|Shin Gyong-gu, head of the Gwangju International Center, receives the the 2020 Michael Simning Community Builder Award at a ceremony in The First Alleyway on June 6. / Courtesy of Cami Ismanova|
By Jon Dunbar
Gwangju in southwestern Korea has no shortage of community spirit. An annual award for local community builders has been given to Shin Gyong-gu, a professor emeritus of Chonnam National University and director of the Gwangju International Center (GIC).
Shin was recognized for his role in community engagement, social responsibility and charity work. He has been with the GIC since its beginning 21 years ago, where he also serves as publisher of Gwangju News. He accepted this year's Michael Simning Community Builder Award (MSCBA) in a ceremony on June 6 held at The First Alleyway pub.
"I feel humbled when I'm recognized like this," Shin was quoted in Gwangju News' July issue. "I want to thank the committee for choosing me for this prize, which I think I do not deserve to receive."
|Shin Gyong-gu, head of the Gwangju International Center and recipient of the 2020 Michael Simning Community Builder Award / Korea Times photo by Jon Dunbar|
Shin is a Gwangju citizen by choice, not by birth; his hometown is Seoul, and even his name Gyong-gu ("gyeong" meaning capital, he says) reflects his birth there. He came to Gwangju in the 1970s for work, and ended up earning a graduate degree and marrying his wife, a music professor at Chosun University. He left to study English in the U.S. in 1979, but felt a calling to return to the city, especially the events of May 18, 1980, the Gwangju Democratic Uprising which was met with military suppression.
In the early 1980s when a professorship opportunity opened up at Chonnam National University, Shin jumped at the chance. He began a 31-year career at the university's English department, also serving as dean of international affairs for a time and helping expand their study abroad program.
Shin has always felt a sense of duty to the city, concluding that he owed it to the city and the democratic activists who organized against the military dictatorship in 1980.
This loyalty can be seen in his role at the GIC, which was opened in 1999 as the Kwangju Center for International Visitors (KCIV). He started out on the KCIV's board of directors, before being appointed its director.
The center was Korea's first international center intended to make life easier for foreign residents, as well as promote Gwangju as an international city. There are other such centers across Korea now, but while they are funded by local governments, the GIC maintains its independence through support from over 1,000 fee-paying Korean and foreign members, volunteer staff and 20 full-time employees.
The GIC is best known for Gwangju News, which is claimed to be the oldest running monthly English-language magazine in Korea started in 2001. But the center also offers various other volunteer-driven community services and activities, including the weekly GIC Talk lecture series, Gwangju Performance Project, Gwangju Freecycle, the GIC Citizens' Choir and language exchanges for English, Chinese and Spanish. And the GIC has been organizing Gwangju's annual World Human Rights Cities Forum (WHRCF) since 2014, when Gwangju City Hall came to the GIC for help with running its 2011-founded forum.
The GIC has become a community center welcoming all people, locals and those from elsewhere alike.
"In the early years, I probably thought about quitting hundreds of times and for many reasons," Shin said in a Gwangju News article published last year celebrating the center's 20th anniversary. "There was so much work to do, and on top of that, I was still teaching full-time at Chonnam National University. There was the financial burden, job stress, and a variety of conflicts to deal with. But I feared that if I would have quit, the GIC would have disappeared… In the beginning, there were more challenges than joys. As the GIC grew, I began to have more joys than challenges."
As the recipient of the 2020 MSCBA, Shin received a plaque, a check for 300,000 won to be donated to a charity or program of his choice, and a Hawaiian shirt, a signature of Michael Simning's wardrobe.
Also nominated this year were Kindle Records founder Andrew Vlasbom, Sandy V. Loreno who started two different sports clubs, and Darrell Slater for his generous charitable donations.
Simning moved to Korea in 1995, and left a lasting impact on the community. He helped open Gwangju's Speakeasy bar and The First Alleyway pub, as well as international grocery store Underground Grocers and the Gwangju Blog, as well as numerous other enterprises that often brought him into contact with Shin and the GIC. He passed away in 2014 after a long battle with leukemia.
The MSCBA was initiated in 2015 to recognize other community builders continuing Simning's work.
Previous winners include Al Barnum (2015) and Sarah Elizabeth Hale (2017) for their roles in the Adopt-A-Child for Christmas project, Jeff Hamilton and Kelly Palmer Kim (2016) for setting up and running the Global Families of Gwangju community organization, Dana Han (2018) for her work raising funds for a single mothers' shelter and Daniel Wallace (2019), an evangelist of the local arts and music community.
Visit issuu.com/gwangju_news to read the latest issue of Gwangju News.