Densho Digital Repository
Emi Kuboyama, Office of Redress Administration (ORA) Oral History Project Collection
Title: Lisa Johnson Interview
Narrator: Lisa Johnson
Interviewer: Emi Kuboyama
Location: Alexandria, Virginia
Date: May 19, 2019
Densho ID: ddr-densho-1020-3

<Begin Segment 1>

EK: This is Emi Kuboyama, Stanford University, here with Lisa Johnson in Alexandria, Virginia, and it's May 19, 2019. Hi, Lisa.

LJ: Hi, Emi.

EK: Could you start by stating your name and where you were born and raised, and then your ORA title or role?

LJ: Sure. Lisa Johnson, I was born and raised here in Alexandria, Virginia, and I started with ORA in 1989 as a student intern, actually, and then I guess my title changed throughout the time I was in the program from analyst to program... I don't know. I don't know that I had a specific title by the end. But did a little bit of everything through the ten or twelve years I worked in the program.

EK: And your educational and work background prior to Redress?

LJ: Very limited, because I started, I was still seventeen years old the first summer I worked for ORA putting labels on mailings that went out right after I graduated from high school. And then I went to the University of Virginia and worked my summers and college breaks on ORA and then came back to ORA after graduation.

EK: And so how exactly did you become involved with the office?

LJ:My mom actually worked at the Justice Department at the time, and knew Bob Bratt, the director of the program through work, and happened to mention she had a daughter looking for a summer job, and he said, "Oh, I have a program she can work on." So I applied and there I was.

<End Segment 1> - Copyright © 2019 Emi Kuboyama. All Rights Reserved.

<Begin Segment 2>

EK: And how long did you work for ORA?

LJ: I worked for ORA from '89, the summer of '89 until the program ended, so I think we were still doing the last of verifications and payments up through, close to 2000, right? So wow, a long time. [Laughs]

EK: And was the program set up, as far as the verification goes, when you started, or were you a part of those early days?

LJ: It was still being set up. JARVIS was the first computer system we used, and that was still, I think, in the final stages of development. They were still setting up at that point how cases would be tracked, logistically how files would be kept, all of that stuff. So in the beginning, I was literally doing things like labeling file folders for internees' names and how the whole system was going to be set up. So things were pretty much in process, but it was still pretty early in the program, so lots of systems, I think, were still being developed at the time.

EK: And JARVIS stands for?

LJ: Oh, Japanese American Redress Verification Information System.

EK: So could you talk about the evolution of your role or your responsibilities throughout your time there?

LJ: It started from the basics to filing, and like I said, I was young, and filing and labeling, and just kind of helping logistically get things set up. By the time I was out of college and working there, dealing with cases directly, calling people to get more information, taking their paperwork in and helping to verify whether or not somebody was eligible. We had a three-step process. And so in the early years I did a lot of the initial verification. Was somebody eligible or not, before it got passed on to the next level of review. And then as the program went on and we started to do more outreach, I did everything from setting up the logistics of those outreach workshop visits to helping people get verified, to working with them directly when we were out on visits. And then as the program went on and we shrunk in staff numbers, doing a lot of the, a little bit of everything then, because there were fewer of us then, so dealing with payments, I did a lot in the last several years of the program, working on payments directly. I remember taking trips to the office where the checks were all cut and picking up large boxes of twenty thousand dollar checks, and a wing and a prayer, coming back to the office to get them all mailed out. So dealing with the mailings of the payments and the apology letters. So a little bit of everything.

EK: So you had mentioned kind of that three-step process.

LJ: Yes.

EK: Could you talk a little bit more about that?

LJ: From what I recall, we had some cases that were very straightforward. It was easy for them to meet the eligibility requirements, they had the birth certificate they needed, they had the marriage certificate they needed. We had record of them on internment lists. It was very easy to match up. They signed their statement, we labeled them good to go. They got signed off on it, passed along, and then we had some cases where there were additional... and I don't remember the exact layout, but we had stage one and stage two and we had cases that then ended up with our attorneys that were more complex. Either they weren't listed on a roster, the camps kept relatively detailed and good rosters, but we always had cases where somebody wasn't there, there was a, might have been a name change that we couldn't verify, or they didn't have documentation they needed. And those cases went for further review and then either ended up with the attorneys or ended up with a lot of back and forth to try to get enough information to show that somebody was eligible.

<End Segment 2> - Copyright © 2019 Emi Kuboyama. All Rights Reserved.

<Begin Segment 3>

EK: And then you also mentioned outreach. Could you talk a little bit about how outreach was conducted and where you went and who you might have worked with?

