Tetsu Sugi to Be Posthumously Inducted Into Social Work Hall of Distinction

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A group of eager students gather around their instructor, Tetsu Sugi, in a children’s sewing class at Christopher House in Chicago on May 18, 1943. (War Relocation Authority Collection, Bancroft Library, UC Berkeley)

Tetsu Sugi, who worked with the Japanese American community devastated by the camps, with troubled and low-income youth, and for housing for elderly Japanese Americans. will be posthumously inducted into the California Social Work Hall of Distinction on Sunday, Oct. 18, at 3 p.m. PDT.

Now in its 18th year, the ceremony will be live-streamed from the University of Southern California’s Bovard Auditorium.

The ceremony honors and preserves the legacy of individuals who have made outstanding contributions to California social welfare and the social work profession. It is a tribute to the positive impact of social work practice, policy and research addressing health and welfare problems in California’s most vulnerable communities.

Children in an afternoon class at the Christopher House in Chicago, learning folk dances under the direction of Tetsu Sugi on May 18, 1943. (War Relocation Authority Collection, Bancroft Library, UC Berkeley)

This year’s inductees include:

Shirley Better, author, university professor and co-founder of the National Association of Black Social Workers;

Jillian Jimenez, author and historical researcher in areas of social policy development, mental health, and children, youth and families;

Robert Ketch, executive director of Five Acres Residential & Community-Based Treatment;

Annette R. Smith, a pioneer in developing innovative programs and curricula in the field of substance abuse treatment;

Monika White, educator, researcher, author, and practitioner coordinating health, mental health and community-based services for older adults and their families;

Marleen Wong, program developer of crisis and disaster training for school districts and law enforcement and addressing post-traumatic stress for traumatized children.

Complete your registration early as spaces are limited. Login instructions and more details will be provided closer to the event to registered attendees. For more information, call (213) 788-2188 or email [email protected]

Fighting Discrimination

Photo from Abraham Lincoln High School’s 1932 yearbook. Tetsu Sugi is in the back row on the left. She was also a member of the Women’s Athletic Association at UCLA.

Sugi found a way to fight discrimination against Japanese Americans and serve the community by becoming a professional social worker. Despite having a degree and teaching credential from UCLA in 1936, she was told she could only substitute-teach due to her race.

Instead, she worked in her parents’ grocery store until the 1941 Pearl Harbor attack. Determined to avoid the relocation and incarceration of Japanese Americans, she decided to leave her family and move to Little Rock, Ark. to stay with a friend. She wanted to teach at the two internment camps (Jerome and Rohwer) that were being built nearby. However, anticipating that she would not be allowed to teach but would indeed be interned, she moved to Chicago, where she found work at the Christopher Settlement House.

It was there that she learned of professional social work from a University of Pittsburgh MSW alumnus. Receiving her MSW in 1946, she worked in a Pittsburgh settlement house but returned to Los Angeles to help her family resettle after their internment. There, she joined the Church Welfare Bureau of the Church Federation of Los Angeles as a youth group worker.

In 1950, Sugi passed the state exam and became registered in the newly formed state social work registry, the first in the nation and the precursor to licensure in California. For the next decade, she did pioneering transcultural work with Japanese American youth and parents in Los Angeles as they struggled with a fast-evolving American youth culture and its clashes with traditional conservative Japanese values.

When the youth she worked with became adults and had children of their own, she developed her ideas on three generations of cultural conflict in her group work and community education efforts.

Photo from Abraham Lincoln High School’s 1932 yearbook. Tetsu Sugi is in the back row on the left.

In the 1960s, recognizing her work on intergenerational cultural conflict, the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH) funded a research project on youth and delinquency at UCLA and a research practice project with the Campfire Girls called Operation Bluebird, working on juvenile delinquency prevention with young girls. Sugi was recruited by both projects as a consultant.

She would apply this experience and knowledge to the broader community when she entered public service with the Los Angeles County Probation Department and then the Los Angeles County Bureau of Public Assistance. In 1970, Sugi utilized her community organization skills to develop senior citizens’ residences in the Little Tokyo neighborhood, with the first residence built in 1975.

In 1978, Sugi retired from the county and was recruited by San Diego State University to work on statewide implementation of the **Lau vs. Nichols** Supreme Court decision that all non-English-speaking students receive English-language training. She also joined the Employee Assistance Program with the Los Angeles Unified School District.

After retirement, Sugi continued her community service by volunteering at the seniors’ residence that she helped establish in Little Tokyo. She died in 1997 at the age of 82.

Other Japanese American social workers recognized in the Hall of Distinction include George Nishinaka, Harry Kitano, Morgan Yamanaka, Richard Aoki, Mariko Yamada, Kenji Murase, Ken Nakamura, Yasuko Sakamoto and Kathleen Kubota.

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