Uniting Nikkei for the Future

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Members of Kizuna gather at the Japanese American Cultural and Community Center. In the front row are founders (from left) Craig Ishii, Stacy Toyota, Sen Sugano and Kristin Fukushima. (MARIO G. REYES/Rafu Shimpo)

Have you ever heard this statement before: “Where are the youth?”

If you’re involved with a Japanese American community organization, chances are that you’ve heard a version of this question. The reason is pretty simple – within the Japanese American community, we see many organizations struggling with succession in leadership, membership, and overall involvement from the rising generations.

And while the question of why this is can certainly be debated, the answer to this question doesn’t actually solve the problem of the increasing gap in community engagement.

For any organization centered in a community, they know that engagement with the community they serve is key to any kind of success and longevity. Japanese Americans and Nikkei organizations have long recognized this; trying to name every single Nikkei organization even in just Southern California is impossible. It was that engagement in community organizations that built up the community and its leadership, history and memories, and created the bonds that hold us together today. Where would we be without our churches, temples, basketball teams, community centers, museums, festivals, and so on?

But as veterans of the community fret about the future of these long-lived, lovingly developed institutions, and about the future of the Nikkei community as a whole, the next generation has decided to forgo the question of why, and concentrate instead on how.

Introducing Kizuna, a brand new community based organization that will build this long-sought engagement from the next generation.

A Nonprofit for the Next Generation, by the Next Generation
Most of the team met while working at the Japanese American Citizens League’s Pacific Southwest District. Although they enjoyed the work, they eventually realized it was time to move on.

“We started talking about starting a new organization after we left JACL because we were worried about what would happen to all the youth we’d worked with. We didn’t want to see all that momentum go to waste,” explained Stacy Toyota, a Kizuna founder.

Mickie Okamoto conducts a workshop for high schoolers in Kizuna’s Youth CAN program.

“Right,” agreed co-founder Kristin Fukushima. “And we realized this was our chance to build upon that work by creating a space where we could really bring people together to envision, lead, serve, and unite the community. And not just for youth, but that whole generational gap, including young adults like us, and young families.”

Kizuna, a word meaning “the bonds that connect us,” is that space in the form of a new nonprofit community organization with the mission to build a vibrant community through engagement, advocacy, and activism.

But Kizuna is more than just a new, fresh organization in Little Tokyo; it is entirely initiated and run by the next generation of community leaders. Sen Sugano, another Kizuna co-founder and former JACL staffer, put it this way: “To me, Kizuna represents the hopes and dreams of our generation. It will provide a space long sought after by our generation and will allow people like me to help determine the future of our community. It’s a real chance for youth to get involved, and to help reconnect individuals and families back into the community.”

Before There Was Kizuna
“The word ‘community’ holds special value to me,” said Craig Ishii, a 26-year-old staff member with Kizuna. “It’s hard for me to put into words, but I feel a special bond to this community. My identity, my memories – even my career has been shaped by the experiences, people and organizations which exist around me. I became active in Kizuna because I so strongly believe in building a future for my community.”

Before joining Kizuna, Ishii served for four years as the regional director at the Little Tokyo office of the JACL. While at JACL, he and his staff developed a number of programs geared at developing youth leadership, creating a passion for community service, and advocating on Japanese American and larger AAPI issues.

Recounting some of his early experiences with the organization, he and Sugano (at that time JACL program oordinator) would sit around the conference table for hours with crumpled papers, chicken scratches on napkins, and writing all over the white board — all in the attempt to answer one question: How do we truly engage youth in community?

In 2008, Sugano and Ishii implemented the first step in answering this question. Initially gathering 14 students, Project: Community! was created to build a greater sense of identity and connection to the Japanese American community, and begin planting those seeds for a lifetime of community involvement.

“Project: Community! was a big success, and Ishii, working with Fukushima and Toyota, embarked on a new set of programs. One such program was Bridging Communities, done in partnership with Nikkei for Civil Rights & Redress (NCRR) and the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR).

Bridging Communities was the first-ever civil rights program uniting Japanese American and American Muslim youth. Another was an internship program for Nikkei and AAPI college students, with the purpose of connecting them into AAPI community organizations through Los Angeles.

By 2011, three years after the first Project: Community!, the team was running six independent community engagement programs working with over 300 youth annually. These programs were so well received that sister programs were created in San Francisco, Seattle and Chicago.

Additionally, a public policy advocacy department was created, and Fukushima took the helm in building this department. Major advocacy initiatives were developed to effect change, and connect community members into these issue areas, such as Little Tokyo transit issues, immigrant rights, access to higher education, and so on.

“Programs are really important as a way to bring in these youth, and begin developing that life-long passion,” said Fukushima. “But advocacy is great in that it’s this very tangible way of addressing the issues affecting Little Tokyo and the Nikkei and AAPI community by giving voice to the needs of the community.”

“I think what makes the leaders of Kizuna unique is how strategic we are about the design of our programs, advocacy and the overall direction of the organization,” added Sugano.  “And this is how we, as an organization, will succeed.”

