Away from the Storm 

Making peace at the Neighborhood Justice Center

Making peace at the Neighborhood Justice Center

It had started out as an ordinary winter day at Kim’s Hair Plus Beauty Supply and Boutique on Jefferson Street. Hyun Park, whose husband, Charles, is an owner of the shop, was working the floor. When she wasn’t waiting on customers, she kept busy unloading boxes and stocking shelves.

At Kim’s Boutique, one wall is virtually blanketed with wigs. There are more than 100 of them in all shapes, sizes and colors. Display racks offer every imaginable haircare treatment and accessory—everything from setting gels to curling irons. There are $5.99 costume-jewelry earrings, and there are Chicago Bulls T-shirts. Clearly, Kim’s merchandise is intended to appeal to the surrounding neighborhood, which is predominantly African-American. The store sells shaving cream specifically formulated for black men. There is makeup in darker skin tones, and there are dozens of hair products intended for black customers.

As Hyun went about her work on this particular January day, however, Tonia Bakari walked through the front door of Kim’s. Bakari, who is African-American and a graduate of Tennessee State University, was spending the day on Jefferson Street, visiting various businesses and soliciting donations for a fundraiser being sponsored by her college sorority.

When Bakari asked to speak to the owner of Kim’s Boutique, she was directed to Park. Bakari introduced herself to Park and began describing the sorority event. She explained that she hoped Kim’s would donate a prize for the fundraiser, and she offered Park a letter describing the event. It should have been an unremarkable request for a charitable donation, not unlike any of hundreds of other encounters that take place in Nashville every week.

Then, however, Tonia Bakari waited for Hyun Park’s response.

Trouble was brewing. Park is a courteous 27-year-old who moved to the United States from Korea about six years ago, but she wasn’t entirely clear about what was going on. Her English is less than fluent.

“So the lady come,” Park recalls, “ask for some kind of donation. Actually, I didn’t graduate from school in this country. I didn’t understand what she was saying. I wanted to show [the letter] to my husband.” Park says she told Bakari she would get back to her once her husband, Charles, had read the letter. Kim’s Boutique is Charles Park’s family business; it would be up to him to make a decision.

Bakari recalled the encounter in a different way. She did not hear Park say, “We’ll have to get back to you.” Instead, she heard Park say, “We don’t give back to the community.” As far as Bakari was concerned, Park had proclaimed that Kim’s was refusing to do anything charitable for the community. It seemed that, even though the boutique depends on North Nashville’s African-American population for its business, Hyun Park had little interest in returning in the favor.

In even the best circumstances, Park’s refusal could have been taken as an insult or, at the very least, an abrupt, insensitive comeback. On the other hand, Bakari was going from business to business, soliciting contributions. Surely, she must have been expecting some turn-downs here and there.

The situation, however, was hardly so simple. It was not just any businessperson who had allegedly been rude to Bakari. It was a Korean businessperson, who had allegedly stated, flat out, that her store would not help the local the community. Worse yet, she had allegedly made the remark to Bakari, a black person who lives in the community.

Almost immediately, all hell broke loose for the Parks and for the business Charles Park’s family had spent three decades building from scratch. The bottled-up rage of the local community spewed forth.

On the front page of its final January issue, the Metropolitan Times, one of Nashville’s leading African-American newspapers, ran a lead story about the conviction of the rapist known as “Fantasy Man.” Directly beneath that story, another headline read, “Kim’s Boutique accused of not giving back to local community.”

A photograph showed Tonia Bakari’s husband, Ken, carrying a picket sign in front of the boutique. Tonia and Ken Bakari, along with Ken’s employer, former Metro Council member and African nationalist Kwame Leo Lillard, had decided to stage their own protest. In subfreezing temperatures, they picketed Kim’s, telling passersby and would-be customers about Hyun Park’s supposed insensitivity.

“This is a store that does nothing for this community but take from it, and never gives anything back in any way,” Lillard told the Metropolitan Times. “They make their money from blacks from all over our communities and never spend any money with anyone in the community, and we are sick of it.”

The sidewalk protest continued for two weekends. While picketing the shop, Lillard and the Bakaris encouraged customers to boycott Kim’s. Metropolitan Times’ coverage of the incident did not include any response from Hyun Park or Charles Park. According to the Times, initial efforts to speak with representatives of Kim’s had been unsuccessful, although the newspaper promised to include their comments in an upcoming issue. In the African-American community, opinion seemed to be galvanized against the Parks and their boutique.

