An interview with Commissioner Lori Stegmann
Before becoming a Multnomah County Commissioner in 2016, before serving six years as a Gresham City Councilor, before a career as a small business owner and insurance agent, Commissioner Lori Stegmann was a little girl excited for her first day of kindergarten. She remembers the day well.
“I had really long hair, hair down to my hips,” she recalled. “My mom had braided it into two braids, one on each side. She put ribbons in it. I had a brand new dress. I had brand new saddle shoes. I was stoked.”
Until then, Commissioner Stegmann said she hadn’t had much exposure to the outside world. She knew her family: her mom, dad, three brothers, and sister, who were all white. Commissioner Stegmann, who was born in Seoul, South Korea and adopted as a baby, knew they all loved her. And although she recognized that she looked different from them, she hadn’t yet learned what that difference might mean to others.
“On the first day of kindergarten, the kids circled around me and teased me and taunted me and called me an Indian Giver,” she remembered. “That was my first experience with racism. Obviously, there’s a lot to unpack there. I’m not Native. But that was what they used to ridicule me.”
This was one of the experiences Commissioner Stegmann shared in a recent interview with APANO, shortly after a pair of APANO’s events called “Pending Approval” which discussed the experiences of Korean adoptees in Oregon. Growing up, Commissioner Stegmann shared that she hadn’t sought much connection to her biological family or culture. But in recent years, she has been learning more about her Korean roots, attending events like the ones APANO hosted, and connecting the dots of how experiences like the one she had as a kindergartener help fuel her passion for public service and promoting equity in Multnomah County.
Returning to Roots
Commissioner Stegmann grew up in Oregon where her family moved around a lot. She attended four different elementary schools and three high schools. The frequent moves were a symptom of poverty, she said. Her father was a logger who injured his back and had to go on disability assistance, her mother was a homemaker, and the family struggled. Moving made it hard to feel like she had any roots, a feeling further enhanced by not knowing her Korean culture or history.
“I didn’t have that much — or at least I told myself that I didn’t have that much — desire to learn about my biological [family] when I was growing up and when I was young,” she shared. “But the older I got, the more I realized that time was running out, and that if I did ever want to find my biological family, I should do it now.”
Through her search, Commissioner Stegmann found documentation of how she was found as a baby on the steps of city hall in Seoul along with another baby girl. She learned the exact date that she, at six months old, had arrived by plane to Portland: July 2, 1960. And when she first arrived in Oregon, she had stayed briefly with Bertha and Harry Holt, the Oregon couple who had adopted eight children from South Korea in the wake of the Korean War and founded Holt International, which is now a major international adoption agency based in Eugene.
Another major piece of her search was taking a trip back to South Korea with her daughter. With the help of two translators, she found the site of the orphanage next to a church in Seoul where she had stayed as a baby. And although Commissioner Stegmann didn’t find her biological family on that trip or since, it still meant a lot to her to see the site of the orphanage where she lived in her first months of life.
“Just to find some proof of my existence was really, really, really powerful,” she said.
It was even more meaningful to have experienced the trip with her daughter, she said. Commissioner Stegmann noted how some others’ stories of searching for their birth families were tied to their children, including that of Nicole Chung, author of the 2018 memoir All You Can Ever Know, who began her search when she became pregnant.
Having a child was also a powerful experience for Commissioner Stegmann. “When I had my daughter,” she said, “it was kind of completing the circle of — I can’t wait to see somebody’s face that reflects mine.”
In Korea, Commissioner Stegmann was struck by seeing so many faces that looked like hers. “It was really indescribable to see 9 million people [in Seoul] who look like you,” she said.
It was a stark contrast to growing up in Oregon, where she didn’t grow up around any other Korean people and where racism affected her in subtle but real ways. There was that first day of kindergarten. She also remembered a time when she was dating a boy who was white and heard his mother say to him, “She’s nice, but why can’t you find a white girl?”
She coped, she said, by trying to become invisible. She was a good student. She wasn’t one of the popular girls. She said she tried to minimize her experiences of racism because, relatively, they didn’t seem like such a big deal. No one had physically attacked her. She knew there were more horrific things that people did to express racism. Even so, she said, it profoundly affected her as a person, and she didn’t really have anyone to talk about it with.
“To talk about racism and growing up in a dominant white culture and how you navigate that, there wasn’t anybody to talk to about that. I wouldn’t have even known that was a thing because you’re a child. You just take what your parents are feeding you, which is you’re my daughter, and we love you, and that’s all that matters,” Commissioner Stegmann explained.
“And thank you mom and dad, but as well-meaning as you are, that isn’t all that matters because there’s a whole other world of people that see me differently than you do,” she said. “I don’t know that they could have ever prepared me for the racism that I would experience. But I wish that they could have.”
Paying It Forward
Today, these roots and her experiences growing up Asian American in Oregon inform why she serves as a county commissioner and public leader.
“What stems my motivation and my desire to change the world are those hard lessons that you learn at a time when you don’t even have the language, you don’t have the brain development to even process what happened,” she said.
She later added, “In my journey trying to figure out who I am, which I’m still trying to figure out, is looking at all those experiences and going, ok, what really happened there, and how did that impact me, and what did I do with that pain.”
Far from the girl that tried to be invisible, Commissioner Stegmann said that she’s been galvanized to speak up and be seen. One of the major stands she took was changing her party affiliation from Republican to Democrat in 2018, a move she said was spurred by the Trump administration’s policy earlier that year to separate migrant families at the U.S.-Mexico border.
“I had wanted to change my party affiliation for a long time,” she explained. “But with the family separation, it was like, alright, that’s it. Being put up for adoption and being separated from my family — no. No. You just crossed a line for me. … I [could not] look my daughter in her eyes and say, ‘Honey, I did everything I could to try to make the world better for your generation’ unless I changed my party and spoke my mind and spoke the truth.”
While federal policies have angered Commissioner Stegmann, she is energized by the work of the Multnomah County Board of Commissioners — a board that is made up entirely of women, a majority of whom are women of color.
“What’s refreshing is that I work in an environment where the first thing out of any project or anything that we do is the word ‘equity,’” she said. “That part is really, really empowering to know that [we ask] how is this going to affect the people that have always been marginalized and that we have to put them first for once.”
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