THROUGH THE FIRE: Marlene — Our Lady Soul of Little Tokyo

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By MARY UYEMATSU KAO

If you’re a regular in Little Tokyo, chances are you know Marlene. You may not know her by name, but you’ve seen her at the many events in Little Tokyo, having lunch at Mitsuru Grill, picking up homeless dogs or cats on the street, or buying some food for a local homeless person.

When I first met Marlene, it was during the early days of the Asian Movement, around 1970-71. Marlene was in the Asian American Hardcore and working in the JACS-AI (Japanese American Community Services-Asian Involvement) office. At the time, the JACS office was the hub of the LA Asian Movement. Most of the social services that were fought for by these early Asian American Movement pioneers came out of the JACS office.

The Hardcore Collective had all of its members work a full-time work week at the JACS office. Hardcore members were making their way back into the community by working for social change. They had an important impact dealing with the youth drug epidemic that had hit the Japanese American community particularly hard during the ’60s and ’70s.

As Nick Nagatani recounts: “In 1970 alone, 31 teenagers in the JA community died of barbiturate overdose — over two-thirds were young women. At this moment in time the JA community chose not to acknowledge or deal with this crisis. Within this vacuum, Sansei activists and community workers developed drug abuse and prevention programs for our youth. Marlene became an integral member of the Asian Sisters Organization, Yellow Brotherhood, and Asian Women’s Center. Her instinctive ability to relate to the youth as a counselor, mentor, and compassionate big sister was respected and loved by all.”

Marlene had been working at the JACCC since its inception, before all of its buildings were completed. She has weathered through the highs and lows of JACCC’s near 40-year history, having served under 12 different JACCC executive directors. For years, Marlene was among the staff who sold the most raffle tickets for their annual car “give-away.” When shows at the Aratani Theatre were low on ticket sales, Marlene would call up her friends to fill in the empty audience. Marlene was in charge of room rentals for many years, which provided 30% of JACCC’s revenue. And when things started going terribly wrong, Marlene blew the whistle.

Despite all the nights and weekends she had to work because of their event schedule, Marlene remained a loyal employee to the end.

Well, the end came with a phone call several weeks ago. There was virtually no warning, but simply a phone call telling her that she was no longer employed — the phone call marked her last day of work. She and four other people were expected to come and clean out their things in the next two days. For all of Marlene’s years of service, and never asking for a raise because she was always told that JACCC has no money — the severance package offered to Marlene is a slap in the face. According to fair labor practices, Marlene should be due a more appropriate severance package for the 37.7 years that she has worked there.

Marlene and family (from left): Caroll Weathers, Tomi Weathers (daughter), Malaya Envela, Marlene Lee, Fulton Weathers (son), Kai Weathers, and Misako Envela.

There would likely be no JACCC to speak of if it hadn’t been for Marlene. She blew the whistle when CEO Greg Willis started making suspicious changes that created a hostile work environment. Marlene was instrumental in forcing Willis to quit after discovering he was an international criminal known for “closing down” businesses that were having financial difficulties. Marlene organized the J-Team, which was formed to protect JACCC staffers that were being threatened by Willis.

The Rafu Shimpo reported in August 2013: “Alerted by individuals close to JACCC who, using the popular Internet search engine Google, had come across information that raised concerns about the enigmatic Willis, The Rafu Shimpo discovered a connection between Willis and a shuttered manufacturing plant in France. What was unearthed was an intricate, international web of acquisitions, corporate aliases, union disputes, and lawsuits.” Greg Willis has an international track record of shutting down corporations in Mexico, Canada, and France.

J-Team member Nick Nagatani recalls the aftermath of Willis’ departure: “Like others who have divulged sensitive information for the greater good, her transparent disclosures were not appreciated by all. Marlene was ‘rewarded’ by the JACCC hierarchy with a three-month termination notice. Those who knew Marlene’s character and commitment to the community immediately rallied to her defense. A petition of support asking the JACCC to rescind the retaliatory termination was signed by over 115 community members, and hand-delivered to the interim JACCC director (pre-Leslie Ito) just before the termination date. The termination notice was rescinded the same day.

“To her credit, Marlene has never disparaged the JACCC and has remained a loyal servant to the community it provides services and cultural events for.”

Marlene and friends at JACCC (from left): Mary Kao, Remy and Wendy Nagatani, Hanna Yoshitomi, Elsie Osajima, and Marlene Lee. ( Photo by John Kao)

These are statements from former co-workers or community members on Marlene’s contributions to JACCC and the Little Tokyo community:

“She was like a history book of JACCC to me while I was the JAT (Japan America Theatre) staff.” — Erika S. Campe

“I worked with Marlene for over a decade. Besides being someone who was always a friendly face to see at work, she cared about the JACCC as well as the whole Little Tokyo community. People like Marlene dedicated their lives to serving the community and are a part of the foundation for which the community stands.” — Mark Yonemura

“I worked for the Japanese American Citizens League’s Pacific Southwest District for more than 30 years. Our office was located at the JACCC. I got an opportunity to know and work with Marlene Lee. Marlene has been a dedicated, hard-working and professional member of the JACCC staff and I could always count on her to take care of all our office needs.

