Portland JACL Newsletter: April 2014 Issue
Board Member Message by Jessica Asai
Leadership Summit JACL Attendees:
Back – Emi Kamemoto, Matthew Walters, Dr. Robert Irie
Middle – Janet Komoto, Justin Valas, Stephen Sharp,
Front – Toshiko Hasegawa, Jessica Asai, Rosemary Uyeda, Yasuo Tokita, Not pictured – Kenneth Sogabe
Life includes many surreal moments — snapshots in time when you’re not quite sure if something is actually happening because it is so unfathomable. As I sat in the Eisenhower Executive Office Building, I had one of those moments. I was listening to a briefing from the White House Initiative on Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders (WHIAAPI) while looking at enlarged photos of President Obama and First Lady Michelle Obama exercising. (The Eisenhower Building also houses the Office of the First Lady’s "Let’s Move" campaign to fight childhood obesity.) It then occurred to me that I had not imagined my life would include such a powerful moment. Somehow attending Mid-Columbia JACL summer picnics and Christmas parties in my childhood and dreams of becoming an attorney led me to this very moment.
I was raised in Hood River, the yonsei daughter of farmers who taught me to value family and take pride in my Japanese heritage. Like many families, mine was interned during World War II and their deprivation of civil liberties has made me passionate about civil rights, civic engagement, and Asian Pacific Islander (API) issues. Though an attorney, I now work as a Civil Rights Investigator ensuring compliance with state and federal nondiscrimination laws. Because civil rights are the focus of my career, I feel extremely fortunate to have been chosen to attend the 2014 JACL/OCA Washington, DC Leadership Summit where we learned lobbying and advocacy skills so we could both advocate for civil rights issues on Capitol Hill and bring those skills back to our home chapters.
The Summit launched the evening of Saturday, March 8, with a welcome reception and keynote address by Stuart Ishimaru, Director of the Office of Minority and Women Inclusion at the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau. Ishimaru’s trailblazing career has focused on civil rights; in addition to his current position, he has held positions with the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (Commissioner and Acting Chairman) and the Civil Rights Division of the U.S. Department of Justice (Deputy Assistant Attorney General and Counsel to the Assistant Attorney General). JACL Executive Director Priscilla Ouchida and OCA (formerly the Organization of Chinese Americans, now rebranded as OCA – Asian Pacific American Advocates) Executive Director Tom Hayashi also welcomed attendees.
Sunday, March 9, was our first full day of activities and provided an opportunity to work with other JACL and OCA attendees, who ranged in age from late teens to 70s and hailed from both coasts and parts in between. Other JACL attendees included Toshiko Grace Hasegawa, Seattle Chapter President; and Janet Dere Komoto, Snake River (Ontario, OR) Chapter President. The connections developed amongst Summit attendees will undoubtedly be one of the best takeaways from the Summit.
Sunday’s agenda included "Star Power," a game that illustrated how resource allocation stratifies society with limited opportunity for upward mobility; a panel discussion on the Voting Rights Act with Terry Ao Minnis (Director of Census and Voting Programs, Asian Americans Advancing Justice) and Bree Romero (Field Manager, The Leadership Conference Education Fund); a Social Media Training workshop conducted by Vincent Paolo Villano (Director of Communications for the National Center for Transgender Equality); a lunchtime discussion of pan-Asian advocacy as defined by our personal histories and historical events for our communities; and an Advocacy Communication and Story Framing workshop led by our Summit organization leaders, Kham Moua (OCA) and Rhianna Taniguchi (JACL). Whew! Our day was capped off by a walk to Chinatown for a spirited karaoke session at Wok and Roll.<
Monday, March 10, we met for breakfast at 6:50 AM (!) then proceeded to the Eisenhower Building for a White House Briefing with WHIAAPI that included an introduction from the White House Office of Public Engagement. The White House Advisors provided insight into their work addressing immigration reform, the Affordable Care Act, and AANAPSI (Asian American and Native American Pacific Islander-Serving Institutions) colleges. We also engaged in small group discussions with each Advisor to share our thoughts and comments. The opportunity to sit down with White House Advisors was truly a memorable experience!
After the briefing, we had an Advocacy 101 panel discussion with Stephanie Ueng (Legislative Director for Congresswoman Tammy Duckworth) and Ben Chou (Outreach Fellow for Congresswoman Nancy Pelosi); an immigration reform panel discussion with Dong Yoon Kim (Program Associate, National Korean American Service & Education Consortium), Lia Parada (Legislative Director, Alliance for Citizenship), and Erin Oshiro (Senior Staff Attorney, Immigration and Immigrant Rights, Asian Americans Advancing Justice); a presentation by State Farm regarding grants and programs offered nationwide to strengthen communities; and a visit to the Japanese American Memorial with author Franklin Oda. Our day culminated with a dinner presentation by Chris Lu. Lu’s impressive resume includes Assistant to the President, White House Cabinet Secretary, and co-chair of WHIAAPI. Lu spoke passionately about current civil rights issues and the need for more APIs to run for office and work in civil service. He also discussed having attended Harvard Law School with President Obama. During a Q&A session, I was able to ask Lu what he saw as the most pressing civil rights issue of our time, to which he responded – voting rights. His response emphasized that the Summit’s focus was truly relevant to ensure civil rights for all citizens.
The Summit concluded on Tuesday, March 11, with a chance to use our newly honed advocacy skills by lobbying Capitol Hill for immigration reform and a stronger Voting Rights Act. The day began in the Cannon House Office Building for a "Meet and Greet" with Congresswoman Colleen Hanabusa (Hawaii) and Congressman Mark Takano (California). I introduced myself to Hanabusa because she had been a state legislator during the time I worked for Hawaii lobbyists after college. Summit attendees then divided into pre-assigned lobbying teams before heading to appointments with Congressional offices. I was assigned to visit Congressman Greg Walden’s office to discuss immigration reform. Walden is also a Hood River native and, though I no longer reside in his district, I am keenly familiar with issues impacting his constituents. Our group leader was Komoto, who does reside in his district. Though we did not meet with Congressman Walden directly, his staffer was receptive to our comments and we left feeling empowered.
I enthusiastically recommend the Leadership Summit to any JACL member interested in policy, civil rights, and advocacy. In just three jam packed days, I built connections across civil rights organizations, strengthened my advocacy skills, and broadened my knowledge of API issues. The opportunity to learn from the Summit’s speakers and lobby in DC was an invaluable experience; and I am truly thankful to Summit sponsors, Southwest Airlines and State Farm, for making this opportunity a reality.