Three prominent civic leaders from the Asian and Pacific Islander (API) communities shared their experiences and insights as members of ethnic minorities and activists with students in the School of Public Affairs in a forum on “If I Only Knew. . .” Lessons from API Leaders.”
Sponsored by the API Caucus, the lunchtime panel discussion on April 7 featured Michael Woo, dean of the College of Environmental Design at Cal Poly Pomona and former Los Angeles City Council member; Diane Ujiiye, director of the Asian & Pacific Islanders California Action Network; and Bill Watanabe, executive director of the Little Tokyo Service Center, who received an MSW degree from UCLA in 1972.
All said that thinking of themselves as Asian Americans has been an evolving process.
While first running for City Council, said Woo, who is Chinese American, “As much as I thought I was transcending my ethnic identity, my constituents wouldn’t let me do that.” Some engaged in stereotyping, while others viewed him as an unwelcome indication that the neighborhood was changing, he said.
Watanabe recalled that growing up in the San Fernando Valley, he was one of only three Asian Americans -- all of Japanese ancestry -- in his high school. “I didn’t think of myself as Asian-American then,” he said, noting that reading The Autobiography of Malcolm X “helped open my eyes to society,” and to being “ready to make a better world.”
Ujiiye, who attended a middle-class, largely Caucasian high school in Eagle Rock, said she was often asked “What are you?” When she responded “American,” they were never satisfied. “So I would say ‘I’m Japanese,’ and then I wasn’t satisfied,” she said.
When the panelists were asked what makes an effective community leader, Ujiiye said that sometimes it means acting as a facilitator, who can “listen and distill the public policy implications.” Other times, she said, when many people are involved in decision-making, “a leader just has to call the shots.”
For Watanabe, “there are two kinds of leaders – those who are charismatic, a bright flame, and those who are there for the long haul and are able to get things done that take time.”
In considering leadership styles, Woo relayed that during his first campaign “a constituent thought I was too quiet and asked me, ‘Why aren’t you more like Jesse Jackson?’” The appropriate model of leadership, Woo said, “depends on what needs to happen, what the troops are like, and whether there even are any troops."
When panelists were asked to define the critical issues facing the API community that future leaders will have to address, Woo said that given the high percentage of Asian Americans in public colleges, they are likely to “comprise a disproportionate percentage of the future middle class of California. What difference will that make?”
Watanabe cited three issues: reforming immigration in the face of strong anti-immigrant sentiment in the U.S.; developing the Asian-American community’s political and policy clout; and preserving its cultural heritage and identity.
For Ujiiye, dual-language learning is a necessity given the global economy. She also noted that “We have to stop leaning in, trying to be like others, and validate ourselves.”
-- Robin Heffler