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Ike Kown and his mother with his shadow box at the Visitor Cetner.
Ike Kwon and his mother with his shadow box at the Presidio Visitor Center opening.

Aug 17, 2017

PlaceMaker: California Academy of Science’s Ike Kwon Talks about Family and Our Parks

Ike expressed his love for the Presidio by creating a “shadow box”.


Ike Kwon, Chief Operating Officer for the California Academy of Sciences, is a man connected to his community. The Chicago native moved to San Francisco in 2008 and now serves as a Public Utilities Commissioner and as an Executive Committee board member for the San Francisco Travel Association. Ike also volunteers with numerous community groups, including Korean Martial Arts Center, Friends of the Urban Forest, Inner Sunset Merchants and Park Neighbors, and Cornerstone Church of San Francisco. In May 2013, he was recognized by Supervisor Katy Tang as an Asian Pacific Islander Leader in San Francisco. He lives in the Sunset with his wife and two daughters.

In February, the Presidio invited Ike to express his love for the city and the Presidio by creating a “shadow box” in the new Presidio Visitor Center. Using art, he answered the question, “What does the Presidio mean to you?” His box represents his experience growing up with parents who are immigrants from Korea, his love for the outdoors, and the Academy’s partnerships with the Presidio. We caught up with Ike to learn more.

You have multiple ties to the Presidio – tell us a little bit about the objects in your shadow box at the Presidio Visitor Center?

I included images about the Korean War, photos of my family, and aspects of nature and the outdoors. My parents immigrated to the United States from Korea, and I grew up with a strong sense that without the intervention of the U.S. military in Korea, we wouldn’t be here. I also grew up visiting our national parks, so nature and the outdoors have always been a big part of my life. A love for parks has been passed down through the generations in my family – from my parents to me, and now to my daughters. I regularly get outside and visit our parks, particularly Golden Gate Park and the Presidio.

You have images of military planes in your box – what are those about?

I’ve always been interested in U.S. military aviation history. My parents are survivors of World War II and the Korean War, and I grew up hearing about American jets streaking across the sky during the Korean War, and how my parents arrived in the U.S. by plane.

I also have a photo of my father in my shadow box. A few years ago, my father, Nathan Kwon, wrote his memoirs, The Weight of My Dreams: A Young Korean Man’s Journey of Faith. In it, he talks about his life during the war and his struggles to survive. My dad really wanted to attend the opening for the Korean War Memorial in the Presidio in 2016, but he passed away right before it opened. Nevertheless, the memorial is very important for my family – it provides a physical place to go and reflect on what happened during the war. It’s a reminder for Korean Americans about how we got here.

How did you get interested in nature and the outdoors?

My family believes our national parks are one of America’s greatest gifts, and I grew up visiting national parks with my parents. My mom and dad would drive my brother and I all around the country in an old Oldsmobile, and we’d visit places like the Grand Tetons, Yellowstone, and Glacier Lake. My father used to say, “We need to get out and enjoy God’s creation.” He bought a Coleman stove and a tent from Sears Roebuck and we’d camp out, fish, and explore nature. Everywhere we went, my immigrant parents would cook Korean food, and people camping next to us would smell it and come over and talk to us and ask questions.

I recently did a trip around our parks and it made me realize, the parks haven’t changed much since I was little. There were still buses everywhere and it was pretty diverse. It made me see that though I was traveling through red states and blue states, we have more in common than you might expect. Nature draws everyone in.

How does your work at the California Academy of Sciences influence the way you look at our parks?

Though I’m not a scientist, I appreciate nature and exploring the outdoors. I’ve learned there are things I can do to support the parks. For instance, I’m a weekend hiker, and my daughter is an avid birder. Her love for birds has gotten me to visit places I never would have, and I use the Academy’s iNaturalist app wherever we go to discover wildlife.

If you haven’t used this app, it’s pretty great – you upload an image of a bird or plant through a phone, give it a location, and share discoveries with the larger community. It’s citizen science, fun, and incredibly useful information for researchers, like those at the Academy. This is something that allows everyone – scientists at the Academy and ecologists at the Presidio – to stay informed, share data, and work toward biodiversity.

Over the years, the Academy’s scientists have worked closely with the Presidio at Mountain Lake. Every day, visitors contribute their observations to iNaturalist. Often Academy visitors ask us, “What can I do?” To be able to point people to a park like the Presidio and say, “Here’s what we’re doing at Mountain Lake” and here’s what you can do, is really important. The Presidio is right here in our backyard, it’s a great hotspot for biodiversity, and it’s ready to explore!