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Lillian Kawasaki, Friends of Manzanar Co-founder, Dies at 62

Served on Water Replenishment District Board of SoCal; ran for Long Beach City Council; headed L.A.'s first Environmental Affairs Dept.

Lillian Kawasaki (center) was recognized last December for leading the successful campaign to build the guard tower that now stands at the Manzanar National Historic Site. She is joined by (from left) MNHS Chief of Interpretation Alisa Lynch, MNHS Superintendent Les Inafuku, Friends of Manzanar co-founder Rose Ochi, and Manzanar Committee Co-chair Bruce Embrey. (MARIO G. REYES/Rafu Shimpo)

Rafu Staff Report

Lillian Kawasaki, a director of the Water Replenishment District of Southern California and a 2012 candidate for the Long Beach City Council, died of breast cancer on July 18 at her home in Long Beach. She was 62.

According to The Long Beach Press-Telegram, Kawasaki had been battling cancer for just over two years. She was cancer-free when she was running for City Council but suffered a relapse about a month after the election.

Lillian Kawasaki (center) and Rose Ochi presented an award to former Inyo County Supervisor Keith Bright (1915-2010)  in April 2008 on behalf of Friends of Manzanar. (MARIO G. REYES/Rafu Shimpo)

In the Japanese American community, she was known for her work as co-chair for the Friends of Manzanar, an all-volunteer organization founded in 2004 by Kawasaki, Rose Ochi and other concerned individuals to educate others about the internment of Japanese Americans during World War II. The group works with the National Park Service and others to preserve and restore the Manzanar site, where Kawasaki’s mother was detained.

Bruce Saito, president of Friends of Manzanar, said that his organization “is saddened by the passing of our co-founder and friend Lillian Kawasaki. Her leadership and passion helped support early efforts to preserve and share the story of the Japanese American wartime experience, particularly at Manzanar National Historic Site. 

“Among myriad accomplishments throughout her life and career, Lillian served as primary liaison to U.S. Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) in crafting the language for legislation benefiting the site. Lillian went on to champion the campaign to erect Manzanar’s replicated guard tower, a sobering symbol of the incarceration destined to inspire visitors for generations to come.

“Our hearts go out to her family. Lillian was taken from all of us too soon. We sincerely thank them for sharing her with us.”

Last December at St. Francis Xavier Chapel/Japanese Catholic Center (Maryknoll) in Los Angeles, Kawasaki was recognized for her contributions during the first “Speaking of Camp” get-together co-sponsored by Friends of Manzanar and the Manzanar Committee.

Kawasaki was a respected figure in local government as both an elected and appointed official.

Water Replenishment District Board President Rob Katherman issued the following statement on July 19: “The passing of Director Lillian Kawasaki is a loss to the WRD family, her 800,000 constituents in Long Beach and neighboring cities, and to the California water community at large.

“In the six years she served on the WRD Board, she made an indelible imprint on district policies and programs. Based in part on her distinguished career with the City of Los Angeles and her membership on multiple state and federal water policy committees over the years, she brought to her WRD service extraordinary expertise.

“She enjoyed a statewide reputation as an expert on the nexus between water and energy, the importance of storm water capture for beneficial use, and the relationship between water supply in Southern California and ecosystem restoration in the Bay-Delta. That expertise has been an indispensable part of what the district has done in recent years.

“Personally, of course, Lillian was a force of nature, continually effervescent, always cheerful, always on the run, always interested in what she could to help others. Her personality was a constant and welcome presence at WRD.

“Lillian was a tenacious advocate for sustainable landscaping and conservation practices. Indeed, those values resulted in the creation of the District’s ECO Gardener program. Last month, the WRD Board named the extensive native landscaping at its headquarters the Lillian Kawasaki Educational Urban Landscape Demonstration Site. The Eco Gardener Program was renamed the Lillian Kawasaki ECO Gardener Program.

“These memorial gestures will serve as daily reminders of the indispensable contributions Lillian made to WRD, her constituents, and to the California water community.”

Kawasaki was elected to the WRD Board in November 2006 to represent Division 3, which includes the cities of Artesia, Cerritos, Hawaiian Gardens, La Mirada, Lakewood, Long Beach and Signal Hill. She chaired the Groundwater Quality Committee and was a member of the Administrative Committee.

Cerritos Mayor Pro Tem Mark Pulido posted on Facebook, “Thank you, Lillian, for being such a tireless public servant, a principled role model and most of all a dear friend. You always worked so hard with the best interest of the community at heart … You will be truly missed.”

In the April 2012 election, Kawasaki was a candidate for the District 8 council seat, which represents North Long Beach, Bixby Knolls, Virginia Country Club and Los Cerritos. She lost to Al Austin, a former aide to State Sen. Kevin Murray, by only 433 votes, 1,960 to 1,527. Her endorsers included Mayor Bob Foster and former mayor Beverly O’Neill.

Lillian Kawasaki ran for the Long Beach City Council last year, pledging to spur economic development, promote safe and livable neighborhoods, responsibly steward the environment, and increase the efficiency, transparency and accountability of local government.

