Little did Kevin Park know that when he answered a neighbor’s request to help pass out flyers about a development proposed for the old Kaiser Hospital site in 2009, that he would be taking his first step toward becoming a Santa Clara City Councilmember.
“My neighbor told me about the project and asked me to help pass out fliers about it and walk the neighborhood,” Park said. “That’s how I met people. We formed a neighborhood committee.”
Park thought this would be a six-month effort. “It turned out to be year-long,” he said. “I ended up taking two years off work, starting my own business and dedicating myself to this community effort.”
An engineer with electrical, aeronautics chemical engineering background, Park grew up in Los Angeles, the son of Korean immigrants who ran a variety store. His parents pushed Park to get the best education, and only after he graduated did he realize how much they sacrificed to get him that good education.
“My parents didn’t have a lot of money,” he said. “When I graduated from grad school I realized how much debt they took on, because I took over that debt.”
His experience helping his parents run a small retail business taught Park how important small immigrant-run businesses are to the community. “They create value for their local communities,” he said. Those businesses are more important to the community, “than for Google or Facebook to hire more engineers.”
After getting a job in San José, Park moved to Santa Clara. He and his roommate found a half-duplex they liked.
“It was more than we wanted to pay,” he said, “but then I thought, ‘Where else can I find something this good in the old quad for this amount of money.’ I liked the place, so I stayed.”
It was the Kiely development project that started him thinking about the City Council. That project began Park’s regular attendance at Council meetings. From that he realized, ultimately, it was only the Council that had any decisive power.
“You could go to Planning Commission meetings but the City Council makes the decisions,” he said. “I realized you can be impactful in the audience but there’s nothing more impactful than being on the dais.”
Park started out by encouraging other people to run. But in 2014, he decided to make a run himself. My father always told me, “If something needs to be done, and no one is doing it, you need to do it.”
His impact was such that, without any campaigning, he came in second to a well-known candidate in the at-large election. “It was a good learning experience,” he said, adding, “I don’t know that it would have been the best experience to win in 2014.”
Dialog and deliberation are central to good governance, Park says. “You can’t just say you want change, you actually have to make change,” he said. “You need engaged people on the dais and in the audience.”
Substantive dialog requires preparation, Park says.
“You have to read the [agenda] packet,” he said. “Is the material accurate? Go to other cities and ask the same questions. If you get a different answer, then find out about that. Keep up with issues to know what’s possible.”
“You need people who care, but also who are objective, he continued. “You need critics. You can’t just have an echo chamber. Echo chambers don’t make you better, they don’t make a better city.
“You can’t just say you want change, you actually have to make change,” he concludes. “I don’t want to look back on m life and say shoulda, woulda, coulda.”