The tense situation on Jefferson Street seemed to follow a nationwide pattern. In Los Angeles, in 1991, a 15-year-old African-American girl was shot and killed by a Korean shopowner who suspected the girl of shoplifting. After the shooting, the store was subject to a boycott and racial tension flared. Several months later, the Korean shopowner was found guilty of manslaughter, but African-Americans were enraged when she was sentenced to 400 hours of community service, fined $500 and placed on five years of probation. Calm would eventually return, but the rift between the two communities remained.

The Kim’s incident uncorked similar latent resentments in North Nashville, where some blacks already harbored suspicions that Korean business owners were reaping huge windfalls at the expense of their African-American customers. The distrust was fueled by other differences and misunderstandings. Because of the language barrier and various cultural differences, some blacks maintained that they had never been treated with respect by Korean merchants. While the ambience in many African-American businesses is often informal and easy-going, Koreans and other Eurasians can appear reticent and unaccommodating. African-Americans were frequent customers at Kim’s, but some claimed the shop had not gained a reputation as a place of common ground.

When the picketers appeared outside Kim’s Boutique, the Parks knew they were faced with a storeowner’s night-mare. Frustrated, they watched as their business gradually began drying up. Although there had only been a handful of picketers and although their protest had only lasted for a couple of weekends, customers were already staying away.

For Charles Park, it was a sad spectacle. Kim’s was his family business. A cousin had opened the boutique some three decades earlier. When Park’s mother moved to Nashville from Korea, she had gone to work at Kim’s and had become a part-owner of the store. Over the years, Park’s mother had put in 80-hour work weeks. She had done everything from sweeping the floors to keeping the books and making sure the merchandise was up to date.

Across the U.S. there are many Korean-owned boutiques such as Kim’s. Together, they comprise a industry known as the “beauty business.”

In the 1950s, Korea was one of the world’s leading producers of natural-hair wigs. Korean women, in need of ready cash, offered a steady supply of hair. What’s more, the long, straight, fine hair they sold was perfect for wigs.

When some Koreans emigrated and looked for work in their new homelands, they opened wig stores. They knew the business, and they knew the suppliers. As time passed, many of the wig stores blossomed into all-purpose beauty supply centers. Boutique owners began stocking beauty accessories and hair-care products such as shampoos and curlers. Cosmetics, jewelry, and fancy clothing followed. Before long, the beauty business was thriving.

More often than not, the beauty business targeted a black clientele. With the rise of department stores and mass retailing in the ’60s and ’70s, Korean beauty store operators faced stiff competition. The big stores could offer lower prices and wider selections, so many beauty store operators added “ethnic” specialties in hopes of attracting black consumers. The market was huge, and the needs of black customers were not being adequately met by the big retailers.

For years, the biggest beauty-business emporium in Nashville has been the Korean-owned Hair World. Kim’s has two locations, the Jefferson Street store and a shop on Franklin Road in Melrose, but Hair World has four stores, including one on Clarksville Highway, not far from Kim’s Jefferson Street location. Both Hair World and Kim’s depend on an African-American customer base. Competition is keen.

Nashville’s Korean community is small and tight-knit. According to the 1990 census, 421 Koreans live in Metro, although Donna Gregory, program manager for the refugee services division in Metro’s Social Services Department, says that number has “definitely increased” since the last census.

At the Korean United Methodist Church, located near the airport, both English and Korean-language services are offered on Sundays. The church’s pastor, Rev. Ki Jong So, estimates that Middle Tennessee has a Korean population of close to 3,000 persons.

So says he is familiar with the struggles his fellow Koreans face as they attempt to assimilate into the culture of the U.S. “Many of the Korean shopkeepers do not speak English very well,” he explains. “In the African-American communities, [the African-Americans] do not understand the Korean way of life or culture, so I think some kinds of problems happen because of miscommunication.”

So says he has no direct knowledge of the dispute between the Bakaris and Kim’s. But he says he is familiar with similar disputes around the country, and he can understand why they occur. “The Korean shopowners do not have bad intentions to harm the black community or the black people,” he says, “but when these kinds of things happen, we need to try to understand both of the communities. The Koreans should learn and try to understand the culture of the black communities, and the black communities should know the Koreans better.”

Just like Charles Park’s mother before them, Charles and Hyun Park work 80-hour weeks. Like many other Koreans, they personify the hardworking pursuit of the American dream. “It is true,” So says, “that Koreans work very hard and save money.”

Not all African-Americans in North Nashville believed that the Parks were cheapskates, coldly ignoring their black clientele. Many of the Parks’ longtime employees are black. Dianne Betts, who until recently rented space in the back of the Park’s building for her hair replacement business, staunchly defends the Parks for their work ethic and for their dedication to the community. Betts is African-American.

“I grew up in North Nashville,” she says. “[The local blacks] are my people, but, when this happened, I was embarrassed by them. I have learned a lot about people through this.” Many blacks, she continues, don’t want to understand Korean culture.

