Blazing Trails for Asian American Health and Well-Being Social Welfare alumni Bill Watanabe and Yasuko Sakamoto are honored for legacy of leadership

By Mary Braswell

Alumni, faculty, staff and friends of UCLA Luskin Social Welfare gathered in Little Tokyo this month to celebrate two trailblazers whose life’s work centered on making the Asian American and Pacific Islander community thrive, in Los Angeles and beyond.

Bill Watanabe MSW ’72 and Yasuko Sakamoto MSW ’83 were recognized as the Joseph A. Nunn Social Welfare Alumni of the Year for their decades of leadership in strengthening ethnic neighborhoods and training generations of social workers who would carry on a legacy of service.

Watanabe and Sakamoto were two of the three original staff members of the Little Tokyo Service Center (LTSC) when it opened in 1980, and they served together for more than three decades.

The nonprofit now employs more than 150 people, providing culturally sensitive social services, affordable housing, support for small businesses, and programs for children, families and seniors. The June 8 alumni celebration took place in the recently opened Terasaki Budokan, a community sports and activity center 30 years in the making.

Over the years, the service center has also served as a learning site for more than 120 social welfare interns, 60 from UCLA — including three current  faculty, Susan Lares-Nakaoka MSW ’99 UP PhD ’14, director of field education; Toby Hur MSW ’93 and Erin Nakamura MSW ’12.

A group of former interns nominated Watanabe and Sakamoto for this year’s award, and many delivered moving tributes to their mentors.

“Bill was well-known for his visionary leadership, unwavering ethics and persistence in pursuing social justice goals … and also, the way he just always does the right thing,” Lares-Nakaoka said of Watanabe, who served as the center’s founding executive director for 32 years before retiring in 2012.

three young people in historic B&W photo

LTSC’s three original staffers: Yasuko Sakamoto, left, Bill Watanabe and Evelyn Yoshimura. Photo courtesy of the Little Tokyo Service Center

Born in the Manzanar incarceration camp during World War II, Watanabe went on to complete his education and rise to several leadership positions at organizations that serve marginalized populations and fund community development. His efforts to save and restore historic places significant to the AAPI community earned him a “hero award” from the National Trust for Historic Preservation. And as a past UCLA Luskin Senior Fellow, he has mentored graduate students in leadership and career development.

“You can see his massive reach, both locally and nationally,” Lares-Nakaoka said.

Alumna Hiroko Murakami MSW ’09 spoke of Sakamoto’s lasting impact as LTSC’s director of social services until her retirement in 2016. Programs to provide counseling, reach out to isolated members of the community, support families dealing with Alzheimer’s and provide transitional housing to survivors of domestic abuse are among those designed and launched by Sakamoto.

Murakami said Sakamoto was a creative leader, even initiating a series of tofu cookbooks “to introduce healthy eating to a wide audience, with the funds raised going to emergency services and domestic violence counseling.”

Sakamoto advocated on behalf of new immigrants and reparations for detained Japanese Americans, and has been a frequent speaker in both the United States and Japan, where she was born. She has received a commendation from the Consulate General of Japan in Los Angeles.

Despite numerous accolades over the decades, the two honorees never prioritized building up egos or empires, instead keeping their focus on community needs, the afternoon’s speakers noted. That outlook was evident in their comments to the gathering.

“This recognition is due to a collective effort, not just Bill and me,” Sakamoto said. She expressed gratitude to Evelyn Yoshimura, the third original LTSC staffer, and other employees, volunteers, partner agencies and places of learning like UCLA that sent budding social workers into the heart of Little Tokyo.

“Personally, I have always felt the student interns who I worked with were my great teacher. … They guided me to become a better social worker and effective supervisor,” she said.

Watanabe personally thanked Nunn, a UCLA Luskin professor emeritus who is the namesake of the annual alumni award and was present at the celebration.

“The name of Joe Nunn is a very highly honored name in the school of social welfare at UCLA,” he said. “And so to receive this recognition in his name is a very, very big deal for Yasuko and myself.”

He said UCLA was “perhaps the most courageous school of social work in the country” for opening its doors to him in the 1970s.

“I wrote a heartfelt autobiographical statement basically saying, if I get accepted, I commit myself and dedicate myself to work in this community to try to make a change,” Watanabe said.

“So I want to thank UCLA for taking a chance and allowing people like myself and Yasuko — who was much more qualified than I — to be able to be trained and educated so that we can serve the community.”

View photos from the celebration

Social Welfare Alumni Awards 2024

New Director of Field Education Is a Triple Bruin Susan Lares-Nakaoka is one of four faculty additions to UCLA Luskin Social Welfare this academic year

By Stan Paul

Susan Lares-Nakaoka is no stranger to UCLA or UCLA Luskin.

The holder of multiple degrees from UCLA, including an MSW and a UP PhD, Lares-Nakaoka was hired to fill the key program position formerly held by Gerry Laviña, who recently retired after a long tenure as director of field education.

Lares-Nakaoka’s most recent teaching post was at Cal State Long Beach as an assistant professor. She is excited about her return to the Westwood campus. “It has been such a big part of my life,” she said.

Three other new Social Welfare faculty additions are Tatiana Londoño, an assistant professor, and Erin Nakamura, a member of the field faculty, both of whom started in the fall, and Bianca Wilson, who came aboard as an associate professor in January.

Like Lares-Nakaoka, Nakamura and Wilson have previous ties to UCLA. Nakamura is a 2012 graduate of Luskin’s MSW program, and Wilson had been working at UCLA’s Williams Institute. Londoño comes to UCLA Luskin from the University of Texas at Austin, where she recently completed her PhD in social work. She also holds an MSSW from UT.