LJ: The Japanese American community did a great job of being a conduit for us to get to a lot of people that I don't think we would have reached otherwise. And so we worked pretty closely with the JACL and other organizations to go out to ask them where do we need to be? Where do we need to be to be to help people who need help getting their paperwork together? Either there was a language issue and it was hard for them, or they were just elderly, or they were just, it was a lot for them to take. So we went, we found that most of our eligible people were living on the West Coast, living out to the west, some in Hawaii, some in California, some in Utah, all over, but predominately were still on the West Coast. And so we would work with whatever local community group, local churches, we were in schools, we were in churches, but we would work with them to set up. Where's a good place for us to go where we can reach a lot of people? They would help us publicize, ORA is coming for a workshop, come out and see us. We had, depending on what we expected, some trips two or three of us went, some trips we took a number of people and we just would sit for three or four hours at a time. People would bring their stuff that they had. We would sit down and work through case stuff with them and help get them verified, hopefully on the spot, but if not, at least we helped move the process through. The Japanese American community was, community leaders were instrumental in helping us find people, get them there, helping them get what they needed together. So it was a system that worked well, and it was gratifying to be able to go out and see the people that you just talked to on the phone, or traded mailings with otherwise.

EK: Were you involved with any of the archival searches for documents?

LJ: Some, a little bit of that. Not a lot of it.

EK: Were they for individuals or group cases?

LJ: I think group cases...

EK: I'm thinking about, like, railroad workers or the...

LJ: Yeah, I'm trying to remember. We did some of that, and I'm just not remembering all the specifics. But some of that for sure, because it was, I just remember we came in with a pretty clear set of historical documents and then as we went on, I think we discovered, oh wait, we've got the railroad workers and we've got this group of people who, it won't be as easy to prove that they're eligible. But many of them are, and so I remember... I don't know how directly involved I was in all of that, but a lot of need for, okay, we need to go out and find more, there's more out there that we need to help get these people processed.

EK: What about how the process evolved? My understanding was in the early years it was thought that it was going to be primarily checking individual names against camp rosters, and then as the program went on, it became clear that there were other groups that were eligible. So did the process change?

LJ: It just got a little... I guess it did change a little bit in that, you're right, I think in the beginning and the early cases, we tried to go, people were verified in the beginning, we tried to go date of birth order since you had to be alive when the law was passed to be eligible. We tried to, in the beginning, it felt like a little bit of a race against time to get to some of those oldest internees before they passed away. And it was, we felt like, yes, they might have had a surviving spouse or child that would have been eligible, but there was a sense of urgency to get to people who were eligible while they were still living. And so there was a lot of that systematic, kind of, let's work through the years. And then as it went on, and the initial big batches of people were verified, and had been, payments had been sent, we did, then people would start to come to us, "Well, this is my case, how do I fit in?" And I remember there being a lot of discussions of, okay, well, this is somebody that seems like they would be eligible, they were definitely affected by what went on, but they weren't on a camp roster, or something was different for them. So, yeah, so then it became, cases got a little harder, case files got thicker. We went from, you know, those early case files, they were thin, it only took maybe five or six pieces of paper to go in the file folder to say, yep, someone was eligible. And by the end, we had case files that were an inch or two thick. So yeah, so the process definitely got trickier for those last few years of trying to get the tougher cases verified. But there was still that same sense of urgency, how are we going to do this? These are people who deserve redress, and so how can we work to figure that out?

<End Segment 3> - Copyright © 2019 Emi Kuboyama. All Rights Reserved.

<Begin Segment 4>

EK: That's actually a good lead in to the first check presentation ceremonies.

LJ: Oh, yes.

EK: What was your role in that, and what was your, just, recollection of being at those events?

LJ: I was still pretty young at that point, so I think, other than logistical stuff, I don't know how much of a role I had. But I found it to be very... it was very touching. It was very moving to be able to see, because we hadn't really been out then on a bunch of workshop trips, or I hadn't, at least, and so it was one of my first opportunities to see the direct impact of what went on. And it was interesting, over the years you'd talk to some people who were just overly grateful, and you'd talk to some people who were still very angry. And it was, you kind of saw the range of emotions in people, and they would share their experience with you, but it was, to see those first checks presented and the impact... I said often, to be in a government job where you see, you start something, you see a direct impact of it, and you see it finished, is, I think, a rare thing. So it was very gratifying to see that play out.

EK: Are there any particular individuals or stories that kind of stuck with you that you recall?

