In October 2018, Diane Narasaki will retire after 23 years as executive director of Asian Counseling and Referral Service (ACRS). Headquartered next to Martin Luther King Jr. Way in Beacon Hill, ACRS serves mostly low-income Asian Pacific Islanders, offering mental health care, aging services, addiction treatment, help with issues like citizenship, legal matters, domestic violence, gambling, education and referrals, and more. The organization also advocates for social justice and civic engagement.
Narasaki was born and raised in Seattle. Her parents were among some 120,000 Japanese and Japanese Americans incarcerated during WWII, something that Narasaki says strengthened her commitment to social justice. During her career, Narasaki has worked as executive director of the Northwest Labor and Employment Law Office, co-founded the King County Asian Pacific Islander Coalition (a group of AAPI community organizations in Washington State), served on the White House Initiative on Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders, and more.
“No one has worked so strategically and tenaciously for justice,” Sharon Maeda, a friend of Narasaki and station manager at Rainier Valley Radio, told Northwest Asian Weekly. “Diane is such a dedicated, and relentless, advocate for the community.”
ACRS has grown over the past 23 years under Narasaki’s leadership, branching out from Seattle to add offices in Bellevue and Kent. The organization doubled the number of people it serves, from 14,415 in 1995 to 31,737 at the end of 2016. From a staff of 76 who spoke 25 languages and dialects, ACRS now employs 270 who can speak 40.
ACRS has also grown in its social justice advocacy, Narasaki said. “We always were active in social justice – we grew out of the social justice movement.” But over the years, she said, ACRS has expanded its national and statewide partnerships and become more active in social justice activism and civic engagement.
It was Narasaki’s interest in social justice work that first drew her to work at ACRS. “I never thought of building a career here,” she says. “I have simply, throughout my life, wanted to work in service to what I believe and to make a difference for the better.”
Recruited to serve on the ACRS board starting in the 80s, Narasaki took on the role of executive director in 1995. “I had always seen ACRS as a key organization in our community, and one that has a tremendous impact in the lives of our community members,” she says. “I saw it as an organization that I wanted to work with in a really challenging time.”
Narasaki spoke with the International Examiner about her career, API issues in Washington state, and the threats to API communities from the Trump administration. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
International Examiner: Looking back at your 23-year career at ACRS, what are you most proud of about the ways the organization has changed and expanded?
Diane Narasaki: What I’m most proud of is really the staff, the volunteers, the board members, the community partners and leaders that I’ve had the privilege to work with. Our programs couldn’t have expanded if we didn’t have the strong and compassionate, great staff that we have, and the vision of the board and the vision and leadership of many in our communities. I’m proud we have all been able to join together and to make change on a variety of levels. We’ve also joined in advocating for national legislation and policy changes and I’m proud of the fact that we’ve been able to draw on our experience here in our local community, or from ACRS, to share that at the national level.
IE: What’s something significant that you’ve learned during your career?
DN: One of the things that was always clear, but is even clearer now, is that the more power that you share with others, the more power there is for everybody to do what they need to do, to get to where we want to go, when it comes to social justice. Most of what I’ve been engaged in over the past 23 years has been collaborative leadership, so that’s leadership with people at all levels. It’s not a matter of my leadership — it’s a matter of all of us pooling our leadership in order to get something done. And that’s been very clear over the years, and I believe that together we’ve been able to make some really significant changes because of that shared collaborative leadership.
IE: Your parents were among thousands of Japanese and Japanese Americans incarcerated during WWII. How has this shaped your views on social justice and equality?
DN: I grew up during a time of great change. Lots of social unrest and many movements that were coming to the fore or resurging, and so I always thought that social change was necessary. Having been born not too long after WWII, racism as it affects Asian Americans in general, Japanese Americans in particular, was still very virulent. And so I always believed in the need for change, but it wasn’t until I was a teenager that I began to learn about the concentration camps and the incarceration of my community and my family for no reason other than race and ancestry. Learning about that simply deepened by commitment to what I had already believed, which was in the need for civil rights, for human rights, for social justice for everyone in the country and in the world.
IE: You served on the White House Initiative on Asian Pacific Islanders. What do see as the most important issues for APIs today on a national level?
DN: Serving on the President’s Commission, particularly the Commission under President Obama, was an honor, and I met some amazing leaders who were very active in their own regions and also nationally.
I believe what is happening now is tragic. I think that we are sliding back on a national commitment to civil rights and human rights. The current administration, I believe, is promoting policies and making statements that are racist, anti-immigrant, anti-refugee, that attack women’s rights, the rights of the LGBTQ community, low-income people, the rights of tribes, that attack environmental protections and environmental justice, and I think all of these things are dangerous and have to be fought. So I think we’re in a really perilous time.
But I also think that these attacks are so blatant and so frequent and so major that they have galvanized many people. We are seeing many more people become active in pursuit of social justice to fight these attacks and to defend a more inclusive vision of who we ought to be as a country.
These are all issues which affect everyone, but there are clear and disproportionate impacts on the Asian American and Pacific Islander communities. Because if you look at climate change, many of our Pacific Islander community members are seeing their homes being eroded or lost to rising seas. We’re seeing many people from Asian countries experiencing greater severe weather events in their homelands, like more typhoons in the Philippines or more flooding or more coastal erosion in Asian, more droughts.