These faculty additions “bring a wealth of knowledge and experience and will certainly be an asset to our department and a great resource for our students,” said Laura Abrams, professor and chair of UCLA Luskin Social Welfare.

Lares-Nakaoka, who also held acaemic posts at the University of Hawaii, Cal State Sacramento and Cal State Dominguez Hills, focuses her research and writing on the intersection of race and community development, critical race pedagogy, and Asian American and Pacific Islander communities. She is lead author on a forthcoming book, “Critical Race Theory in Social Work,” as well as editor of an upcoming special issue on race and social justice in the Journal of Community Practice. She is also co-founder and co-director of the Critical Race Scholars in Social Work (CRSSW) collective.

She said her experience as director of field education at Cal State Dominguez Hills, which was a pioneer in teaching social work from a critical race theory perspective, was foundational to her approach to social work pedagogy.

“My area of interest is in racial justice issues, so I’m interested in seeing ways in which we can make a bigger impact in the L.A. area in terms of what can social work look like that has this lens of racial justice and anti-racism.”

Lares-Nakaoka believes that UCLA is poised to be a leader in this area.

“In L.A., it’s so appropriate with our diversity and history, of both successes and failures, in areas of racial justice,” she said. “It’s just such an opportunity for me to be at UCLA, where the nation’s experts on critical race theory reside.”

Nakamura, a licensed clinical social worker (LCSW), is working as a field liaison in a position partly funded through a grant from the California Department of Health Care Access (HCAI) to expand social welfare education at UCLA.

“Through the HCAI grant, I will be working to increase access to culturally and linguistically relevant behavioral health services for children, adults, and families in un- and underserved communities,” she said.

Nakamura said she also will work to promote a diverse and competent workforce through MSW student recruitment, development of behavioral health internship sites, specialized clinical trainings, and coursework that emphasizes cultural humility and competence, as well as accessible mentorship and support to students as they work toward clinical licensure.

“I’ll be also working in the community with the different behavioral health agencies that we’re going to be partnering with, so kind of the perfect integration of this micro and macro social work practice that I love,” Nakamura said.

She has previous experience as a field instructor and in teaching roles at universities, including at UCLA. Nakamura is teaching behavioral health courses and also maintains a private practice.

Nakamura described her return to campus as an amazing experience.

“I look forward to taking on this new role because the people who I sought out as field faculty when I was a student — they shaped my entire career and my life,” she said. “It feels very full circle to be working alongside those same individuals.”

Londoño, who is originally from Colombia and was raised in Miami, focuses on the mental health and psychosocial well-being of Latine/x immigrant youth and their families.

Londoño is currently involved in several studies funded by the National Institutes of Health (NIH). A research emphasis on migration includes looking at how immigrant youth and families navigate and adapt to the psychosocial consequences of migration and resettlement. She is particularly interested in how immigration enforcement and practices in the U.S. play a role in their well-being.

“Something that’s really central to my work is being community-based,” said Londoño, who has conducted needs assessment and evaluation research related to study participants. “So, I will definitely be reaching out to organizations here working with immigrant and Latinx communities and slowly building those relationships.”

Joining Nakamura, Lares-Nakaoka and Londoño in January is Wilson, who holds master’s and PhD degrees — with a minor in statistics, methods and measurement — in psychology from the University of Illinois at Chicago. Her research focuses on system-involved LGBTQ+ youth, LGBTQ+ poverty and sexual health among queer women.

“I’m looking forward to continuing in an interdisciplinary department, but now with a broad range of research topics,” she said. “This can create opportunities for collaboration but also for learning about the many areas of work I don’t focus on.”

In addition to being the Rabbi Zacky Senior Scholar of Public Policy at UCLA’s Williams Institute, as well as a researcher and senior scholar of public policy since 2011, Wilson has been a faculty affiliate at the UCLA California Center for Population Research since 2014. At UCLA Luskin, Wilson will focus on Social Welfare’s concentration in health and mental health across the life span, teaching courses in research, policy and human behavior.

Wilson said she also is excited to be working with students again.

“I look forward to working with them on their graduate work as well as students at all levels in the classrooms,” she said.

The new faculty hires in Social Welfare are enhancing both education and the School’s research portfolio in interesting areas of study and practice, Abrams said. “All of those topics are really speaking to what our students are interested in and what the community is asking for, so it’s an exciting time.”

For Lares-Nakaoka, a focus on ethnic-based community development corporations dates from her time as a doctoral student at UCLA Luskin.

“L.A. also has this very rich history of ethnic-based organizations,” she said, noting her ongoing involvement with organizations like the Little Tokyo Service Center that started with an MSW internship.

“There’s these amazing organizations with a rich social justice history from the 1970s and ’80s. I feel if we can work together to cultivate a type of social work that learns from them, we can ensure racial justice is a central part of social work practice.”

Lares-Nakaoka spent more than a dozen years working in social services and program development benefiting low-income residents.

She attended public schools in her hometown of Montebello, then pursued an undergraduate education at UCLA in history and sociology, graduating in 1991.

Lares-Nakaoka is looking forward to the opportunity to mentor current students. They are an impressive group, she said.

“UCLA students — they’re future leaders. It’s amazing some of the things they’ve already done,” she said. “They can articulate the plans they have for the future. You know they are going to go on and make a difference.”

UCLA feels like home, she said. “We’re very much a UCLA family. My whole family bleeds blue and gold.”