LJ: I don't know that there were so much specific people, but I will say the cases of, where you would talk to someone and they would tell you... and I heard this story, unfortunately, time and time again. But you would hear the stories of, they would say, "This is just so important to me." "I was a new mom, I had small children, we were ripped from our home, my husband lost his job." And now... at the time I was young, I wasn't married when I started working on the program. And now, being older and married and having kids myself, it just hit home even more to look back on some of these people who literally were doing nothing. And to have them recount all those years later what it meant to them to be recognized now for all that they went through, I just heard the stories time and time again of how people's lives were disrupted for so long. And it was moving then, and to look back now and have some perspective, it was pretty amazing.

<End Segment 4> - Copyright © 2019 Emi Kuboyama. All Rights Reserved.

<Begin Segment 5>

EK: Do you think that the political climate affected the administration of the program in any particular way?

LJ: Well, it was interesting, I was just talking to some friends about the program and they were talking about why, when we've had historically other groups who have been mistreated, why this one occurred. And I said I think, at the time the law was passed, I think there were some very influential people in Congress who really worked to get it through, I said. And it's interesting, it was interesting to see, because the program ran, the administration of the program ran longer than anybody anticipated, so we ran through different presidencies. And I think it was interesting to see how politicians kind of came and went, and some were more involved than others, but I think once it was established, I don't think there was a huge then political influence, but it's interesting how, I think, there was so much political influence in the beginning to get it going, and then luckily it was maintained. Because it did, it definitely took longer to administer. And I think we found more people than anybody ever expected us to find. I think the estimate was sixty thousand we'd find, and I don't remember what the final number was, but it was beyond that.

EK: Eighty...

LJ: I was going to say around eighty thousand, right? Which was great, but I think... so luckily I think it was so well-established by that point, even though kind of in the end there were fewer and fewer of us working on it, it was helpful to have had such a strong base in the beginning, and support for it.

EK: Because we had to go back for additional funding.

LJ: We did. We had to go back for more funding, and I remember that being a... let's see what happens, maybe we'll get it, maybe we won't. And luckily, I mean, it would have been terrible at that point to not be able to finish out what had been started. Especially since those final cases were the ones where, those were the thick files, those were the ones where it took, in some cases, years to be able to verify someone.

<End Segment 5> - Copyright © 2019 Emi Kuboyama. All Rights Reserved.

<Begin Segment 6>

EK: So what do you think was the biggest challenge while you were working with ORA?

LJ: I think in the beginning, the biggest challenge was the sheer volume of what we were trying to do. There were so many people, and like I mentioned, it was kind of the race against time in the beginning. We had so many very elderly people who, it just felt a little overwhelming at times in the beginning. We just felt like we wanted to get to as many people as we could while they were still living. So in the beginning it was, sheer volume I think was our biggest challenge at some point. And we staffed to meet the challenge. I think at one point we probably had a hundred people, close to a hundred people working in the office, tons of contractors, cases were being verified at a quick rate, but I think just the volume and the logistics of trying to get as many cases processed as we could in a quick amount of time, to let people know that they were eligible. I think that was the biggest challenge in the beginning, and then as the program wore on, I think then the challenge of the tough cases, the cases where we didn't know how to make something work, but we knew that somebody was eligible or should have been eligible, and trying to find the right documentation to prove that was, I think, towards the end, the biggest challenge.

EK: And what do you think were the biggest successes of the program?

LJ: There were a lot, but I think the biggest successes were, aside from finding and verifying as many cases as we did, I felt like for the most part, feeling like the Japanese American community felt like they were involved in the process and felt like they had a say. We would hear from Japanese American community leaders who would come and say, "I'm not sure this is working right," or, "I think you need to change this," or, "This approach needs to change," and we listened to that. And things did change, and the workshops kind of evolved out of that, and the outreach things changed to meet the needs. And I think being able to have it be a true community, government collaborative effort was, I think, meaningful for us, and meaningful for the community as well to feel like they had really pushed to get this legislation passed, and they were still involved in the process, which I think was great.

EK: Did you have any experiences with people who had difficulty with the fact that this was a Department of Justice program, and it was, in part, the federal government and the Department of Justice who had interned them?

LJ: Right. Definitely some. We didn't have a lot of... I didn't feel like I encountered a lot of that, but we definitely had cases over the years, sometimes at workshops, sometimes just on the phone with people, where they would come in. And they were, they were angry, they weren't happy with having to sometimes provide any documentation or, you know, they would say, "Look, we've done enough. It's up to you now, why do I have to do anything else for you? This is on you now to make me eligible." And it didn't happen often, but it did, and I totally understood. Especially for somebody who was very elderly, or where it was a burden on them to provide even limited documentation, I got it, it was hard. Unfortunately, sometimes it was just a necessity. I didn't encounter it often, but I did from time to time, and I understood it.

