Alan Nishio, who is the keynote speaker for our 2020 Virtual Manzanar Pilgrimage, was awarded the Manzanar Committee’s 2017 Sue Kunitomi Embrey Award for his leadership during the Redress Movement in the 1980s, along with his decades-long activism in the Japanese American community. He was involved in building the local chapter of the Asian American Political Alliance in the 1960s. and served as the first Director of the UCLA Asian American Studies Center in the 1970s.
As an educator, Nishio began working at California State University, Long Beach after his tenure at UCLA, and rose to the position of Vice President of Student Services. For most people, Alan’s contributions and accomplishments in administration would be the highlight of their careers. But in Nishio’s case, that’s just the tip of the proverbial iceberg.
Perhaps the highlight of Nishio’s story is his leadership role in the Little Tokyo People’s Rights Organization (LTPRO) and the National Coalition for Redress/Reparations (NCRR; now known as Nikkei for Civil Rights and Redress). He was instrumental in helping to keep NCRR on track through his organizing skills, providing his own perspective on matters, and ensuring that all voices were heard in the decision making. Nishio also served for many years as the Board President of the Little Tokyo Service Center (LTSC), and he continues serve as the Chair of the Board of Governors. Throughout the years, Nishio has also served as a mentor to young activists who want to make a difference in their communities.
Q: You were once voted the shyest kid in junior high school. How did you evolve into such an eloquent speaker?
A: I am not sure about how eloquent I am, but after being voted shyest in my class, I had made a conscious decision to try to be more friendly and outgoing as I knew that I would be starting high school and very few of my junior high classmates would be attending Venice High as my junior high was in the Hamilton High School district and the only ones going to Venice were about thirty students who were being bused in from Mar Vista as there was not a closer junior high school that would accept us because most of my classmates were from the Mar Vista Gardens Housing Project. I forced myself to get out and meet people.
I did not do much public speaking until after college. I pushed myself to speak on various matters because of my passion and commitment for seeking change and felt that public speaking was something that I could contribute to the cause. I found the experience, while stressful, a great opportunity for me to better understand the topic and organize my thoughts on the important points that I wanted to convey. It was not an easy process and even today while preparing for the Manzanar video I find it a bit stressful. I am sure you can relate with your own experience. You did a great job at the recent Day of Remembrance, and I am sure that it was stressful for you. You stepped up when called upon and you gained valuable experience that will benefit you in future presentations.
Q: One of your earliest political actions was taking part in the Free Speech Movement at UC Berkeley. Looking back how did this influence the direction that you took in your life?
A: The Free Speech Movement had a tremendous impact on my life because it was the first time that I became involved politically. When the student strike was called and picket lines were formed, I found that I could not be neutral. I either had to cross the picket line or join it. I learned more about the issues involved and then joined the strike. This experience was one that forever moved me as I changed my major from Accounting to Political Science and never looked back!
Q: How did you begin to get involved with other Asian Americans in the emerging Asian American Movement in the late 1960s?
A: During my graduate work at USC, I was working with a faculty member who was starting a leadership training center focused on Black and Latino community organizations, the Center for Social Action. When the movement for Asian American awareness and empowerment was arising, I became involved in helping form a chapter of the Asian American Political Alliance. AAPA and many other groups began meeting at the Center for Social Action. People working at the Center included Ron Hirano, Miya Iwataki, and the late Irene Hirano Inouye.
Q: How did your parents react when you became involved in political issues?
A: During my undergraduate years, my parents were not very aware of my activism. I lived in a family in which there was very little conversation that occurred. As an example, my honeymoon with Yvonne was the first “vacation” that I had ever had. My father died when I was in my first year of graduate school and we never had an opportunity to talk about any issues. That is one of my biggest regrets in life—that I was not able to speak with my Father about our family and his life. I did not find out until after he had died how much the camps impacted his life. After my Father died, I basically had to take on the leadership of our family as my Mom did not have a clue about how to handle things and my sister was dealing with her own issues. In addition to my graduate work, I took on my Father’s gardening route as we had no savings and we owed money for hospital bills. My Mom worked at a minimum wage job that did not cover the expenses we were incurring so I had no choice to continue gardening on weekends to make ends meet.
Q: In your oral history with NCRR, you mentioned that your wife, Yvonne, kept you grounded. How did she do that?
A: Yvonne is the “rock” in our relationship. She is unassuming and shies away from the spotlight. She is a very strong and assertive person who always supports me but also gives very critical feedback about what I do and when she thinks I get too focused on me rather than the work at hand. Through the years, we have developed a relationship in which we both support the work of the other but also share criticism and feedback, when called upon. I treasure the relationship that we have built together over the years.
Q: You’ve often deflected credit for the leadership role that you played in the Redress Movement. In your view, how do we achieve social change like Redress in society?
A: I don’t think that I have deflected credit for my role in redress as much as try to focus on how NCRR worked as a collective in our decision making and action. I think what made NCRR work is that we were never focused on individual recognition. Our society too often focuses upon the “leader” of an organization and not on those who often do the work that is not seen or recognized but make a difference.
Q: Sara Omura, a young middle school teenager, wrote a poem that questioned if anything has really changed in society with the rise of the alt-right nationalism. What do you say to young people who question where we are headed as a country?
A: To quote Martin Luther King, Jr.: “the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.” As a young person, I can understand how Sara can wonder how much things have changed. As someone who is on the other side of the age spectrum from Sara, I would say that progress is never linear moving along in one positive direction. Change in society has its ups and downs. Just as so many of us were delighted when Barack Obama was elected President, we are saddened to see Donald Trump and the rise of white nationalists. What we must understand is that Trump’s base is an increasingly smaller group. You and I are old enough to remember when California was the hot bed of anti-immigrant fervor represented by Governor Pete Wilson and Proposition 187. Look at our state today as we are now a leader in defending immigrant rights. Nevada has become a blue state and Arizona and Texas will soon be joining them. We need the impatience or young people like Sara to push us forward. Look at the role that Greta Thunberg has played in rallying against climate change and global warming.
Q: What advice do you give to people who say that there’s nothing that we can do to change society?
The November elections represent a key moment when we can all work together to change the direction of our society. We have all learned from experience the truism of Margaret Mead’s quote: “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed, citizens can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.” In fighting for change, we usually do not see the results of our work until much later. The redress campaign is an example of how society can change through the work of a committed core of activists.
Q: What do you see as the main challenges that we face today as we approach the 2020 Virtual Manzanar Pilgrimage?
A: The main challenge is to understand the importance of this moment in history and how we need to fight for many of the rights that we take for granted. We need to fight complacency and find ways in which we can be part of the solution. There are so many ways—big and small. Folding cranes for Tsuru for Solidarity, writing letters to voters in swing states, getting friends and family to register and vote. There is no excuse for sitting this one out.
Manzanar Committee member Glen Kitayama is an elementary school teacher in the Los Angeles Unified School District. A former member of NCRR, his Masters of Arts thesis at UCLA provided much of the foundation for NCRR’s book, NCRR: The Grassroots Struggle for Japanese American Redress and Reparations. He writes from South Pasadena, California.
LEAD PHOTO: Alan Nishio addresses the crowd during the 48th Annual Manzanar Pilgrimage, April 29, 2017, at the Manzanar National Historic Site. Photo by Gann Matsuda/Manzanar Committee.
2020 Virtual Manzanar Pilgrimage
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