Last Wednesday, I had the incredible privilege to present a dense, 150-year history of the polycultural community that is Japantown / Western Addition - covering pre-WWII, post-WWII, redevelopment Afro-Asian resistance / solidarity, & today’s continuing struggle for space, citizenship, & power - to the high school students of the Japantown Youth Leadership cohort, one of the many empowering youth programs crafted & offered by the Japanese Community Youth Council (JCYC).
Let me give you some crucial context.
First & foremost I am the living product of JCYC & its grassroots legacy; I attended JCYC’s Chibi Chan preschool (class of ‘96 what’s really good?!), Tomodachi Summer Camp - as a camper, then counselor, then supervisor - & Teen Group, & the Nikkei Community Internship program (NCI). I was raised by this enormous village & network! Words cannot fully capture the emotions I feel toward the community and beyond...this blog post & this larger Suite Jtown project are definitely the steps in the right direction...
I am thankful for Lauren Morimoto, Erika Tamura, & Jay Wong for letting me facilitate this workshop. Lauren was my boss when I was a supervisor at Tomodachi summer camp, Erika has been at JCYC since I was conceived, & Jay was the first supervisor I had as a summer camp counselor! Community connections & lived histories everywhere!
I have walked to Pine Street from Buchanan mall...for the past 16+ years of my life, this uphill two block hike has always been grudgingly tiresome...I clearly haven't formally exercised in a while...it was awesome to arrive at JCYC, with its relatively newly remodeled building. So different from the old school building that my memories were built in...the plain, paint-chipped wall, the cement stairs where we’d take all of our teen group/Tomodachi camp photos, the little garden area on the right where Wade Ichimura would sneakily throw buckets of water on us (I remember in 6th grade, Cary Kato got murked the toughest from this bucket), the old office couches, the haunted bathroom... I am getting emotional...!
Walking up to the new JCYC building steps was a trip, especially to see that there was an elevator (although I am so glad the building is accessible!).
Ayana, Marissa, Elena, & Celi joined me for this workshop, & I remember being curious as to what they thought of the space.
Walking up to the gym, I saw many familiar faces & some new faces. A lot of the high school youth that were in JYL were also the youth that I watched grow up - from my young campers at Tomodachi summer camp, to the Teen Group assistant counselors I supervised, to the counselors I worked with! It's so awesome to see. Time doesn’t stop for nobody...& I’m getting old...I can’t imagine how Erika feels when she sees me & my siblings!
The workshop started with a quick introduction of the Suite Jtown folks & then a facilitated exercise. Youth were split in groups of 5. Each JTell artist was assigned a different group. The exercise was to reflect, articulate, & signify the five senses of our community - for example, what are the familiar scents of Jtown?
After 10 minutes of all the groups consulting & writing down their five senses of community on post-it notes, we put the post-it notes on a board & examined the results. Some of the ones I found interesting: undertaste, some folks put “cigarettes”; under the feel column, someone wrote love.
I started my slideshow that was a review of the 150 year history of Jtown/Western Addition & the continuing struggle for space, citizenship, & power. Of course it was ambitious of me to condense 150 years in 30 minutes...but it had to be done!
I started by showing the high school students one of my favorite photos, accompanied by an excerpt from one of my college professor’s books.
Of course I was showing these young folks college-level articles, but honestly, youth are more precocious than society sets them up to be /treat them ; they are the potent change makers of our tomorrow, architects of the human experience!
I then asked them what changes they saw in San Francisco & was delighted to see hands go up & voices speak up! Chris mentioned the changes he saw in the Mission -- way more white people.
Sean noted the number of local businesses that closed, like Uoki Sakai Market, in the past few years.
I then went on to my 150 schpiel covering pre-WWII history, anti-Asian exclusion laws / sentiments, internment, propaganda of WWII, post-WWII, Redevelopment, the heyday of the “Harlem of the West”, folks like Mary Ellen Pleasant, the Filipino-American community, Morning Star, the Afro-Asian solidarity & resistance that came about due to threats of evictions, & the sansei legacy - one of which we were all sitting in: JCYC!
Long story short, I tried my best to connect TODAY’s issues of gentrification & evictions as apart of a longer colonial history of displacement & spatial erasure. I wanted the youth to know that the struggles our folks faced the past 150 years continue with threats of high rise buildings & corporate greed & hegemonic whiteness.
At the end of slideshow, I asked what the youth thought. My favorite was when I called on Tom, & he said he simply felt surprised. He never knew this history. They weren’t taught this in school -- I had to reply & tell him that of course we aren’t taught this…we aren’t taught this for a reason.
Like the West African Sankofa, these youth are the present descendants of the not-so-far-off past & simultaneously the makers of our tomorrow…what a potent force they simply are. Their mere existence is pure power…I just hope they know it.