<End Segment 6> - Copyright © 2019 Emi Kuboyama. All Rights Reserved.

<Begin Segment 7>

EK: Could you talk a little bit more about your colleagues, the other people in the office?

LJ: I will say, I tell people often, this was the best job I've ever had. It was a great atmosphere. We were, for the most part, most of the people that worked in the office were, we were in our twenties and early thirties, and we were committed to the program and committed to the cause and worked a lot of really long hours, and it never felt like a burden. It was very much a family atmosphere, and we had leadership who were committed and stayed the long hours. And so I was in my early twenties, my mid-twenties, and it was great, I didn't mind. We worked hard, we played hard after work, it was very much a family atmosphere, which made it very easy to do the job. It made it very easy. My experience was a little bit different because I was there for so long and I started out as an intern and then my career kind of developed while I was in the program. But for many of the people that worked on the program, they had one specific focus, they worked on payments or they worked on initial eligibility. People had specific jobs and a case file would get passed through, and you never worried about what came next, because we were all close, and you knew that everybody had a good handle on whatever their piece of the puzzle was. And it all kind of worked together and it was, people came and went during the years and sometimes we had a huge group of contractors working on the program with us. And then that number fluctuated as the program went on, but it was just a great mix of people who were all very committed to being there. I'll never forget, we were at an office holiday party, and our holiday party tradition was we always did potluck and people brought stuff in. And one of our... I don't remember what it was because I can't remember... I don't want to attribute it to the wrong person, but somebody in the Division came to the party and said, "You guys are like the United Nations of the Civil Rights Division," and we were. I mean, there were people from all over working on the program. We had people from Africa, we had people from Asia, we had people from all over the country. And people came in with very different backgrounds and experiences and brought their own backgrounds to the program and how that made them feel and it was very, it was just fun. It was fun, and you felt like you were doing really important work. Like I said, you were able to see a finish, it was very gratifying to be able to say that somebody was eligible, or call somebody and let them know that you had everything you needed and you were going to be able to issue a payment to them and an apology. So it was great, it was a great group, and made the job more fun, for sure.

EK: How big was the operation in those early years?

LJ: I would say, in the beginning, we probably, in those earliest years, we kept moving offices to accommodate the space. So when I started, we were in a relatively small office with maybe fifteen people. And then by the time I was out of college and we were kind of in the big throes of payments, we probably had a hundred people working on the program. We probably had seventy... I want to say at one point we probably had maybe sixty or seventy contractors just working to get through the large quantity of cases, and then it scaled way back from there.

<End Segment 7> - Copyright © 2019 Emi Kuboyama. All Rights Reserved.

<Begin Segment 8>

EK: You had spoken earlier a little bit about kind of the impact that the program has had on you, especially in hindsight.

LJ: Yeah.

EK: Do you want to add anything to that?

LJ: Yeah, it's funny, as I tell people now about it, and especially in today's day and age and today's political climate, to look back... it had an impact on me then, but to look back on it now, I think it's even more meaningful and it just... to look back on a group of people who were U.S. citizens, were living in this country, who had everything taken from them for no reason. And I don't know that now that would be recognized and dealt with the way it was, and I don't know that you could ever give somebody back what's taken from them in that circumstance. But to at least be able to acknowledge the wrongdoing, to in some way address it, I got it then in my twenties, but now that I'm older and have my own family and I can look back and see just how horrible that would be to have everything taken. It does, it was a very... I'm honored that I had the chance to work on that. Because I don't know that that, unfortunately, would happen now. I think there's other situations where it should, and I don't know that it will again, at least anytime soon. So it was definitely a special program.

EK: Do you recall being approached by people who were involved with the Tuskegee reparations or the Black Farmers groups?

LJ: I do remember a little bit of that. I feel like, at some point, I don't remember a lot of details about that, but I do think, yeah, we did start to hear from other groups who said, "Hey, how can you help us?" or, "What can you do?" and unfortunately for us, it was kind of out of our scope of what we could handle, but we did have a lot of that. And again, that leads back to, the community was so instrumental in getting the law passed and then getting things, helping get things processed, that I do think a lot of other groups of people took notice and said, "Wait, it can work, so how can we do the same thing?"

EK: Do you have any others that you want to mention, about their contributions to the program?

LJ: Other...

EK: Other people that you know, who kind of generally, who I'm speaking with, this go around?