The Press-Telegram endorsed Kawasaki, citing her “experience as an elected official … and 35 years as an executive for various departments in L.A. city government … a huge plus in dealing with Port of Long Beach issues.”

In a message to her supporters after the election, Kawasaki said, “I am very proud of our positive campaign, met good people along the way and made great new friends. I remain committed to serving this wonderful community and city.”

Rae Gabelich, who previously represented District 8 on the council, said on Friday, “I have great respect for Lillian and her ability to stand up for her convictions. She cared deeply about our city. I met Lillian when she and Craig first moved to L.B. She was not shy, she jumped in and supported the neighborhood commitment to restricting growth to our L.B. Airport. She took a stand. That was my introduction to Lillian. A woman who spoke her mind, with grace, control and from an intelligent viewpoint.”

Kawasaki remained involved in politics, supporting Frank Yokoyama’s unsuccessful campaign for the Cerritos City Council in last March’s election.

Kawasaki was a member of the California Bay-Delta Public Advisory Committee, an appointment by the governor and the U.S. secretary of the interior.

In January 2003, she was appointed as the assistant general manager of environmental affairs and economic development organization for the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power, where she had oversight responsibilities for Green L.A. and other environmental public benefits programs, environmental compliance for the power system, and economic development programs, managing more than $70 million annually. The major environmental programs included solar, energy efficiency, trees, and recycling.

From July 2006, Kawasaki managed a new consolidated organization in LADWP that is responsible for department-wide environmental issues, CEQA (California Environmental Quality Act) review and environmental regulatory oversight for both the water and power systems. She was actively involved in the development of the L.A. River Revitalization Master Plan, habitat restoration projects, preparation of the Greenhouse Gas Reduction Plan and wastewater quality compliance.

Prior to her tenure at LADWP, Kawasaki served as general manager of the Los Angeles Community Development Department for three years, managing 500 employees and over $300 million annually in federal block grant and other public funds earmarked to promote economic/community revitalization, neighborhood improvements, human services, and workforce development programs for low-income and disadvantaged members of the community.

In 1990, Kawasaki was appointed to head the newly created Los Angeles City Environmental Affairs Department. She also became the first Asian American woman to become a general manager for the City of Los Angeles. The EAD advised the city on environmental policies and programs. Major environmental initiatives spearheaded during her tenure included the Los Angeles City Brownfields Revitalization and Job Training Initiative; the Clean Air Plan; City CEQA Thresholds Guidelines; and the Environmental Justice program.

Clifford Gladstein of Gladstein, Neandross & Associates said, “She was a unique spirit. When we first started working together when she became the head of EAD, we’d joke that we couldn’t keep up with the idea factory that was housed in her amazing mind. She was constantly thinking of ways to do things better, reduce more pollution, help more people. Lillian was a rarity in public service — a profoundly intelligent person focused solely on serving the public.”

Kawasaki also worked at the Port of Los Angeles for 12 years in the Environmental Management Division, responsible for managing the water quality, air quality and other port environmental issues. Prior to that, she was a researcher at UCLA on a wastewater nutrient recycling project for nearly four years.

Kawasaki was a member of the Women’s Foundation Donor Circle, which provides grants to foster financial literacy for women and girls, and of the Enterprise Foundation Leadership Council, which promotes sustainable affordable housing.

In addition, Kawasaki served on the California State University L.A. Foundation Board for more than five years, was on the Historical Society of Long Beach’s Advisory Committee, and recently joined the California Small Business Development Center Network Advisory Board.

Lillian Kawasaki appeared in this “Share Our Streets” ad promoting courtesy between drivers and bicyclists.

Melissa Balmer of Women on Bikes SoCal recalled Kawasaki’s participation in Bike Long Beach’s “Share Our Streets” campaign. In an ad that was put up in transit shelters, Kawasaki played a driver in a convertible smiling at a girl riding a bike.

“Lillian Kawasaki was such a generous soul … We were so fortunate to have her participate … She was the epitome of grace and generosity of those in our fair city who want to work together to engender greater courtesy and respect between those driving cars and those riding bikes … It was a scorching hot day for photos, rather unpleasant, but she was a champion and I feel very privileged I had the opportunity to work with her just a little,” Balmer said.

Born in 1950 at a military hospital in Denver to Toshio and Sekiko Kawasaki, she grew up as an “Army brat,” living in many places throughout the country and overseas and eventually graduating high school in Southern California. She went on to receive a bachelor’s degree in zoology and a master’s in biology from Cal State L.A.

She resided with her husband, Craig Carter, in the Los Cerritos/Bixby Knolls area of Long Beach, where they were actively involved in the community. She enjoyed First Fridays, the annual Bixby Knolls Car Show, concerts in the park, and Rancho Los Cerritos.

In addition to her husband and father, Kawasaki is survived by her younger brother, Glenn, of Seattle and younger sister, Nancy, of Elgin, Ill. Her mother passed away in 2010.

Services will be held Saturday, Aug. 3, at 10 a.m. at Forest Lawn, 1500 E. San Antonio Dr., Long Beach.

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