Betts says that, when the protesters started picketing in front of Kim’s, she confronted them herself. “I cussed ’em all out,” she says. “They told me to get my business out of Kim’s, and I told them they were crazy. This is a family business, and these people work hard. The problem is, when they see the name ‘Kim,’ they think Korean, and that drives ’em crazy.”

Kim’s Boutique on Jefferson Street is a large, attractive structure. It was built on an abandoned lot that had once been frequented by drug users and dealers. In many ways, the Parks were pioneers. Kim’s was there before some of the drive-through eateries that have recently gone up around Jefferson Street, and it was there long before the Bicentennial Mall was anything more than a groundplan. The owners of Kim’s took a chance; when they built their store, businesses had been fleeing the neighborhood for years. Some of their neighbors applaud the new building and say it has helped bring a sense of commercial vitality to Jefferson Street.

Still, when the protesters continued their march for a second weekend, they brought with them a list of 13 demands to which they insisted Kim’s, and other area merchants, should adhere. The Metropolitan Times ran the list:

“We in the Nashville community want all businesses that operate in the African-American community to economically give back to the immediate area residents,” the list began. What followed were demands that businesses provide financial, social, and physical support to African-American community services; that they support children’s programs in areas surrounding their businesses; that they respect African-Americans who patronize stores; that they advertise in African-American-owned newspapers in Nashville; that they observe African-American holidays; that they sell more products from African-American suppliers; and that they underwrite the participation of African-American children in summer educational advancement programs.

Charles Park had tried to talk to the protesters, but the conversations had not gone well. Two police officers had been keeping an eye on the situation. Finally, they approached Park with an idea. About a half-mile down Jefferson Street, they said, a new agency had opened specifically to help in resolving conflicts. The officers said that, if Park went to the agency, he might be able to ease the tension between Kim’s and the black community.

Park took the advice. He visited the newly opened Neighborhood Justice Center and had a chat with its director, Joe Ingle.

Tying Nashville Together (TNT) is a public action organization that came into being four years ago. Working through Nashville’s churches and synagogues, its intent is to take well-organized, long-term action to improve the lives of people who live in Nashville.

When TNT began determining its list of priorities for the city—a process that involved interviews with judges, police officers and social service agency representatives—one of the goals that emerged was the establishment of a “mediation” center.

In the mediation process, the two parties involved in a dispute meet, voluntarily, to settle their differences. A third person, who has been trained in settling arguments, referees the process. At the end of the process, both sides sign a contract, which sets out the terms of their problem-solving agreement.

When TNT’s representatives went to the mayor to drum up support for a mediation center for Nashville, they met a positive reception. Mayor Phil Bredesen supported the idea, and, last January, the center opened its doors with a $76,000 budget from Metro. TNT is still involved; it “operates” the facility.

The Neighborhood Justice Center is a humble place. It occupies two small second-story rooms in a plain, red brick building, just upstairs from the local headquarters of the NAACP. There are only two employees, Ingle and an office administrator.

The location, however, is convenient to a number of the African-American congregations that participate in TNT, including the Jefferson Street Missionary Baptist Church, Pleasant Green Missionary Baptist Church, and St. Vincent de Paul Church. By working closely with the TNT churches and offering mediation services to people in the area, the Justice Center hopes not only to solve conflicts; Ingle says he hopes the center will “impact the culture of the neighborhood.”

Approximately 30 African-Americans have been formally trained to serve as the center’s volunteer mediators. They are now being assigned their first cases. Many of the disputes referred to the center come from the overloaded Juvenile Court. Some minor cases from Metro’s General Sessions Courts are being referred to the center as well. The Tennessee Supreme Court recently relaxed its rules as to what types of cases judges must hear. As a result, mediation can play a greater role in solving disputes.

According to Ingle, a high percentage of the cases that come to the Justice Center are successfully mediated. In other words, both sides abide by their agreement, and the controversy is squelched. On the other hand, Ingle is quick to acknowledge that not all mediations are successful. Some cases, he says, “go right back to Juvenile Court and General Sessions.”

Still, much of the traffic at the Justice Center is not court-related at all. Many cases simply involve people who walk into the center to talk about some conflict in their lives. “We want to be a neighborhood justice center, and we are trying to build a sense of this place being open and hospitable and meeting real needs,” Ingle says. “Historically, this neighborhood has been cut off from the rest of the city. People living here have been systematically oppressed, and we want to help [change] that.

“It’s not that people here are more violent, but there are more structural problems. None of us learn conflict resolution on our own. This needs to be taught to us like reading and writing and arithmetic.”

