Defense Attorney/Rights Activist Mia Yamamoto Receives Human Relations Award

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From left: Los Angeles County Human Relations Commission President Sergio Paz; honoree Mia F. Yamamoto; Los Angeles County Supervisor Mark Ridley-Thomas; Human Relations Commission Executive Director Robin Toma. (Photo by J.K. Yamamoto/Rafu Shimpo)

By J.K. YAMAMOTO, Rafu Staff Writer

Defense attorney and civil/human rights activist Mia F. Yamamoto is among the recipients of the 2011 John Anson Ford Human Relations Awards.

The awards were presented by the Los Angeles County Commission on Human Relations on Oct. 11 during a Board of Supervisors meeting. Named for a former county supervisor who established the Joint Committee for Interracial Progress (which later became the Human Relations Commission) in 1944, the awards go to individuals, organizations and companies that have had a positive impact on local communities.

Yamamoto was introduced by Supervisor Mark Ridley-Thomas of the Second Supervisorial District.

Born Michael Yamamoto in the Poston internment camp in Arizona in 1943, she graduated from Cal State Los Angeles with a bachelor’s degree in government in 1966 and served in the Army from 1966 to 1968, receiving the Army Commendation Medal and Vietnam Campaign Medal. She graduated from UCLA School of Law in 1971 and co-founded the Asian Pacific Islander Law Student Association.

Yamamoto served as a poverty lawyer for the Legal Aid Foundation of Los Angeles (1971-74) and deputy Los Angeles County public defender (1974-84), and has been in private practice since 1984. She has been president of California Attorneys for Criminal Justice and the Japanese American Bar Association, and a board member of several other lawyers’ organizations.

A recipient of the American Bar Association Spirit of Excellence Award (2008) and such titles as Southern California Super Lawyer (Los Angeles Magazine, 2005, 2006, 2007, 2008) and Criminal Defense Attorney of the Year (Century City Bar Association, 2006), she has spoken and written extensively on such issues as juvenile law, the death penalty, gun control, racial discrimination and police misconduct.

Ridley-Thomas said that Yamamoto “completed her transition from male to female in 2003 and continues to advocate for transgender rights while sharing her personal story as an out transgender woman of Japanese American ancestry.”

Transgenders are often described as the most discriminated against and least understood segment of the LGBTQ (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer/questioning) population.

Stating that Yamamoto is “recognized in the API and LGBTQ communities as a leader who connects issues and communities to fight for human rights, justice and dignity,” Ridley-Thomas thanked her for “outstanding service to the people of Los Angeles County.”

Yamamoto noted that the ceremony was being held on National Coming Out Day (Oct. 11), which was established in 1988 to promote awareness of LGBTQ rights.

“I accept the John Anson Ford Award on behalf of a community which has been oppressed and marginalized for far too many years,” Yamamoto told the Rafu Shimpo after the ceremony. “I am nobody special; however, whenever a transgender person of color is included, then maybe somewhere another transgender child of color is given the hope that there is a place for him or her in the world.

“And I give thanks to the many heroes and martyrs of the civil rights movement for providing the wave on which the rights of so many previously excluded people, including LGBT people of color, have been realized and recognized. For that, I am thankful.”

The other honorees were:

First District (Supervisor Gloria Molina) — Pomona Valley community leader Jonnie Owens.

Third District (Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky) — Covenant House California and its executive director, Daniel Ballin.

Fourth District (Supervisor Don Knabe) — Toberman Neighborhood Center and its president/CEO, Gloria Lockhart.

Fifth District (Supervisor Michael Antonovich) — L.A. Music Academy and its founder/president, C. Thomas Aylesbury.

Commissioners’ Special Recognition — Mary Louise Longoria, who staffed the John Anson Ford Awards for many years.

Yvonne Brathwaite Burke Courage Award — Ramona Ripston, recently retired executive director of ACLU of Southern California.

Also on hand for the presentations were Human Relations Commission President Sergio Paz and Executive Director Robin Toma.

A reception for the recipients was held at the Kenneth Hahn Hall of Administration with Commissioner Susanne Cumming, chair of the John Anson Ford Human Relations Awards Committee, serving as emcee along with members of The Bricks, a band from the L.A. Music Academy’s youth initiative program.

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