Kizuna: Year One and Beyond
In April 2011, after departing from JACL, Sugano, Fukushima and Toyota came together to create Kizuna. The idea became reality when NCRR agreed to fiscally sponsor the emerging organization, and the crew found a space to work out of in the Japanese American Cultural and Community Center (JACCC).

“Starting our own organization was something we would talk about, but always in jest. But the more we talked about it, we realized, why can’t we?” said Toyota. “We talk to young people all the time about taking initiative and being active, engaged community members, so we decided to put our money where our mouth is and do it. This is probably the only time in our life we can take this kind of risk; we have the opportunity to really build something that means something to us and to our community.”

Sugano, Fukushima and Toyota approached other young leaders in the community they had worked with previously, and began building the team. In addition to Ishii, other young leaders with extensive experience in the community were brought in, such as Mickie Okamoto, Jessie Kikuchi and Nancy Okubo. While in school, Okamoto, Kikuchi and Okubo were involved with Nikkei Students Unions at UCLA, UC San Diego and UC Irvine.

Following college, they continued their community involvement through the Little Tokyo Service Center, the JACCC and the JACL.

“During our college days, we often did a workshop called ‘JA Community-Topia‚’ where we would brainstorm our ideal community as the next generation. Many of our peers saw a need to focus on the importance of cultural and historical preservation along with creating innovative fusions with our modern global culture.” said Okamoto. “I believe Kizuna is the step for this next generation to take ownership and start making these ‘JA Community-Topias’ a reality.”

This summer, Kizuna has already begun its first youth program called the Youth Community Action Network (Youth CAN) program, intended to build four basic competencies amongst youth: passion, leadership, organizing, advocacy.

The Youth CAN program runs throughout the summer, meeting on Wednesday nights at the JACCC in Little Tokyo. Students are introduced to community leaders, educated on current events in the Japanese American community and encouraged to explore their identity and personal histories. Ultimately, the program seeks to build a passion and bond between the students and the community.

“Once we made the announcement about Youth CAN in April, it was clear that the community was excited about our program because over 40 students registered!” said Ishii. “We’re equally excited because this is the single largest youth program that any of us have ever put on.”

Kizuna is also already connected to a variety of major advocacy campaigns working to build a vibrant Little Tokyo and prosperous Nikkei community. This is done through active membership and leadership in the Marketing, Transit, and Preservation and Cultural Planning committees of the Little Tokyo Community Council.

Within the first year, Kizuna has received tremendous support from other Japanese American organizations and individuals.

“We’re excited to be creating this space in our community, and we owe a lot to our friends and partners who have supported us so much,” said Toyota.

“Great people like Bryan Takeda of the Nikkei Federation and U.S.-Japan Council stepped up, offering to sit on our board. In addition, we’ve had a ton of support from all of our mentors, such as Evelyn Yoshimura, Alan Nishio, Chris Aihara, and the amazing people at NCRR and the Little Tokyo Service Center,” chimed in Sugano.

This is just Year One and Kizuna has already developed a three-year plan for their expansion, which includes programs, advocacy, and generally building a space for everyone to get involved in.

“I’m really excited for the future of this organization, and I think everyone should be excited about what this means for the future of our community. Like Mickie said, we can build our ‘JA Community-Topia,’ ” said Fukushima. “Kizuna is special, because it’s really the first effort initiated by our generation, for our generation. It’s absolutely corny, but I believe Kizuna can and will unite Nikkei for the future.”

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25 Comments

  1. Great to see fellow young Nikkei working for the future of their community! The countries may differ, but the question of how to get the youth involved is common to many Nikkei communities around the world. Hopefully we can find a solution and strengthen the Kizuna not only inside each countries Nikkei communities but all around the world as well!

    I belong to an non-profit organization based in Tokyo called Nikkei Youth Network, where we aim to create a global network of young nikkei leaders to build the next 100 years of the Nikkei history. Hope we can collaborate as it looks like we share similar goals. 🙂

  2. Why the need for a “new” organization? What prevented you all from doing the same work within the established JACL? Starting something new requires many fixed costs that would appear to be duplicates of existing JACL resources. Also, how does the JACL carry on when the “next generation” is not contributing to it? Is it better to let it grow old and die?

  3. Nelson, you bring up some really important questions and they’re extremely valid. I was the previous Regional Director of the JACL Pacific Southwest District. There were quite a few things that prevented us from doing the same work within the JACL, some of which aren’t appropriate to share in a public forum like this. But long story short, we were doing this work while we were involved as staff members with the JACL. Over my four years of employment with JACL, The work was exciting, meaningful and worthwhile.

    However, sometimes politics get in the way of allowing individuals to make things happen within organizations. When those politics become too much for the staff of the organization to shoulder, it becomes difficult to continue and thus our decision to try this effort independently.

    The silver lining to the story is that we’re still working collaboratively with the JACL.

    Check out our site when you get the chance…. you’ll find my email and our phone number. Email me or give me a call! We can certainly talk more!