“I’m disappointed to hear that Marlene has been terminated by the JACCC. But I hope that Marlene receives a compensation package that reflects her many years of service and dedication to the JACCC and the Japanese American community.” — Carol Ann Saito

“There is so much to say about Marlene. She has demonstrated her service and commitment to the community in so many ways, not only through her work at the JACCC. She is like the hub of the community — is there anyone she doesn’t know in Little Tokyo? What I remembered most from the Community Service Award she received at the AADAP Program [2013] was Mike Watanabe saying that Marlene was the first person he called whenever he wanted to know about someone or something in the community. He could always rely on her to give him the lowdown on what was happening on the street.

“Marlene has skills that cannot be learned in the classroom — they are life skills that make her stand out. Her understanding and knowledge is wide and deep. She has always stayed connected to her strong community roots. Marlene is very humble and never asks for or expects any credit for her good deeds. She just does them because that is how she is — a caring, compassionate person who values each person she meets. She has been a loyal and dedicated employee — always going above and beyond her job duties, extending herself and helping to keep the JACCC accountable to the community.” — Sandy Maeshiro

“Just as plumbers, electricians, and master tradesmen constructed the physical structure of what is now known as the JACCC;  Marlene toiled for  over  38 years to build the heart and soul; the spirit of the JACCC!” — Kenwood Jung

“Unfortunately, it’s going to be difficult for Marlene to find comparable employment. Without disclosing its terms, the offered JACCC severance package does not constitute a ‘parachute’ for a temporary safe landing. It is more akin to a ‘free fall.’ Loyalty has always been stressed and taught in our households and community. At this time, we are ‘asking’ the JACCC Board to treat Marlene Lee’s forced retirement as you would/should treat a valued member of your ‘family.’ Dignify the value her 37+ years of loyal service.” — Nick Nagatani

“I am so sorry to hear of Marlene’s termination. She was always a great employee while I was connected with JACCC, and she really supported the Japanese American Korean War Veterans, the Japanese American National War Memorial Court and the Memorial Day ceremonies.” — Min Tonai

“Be clear, the treatment of the longest-serving staff of the JACCC has consequence, particularly when that service has incorporated the role of conscience and reflection of community interests and needs. Without title or notice, Marlene Lee has served the Nikkei community consistently and has the respect and affection of an appreciative community. The center may need to make adjustments in the difficult COVID environment and reduce staffing. It must, however, be done thoughtfully and fairly, which would require consideration of the contribution and duration of the service. Most certainly, it should not discriminate on the basis of age.” — Ron Wakabayashi

“I met Marlene in the early ’70s working in Little Tokyo and was struck by her seemingly tough exterior yet caring and soft heart, especially towards young people and animals. She continued to keep in touch with people from those times and shared when they needed support. Our paths again coincided in the early ’80s at the JACCC when the Little Tokyo Service Center and the Nikkei for Civil Rights & Redress (then known as the National Coalition for Redress/Reparations, NCRR) were also starting out.  She was there through the growth of the JACCC and raised red flags to the board when things went awry.

“We in NCRR cannot thank Marlene enough for her willingness to find us spaces for our meetings, press conferences and rallies during the hectic redress days and today. I hope that the JACCC sees the importance of caring for people like Marlene as a core value of this community and expresses that, at the very least, through a better severance package for her.” — Kathy Masaoka

“I worked with Marlene for close to 30 years. We (LTSC) started in the JACCC building there in Room 411, and eventually 410. And I was actually in an exercise class with Mar after work — mostly made up of her JACCC staff at the time. That’s how I got to know many of them.

“Mar always managed to find a desk to sit down next to you and catch up on the latest J-Town news: Who got mugged (it was the 1990s), what businesses opened/closed, who was working where now, etc. What Mar lacked in technical skills she made up for with other knowledge she had for a COMMUNITY center.

“Mar has worked for JACCC for close to 40 years and is still only promised a cheap severance. This clearly shows that her ‘community center’ value is not being recognized. She deserves a much better severance, but also she should be acknowledged publicly at a JACCC function, once they are again being held. In the meantime, she should at least be thanked via The Rafu Shimpo for her many and varied contributions with a big photo.” — Evelyn Yoshimura, Little Tokyo Service Center

Millennials are not the only thing the new millennium has brought — a new heartless breed of business people have taken over the “nonprofit” institutions in the JA community. These people do not understand the value of people like Marlene who give heart to our understanding of “community.” The JACCC Board would rather pay off Greg Willis for his unfinished work contract to avert a lawsuit than honor and treat equitably the living history of the JACCC that resides in the person Marlene Lee.

I hope those who know Marlene will speak up on her behalf, and let the JACCC Board know that people like her are an irreplaceable asset in their mission of being our cultural and community center. Anyone who has worked in Little Tokyo as long as Marlene, for the low-wage job and lack of recognition for her invaluable connections to the community, should be honored and celebrated instead of quietly let go.

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Mary Uyematsu Kao is a retired Sansei photojournalist and author of the newly published book “Rockin’ the Boat: Flashbacks of the 1970s Asian Movement.” Comments or feedback can be emailed to: [email protected] Opinions expressed are not necessarily those of The Rafu Shimpo.

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