By WARREN FURUTANI
There is an iconic photograph in JANM’s “Common Ground” exhibit of a Sansei carrying an elderly Issei down the steps of a mobile X-ray van. This picture is also immortalized as a part of the colorful Little Tokyo mural on Central Avenue and First Street. The backdrop for this image is the Little Tokyo Health Fair that was organized by a coalition of community service organizations back in the day (BITD).
In the mid- to late 1960s, a movement started in different parts of the United States. It was a part of a broader movement for social justice, social consciousness and social change and took root in the Asian and Pacific Islander American (APIA) communities nationwide.
Two slogans emerged out of that movement that symbolized the times. “Power to the People” represented the political and populist passions of the movement. Empowering people to demand social justice, to fight for their democratic rights and to speak truth to power was the essence of this people’s movement.
To “Serve the People,” a saying coined by Chairman Mao Tse-tung (Mao Zedong) and popularized by the Black Panther Party, represented the organizing activities of these social justice movements. Addressing people’s needs and organizing community service programs to help the disenfranchised, forgotten and oppressed in the community propelled the work of many during those times.
Such were the cornerstones for the growing and dynamic APIA Movement in the ’60s, ’70s and early 80s in the greater Los Angeles area. Also, this was the genesis for most of the service and progressive political organizations that exist today.
In Los Angeles, the Asian American Movement kicked off with a flourish, and its participants were student activists, youth and community organizers, labor activists/unionists, senior citizens, cultural workers, representatives from the spiritual/religious community, and folks in government service. The forms this activism took varied, but all challenged the status quo and were fueled by a sense of self-reliance and a spirit of “It’s the right thing to do” and “We can get it done.”
The manifestation of this beginning can still be seen in the organizations and programs that were built as a result of the movement. Although surviving the test of time and relevancy, the shortcoming is that many of those who work for these groups and those who are served by these groups do not know the history and origins of this movement that they are the beneficiaries of.
There is a wealth of knowledge and experience within the APIA community related to the movement. With social justice still an objective, this generation of community activists have gone on to positions in community service, labor, media/culture, government, and business. However, with folks retiring and others we have lost over the years, this cache of valuable knowledge and experience has been largely undocumented or relatively inaccessible for activists in the next generations.
Consequently, in partnership with community organizations and individuals, there is an organizing effort under way that will document, preserve and share the experiences and activities that came out of the movement work BITD. It is called the Serve the People Institute (SPI) and plans to create a vehicle for exchanging ideas, stories, and resources in relationship to the APIA social justice movement. The belief is that if you know your history you will know yourself, and to learn from the past can impact the present and future.
See the SPI Facebook page, and a website is also under construction. Also, on May 2 from 9:30 a.m. to 12 noon, SPI will be having its inaugural event at the Japanese American National Museum.
“Be there or be square”!
Warren Furutani has served as a member of the Los Angeles Unified School District Board of Education, Los Angeles Community College District Board of Trustees, and California State Assembly. Opinions expressed are not necessarily those of The Rafu Shimpo.