Densho Digital Repository
Densho Visual History Collection
Title: Ron Wakabayashi Interview
Narrator: Ron Wakabayashi
Interviewer: Tom Ikeda
Location: Los Angeles, California
Date: February 5, 2019
Densho ID: ddr-densho-1000-460-18

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TI: So tell me how this experience, the redress, your time as national director, changed you. How were you changed in terms of maybe your trajectory? Before, you probably had this certain trajectory, this happened, how did your life change? And not just career-wise, but personally, how were you changed?

RW: I learned... I guess one of the personal lessons is when you're the JACL director, there's a degree of celebrity to it. So like when you go out to eat, people will come up to you and interrupt your dinner. And when you see it from the outside, kind of like, "Oh, that's cool, being recognized," and you get perks out of it. You get invited to things and all that, and that was kind of neat. We got to go to different things, you got good seats. I mean, I went to the twenty-fifth anniversary of Hawaii statehood sitting in the box with John Waihe'e. Hey, that's neat, right? There's a lot of neat stuff. But when I left, I kind of learned, there's a part of me that missed some of that, but the learning is like, all that isn't me. And in fact, it was important for me to learn not to hold on to that. Because you could become addicted to that. I've seen that in a lot of people, both in work, but also just looking at people who are celebrities. You know, when they no longer have that spotlight, it becomes hard for them. And it's not like the JACL thing compares, but there is some of that. You get accolades you don't deserve, there's all kinds of stuff you get. There's a lot of privilege to it. And so part of it is learning to relinquish privilege, and I think that's an important thing to do. Because if you keep it, it'll destroy you. It'll interfere from you doing other things, and you'll become one of the things you don't want to be. And I'm glad I had the chance to go into it that way.

TI: So was that transition hard for you? And I guess we should back up a little bit, so after the redress, the signing of that, you left shortly after that.

RW: Yeah, when I knew we would get a signature on the bill, I said, "Okay, I'm leaving, I'm going now. What I came for is done." I mean, within reason, transitional. But I didn't know what I was going to do, but I wanted to get out. I wanted to get back to what I considered home. I didn't realize that home wasn't there anymore.

TI: You mean home in Los Angeles?

RW: Yeah, home wasn't there anymore from the standpoint of my kind of standing in the, quotes, "movement," my cohorts and colleagues. No one was mean to me, but it's kind of like, "You left." There's a lot of disconnects, there's a whole different generation of leadership that you don't know that didn't come through.

TI: We're talking about seven years, eight years?

RW: Yeah, that's a period of huge change demographically, huge change.

TI: And you're talking about the JA community?

RW: Both. JA, but part of it is like my friends from back there were still my friends. The folks that we were close socially, that didn't change. But other folks that, like colleagues that you worked with, it wasn't the same.

TI: And was it because you were just gone for seven years, or was it because you were national JACL?

RW: No, I think it's mostly because you're gone, and you don't get to keep up the kind of experience that is shared. And then you do pick up some of the baggage, there were some things where people were mistreated or mischaracterized, I think, by some JACL folks or people. So that got carried over, and it takes a long time to reconnect those, to have conversations, to say, this is backstory on that, and what was going on. And that's a slow repair. But it's like it doesn't, you really can't step back into where you left.

TI: So that must have been very difficult, because withdrawal from being national JACL director and then coming back to what you thought was home and not really being home.

RW: It worked two ways. One is because that transition is now I become City Human Relations Director, and county, and part of my mindset is I am no longer just Japanese American. My constituency and my responsibility is to our broader constituency. So I was seeking out building that, so in some sense, I don't miss it. Because it's being filled by new things that are new to me. Like even the percentage of Latinos that were immigrant when I left, that percentage had changed in a huge way. And then in my first job here, was I was the vice president of community problem solving for the United Way. So the first projects, hey, CHIRLA, Campaign for Humane Immigration Reform. So that's the first major -- and they're big now. But I'm involved in the startup, because this is community problem-solving, you have a small fund that I could tap into, let's get this immigrant advocacy going. The other thing I got going was in AIDS Project L.A., and then the literacy program. But it moved me into other communities where I didn't... I think JACL helped prepare me in some ways, like it occupied my time. I had to learn different things. I knew Chicano stuff because I grew up with it, but I didn't know the immigrant experience. And I learned much more of that.

TI: Do you think it would have been difficult for you, as I listen to you, I get how you're moving into these new areas and you're excited about that. Do you think there would have been a difficulty for you to, did you get involved in any Japanese American causes or organizations after coming back to Los Angeles? Or was that difficult for you?

RW: I did some, but...

TI: Or let me ask this question. Did JA organizations reach out to you, saying, "Wow, with your experience, your connections, your knowledge, come help us"?

RW: There were some, but it was not reaching out, it was more like the ones that I had stronger connections with before asked me to come back. And it's not just JA, because if you look at my foundation for the period that I left before JACL, was as AADAP. And at AADAP we incubated the Korean Youth Center, the Samoan Center, the Filipino one, so it's really sort of a pan-Asian thing. And those folks, even early on, while I was at AADAP, like Asian American social workers, we were involved with projects on the West Coast. So that's how I got to know Bob Santos. So I spent a lot of time with Bob up north.

TI: He was a great man. I interviewed him.

RW: Remarkable. And then Sue Taoka, I met her in Denver. Warren and I, when we first went there, organizing way back, so there were ties. And then Diane Wong, when she came, when she was married to Dale and was heading Asian American Journalists, I gave her space in the JACL building for AJA. But that was conscious; I wanted the Asian press to cover redress, and what more than to have AJA housed there, right? Plus, Diane's just a joy. So there were things that took up that space, and I was only at United Way a couple years, I do the Mayor Bradley thing and started human relations, but then there's a tier of folks that we can work with in other communities that was just fascinating. Because I don't think any of us come in with a full diversity portfolio. You have a little bit, but it's really a little bit, I mean, you just scratch at it. But in that role, you really kind of get to start entering deeper, to different communities. I just found that remarkable, both in terms of parallels and differences. And then, from there, after five years in both city and county, which gives me a pretty strong base within diversity communities in L.A., and then I get invited to do the work at CRS.

TI: This is with the DOJ?

RW: Yeah.

TI: So community...

RW: It's community relations.

TI: Conflict resolution?

RW: Yeah, it's Title X of the Civil Rights Act, but you're a neutral third party doing community conflict resolution on situations that are race, color, national origin based. And the idea was when civil rights was passed, there was going to be pushback. And so folks were deployed to work on mitigating that pushback. So it has a really fascinating history, like some of our guys went to the Lorraine Motel, two doors down from King, when all that took place. And that same guy, Hozell, was instrumental in creating the African American museum, that's just a fascinating bunch. You may have, like in Seattle, our regional director there, Bob... what's Bob's last name? But he was legendary, too. He's this huge man with a shock of white hair. But I remember going to my first meeting as a regional director, I felt like I was going to the Knights of the Round Table. I was in awe of these people because of the work they have done.

<End Segment 18> - Copyright © 2019 Densho. All Rights Reserved.