Here at home when we consider what happens in the hurricanes in the South, we see that Southeast Asian communities who reside in some of those areas like the Houston area, have less infrastructure to address that. Here in Seattle, we see that the neighborhoods that have some of the worst impacts of carbon emissions are our communities, whether it’s in the International District and central Seattle or in South Seattle. So these assaults on environmental protections happen not just internationally and nationally, but have an impact locally too.
The attacks on family-based immigration, which is how our immigration system works now, would disproportionately affect us because most of the people in our community who emigrate here come through the family-based system. And close to half of the four million or so people waiting in the backlogs to come here are from Asian or Pacific Island nations, and many of our community members who are waiting for family members to rejoin them here are waiting for several years at this point. And people from the Phillipines can wait 20 years to come here. So any of those proposed changes to curtail family-based immigration are really going to have an impact on us here.
The assaults on the Affordable Care Act or as it’s popularly known, Obamacare, also disproportionately affect us because our community had among the highest rates of uninsurance for some ethnic groups, and many were covered for the first time under Obamacare, so the assaults on Obamacare and narrowing the eligibility is really going to affect us. The discussion about reducing access to and funding for medicaid and for entitlement programs like Social Security and Medicare are troubling to all Americans who rely on those entitlements, but they too will have a disproportionate effect our community. So all of these things will have a serious effect on us if they are reduced in funding or if eligibility guidelines are narrowed beyond what they are at this point
IE: What about ACRS itself – how will it be impacted by the Trump administration?
DN: If the Affordable Care Act continues to be assaulted in the way that it was earlier, and if there is any successful legislation to seriously change the Affordable Care Act in some of the ways that were attempted last year, that would definitely not only have an impact on the people we serve, but an impact on us as well. Because if they don’t have access to Medicaid, for instance, it will make it harder for us to serve them, because much of the funding that we receive to provide mental health services, or recovery services for substance use disorder, or other sorts of services, will be reduced very substantially. Many of the services that we provide are subsidized through government contracts, and some of those are a combination of federal and state funds. There’s a ripple effect from the federal level when some of these major funding sources are cut. So they could affect us depending upon what type of funds for what type of programs are cut.
IE: What do you see as the most important issues facing APIs locally in Washington state, King County, and Seattle?
DN: They’re similar to on the national level. So for instance, the administration has increased its efforts to deport people who are here undocumented. Usually whenever immigration is discussed in general or undocumented immigration in particular is discussed, people often assume that that discussion is solely around the Latino community. But since our community is the one that has the highest proportion of immigrants and refugees, we are in fact the most affected. We don’t have the most undocumented immigrants, but we have a large number — so, out of the roughly 11 million people that are thought to be undocumented in the country, over a million are thought to be Asian American or Pacific Islander, and the Asian Pacific Islander undocumented population is the fastest-growing, though not the largest, in the state.
So that effort on the national level to increase deportations also includes increased focus on deporting Southeast Asians. So that’s a very important issue for us on the state level. And then the many attacks on the rights of immigrants or people who are not yet citizens, has increased the demand for naturalization services. A lot of people who are eligible to become citizens are now taking the step to become citizens. So we are asking the state, through the API Coalition and our legislative agenda, to increase funding for naturalization services, because there’s a huge surge in demand.
What’s happening with environmental protections and climate change also affects us here. We’re glad that we have a governor who understands the importance of addressing climate change. We are supportive of legislation to address climate change if it also looks at those communities that are most affected, and looks to reinvest not only the funds in clean energy projects, but also in those communities that are most affected so that they can improve their health and conditions.
The same could be said for education. Asian Americans are often stereotyped as the model minority, and that is a racist depiction which simply isn’t accurate. If you disaggregate the data on our community, you can see that many different ethnic groups fare very differently from each other. And some of our communities have some of the worst educational attainment and drop-out rates for instance. We would like to see education funding sufficient to help all of the communities who need it, but we’d like to see funding targeted toward those communities who are in most need.
In our local API legislative agenda, there are a variety of different things that we’re trying to address. One is naturalization. Another is increased funding for our limited English proficient immigrants and refugees who are trying to find work in our economy. Another has to do with, as I mentioned, education, and yet another has to do with climate change.
We’re also concerned, like all other communities are, about making sure that there is strong police accountability. We support the legislation which would try and strengthen accountability for police involved in shootings, because right now, it’s almost impossible to hold the police accountable for shootings which may not be justified. So there are a lot of different issues that we’re looking at. We’re also looking at the need for making sure that we have adequate infrastructure in our communities, to provide for housing and services for the people who them. There’s a long list – those are a few of them.
IE: What’s next for you after you retire?
DN: I’m looking forward to spending more time with my family and my friends. I really have a passion for the work that we do here, and I’m happy to have done it all these years. I will still have that passion for social justice and I’ll still be active in working with others to achieve that, but I hope to live a more balanced life, have more time to spend with family and friends, and travelling and pursuing other interests that I simply haven’t had the time over many decades, including the last two at ACRS, to pursue.
IE: Is there anything you want to add?
DN: This year is a really special year, because it’s a milestone anniversary for us. We’ll be celebrating our 45th anniversary, and we are looking forward to partying with our community on October 27th at the Bellevue Hyatt, and hope that everyone can come join us then. I will be actively working as executive director until that day, when we’ll all celebrate our 45th anniversary.