Al Sugiyama reflects on a lifetime of social justice work and his ongoing battle with cancer

Ron Chew October 9, 2015 0
“I only started running again about three months ago," Al Sugiyama said. "What I’m trying to do is not give in to the fatigue caused by the chemotherapy and to build up a little strength.” • Photo by Isaac Liu

“I only started running again about three months ago,” Al Sugiyama said. “What I’m trying to do is not give in to the fatigue caused by the chemotherapy and to build up a little strength.” • Photo by Isaac Liu

Update (1/3/2017 at 11:28 a.m.): Alan Sugiyama, long-time Seattle community activist and former executive director of the Executive Development Institute (EDI), died on January 2 at the age of 67 after a valiant two-year public battle with cancer. Click here to read more about his legacy.


Lifelong Asian American activist Alan Sugiyama has never been one to back down from a fight, especially if it involves the well-being of the poor, oppressed, or communities of color. In the early 1970s, he stood on the front line of protests for Asian American studies, which had not yet been established, and against the construction of the Kingdome, which threatened the survival of the International District. Most recently, he hoisted the bullhorn to lead protest chants against a hookah bar that had been a magnet for violence resulting in the death of Donnie Chin.

Sugiyama’s commitment to social justice—seeded at a very young age by his father’s outspoken opposition to discrimination and his mother’s belief in “basic fairness”—propelled the 66-year-old Seattleite into a prominent 30-year career as founder and director of the Center for Career Alternatives (CCA), a multi-ethnic job training program serving low-income residents in King and Snohomish Counties. After “retiring” from CCA, Sugiyama went on to head up the Executive Development Institute (EDI) to pursue his interest in helping train and mentor a new generation of Asian Pacific American leaders.

But in February, Sugiyama stepped back from his leadership of EDI to focus his energies on an unexpected personal challenge. In October, 2014, shortly after discovering he had cancer in both his esophagus and pancreas, he began his first round of chemotherapy.

For this latest fight—a struggle he says he fully expects to win—he has enlisted the medical skills of two oncologists and the “collective support” of friends and community members. In the process, Sugiyama has become an inspirational role model to Asian Americans battling cancer, often in quiet isolation. He’s helped give cancer a very personal public face.

At a celebration of Sugiyama’s life at Blaine United Memorial Methodist Church on September 13, he gave a shout-out to others in the audience who had beaten cancer, asking them to be recognized. An abundant show of hands followed. He also reported that his treatments had dramatically diminished the size of the cancers in his esophagus and pancreas. His pancreatic cancer “has gone down so far you can’t even see it,” he said.

Selina Chow, who first met Sugiyama in the late 1970s, was one of the many close friends in attendance. “His dedication and commitment in serving youth and our community has been unwavering,” she said later. “He applied the same courage and tenacity in his battle with cancer as he has in his fight for racial and social justice throughout his life. And he is winning! Even in sickness, he continues to inspire.”

Friends and professional colleagues who came to show their support for “Superman” Al Sugiyama say they’re not at all surprised by his fierce resolve. Deborah Uno said that in 1972, Sugiyama and other young activists gathered at her home to discuss pressuring Seattle Central Community College (SCCC) to offer Japanese language classes and to plan a protest against construction of the Kingdome.

“Al pulled out his daily planner to schedule yet another meeting,” Uno said. “Every day, morning, noon and night seemed to be filled with more meetings. I had never seen anything like that before. I always wondered how he was able to balance his life. But as the years have come and gone, I am aware of the fact that this is his life. He is somebody who was born to do exactly all that he has accomplished. To call him a mover and shaker is an understatement. He truly talks the talk and walks the walk. Superman, what’s next?”

Sugiyama, who remains unflappably upbeat in the face of his daunting health challenge, recently took time reflect on his past work in the community and discuss his approach to cancer.

The Garfield High School graduate, who grew up in the Central District, said his father worked as head tailor at Albert Ltd. in downtown Seattle, where his mother also worked, as a tailor’s helper. Sugiyama said the firm’s ads boasted that “they had the best tailors, but they always focused on the white tailors.” Sugiyama said his father, angered by this slight, asked the firm for an apology. “They didn’t apologize, so he resigned,” Sugiyama said. “He gave them his resignation letter right then and there. I was in college at the time. It was a lesson that he was going to stick by his guns.”

Sugiyama noted that national civil rights leaders of the 1960s such by Stokely Carmichael and Martin Luther King Jr. fueled his passion for social change. At SCCC, he helped organize the Oriental Student Union and pushed for establishment of an Asian American students program in 1971. One year later, he teamed up with Frank Irigon, Diane Wong, and Norman Mar to establish the Asian Family Affair, a newspaper funded through the Asian Student Coalition at the University of Washington. Sugiyama’s late wife Kathy joined the staff several months later. The paper, which published continuously until 1985, provided a voice for Asian Americans seeking their identity, rediscovering their history, and advocating for community needs.

Sugiyama said he decided to establish CCA in 1979 after working at two different job agencies: Seattle Opportunities Industrialization Center and Employment Opportunities Center. “This was in the time period of the 1980s,” he said. “Everything was going ethnic-specific. SOIC was ‘Black-centric.’ EOC was ‘Asian-centric.’ I thought to myself: ‘What would be best for the people we were serving as well as the businesses?’ As a society, we’re multi-ethnic. I love diversity. That’s what gave me the idea of starting CCA.”