LJ: We had, like I said, we had people come and go, but we had probably, we had a core group of maybe ten to fifteen who were there for the bulk of the program. Bob Bratt was the first administrator, and then we had a couple other administrators after him. But it was Joanne Chiedi who hired me as a full-time employee after I graduated from college after I'd interned. She, for a long time, she was a deputy overseeing logistics, and then kind of took over the administration in the later years and really kind of dealt with the day-to-day, all of the processing of that, and kind of spearheaded all of our efforts. But we had some people who worked, who oversaw all of our contractors, we had two big contracting groups, Aspen Systems and C-A-C-I, CACI, who had contractors in and out over the years. And we had some contractors who were with us for a very long time, and we had some who came and went a little faster. But Pat Nolan who oversaw Aspen...  Aspen, particularly in the beginning of the program, put a large number of contractors in the office and she had the job of managing them. And it was a big job, because it was a constant need, and needs fluctuated, and people got moved around to work on different stages of case development, then work on payments as payments started to be issued. That was a big job, and she did it well. And then the people that I worked with day to day for years and years, Aaron Zajic and Cynthia London and Angela Gantt, and you, and Tink Cooper. It was great, because that core group of us, I feel like, was there for so long working on things, by the end, it was just very easy because we just had a shorthand for everything, we'd been through so many, kind of... by five years in, I felt like we'd seen kind of every case type we were going to see. And we just knew, everybody knew what their role was, and it was long hours and it was a lot of work, but it was a very easy group to work with.

<End Segment 8> - Copyright © 2019 Emi Kuboyama. All Rights Reserved.

<Begin Segment 9>

EK: Could you talk a little bit more about the evolution of the community outreach efforts?

LJ: Sure. In the beginning of the program, like I mentioned, the community leaders were very much involved in getting the program, getting the law passed. And so as the program developed, Bob Bratt, who was the initial administrator, worked very closely with the leaders in the Japanese American community to get their opinions on the best ways to reach people, how are we going to do that. And so he did a lot, he was very much the face of ORA in the beginning, and he went out and met with them individually, in groups, to work on how can we reach people. And then as the program developed and we realized that people did need some one-on-one assistance, and so then our workshops developed where we took a number of staff members out so that people could come to a church or come to a community center, and we would do a four-hour daytime workshop and then we would come back in the evening for three more hours and people would come with their questions or their paperwork. Or they would come and just say, "I don't know what to do. I think I'm eligible for this," and, "Help me, how do I get started?" So we would sit down with them and establish was this something that we could easily handle, or did we need to have them sit with one of our attorneys to go through a more complex case and try to give them some guidance on how to do it. But as the program went on, we used the help of the community leaders to help us find people in the community that may not have known, for whatever reason, they may have missed press releases or news stories. It was very much, especially in the early years, it was very highly publicized, but you always have those people who, for whatever reason, don't find things out any other way. And so we counted on community leaders and their churches, in their stores and their restaurants, among their friends, they would find people and send them our way.

And we had a couple community leaders that we were then all in close contact with over the years. And Sox Kitashima, who was out of San Francisco, was amazing. She was a tiny little spitfire ball of energy, and she would call at all hours of the day. We would be like, "Sox, it's five a.m. there still." She's like, "I know, I'm up, I got a case for you." She was great about being a good liaison for us for people that were having a hard time, or people would come to her. She was very well-known in her community, and people felt very comfortable going to her for help. And she helped a lot of people on her own getting things and getting paperwork they needed. But she would call us to give us a heads up. And it was funny, at one point we were in an office that was big and pretty open, and there were some individual offices, but there was a big open space. And if somebody was out of the office or somebody was in a meeting and you'd hear someone's phone ring, and if they couldn't get their phone, then you would hear the next phone ring and you knew that it was probably Sox and she was going to keep calling until she got somebody who could help her. And by golly, you'd answer the phone and she'd say, "All right, I got a new case for you," or, "I have this case." "Hey, you remember that case we were talking about? I'm helping them find this paperwork," or, "I need your help with this," or, "They're stuck on this." She was amazing. She probably single handedly helped get several hundred cases through the system that may otherwise have lingered for a lot longer. So it was always great to have the opportunity to go out into the community and have those community leaders there with us to help facilitate things and make introductions and get people to come to the events. It just made the process easier for them and more comfortable for them and easier for us to be able to get somebody pushed through and verified. So that community help was invaluable.

EK: Thank you, Lisa.

<End Segment 9> - Copyright © 2019 Emi Kuboyama. All Rights Reserved.