By Amy Van and Jintana Lityouvong
IE Guest Columnists
There was an “Asian Pacific American mentality” that Pio DeCano had grown up with, and it shows in his junior high school picture. “If you just look at my junior high school picture, there were [Japanese American] kids that had grown up in the concentration camps. There were Chinese Americans,” he said. “We all had different ethnic groups. There was the same kind of discrimination in the 40s, the 50s, and 60s the earlier generations have suffered through so there was a kind of common bond between us.”
Martin (Mitch) Matsudaira similarly speaks of this common bond of his own upbringing. The close proximity of Japanese, Chinese, and Filipino families gave way to interaction and camaraderie. So, when the civil rights movement began, these neighbors took on the fight together as Asian Americans.
This led to DeCano, who worked in Olympia for the Washington Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction, to chair an ad-hoc committee to negotiate with Governor Dan Evans on the topic of organizing a council for Asian Pacific Americans (APAs) in the state of Washington.
DeCano worked with individuals like Matsudaira on the governor’s Asian Advisory Council. When the Council was formalized into a commission, Matsudaira became the first Director of the Commission on Asian American Affairs. Matsudaira had taken a leave of absence from Boeing to wade the tides of politics. “It was a novelty,” Matsudaira said of the Commission, “There was nothing like it out there.”
Matsudaira is both a strategist and a risk taker. After leaving the Air Force, he received a degree in economics and went to work for Boeing. At the corporate level, he helped implement and carry out diversity seminars, providing what is now considered cultural competency training, for Boeing’s department managers. Through his work, he realized prevalent ambivalence towards the Asian American history and experience. The Commission was that opportunity to change that.
Through the Commission, Asian Americans were finally present at the decision-making level, and Matsudaira made sure to be on the floor of the chambers when testimonies and lobbying was needed.
As the Commission’s work became more influential in Olympia, other states began reaching out to Matsudaira, seeking his assistance in starting up similar avenues. He provided his assistance when possible; however it became clear that the success in Washington was due to the bonds the Asian community had formed growing up together as neighbors.
Diane Wong was a practicing lawyer in the International District/Chinatown when she applied to succeed Matsudaira as director of the Commission. She, too, had grown up in the Seattle area, surrounded by the growing Asian American civil rights movement.
“I really didn’t like confrontation,” Wong said of her legal practice. “When there was this opening at the Commission, I said, well that sounds like it could be more of a way to develop solutions that can involve a win-win situation.”
As the Asian American community grew with each year in terms of number and diversity, the issues emerging from these changes saw their way into the Commission as well.
One of the issues that the Commission tackled was bilingual education. Wong recalled that the issue wasn’t necessarily an opposition for bilingual education; rather, it was a lack of understanding about what bilingual education was and the needs of immigrants. “Immigrants didn’t want to not speak English … they wanted to be able to maintain cultural roots as well as to learn English,” Wong said.
Wong’s strategy was to bring together naysayers and supporters alike at the legislative and community level for dialogue. The Commission worked around the questions of how to come up with a solution that maintained the depth and the joys of being different and yet being American. It was a way to introduce legislators to different cultures, and similarly, immigrants to the American way of developing laws.
When DeCano was on the State Board for Community College Education, he worked with different districts to provide bilingual classes and services for English as a Second Language students in schools.
“They just didn’t realize how difficult it was for a non-English speaker to go into, for example, a chemistry class and try to absorb information without knowing the language. They had no feel for that kind of emerging process and what it does with a kid when they’re confronted with a language they don’t know and be expected to take exams and participate in class,” DeCano said.
The Commission responded when the Vietnam War ended, leading to the arrival of Southeast Asian refugees resettling in the United States. In 1975, Governor Evans sponsored 500 Vietnamese refugees. Families were placed in the military base of Camp Murray for temporary housing. Matsudaira helped with the refugee transition process, including arranging delivery of familiar food staples from Uwajimaya to the camp base.
Waves of immigrants and refugees continued to settle in Washington, and by the mid 1980s, Liz Dunbar was appointed as director of the Commission. She had been working at the Asian American Alliance in Tacoma and had goals to better connect with APA communities around the state and support Southeast Asian refugees.
“It was a massive influx and they overwhelmed the service system at the time. There was not enough capacity to respond to all the needs,” Dunbar said. She worked with the Department of Social and Health Services to increase services for and address the needs of refugees.
Amidst the activities of first generation immigrants, second and third generation Japanese Americans were embarking on an effort of their own: redress of Executive Order 9066, which President Franklin Roosevelt signed on February 19, 1942 authorizing the deportation of Japanese Americans to internment camps.
Matsudaira was part of the leadership that steered the momentum of rescission. Matsudaira had spent three years of his adolescence in an internment camp, along with his entire family. For him, it was a personal matter as much as it was an attempt to repair the pains of his community.
The Japanese American Citizens League’s large membership in Washington helped create a generous turnout of the community at the local hearing held at Seattle Central Community College auditorium. “The community really came out in force to tell their stories and share very painful episodes that in many cases had never been shared before,” said Dunbar, who attended the hearing. The hearings helped to generate responses from all levels of government to apologize, and provide long overdue recognition and reparations to a group of people wrongfully convicted.
At its core, the Commission has long relied on the passion of individuals to carry out the needs of a diverse and complex community despite differences in leadership and focuses throughout time.
This series of op-eds are written to celebrate, reminisce, and highlight the Commission on Asian Pacific American Affairs 40th Anniversary. The anniversary celebration will take place on May 15, 2014. Please visit http://www.capaa.wa.gov/about/40.shtml for longer articles and for more information.