By Amy Van and Jintana Lityouvong
IE Guest Columnists
It was the era of sit-ins, picket-signs, and chants. Across the United States, African Americans were calling for the end of racial segregation and discrimination. By the early 1970s, a young group of Asian Pacific Americans (APA) joined the civil rights movement and began to define the Asian activist experience in Washington state and make their voices heard from city hall to the state capitol.
Maxine Chan was 16 years old when a friend informed her about the Asian Advisory Council that the Governor’s office was creating and encouraged her to apply. She submitted a hand-written resume with her brief academic credentials (a middle school graduate at the time), and was surprised to receive a phone call from the Governor’s office in the middle of class a few months later.
Governor Daniel J. Evans was the 16th governor of Washington State in 1972. It was that year when a handful of individuals from the Asian community approached his staff with the concern that the growing issues of discrimination and inequality remained unaddressed for Asian Americans.
At that time, Rey Pascua had just graduated from Western Washington University. As a Yakima native, he was moved by the Farmworkers’ Movement in California. As an undergrad, he led the first Asian Student Union on the campus. After being active in Yakima County’s Filipino community, he received an invitation from the Governor’s office to officially join the council.
What brought Chan and Pascua together on the council has also brought Robert (Uncle Bob) Santos to the table as well. At the peak of the civil rights movement of the late ’60s, Santos was picketing with African American laborers who were seeking inclusion in the workforce. He noticed the increasing violence within Seattle schools and the city’s Kingdome development plan threatening the Chinatown/International District landscape. He and a group of APA activists began to strategize a plan to fight for civil and social justice rights.
“How do we deal with these kinds of [issues]? We should be going to the source that could do something, like government, like local government,” Santos said.
Governor Evan’s administration was responsive, and by request, the Asian Advisory Council was created to provide information and recommendations to the Governor’s office on issues pertaining to the Asian American community. Council members were chosen based on their expressed knowledge of Asian American issues and their own experiences.
“These were people who were right at the cutting edge of things that were happening to the Asian American community throughout Washington state,” said Pascua.
Chan had submitted a writing sample with her application in which she wrote about her favorite comic series, The Green Lantern. The series featured seemingly socially conscious content and led her to admire writer Denny O’Neil. However, when Chan came across one episode featuring a villain who was depicted as “Asian,” adorned in yellow face with slanty eyes, she was enraged.
“How could something so socially conscious feature something so racist?” she asked.
In their own minor and major ways, these individuals were beginning to tackle issues of overt and subtle racism towards a group of people overlooked before: Asian Americans.
The model minority stereotype had rendered the Asian American community apathetic in the eyes of the majority culture. Yet, with the growing influx of refugees and immigrants settling in from war torn countries, the introduction of Affirmative Action, and the blatant glass ceilings, the community could not afford to appear to be apathetic much longer.
When the Governor had constituted the Council, 17 other individuals joined Chan, Santos, and Pascua, including Rick Ancheta, Cheryl Chow, Fred Cordova, Lois Fleming, Frank Fujii, Philip Hayasaka, Don Kazama, Dr. Hae Soung Kim, Richard Lee, Barry Matsumoto, Dr. Joe Okimoto, