach of having worked under the Bush administration at the beginning of my career, having worked for a Republican Senator being the only other experience that I had on the Hill before becoming a member, that is incredibly defining. 

So that aspect, when you’re in that situation room and you’re dealing with these issues, like you’re not looking around the room and saying, oh, like, is that a Democrat idea or Republican idea? Who’s saying it? You know? Whereas on the Hill, that very much is part of you. You’re in a hearing room and you literally are physically divided from each other. You know exactly who’s a Democrat, who’s a Republican, and you can see how whoever says it affects how people react to it. And as a result, you’re not always looking at things based off of just the merit of the idea. You’re looking at it based off of this broader context. And that’s something that I never experienced before, really in any deep way when I was in the executive branch quite in that same capacity. So that’s a big part of it.  

The other aspect of it is, you know, having worked in multiple different departments and agencies, I just have this level of understanding of how these organizations work, how their bureaucracies are structured, and having fluency in their language. That helped me actually when I was at the National Security Council, but in terms of trying to coordinate across all these different departments and agencies, it helps me in Congress. It helps me because I used to be on the other side of the room when it came to congressional delegations in Afghanistan or elsewhere. I know how the executive branch prepares for that kind of encounter and engagement. I brief many high-level executive branch officials before they go up to the Hill and I understand what kind of questions they’re anticipating. It just helps me understand how they’re engaging and where I can be of most help, but also where I can try to get an honest answer, you know, where I can try to navigate and frame something in a way that can try to elucidate some more productive conversation. And sometimes that doesn’t always happen in a committee room. Sometimes that requires me to build relationships and to talk with people in in a more private setting to try to establish some sense that oversight doesn’t necessarily mean that it needs to be aggressive or that this is about some viral moment or something like that, that many of my colleagues are always seeking.  

So, those are some of the things that I think about, and it also just fundamentally affects the kind of issues I choose to work on in terms of where I think I can get things done. What is achievable and what is movable? That has always been something that is helped by the experience that I’ve had on the executive branch, understanding what are some things that I think we can push on. That’s been a big part of how I’ve made decisions and prioritization in terms of my work on the Hill.  

Rachel Klein-Kircher: Do your colleagues on the Hill ever seek your advice or guidance or ask about your experience having been on the other side? 

Congressman Andy Kim:  I’d say like sometimes, not really. I think every once in a while, you know, I mean, like for instance, there was this one issue that I was dealing with where when I was at the State Department, I was banned from working on issues related to Korea because I’m Korean American. They called it an assignment restriction. And I’ve been quite vocal about this since going on the Hill because it felt so disrespectful at the time. You know, I’d just gotten back from Afghanistan. I served out there for this country and to then come back and have my employer, the State Department, which literally is our representative to the rest of the world, say that they can’t trust me, is basically what I took away from that. That in some ways, like, you know, this idea that we can trust you on these other things, but when it came to your ancestral homeland, we can’t trust you on that. That made me feel like they thought I’m not 100% loyal to this country. And honestly it made me feel like I’m not 100% American, that I’m American until my heritage. Right. So that was something where people on the Hill were already engaged on this issue to some extent before I came into Congress, but because I actually had experience on this, you know, that was a place where people came to me and wanted me to speak out, wanted to learn from me, and that kind of capacity, on issues that I do have some expertise on, especially when it comes to the Middle East.  

When it comes to other issues, Chairman Meeks and Chairman Smith of Armed Services and Foreign Affairs, I appreciate that they’ve given me opportunities to lend some of my thoughts and perspectives. So, in that committee structure, there’s been more of that.  But one thing I will say is that there isn’t necessarily a great forum through which we can necessarily remind people about what our backgrounds are before Congress. It’s this kind of weird experience. And I’ll admit it myself, like I don’t actually know what all of my colleagues did before Congress. Like if you named off a random member of Congress, I may not be able to tell you like, what are their top three priorities.  

And that’s what I find challenging about the body is that I went from being like a subject matter expert. I did a PhD on issues related to the U.S. policy to the Middle East. I’ve worked on that. My job at the White House was to know more about ISIS, the terrorist group ISIS, than anybody else in the country. I went from that to then becoming, you know, then entering a job that’s honestly probably the most generalist job in the entire nation. Like I literally have to respond to anything or be on the call to respond to anything. And I think we don’t always think about that strategically. We don’t always think about like, who’s the best person to engage on or work on these types of issues. Who’s the best messenger on particular issues based off of what we’re facing? And that kind of lack of coordination and strategy that I find a little bit frustrating. Though, I had the saying when growing up, where I said like, let’s not play peewee soccer, where we all just chase the ball. Like we have different positions, different things that we’re good at, right? Like I’m not going to be the best messenger on some types of domestic policy issues that I might not have worked on as much, but like, there’s a crisis in in the Middle East or in East Asia, maybe I can be someone that’s better engaged on that. So that’s the kind of stuff that we don’t do enough of. 

Loren DeJonge Schulman:  That’s fascinating. I want to pick up on a theme you brought up a little bit about trust. As you know, it’s something that we at the Partnership work on a lot, is understanding the trust between the American public and government right now and believe that we as an institution should be doing all that we can to help strengthen that trust, not only because we think it is better for the country, but we think it is critical to our democracy to have a trustworthy government. One that the American public feels comfortable trusting. I know this is something that you care about and that you’ve spent a lot of time working on in different ways. 

Can you tell us a little bit about how you try to build trust with your constituents in your district and some challenges you face in building that trust? Because as you point out, it’s a really different role than coming from the federal government, which can be a little anonymizing for better or for worse. You are elected by those constituents. You are doing, as you say, the most generalist role on the planet. How do you think about building trust with them?  

Congressman Andy Kim:  Yeah. I think about this all the time, and, you know, in many ways, especially after the last couple years, I have decided to dedicate my life to trying to address a singular question, which is how do we heal this country? That question has now become my life’s work and I am trying to do everything I humanly can to answer it. I think about the work that I do. I’ll just share this one story because I think it gets so much about that trust, the sense that we live in the time of the greatest amount of distrust in government, probably in modern history, and I see it every day in this district.  

So, I do these town halls every single month. I’ve now done 57 town halls in my district, and I remember a lot of people thought I was pretty crazy doing this. And I remember when I first started, my second town hall ever was in a community that I probably lost by like 25 points. I mean, this is a district that Trump won in both 2016 and 2020. And so, for me as a Democrat to represent, there are a lot of areas where I recognize that people do not support my party or our candidate for president. I’m one of only seven Democrats in the entire country that won a district that Trump won in 2020. So, every day I wake up in a district where the majority of people, voters, voted against my party.  

So, I did this town hall and I took every single question. There were a couple hundred people that were there and I said this line that I now use every single time. I say, “Whether you voted for me or not, you’re my boss and my job is to serve you and your family.” And I say that at every town hall. So I took these questions. I listened to people. I tried to respond thoughtfully and honestly, and at the very end of this, there was a line of folks that were waiting to talk to me, and at the end of the line was this older gentleman who waited a while to talk to me, and he came up to me. He said, “I just want you to know, I didn’t vote for you.” And I was like, “Oh, okay. Thank you, sir. I appreciate you coming out today.” And he said, “In fact I was very hesitant to come to this town hall.” And I said, okay, like, where is this going? And then he like stuck out his hand, shook my hand and said, but I’m glad I did. And then just walked off. That’s all he wanted to say to me. And I think about that moment constantly because I felt like it has really elucidated my belief of how we try to sequence what we need to, to try to restore trust and heal this country.  

What I feel like happened is like, I don’t necessarily think I earned that man’s vote by showing up in his town and taking those questions, but I do feel like I earned his respect and that step of respect has now become so central to my belief of how we build trust. I don’t think you can go from zero to trust immediately. I don’t think you can actually trust somebody or some institution unless you respect that person and respect that institution.  

So therein lies the question, how do you restore trust and thereby say, how do you build respect? How do you gain respect? And part of that is about these town halls. It’s about engagement, not just talking to people through digital ads and TV ads but getting out there to their community. I can’t tell you how many communities I go to where the people there, especially in sort of deep Republican areas, they’re saying like, hey look, you’re like the first Democrat to show up and do a public forum in 20, 30 years, like which doesn’t happen. It’s about meeting people where they’re at and being willing to go everywhere.  

The way I sort of describe it is that if you’re only having comfortable conversations, then you’re not talking to the right people. You’re not putting yourself out there. As a political figure in a district that is divided, if I’m only having comfortable conversations, I’m not doing my job. I have to have a certain amount of discomfort in my life and I have to lean into that. So that’s the kind of effort, that engagement to go out there and have those tough conversations, to be willing to do that. I’ve also come to believe that we need to think about the fundamentals of how and when people engage with government. So, if the idea is that you gain their respect, well what are you doing to gain their respect? It’s not just that I showed up and put on a good smile and answer some questions. They want to know, are you delivering?  

And too many people think that my job in Congress is just about the legislation. That’s a big part of it. But one aspect of my job, which has fundamentally transformed the way I think about government, is about the constituent service effort that I do. When someone calls their congressional office, that’s probably like a last resort. You know, like people don’t have a problem and immediately go, I’m going to call my congressperson. You’re usually at a place where people are like at their wits end and they’re really, really struggling. How you respond and how you help them at their time of great need is so definitive in terms of whether or not they will then respect you and whether or not they will trust you. 

So my office, we have put so much effort into this constituent service work, trying to help people through the pandemic, even if it’s just processing unemployment insurance or other things like that, that honestly aren’t even the things that we could control all the levers on. But just having someone there that’s working with you, it’s given me this kind of deeper sense, and it’s what I call now a customer service governance. This belief that, yes, people are concerned about big policies and direction and safety and security of our democracy and things like that, but they’re honestly also internalizing this based off of their own interactions with government, whether that’s the DMV, the post office, or getting a new passport or something else. 

Our ability to just show that we can be effective and efficient and deliver on very specific things and be responsive and show that kind of respect for them, if we want respect back. That’s something that I don’t fully know where my head’s going on all these issues, but it’s become so central to my thinking about what I want to do in government and my answer to that question about how do we earn that respect, earn that trust, and heal this country. 

Loren DeJonge Schulman: Particularly since I’ve been at the Partnership, it’s been very much on my mind that government for and with the people is not you voted and then I’ll see you later. It should be something that, it’s a co-creation, that it is an iterative conversation. Moments are created to welcome the participation from others in the design of their own government. And to, as you say, to not have to rely on systems that are there for break glass, but to create a government that never needed that to begin with. And that’s not where we are right now, but I think that there are so many who have a vision of where we could go a little bit differently too.  

Rachel Klein-Kircher:  And you know, in that spirit of co-creation, Loren, that you just said, and Congressman, you mentioned, you know, you were growing up with this idea that service is a way of life. It’s not a job, right? So, to that end, you introduced a package of legislation with this great phrase, supercharging national service, and encouraging more Americans to engage in service in any type in their communities. 

So can you share with our listeners a little bit more about your legislation? Who do you partner with and why is this so critical to democracy to have more Americans engaged in service? 

Congressman Andy Kim: The idea was trying to kind of reinstall that sense of service, the idea that we re-anchor our politics, not in partisanship and tribalism, but instead on service, and it’s something that I’ve seen in my own district. 

Again, as I said, a district that Trump won twice. The only reason I’ve been successful in many ways has been because I try to show people that there’s a different way to do our politics. You know people so often think that a battleground district like mine, that it’s like some Democratic army and some Republican army colliding every day and seeing who the victor is. But the secret is that if you do this job, you recognize that the vast majority of people in my congressional district can’t stand either party. They have lost so much faith in the system in that kind of capacity.  

So, my best answer to it. And again, I’m not saying I have all the answers. You know, if there’s one word I try to use for the politics I practice, it’s humility. I don’t know all the answers, but my best guess is that this idea of service could potentially help us get through this moment that we’re in as a nation. And this constellation of legislation that I introduced is trying to show some architecture for national service in some capacity.  

And first of all, it’s the idea that if people want to step up and serve this country in some capacity, like let’s not stop them. So the fact that half of all AmeriCorps applicants can’t get a spot, that twice as many people apply to AmeriCorps every year than can get in, that we have spots. Like if people want to serve our country, like, let’s just make more spots. Let’s not hold people back. We don’t need to be selective about that on something that’s trying to invest in our communities. So if somebody wants to step up and serve in some capacity, like let’s make the space for them. Let’s give them that opportunity to serve. Let’s try to cultivate that and expand that so you know what I’m trying to do would increase the size of AmeriCorps and Peace Corps and some of these existing structures that we have. Also invest in volunteerism within our own communities and trying to restore that sense. 

I can’t tell you how hard it is right now for different organizations, whether that’s a volunteer firefighter group or EMS group or something else, to be able to draw in people. The element of just raising your hand and being part of the community, we’re losing touch with that sense. We’re losing the sense that we’re part of something bigger than all of us. And that’s what I’m trying to move away from is that. You know, in my mind when I was in high school, service was like an extracurricular that you did to like make your college application look a little bit more attractive. But later I came to recognize that, you know, what my parents were trying to instill in me, is that it’s not just extra. Like service isn’t just like something you do if you have a little extra time. It is fundamental. It is inherent to what it means to be a citizen, to be an American. And so that’s what I’m trying to instill. And so these pieces of legislation are looking at different angles in which we can kind of increase those opportunities that we can draw in that kind of talent.  

And the way I sort of often frame it, especially when it comes to government work, is my first boss at the State Department had this line that always stuck in my head. He said, you don’t have good government unless you have good people working in government. And that always stuck in my mind that government is not just some anonymous bureaucracy. It’s not just like some machine with cogs and wheels. It is reflective of the quality of the people within it. 

So, you know, if you have narcissistic, egotistical, power hungry people in government, you will have that kind of government. But if you have people who are public servants that truly believe in that mission and that they recognize they’re part of something bigger than all of us, they lead with humility and they believe that empathy is a strength, not a weakness, then you will have that kind of government. 

So, like that is why I think it’s so important that we push on that and try to instill in people that they have a role to play, whether or not they end up working in government or not, there’s still a role for  

them to play. Yeah, well I’ll end this answer just on this one point that I’ve been saying a lot lately. I say that I believe that the opposite of democracy is apathy. If people give up, if people believe that they don’t have a role to play, if they don’t believe that their participation of voice matters, that’s what I’m fighting against. You know, I’m fighting against that apathy from setting in, that sense of helplessness and giving people that sense of empowerment. 

By showing up in their communities, I try to come up with more opportunities for them to volunteer and to be of service to this nation, to cultivate that kind of mindset. I don’t know if it’s going to work. Many people have tried to reinvigorate national service and that service ethos in our country, and so I’m not going to say that I’m going to be able to get it across the line, but we have to keep trying. 

Rachel Klein-Kircher: Well, and that’s the question. So, for something that sounds, you know as you’re saying, it’s a different way of thinking about politics and it’s about service. What are the obstacles to having something that sounds so incredible not happening? 

Congressman Andy Kim: Yeah, well then you immediately start to realize that there’s very different ideas of what service means and what kind of work qualifies for service. It’s like the same thing when anyone in D.C. will probably tell you, oh yeah, we definitely need to have civics education in this country. But then when you get down into what is taught, what is the curriculum, it’s the same thing. It’s like we disagree on that sense. You know, there are some people that I work with, colleagues of mine, that think AmeriCorps is a waste of money. They think that that kind of effort is not productive. That sometimes the work that people do, they think it’s partisan in nature and things like that. And everything gets kind of sliced and diced through that kind of tribal lens. Again, very frustrated about that in terms of what qualifies for service and that debate about that just overcomes this sense that we have to try something and that we should be pushing forward and finding some area of that Ven diagram that we can agree upon. 

And, there’s also another question about like, you know, is government the place that that needs to be catalyzing that? Can’t it be charities and churches and nonprofits and others that lead the way? You know, why does it require taxpayer dollars and government to engage on that? And so those are some of the debates that are happening. But you know, I really hope that this legislation that I push forward on, as well as others that are of similar objectives, that we can push that kind of dialogue as a nation right now about what service means and how we should be trying to invest in it. Recognizing like, I can’t write a single piece of legislation that’s going to rid our country of hate and division and toxicity. So a lot of what we’re talking about here is also about this kind of cultural and personal mindset, that I think we are trying to talk about instilling in this country. So those are some of the debates that are out there right now. 

Loren DeJonge Schulman: So I’m going to close with a question that we also ask everyone on this podcast and that is, what advice do you have specifically for young people and young leaders of color who may be interested in working in public service someday? Not everyone’s going to have a career exactly like you, but what advice might you have for somebody who might be interested in pursuing one of the paths that you have taken over the course of your career? 

Congressman Andy Kim: That’s a good question. I’ll say two things here. you know, One, when I first started running for office, I had a lot of people tell me, “You seem like a nice kid and all, but there’s no way that you can win this seat.” You know, in my district, I was 34 years old, as I mentioned. This is a district Trump won in 2016. And frankly they also told me, like, straight to my face, said, it’s also an 85% white district, less than 3% Asian American population. And at the time there were zero Korean Americans in Congress and they just said that there’s no way that this is going to be the district that brings a Korean American into Congress. And it was really hurtful. Even people within my own political party were saying things like that.  

 And what I learned and what I hope people take away is that, when we won this district, we showed that an Asian American or a person of color that we have every been as much right to represent anywhere in this country as anybody else. That Asian Americans, I’m not just an Asian American leader, you know, I’m not just somebody that can only win in Asian American heavy areas. The way I sort of describe it is that we can’t let other people define what we are or are not capable of accomplishing. You know, because of our color of our skin, our last name, our gender, our sexuality, or any element by which people break down. So that sense of agency is something that I hope people retain.  

The second thing I’ll just say is, that I hope people think about the work that they do in terms of what kind of work satisfies you. You know, I often think through like a catalog, like what are we like in some of the best days that I’ve ever had in my career? And how do I try to make that as frequent as possible, you know, that kind of opportunity and experience as frequent as possible? It required me to get a sense of like, what satisfies me? Like what kind of work did I like to do? Do I like to travel a lot or do I like to be in meetings with high-level officials or do policy work or this or that and help me crystallize that for me.  

And the way I say it is like, service does not mean it’s a life of sacrifice. You know, like I think too many people have framed [service] as like, you’re getting lower pay. You know, you got a bureaucracy to deal with, this or that. It doesn’t have to be that way. Service can be satisfying; it can be sustainable. It doesn’t have to be sacrifice. And I believe that service is an honorable thing. 

And if I am lucky enough to serve this country for the rest of my life, I will feel blessed to be able to do that and I hope others recognize that. And don’t approach it from the sense of like, “Oh I’ll bite the bullet for a few years, go into government and I’ll do that kind of sacrifice and then have other opportunities.” 

I hope people think about what satisfies them and that’ll lead them to decide what kind of career would be fulfilling for them. So those are just a couple things that I hope help people think through this kind of stuff. But what I will just say is I’m always open to try to talk to folks, always trying to encourage people for those opportunities. So, you know, if there are, especially younger people that are listening, please, if I can be of any help, let me know. 

Loren DeJonge Schulman: Congressman, this has been a fabulous conversation, both resonating deeply with the sort of work that we do at the Partnership, but then also frankly, like adding so much texture and layers to it that it makes me want to dive back into things later this afternoon. Thank you so much for taking the time with us and Rachel, I’m sure you’ve enjoyed this just as much as I have.  

Rachel Klein-Kircher: Yes, absolutely. Thank you so much, Congressman.  

Congressman Andy Kim: Thank you so much for having me. 

Transition Music

Loren DeJonge Schulman:  So, Rachel, there’s almost 500 other members of Congress, and I’m sure many of them are incredible in other ways, but listening to Congressman Kim talk, it was one of the first times I’ve really heard an articulation of what public service means and how democracy should be this iterative conversation from somebody at that level. 

And I know many of them practice it, and I know many of them are thinking of it, but I saw it and I felt it in that conversation, and we were like, yes, democracy and rebuilding trust is not just about words and messages. It is about creating moments where you can have that regular feedback. 

And how did he say that? The productive discomfort that comes with that to me is where government and public service are at its most meaningful. 

Rachel Klein-Kircher:  If all of the conversations you’re having are very comfortable, you’re not having the right conversations and that really resonated. And now I want there to be a prerequisite that members of Congress serve in other parts of government first, because when he talked about not knowing if the person sitting next to him was a Democrat or a Republican, and you get the work done. And you can just transfer all of this into Congress where there’s literally a divide, and so whoever speaks there’s an automatic reaction or a bias or something, it changes everything. And it’s like, wait a minute. But these could have been the same people. And if I think back on jobs that I’ve had and how that could have been in the way, to know who was on what side and it wasn’t a question and you didn’t ask it, and you got the work done for the good of the cause. 

