Densho Digital Repository
Seattle JACL Oral History Collection
Title: Akemi Matsumoto Interview
Narrator: Akemi Matsumoto
Interviewers: Alison Fujimoto, Dr. Kyle Kinoshita
Date: December 1, 2020
Densho ID: ddr-sjacl-2-26-5

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AF: And we can transition into your work with JACL. You kind of mentioned how you got involved with JACL, but were there any mentors that specifically guided you towards the direction of a leadership role within JACL?

AM: So I came to Seattle in 1974. And at the time, JACL board was pretty much dominated by Nisei men and it was pretty sexist.

AF: Yeah.

AM: And it was older, right? So even though I was thirty at the time, that was considered really young. And so I felt... so women could do things like, oh, I did the scholarship committee, or I would do... serve the tea, essentially. So that got pretty old. And I had my son in 1981, and I dropped out for about five or six years because I didn't feel like I would ever really have a voice. I didn't want to be a leader, but I wanted to have a voice. And it was a very established organization by the '70s. So I think, I think it was changing, and I think our chapter always was a very progressive chapter when you look at all the JACL chapters across the U.S. So it was changing. We had a first female presidents, so Shigeko Uno and your mom, Kyle, Cherry, I mean, that was very unusual to have women presidents. If you... we used to meet in the building where JACL was established, and we had all the past presidents up on the wall, men, men, men, men, and then a few women until I'd say the last twenty years. Finally, you see a equal number of women.

AF: Yeah.

AM: And I think age was a thing. So and I'm, now that I'm the older generation I see it from the older generation's perspective as well. So there's tradition to preserve, policies and procedures to preserve, and you have to make space for new ideas.

AF: Definitely, yeah. And would you say there are any significant accomplishments or takeaways that you still hold on to today from your leadership within Seattle JACL?

AM: Okay, so we have, with APACE in the fight for, again, I-200, I felt like I couldn't just lead from behind, which is my preferred mode, that I had to really step up. And so I sort of came into my own being the president. And one of the wonderful things about being a president at the time, it was 2000, there was a lot of honor to the role. So I didn't realize I'd be invited to the Japanese Embassy for fancy-shmancy dinners and the New Year celebrations for the various Japanese cultural groups.

AF: Yeah.

AM: So I mean, it really was JACL and the political group that it represented, had a place in the community, and being the president representing that place was really an honor. And I didn't realize that until I actually was president. So, and it totally is a full time job. My god, Kyle, you know that about your mom, more than a full-time job. Yeah, we did a lot of work. So...

AF: And going back to your work on I-200, that you've been talking about, what would you say was like the most significant obstacle you faced when trying to, I guess, object to that initiative?

AM: Racism, systemic racism, that's alive and well, as we speak. And my work at the college, I ended up at Bellevue College for the last twenty-five years of my career, I ended up teaching conversations on race, it was called Courageous Conversations on Race. Doing exactly the kinds of dialogue that people are trying to do today. And I ended up teaching the faculty, the staff, the administrators. And the faculty were the hardest, because it's so ingrained, and they were so privileged, they're invisible to it. So it's everywhere around us, and unless you keep fighting it actively, it keeps toggling back. So you just have to be willing to speak up and willing to dialogue. And it's so hard these days. Now I have to walk my talk and I have to talk to people that I totally disagree with and I have to keep my mind open. And it's really a struggle.

AF: Yeah.

AM: A personal struggle for me to stay open.

AF: One hundred percent. And on that note, like, what's kept you going? Like what's kept you involved with social change, no matter how difficult it is?

AM: I think I'm an optimist. [Laughs] A total optimist and idealistic. So I love democracy, I really do. I love the concept of equity and equality and justice. Those are all things that just fire me up. And I know the definition of happiness is being able to walk your talk. So any way that I can activate and actually do the things I say I believe in, just makes me happy. And then when I'm happy I get more energy. So it's sort of a ball that generates more energy, the more you do.

AF: It's a cycle.

AM: Yeah, yeah. It's a really nice cycle. Yeah.

AF: Kyle, was there anything you wanted to add before I moved on?

KK: Not really, I'm just fascinated. History. But was the Bellevue work, Glenn Singleton kind of modeled after?

AM: Yes, yes. And actually, it was the Seattle Public Schools where I found him. So Seattle Public Schools did a simultaneous training of all the teachers and administrators all in one day. You did it by video way back in the day.

KK: Right.

AM: And I saw part of that, and I said that's what we need to do. Because that's what creates systemic changes, is person-to-person dialogue and understanding.

KK: Okay, yeah. I know that I was, I worked for Seattle Public Schools from 2016 to 2019. So yeah, that was part of the folklore.

AM: Right, right. So we did Courageous Conversations for four years, we had fifteen conversations a week. All... it was students, faculty, staff, administrators. And when you walked in the door, you took off your stripes. So you weren't a teacher, you weren't the president of the college, you were a racial being. And you walked into the room, and you talked and discussed what it was like being who you were. What is it like being a white person? What is it like being an Asian woman? So they were honest conversations, tough conversations. A lot of people lost friends because we just couldn't bridge those gaps. It was really hard.

AF: Understandably.

<End Segment 5> - Copyright © 2020 Seattle Chapter JACL. All Rights Reserved.