Legacy of Japanese American Activism Conference Update: Next Steps (Part 1)

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By IKU KIRIYAMA

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On Nov. 5, 2011, the Legacy of Japanese American Activism conference was held at the Japanese American National Museum. With a UCLA Aratani CARE grant, the conference was sponsored by the Japanese American Historical Society of Southern California in collaboration with members of Nikkei for Civil Rights & Redress, UCLA Nikkei Student Union, Tuesday Night Project, A3PCON, JTown Voice, Kizuna, Little Tokyo Service Center and JANM.

Technical assistance with our blog, Facebook and Twitter accounts was provided by Hamachi Technologies.

From the outset, the committee’s mission for the conference was to provide and encourage mentorship, resources, and tools to move forward from the conference in areas that interested the participants. A primary goal was to have young activists take the lead in issues that impacted the Japanese American community. However, as “no man is an island,” topics also were discussed that have affected all communities and, therefore, our community as well.

The following summaries prepared by the five workshop chairs provide information for conference attendees and interested community members. The reports cover, as the two-part workshops did at the conference, key issues and suggested next steps. As the reports have been shortened for this article, you are encouraged to view the complete reports at http://jalegacy2011.wordpress.com.

Evelyn Yoshimura (center) speaks on civil rights and activism from the camps to the present. She is joined by Kristin Fukushima (right) and Kei Nagao.

1) “Educate to Transform!” Chair: Glenn Omatsu (CSUN, UCLA, PCC), Matt Ichinose, Kevin Machino, Ashley Honma (UCLA NSU members)

Participants practiced using the immigrant activist approach to learning-teaching – with the objective of bringing back this approach to their current work in organizations and on campaigns.  Specifically, participants focused on community-building activities that emphasized learning through social interaction. They experimented with activities centering on taking action to promote greater awareness. They created activities connecting social change to personal transformation. They worked together to foster the tradition of “militant humility” and other Japanese American activist values.

Workshop activities are documented through photos taken by activist-filmmaker Ming Lai and webmaster Aaron Hamachi and are posted on our conference Facebook page: http://on.fb.me/z2FdGu.

For the morning workshop session, participants engaged in two activities:  a cultural heritage exercise and an activist timeline exercise. The cultural heritage exercise was adapted from the approach of CSUN Professor Rosa Furumoto of Chicana/o Studies, who used the exercise in her work with Latina immigrant mothers. For the exercise, participants work in small groups of four to six people and share an item they have with them representing their cultural heritage. For our conference, we adapted this exercise to promote creative thinking in activists. We asked each participant to identify an item on them representing activism. Each participant then shared an explanation of their item in their small groups.

Next, each of the small groups presented to all workshop participants. This community-building exercise enables people who were previously strangers to learn about each other while also demonstrating to everyone that concepts of activism are embedded in common objects we carry with us each day.

The second morning activity was an activist timeline exercise. This activity was originally created by Kimi Lee for young Asian American activists taking part in Summer Activist Training, and we adapted it for our conference. We selected approximately 40 key events from the Japanese American Activist Timeline posted on our conference website and put each event on a Post-it.  Usually, these Post-its are displayed on a wall, but for our conference workshop we put them on three tables. In the original version of this exercise, participants are asked to put themselves in the timeline by connecting themselves to one or more of the events by filling out new Post-its. Participants are also able to add additional significant events to the timeline.

For our conference workshop, we adapted this exercise and asked participants to not only put themselves into the timeline but to also identify through Post-its historical events that they wanted to learn more about. The conference Facebook page has several photos of this activity.

For the afternoon workshop session, participants worked in the same small groups from the morning session. Their task was to create a teaching-learning activity in 45 minutes and to demonstrate it to the full workshop. The small groups created imaginative activities, including an adaptation of Tony Osumi’s “Feast of Resistance,” which uses common food items to teach Asian American history. Photos on our conference Facebook page document some of these activities, especially a “paper story telling” activity emphasizing immigrant rights and interethnic ethnic solidarity: http://on.fb.me/y5qZ66.