In 1989, Sugiyama was elected to the Seattle School Board, serving two four-year terms. “A lot of us didn’t feel that the School District was living up to its promise of providing an equitable education to students,” he explained. “There was a lack of diversity in terms of staffing from the top down. There was a lack of awareness of bilingual education. It was a constant struggle.” Sugiyama said T.J. Vassar, a former schoolmate who had decided not to run for re-election to the Board, encouraged his candidacy. “There had never been an Asian American on the School Board before,” he said. “Surprisingly, it was Asian American community leaders who told me, ‘You’re not going to win.’ I didn’t get that kind of reaction from anyone else. That kind of fueled my juices to succeed. I wanted to show them they were wrong.”

After serving as director of CCA for 30 years, Sugiyama stepped down from the helm in 2010. The agency closed its doors after facing several years of funding difficulty, transferring its remaining programs to another social service agency.

Sugiyama joined EDI in 2013 and worked as executive director until the cancer derailed his plans. He left the position to devote more of his energy to fighting his cancer. Never one to back down from a challenge, he has been pulling out all stops to rid his body of the cancer.

“I bought into an aggressive plan for chemotherapy,” he said. “Chemo is our friend. Without it, who’s going to be helping fight this cancer? Exercise and vitamins can only do so much. People have suggested home remedies. Juicing is good—there’s nothing wrong with that. But will it cure cancer? There’s no study that shows it.”

“My body has been able to handle the chemo so far. The mental part is so very important. You don’t need people around you who are negative. Some people say, ‘How long are you going to live?’ I don’t need that. I plan to live into my 90s. Someone wanted to talk to me about how to manage pain. I don’t plan to be in pain.”

Sugiyama said he undergoes a three-day regimen of chemotherapy every other week, which so far has been very effective in shrinking his cancer. To date, he has completed 20 weeks of chemo. “Currently, I have chemo every other week until January,” he said. “At that time, I’ll be retested to see how much the cancer has shrunk. This is not a sprint. It’s going to be a marathon and I’m up for the challenge.”

Sugiyama said he’s not had any severe reactions to the chemo. He’s had to deal with fatigue and side effects such as ingrown toenails, gout and migraine headaches. But he says these are minor compared to the nausea, vomiting and anxiety attacks that beset some other cancer sufferers.

Sugiyama says he’s learned that having cancer “is not a death sentence,” a message he delivered to the packed audience of over 400 who came to celebrate his life at Blaine Church last month. His spirits have been buoyed, Sugiyama said, by the continuing flood of e-mails, texts, cards from friends and those who’ve offered to take him to his treatments.

“I have 12 people who are my drivers,” he said. “I could drive myself, but it’s fun when they come to pick me up. They are very positive and upbeat. I wouldn’t have them if they were negative. I don’t need pity.”

Even in the midst of his treatment, Sugiyama continues to jog several times a week along the peninsula at Seward Park to keep fit. “I used to run five miles,” he said. “Now, I run two or two-and-a-half miles. Real slow.”

Al Sugiyama says and friend Tim Tsubahara, who is now blind, have run five miles together at Seward Park every Sunday for over 30 years. • Photo by Isaac Liu

Al Sugiyama says and friend Tim Tsubahara, who is now blind, have run five miles together at Seward Park every Sunday for over 30 years. • Photo by Isaac Liu

Sugiyama says he and his friend Tim Tsubahara, who is now blind, have run five miles together every Sunday for over 30 years. “Once I started treatment last October, I stopped running,” he said. “I only started running again about three months ago. What I’m trying to do is not give in to the fatigue caused by the chemotherapy and to build up a little strength.”

Willon Lew, a former runner, said he joins Sugiyama on his Sunday outings to Seward Park, only now he just walks, as does Frank Kiuchi, “the newest member of the walking club.” Sometimes, Tsubahara walks as well. Many years ago, Lew said, he tried to race Sugiyama and his small group around the path at Seward Park.

“Much to my disappointment, they smoked me running around the loop,” Lew said. “Week after week, I could not keep up with them, even with a 10 minute head-start. Today, Al is still running. Go figure. Even with pancreatic and esophageal cancer, it doesn’t stop Al.”

Left to right:Willon Lew, Tim Tsubahara, and Al Sugiyama. • Photo by Isaac Liu

Left to right:Willon Lew, Tim Tsubahara, and Al Sugiyama. • Photo by Isaac Liu

Ultimately, Sugiyama is philosophical about his battle with cancer. “None of us know how long we’re going to be on this earth,” he said. “I don’t know if I’m going to be here tomorrow. I’ve been given a gift. I’ve got two great oncologists. I’m going to ride this baby as long as I can.”

These days, Sugiyama is perhaps most passionate about helping cultivate the next generation of Asian Pacific American leaders, a cause which brought him to EDI.

Mark Okazaki, executive director of Neighborhood House, says Sugiyama was a early mentor to him, as he was to many others. Okazaki began working for Sugiyama as a career counselor right after CCA was born in 1979. “I expressed doubts about my ability to be a leader,” Okazaki said. “He looked at me and said, ‘Mark, everyone can be a leader.’ That stuck with me forever.”

Sugiyama says he’s proud to see EDI graduates—armed with sharpened leadership skills—joining community boards. He said he’s always excited to have coffee or lunch with emerging leaders and introduce them to others at community functions and “get them excited about volunteering.”

“I’ve always been clear that we’re only on this earth for so long,” he said. “Who’s going to be our next community activists? Who’s going to be the next group that’s not afraid to challenge the system? We’ve got to understand that leaders aren’t born. They’re developed by their experiences, training, and environment. We all learn by making mistakes. I’ve probably made more than anyone else. But that’s how we grow. I’m going to keep doing this leadership development work as long as I can. I want to see the next generation of activists, the next generation of leaders carry on the work.”

Al Sugiyama and Tim Tsubahara stretch for their next run at Seward Park. • Photo by Isaac Liu

Al Sugiyama and Tim Tsubahara stretch for their next run at Seward Park. • Photo by Isaac Liu

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