By GWEN MURANAKA
RAFU ENGLISH EDITOR IN CHIEF
Leslie Ito is listening and wants to hear from you. The new president and CEO of the Japanese American Cultural and Community Center started on Monday and wants to hear from the public what it wants for the Little Tokyo institution.
“I really want people to get to know me. I want to have an open door policy,” said Ito. “As we know, tough decisions need to be made. I’ll be there to do that. But I also want to know what the community wants. This center exists for people to own and to be excited about.”
Ito, 38, was selected by a nine-member search committee, which praised her vision to create programming that will bring in a new generation to the cultural arts organization. Prior to JACCC, Ito worked at the California Community Foundation, and she has also worked for the Ford Foundation and the Los Angeles County Arts Commission.
“I want to return to the original mission of supporting Japanese and Asian American artists featuring traditional and contemporary Japanese culture,” Ito stated. “And return to a stable organization with efficient business practices that responds to community needs.”
Ito is a marked contrast to prior CEO Greg Willis, a former Toyota executive with few community ties, whose resignation last year left the 33-year-old organization in turmoil. She attended the open meeting held last November, where the challenges facing JACCC were starkly laid out, including a budget deficit of nearly $2 million.
“I felt really encouraged by (the meeting). It was a roomful of people who really care about the organization. I was thinking about what I envision the room will look and feel like a year from that date. I really hope that it will be just as full and that we’re there to celebrate some accomplishments,” Ito said.
A resident of South Pasadena, Ito is a Yonsei who spent much of her youth in Little Tokyo, where her grandfather ran an insurance agency on Second Street. During an interview last week, she recalled running in the Chibi-K as a kid and working as an usher in the Aratani Theatre.
Bill Watanabe, who officially retired on Monday as JACCC interim executive director, said many in the community welcome Ito’s hiring but that she will face challenges.
“A lot of people in the community have positive feelings for Leslie but at the same time wonder if JACCC is up to it,” said Watanabe. “A lot of people want JACCC to succeed … the challenge is going to be rebuilding that trust. She will need to touch bases with groups to say we have a future, we have a vision. They’re going to watch and see that she makes the right decisions.”
Ito said she understands the sentiment felt by the community.
“I think that’s the right response for the community to have: cautious enthusiasm. Trust is earned and we’ll build it back by our actions, by what is being presented in the theater and plaza, and how we communicate with the community,” she said.
Watanabe confirmed that the JACCC board has declined an offer received last year to sell the building. Ito noted that the real estate holdings, including the Aratani Theatre, Noguchi Plaza and JACCC building, are among its largest assets and leasing out space in the JACCC building will be a top priority.
“Moving forward, big decisions will have to be made around real estate,” said Ito. “The strongest asset we have is the community. I felt really enthusiastic and encouraged by the sense of community that has come out in the last 18 months for the organization.”
This is not the first time Ito has entered an organization in transition. She became executive director of Visual Communications following the abrupt passing of its leader, Linda Mabalot, in 2003. Mabalot, who was just 49 when she died of cancer, tapped Ito for leadership when she was an 18-year-old intern at VC, when the organization had its office in the old Rafu building on Los Angeles Street.
“She took me into this smoky hallway at the Rafu building and said to me, ‘You must come back. You’re going to be a leader in our community.’ She had this vision, and that seed that she planted really stuck with me,” said Ito.
When the moment came, Ito found herself the leader of an organization in mourning, with no formal succession plan.
“She got sick and it was very sudden. It was like leading a grieving family through a really rough period,” Ito recalled. “JACCC will likely be similar. I try to approach it with a warm approach. I’m very much a people person. On the flip side, I’m a very strategic thinker. I’m always looking to leverage opportunities.”
Among her goals for the JACCC are to collaborate with other midsized downtown cultural organizations such as East West Players, Latino Theatre Company and the Los Angeles Theatre Center.
“All nonprofits are struggling and we shouldn’t be recreating the wheel or doubling up on efforts, so I think collaboration is really important.What I
think I bring to the position is my network of connections and partnerships with other nonprofits organizations, business and people,” said Ito.
The community will get the opportunity to meet Ito at a welcome reception that will be held on Thursday. A mother of two, Ito said she wants to bring a family feel to the JACCC.
“It will not be rare to see my grandma coming in and helping. Also with my kids in tow, engaging multiple generations. I like to be the kind of leader that really walks the walk. If this is something I value and believe in, it will be something I will institute as well as in my life,” she said.
A welcome reception for Leslie Ito will be held on Thursday, March 7, from 6 to 7:30 p.m. in the Garden Room of the JACCC, 244 S. San Pedro St. in Little Tokyo. RSVP to firstname.lastname@example.org.