2)  “Role of Activism in Preserving and Developing Little Tokyo” Chair: Alan Nishio (LTSC Board), Tony Osumi (NCRR), Takao Suzuki (LTSC), Cyndi Tando (UCLA NSU), Stacy Toyota (Kizuna)

During the morning session, Alan Nishio gave an historical overview of Little Tokyo, the importance of place, the significance of preserving and developing Little Tokyo (one of only three Japantowns remaining in the nation) as a historic JA community, and providing a sense of identity and culture for future generations of JAs.

Takao Suzuki covered the present situation of Little Tokyo, including the current wave of gentrification…meaning the encroachment and displacement of what we have come to know as Little Tokyo; the real-estate explosion of the early 2000s; the comparison of the heydays of Little Tokyo that included 26 square blocks with approximately 30,000 residents down to the present 8 square blocks and mostly working-class seniors and low-income families of all ethnicities. He also presented the demographics:

1) Residents – majority low-income monolingual seniors with a small number of families in affordable housing; a few small residential hotels housing mostly single workers and students; the growing number of young professionals lured to the area by high-end apartments and lofts and a ready-made pedestrian-friendly neighborhood.

2) Businesses – Some 90% family-owned, 80% storefront retail, 70% owned by Japanese/Japanese Americans with Korean Americans at 14% and growing.

3) Workers – Many businesses employ family members, youth and seniors; a significant number of employees of non-profit organizations in the area, as well as government entities with offices in Little Tokyo.

4) Non-profits – Social service, arts, historical organizations, as well as temples and churches play an active role in Little Tokyo community life.

Among the issues prompting interest in Little Tokyo: 1) one of the most vibrant, pedestrian-friendly communities in Downtown, 2) Smart growth – development of mixed-use, high-density, walkable communities with close proximity to public transportation, 3) development of the light-rail station. he Regional Connector will make the Little Tokyo station the second-busiest station in L.A. County, next to Union Station.

Among what’s at risk, a community plan is critical in order to identify planning tools, with the first step being taken with the current asset-mapping project. The Little Tokyo Coordinating Council (LTCC) has assumed the role of “gatekeeper,” developing a unified voice on issues.

Tony Osumi’s presentation was on the Little Tokyo Mural and activism in J-Town. More than just a large painting, the “Home Is Little Tokyo” mural should be seen as an organizing tool to bring the community together, provide an example of democracy in action, and allow the community to visualize their hopes and dreams for J-Town. The making of the mural is an example of how we want decisions made in Little Tokyo.

• Instead of decisions being made from the top down, the Little Tokyo mural sought out community input.

• Numerous community meetings were held in Little Tokyo to gather ideas.

• Ideas were blended together into a draft and brought back to the community for further input.

• Over 500 people, young and old came together to paint.

• This is in direct contrast to the way City Hall and big businesses worked with the community.

Cyndi Tando spoke on the importance of students in Little Tokyo, specifically how UCLA NSU members have been involved (e.g. planning and participating in conferences, such as the Legacy; field trips to JANM; Little Tokyo Walking Tour, NSU’s president’s seat on LTCC), connecting outside the community, giving back to the community, and preservation as well as change.

Stacy Toyota represented Kizuna, a newly formed organization by Yonsei. They are focused on youth leadership development and community engagement and creating a space for young people in LT and the JA community. Kizuna’s mission is to build a vibrant Nikkei community by 1) creating an empowering culture and environment, 2) engaging and advocating for the community by igniting the passion of young JAs, and building a collective identity through multi-generational and multi-ethnic collaborations.

Included in the “next steps” are:

1) Develop an educational program in Little Tokyo. Explore the concept of a “Little Tokyo University” where community-based classes and oral histories can be offered and shared.

2) Explore the possibility of creating a “Japanese American” school for elementary school students in Little Tokyo.  Tony Osumi has convened an exploratory meeting with folks who have expressed interest.

3) Plan an “Explore Little Tokyo Day, working with the Intercollegiate Nikkei Council (INC) and other area colleges and universities to have a coordinated event where students from throughout the state may participate.

4) Develop a “community space” where folks can “hang out” in a bookstore/coffee house environment to gather and meet informally.

To be continued

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