Densho Digital Repository
Seattle JACL Oral History Collection
Title: Theo Bickel Interview
Narrator: Theo Bickel
Interviewers: Elaine Kim, Joy Misako St. Germain
Date: December 19, 2021
Densho ID: ddr-sjacl-2-30-3

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EK: But just a little more about JACL and the work that you've done so far. But, if you don't mind sharing a bit about the times and environment during the period in which you worked with the chapter personally, organizationally, and systemically?

TB: Totally. Ooh, systemically? Well, let me start off maybe just chronologically would be the easiest for me. So when I came to Seattle in 2015, I started working at the Japanese Cultural and Community Center of Washington. I actually was hired on there as the volunteer coordinator, managing interns, and so that was a whole beautiful full circle for me. I think I had attended a board meeting... this would have been spring of 2015, probably at the invitation of Sheldon or Bill, I don't remember at this moment, but it was held at Keiro Northwest, a room that I'd ended up spending years at these board meetings. But it was a pretty powerful, very serious... there were some round of introductions and I was there a little bit early, but just kind of jumped right into business. And shortly after, the question of convention coming up for the chapter to participate in, and I wanted to get more involved and that opportunity presented itself to attend a convention. And so really, shortly after first introducing myself, I was taking a Southwest flight, obviously southwest to Las Vegas where the convention would be held and not only getting to know other chapter members that went there, but also members from around the country. That was really powerful for me because I saw some of my friends that were in the Kakehashi Project with me, my fellow alum, so that was just powerful. So, Elaine, I think my first, like, six months was like a... I don't know if it's a deep dive in or a big hill up, but I just got really, really involved really quickly. 2016, I took on the position of membership chair because a friend of mine who was in that position was switching out. She... life happens, and she was looking for somebody to take on the position. So in 2016, I was like, formally... not adopted, but I guess formally voted on to the board, where I've been a member, board member since.

But I think your question is more of like, what have I done as opposed to how did I get there. Really, I see myself kind of as a communicator in the organization. I don't necessarily drive a lot of the big programs. I see myself... it's hard to compare myself to somebody who had such big shoes, but I really looked up to a fellow named Ken Kurada, who served on the board, he was very much kind of like an operations man who really ran lots of the nuts and bolts of the chapter and really played such a key role in all the relationships, being there to support people. I really kind of looked up to him and that kind of role, I think, is what I've been trying to play. So kind of in my VP position later on, membership chair, definitely in communicating to members, one of the biggest accomplishments, I think, of our adoption of kind of a regular and organized e-newsletter system, whereas previously, communication was primarily by mail. And really powerful in some ways, but just not very adaptable to things like action alerts or calls to members, voter registration, that kind of thing. So, I hope that kind of answers your question. It's tough to think about things even five years ago, but yeah, that's kind of how, and then the reaction the chapter has been in helping the chapter respond. The election of Donald Trump was gigantic and I think really put into perspective, like maybe this is a bit tangential, but at the JACL office in the International District, there is brochures and flyers from the chapter from years back. And there are some really quaint materials of like, "Racism: will it exist in the 21st century?" And like everybody in it, it's this stock image of this happy JA family with the white picket fence. It's just like, oh, god, this is so wrong. It's so odd. And so, I think that the chapter has definitely been much more activist than most, and I think that it's been really wonderful being a part of that, and really helping drive, I think, a lot of important issues forward.

EK: Awesome, thank you. Yeah, I guess going forward, you went, kind of dived into this already. But, I mean, this is kind of -- this is a question where obviously, assuming that you're going to continue with the JACL and all the work you've done so far, but I guess up to this point, how would one assess the impact of your actions?

TB: Yeah, that's the question I think we should always be asking ourselves and, honestly, I don't know if we all asks ourselves that enough. I think that I would measure my impact on the ways in which JACL has impacted both the Japanese American community as well as the broader BIPOC communities of Seattle, in making sure that our voices are heard, and that issues are pushed forward. And so it's not necessarily on one fiery issue, as much as it is that our impact is kind of felt and pushed out. I think that there's a... I work in marketing, so obviously the communications, I think, are key for any issue for any organization just to stay relevant and for people to be aware of, but it's really, really important to get messages out to people to make sure that news is known and we are elevated out there. People aren't going to seek out or listen inherently. People, both positions of power, but also just the fact that all of us are kind of overwhelmed with the daily lives. So it's just important for us as a chapter and as a nonprofit to just always be out there pushing and standing up. So I assess my impact by being able to contribute to that kind of communication and that messaging.

EK: Absolutely.

<End Segment 3> - Copyright © 2021 Seattle Chapter JACL. All Rights Reserved.