Loren DeJonge Schulman: So I, in all transparency, as you all know, I worked for the Congressman at the National Security Council and at the Pentagon, and one of the things that we had to do when we were there to make sure issues up for decision were fairly dealt with is just articulate: here’s the issue for decision. Here’s how everybody feels about it, and this agency has this view, this person has this view, and give everybody a chance for fair hearing and use that as the input in the decision-making process. And exactly as you say, as he was talking, I thought Congress would be a fundamentally different body if you treated it that way. I mean, if you were able to take that a very, very different approach than, as he was talking about, the people looking for viral moments.  

Rachel Klein-Kircher: Right.  

Loren DeJonge Schulman: And we talk a lot at the Partnership around ways to reform the federal government, reform Congress in order to help rebuild trust. And I don’t know if you would ever get support behind a slogan of like big Congress, more like the National Security Council, but like that model of it is fascinating.  

Rachel Klein-Kircher:  And what strikes me about the Congressman is, you know, in my mind he’s so very positive about things that you would think we all care about. How do we heal the country? How do we make things better for everyone? All very positive. And when asking the question of “But wait, why are there obstacles to that?,” I appreciated his really tangible answer of how people define that question. The answer to the question is not the same. 

Loren DeJonge Schulman:  And the basics of that. We have twice as many applicants to AmeriCorps as we have spots. Well then let’s make more spots. Every year on year, there’s so many more people who want to become a Presidential Management Fellow who apply for public service than are able to find a job. And not everyone’s going to find the exact right spot for them, but people want to be a part of this conversation in this country.  

So how can we, at the Partnership and amongst friends and allies, create more opportunities there? We do so much of that work at the Partnership in the trying to improve federal hiring and federal talent. But as the Congressman was talking, public service is not just that very specific civil service role, though it is so critical. There’s lots of ways to serve your country and finding ways to make that more permeable and accessible, I think is a critical thing that we don’t pay as much attention to sometimes. 

Rachel Klein-Kircher:  Yeah. I was very encouraged on one hand by this conversation and the things that he would like to do and accomplish. And then on the other side, there is this reality of the state that we’re in and some of the barriers that he’s up against, which I appreciate are very real. 

Loren DeJonge Schulman:  But to his point, I mean, he is one for finding the productive discomfort and owning it in a way that I think, if we could all apply that sort of ethos to our lives, we would be better off for it. But this was just such a delight to be able to have this conversation and to learn from it, and to both be somehow discouraged but also at the same time. So I’m so glad we got to talk with him.  

Rachel Klein-Kircher: Yeah, I agree. Thanks so much, Loren. 

Loren DeJonge Schulman:  Thank you. So that’s our show. Thanks so much for listening. If you haven’t already, please check out the other episodes from our incredible second season and follow or subscribe to profiles in public service wherever you get your podcasts. 

Rachel Klein-Kircher:  You can also check this episode show notes to learn more about today’s topic and be sure to follow the Partnership for Public Service on Twitter, LinkedIn, or Instagram to find out about future episodes once we start our next season. 

Transition Music

Loren DeJonge Schulman: Profiles in Public Service is created by the Partnership for Public Service. 

Rachel Klein-Kircher: Our writer and producer is Abigail Alpern Fisch. 

Loren DeJonge Schulman: Our script supervisor is Barry Goldberg, 

Rachel Klein-Kircher: and our executive producer is Jordan LaPier. 

Loren DeJonge Schulman: See you next time. 

Transition Music 

Loren DeJonge Schulman: So that’s our show, thanks so much for listening! If you haven’t already, please check out the other episodes from our incredible second season and follow or subscribe to “Profiles in Public Service” wherever you get your podcasts. 

Rachel Klein-Kircher:  You can also check this episode’s show notes to learn more about today’s topic, and be sure to follow the Partnership for Public Service on Twitter, LinkedIn, or Instagram to find out about future episodes once we start our next season! 

Loren DeJonge Schulman: “Profiles in Public Service” is created by the Partnership for Public Service.  

Rachel Klein-Kircher: Our writer and producer is Abigail Alpern Fisch. 

Loren DeJonge Schulman: Our script supervisor is Barry Goldberg. 

Rachel Klein-Kircher: And our executive producer is Jordan LaPier.  

Loren DeJonge Schulman: See you next time!