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.
“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.”