In January, when Charles Park went to the Neighborhood Justice Center for help, no trained mediators were available. For that reason, and also because of the gravity of the situation, Ingle agreed to mediate the case himself. But he did not want to begin the process by himself. For help, he called on Rev. James Thomas, an African-American who is pastor of the Jefferson Street Missionary Baptist Church. Ingle insisted that he needed the presence of a community figure of Thomas’ stature there. In retrospect, Ingle says, the Kim’s Boutique case was “the toughest mediation I have ever done.”

“It was like peeling an onion,” says Ingle. “The first level was letting people say what they needed to say. Once they were heard, we could get to the issues—not the racial, not the cultural issues, but the specific issues at hand.”

In a tiny room at the back of the Justice Center, Bakari and Parks were seated at a table, facing each other. Ingle sat between them, with Thomas stationed nearby. Bakari’s husband was there, as were the two police officers who had originally referred Parks to the center.

There were tough words at first, and the atmosphere was clearly hostile—Bakari was upset about the apparent affront to which she had been subjected. Park was irked that his wife had been falsely accused of being a racist. He complained that some blacks accuse Koreans of making their fortunes by misusing the black community. Park said that, in his case, that impression was clearly false. He said he worked hard. Nothing, he said, was more important to him than his customers.

Once the anger had been vented, the real mediation process got under way. The basics of the case were laid out on the table.

Bakari explained that all she had wanted was a door prize for her sorority event. In the beginning, she said, that was all she had been asking for.

In response, Park said he would be more than happy to provide such a gift. As well, he said, he would be happy to abide by the 13 demands the protesters had presented.

“There were some very emotional, deeply felt feelings beyond the issues at hand,” Ingle says. “Primarily, that was the race issue. We brought that up. Culturally, Mr. Park doesn’t understand the community. Racially, the issue was important to Mrs. Bakari because she is African-American.”

It was impossible to solve those larger differences across the mediation table. In the end, though, when Bakari and Park could simply concentrate on the specific controversy at hand—the misunderstanding about the door prize—things went smoothly.

When the mediation was over, Park and Bakari hugged one another. Ingle says his heart was racing and his adrenaline was pounding. Thomas knew, however, that the process had been a tough one. He walked up to Ingle and congratulated him. “The mayor got his money’s worth today,” Thomas told him.

“It was an extremely tough case,” Thomas says. “Joe handled the case well. He had the courage to deal with the problem, and we were able to deal with it. There are just so many misunderstandings in this regard.”

Thomas, a longtime civil rights advocate in Nashville, says the Kim’s controversy was a classic problem—a situation in which blacks feel they have not been treated as equals, a situation in which they feel they have been demeaned. Thomas admits that the tension between blacks and Koreans has not been eased forever. There are blacks, he says, who still feel as if they are mistreated by Korean merchants. In this one case, however, Thomas says the Justice Center was able to “nip the problem in the bud.”

According to Thomas, the misunderstanding clearly had to do with the simmering uneasiness between black customers and Korean merchants. “I don’t think they would have had a problem if it had been a black customer and a black merchant, and the black merchant had said it,” Thomas says. “When it is a Korean, or a white, and blacks rise up against it, then it becomes a problem. The fact is, you feel at home when it is a black who says something. You can cuss them out and still be friends with them the next week. Here, you cuss, and you are in trouble.”

The Bakari-Park mediation may have addressed a single incident, but Thomas argues that it short-circuited more far-reaching controversy. “The fact is, I hear a lot of stuff going on in the street, and we saved the community a lot here,” he says. “People were getting ready to fight for this. Many of them may not have known what they were fighting about, but that was fixing to happen. I think the Justice Center stopped it right away. I don’t know if Nashville knows what a great investment they made in the Justice Center.”

Some hard feelings remain. Charles Park declined to be interviewed for this story, saying he didn’t want to dredge up any more hard feelings. He said he was concerned about maintaining his store’s good standing in the black community. He said he hoped any news story would stress the positive impact of the Justice Center.

Tonia Bakari also declined to be interviewed. Her husband, Ken, said the situation was so intense, public and traumatic, that she has no desire to be in any more news stories. He said she appreciated the work the Justice Center had done and was satisfied with the outcome of the mediation.

Bakari and Park, according to sources familiar with the case, have not spoken with each other since the mediation. Nor has anyone conducted additional meetings to resolve the ill will that still lingers between the African-American and Korean communities. There are stories that, in some parts of both communities, resentment still persists from the Kim’s Boutique incident. Joe Ingle readily admits that he knows such problems insist.

In a dispute between a shopowner and a customer, he only put out one isolated brushfire. It is, however, one brushfire that never had the chance to burst into flame.

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