May is Asian American and Pacific Islander Heritage Month and it pays tribute to the generations of Asian and Pacific Islanders who have enriched America’s history and are instrumental in its future success. As a Sansei (third generation) of Japanese immigrants to Hawaii, I am honored and humbled to share my own journey with you.
My belief system was influenced by my parents. I grew up in Japan and Hawaii. Dad worked very hard and Mom took care of us kids, three girls and two boys. We always had a humble roof over our heads and food on the table. I never felt like we were poor, but I had a child’s eyes and I now know that it was a stressful life for my parents. We went to church every Sunday and Mom and Dad volunteered all year in the community. As kids, we volunteered our time at Church summer programs. My parents embodied the values of responsibility, accountability, compassion, respect, and justness. Those were formative years that had a profound impact on who I am.
My career path has been unusual in that I had the opportunity to work in a variety of sectors—high-tech, food service, nuclear decontamination, architecture—before venturing into nonprofit. While each of these experiences laid steppingstones, the seminal opportunity was my first job in the early 80s. Silicon Valley was booming, companies trained their employees to meet demand for skills, and there were boundless opportunities for career growth. That was unique and it informed my fearless approach to opportunity and supported my crossover to other sectors, including nonprofit.
Growing up, our family of seven didn’t travel because we just couldn’t afford it. It was as a young adult that I began to travel for business and became aware of discrimination and racism and the lack of awareness and inquisitiveness that can breed inequity, hate, and fear from differences. It made me appreciate the happenstance of starting my career in the Bay Area where there was diversity and opportunity. I realize my journey could have been very different if I started my career somewhere else. The opportunities I sought, choices I made, pushed, and tested me personally and professionally and every step of the way, there were people I trusted, looked to, who were invested in my success. They were women and men. Caucasian and of color. I did not do this alone.
Eighteen months ago I moved from Honolulu to Portland to accept the position of President and CEO with United Way of the Columbia-Willamette. In Hawaii, Asians are the largest ethnic demographic. I find myself in my new home in the minority population and this is now part of my journey.
It is true that in Oregon there are many years of systemic racism that supported disproportionate, adverse, and very harmful outcomes for people of color. We still have policies, practices, and behaviors today that sustain this. At United Way of the Columbia-Willamette we invest in helping kids thrive, in building resilient families and reducing generational poverty. We want to build an equitable region where everyone has the opportunity to succeed, and we ask others to join us in this work. There are individuals and foundations in our community who have financial resources that can make a difference in addressing this issue. I encourage you to consider your role in and responsibility to rectifying this inequitable imbalance which drives very real downstream costs to you, every one of us, and our communities.
As members of our community, we have a responsibility for raising awareness, educating, and helping to eliminate the intolerance, lack of appreciation, and disrespect that is directed at Asians and other people of color. To the emerging leaders in our community, you, too, have a shared responsibility to action and accountability. We must do our part, regardless of who we are, what we look like, to make our communities the places that we need and want them to be. Equitable. Respectful. Appreciative. Opportunity-filled. As we emerge from COVID and wildfires, we need to raise everyone up, and emerge a stronger, diverse, and more resilient Oregon.