  4. Alex Kanegawa on

    @Nelson

    Maybe what prevented them from doing the same work within JACL was the JACL itself.

  5. Congratulations to you all! For anyone working in the JA nonprofit world, you know how difficult it is not only to get youth involved, but to keep them involved. Our organizations are dying because our leadership won’t let go. I see it everyday — older leadership say they want the youth to get involved, but what they really mean is follow us/do what we want. It’s time for change and it’s so, so great to see young people stepping up and actually doing it. I have high hopes for you all and I think you guys are going to make it! In fact, you might be the last ones standing seeing as how all of the other nonprofits are doing.

    How do I get involved!?

  6. Word on the street up here in Norcal is that the crazy Pacific Citizen editor caused a bunch of drama per usual, which then caused a lot of people to leave JACL. There’s always problems with JACL (even up here), but at least we don’t have to deal with that woman.

  7. I think this is great. And if kizuna is successful in sparking youth interest, I think it will benefit JACL as well. If I lived in LA I would be happy to be involved in both organizations, and maybe kizuna will prove to be an important stepping stone for our youth.

  8. This sounds amazing! Big ups to KFu and Craig — this is just absolutely, incredibly impressive. Best of luck with your ongoing youth outreach work!

  9. this is exactly what our community needed! really looking forward to future progress, and the development of future community leaders!

  10. Sandra Hamada on

    Wow. What a great story. It’s inspiring to these young people paving the way for the next generation of leaders in the Japanese American community.

  11. Get your facts straight. The Pacific Citizen continues to win writing awards because of the editors and reporters. Word on the street in SoCal is the young staff made their own mistakes and had to leave the organization.

  12. Love this! I know that all of you are such amazing leaders, always inspiring youth of all ages to become engaged in the community! Can’t wait to support in whatever way I can 😀

  13. Hey “Truth” (how convenient! anonymity!)
    Maybe you should get your OWN facts straight…

    1. the PC wins bs awards that don’t matter, because they submit and apply for those awards themselves. It’s not like they’re actually nominated and win legit things.

    2. the ACTUAL word on the street is that the young staff left because of the hostile work environment created by the PC staff… I think the only ones who believe your story are all the lackeys that support that tyrant in the PC office. (ahem) But then, if you’re not actually involved with community, you may have only heard their story… (cough, drank the kool-aid)

  14. haha uh, thanks for the support mike.

    i think the question of quality regarding the PC is a bit irrelevant to both the article and discussion, so i’m going to ignore that.

    as far as why we left… @truth, i can definitely say that we weren’t forced to leave because of our “mistakes,” but for sure, like everyone, during our time at JACL we of course made mistakes. while we could have stayed at the organization, we really didn’t feel like it was our space anymore, and… actually, i’d rather not go into this here. if you genuinely ARE interested in hearing another side to the story, feel free to contact me! I’m pretty easy to find around the interwebs… 🙂

  15. Great article! I would like to congratulate Kizuna for creatively thinking up ways to get new members active within the community. As a NorCal JA who was once involved in SoCal’s nikkei community during my college years- it is very exciting to read about a new opportunity for those interested to become involved and active. It is a positive and inspiring product of efforts that have obviously sparked within all of those involved- which is what it takes to mobilize. It is great to witness the ways our future leaders are carving out a new path!

  16. Yipeee ! Go Kizuna 🙂 You guys are the best!

    Good luck and thank you for creating an organization that will continue to allow youth development, leadership, and involvement.

  17. The only reason the “young staff” is considered “young” is because everyone else in JACL is old.

  18. Truth #2 (let’s not count the first one from way up there): The only mistake the “young staff” ever made was drinking Smirnoff Ice. Yep, it’s disgusting and it only has 4% alcohol content.

    Truth #3: I once walked into that office to deliver something to PSW–excuse me, the “young staff”–and it was the most uncomfortable place I had ever been to. I’m pretty sure Cruella de Vil stormed by me without even saying hi. Um, rude–she doesn’t even know me!

  19. Iku Kiriyama on

    Consider this an RSVP. We “old guys” are supportive of your efforts. Hope we can be of help, even though our energy level has waned with age!
    Janet Okubo will attend with me. Possibly a couple of others.

  20. This is Craig Ishii again. As was mentioned in my previous post, I am currently a staffer with Kizuna and very excited to be involved in this community!

    This is a really positive article, and Kizuna is going to do some really remarkable things in the community…. but it’s not the Kizuna show. Every organization has something to give and has done something great to move our community forward; and yes, no person or community organization is perfect. Kizuna is happy and proud to be working together with those people and those organizations to build a future for the community.

    Unfortunately, I think the positive spirit of the article is a little marred from some of the public commentary that was made. Kizuna is about building a future, it isn’t about dwelling on the past. Kizuna is about building a positive community spirit, not a negative one. Of course, people are free to say whatever they want, that’s the beauty of the public comment section, but moving forward, I’m crossing my fingers that future comments will reflect that positive spirit.

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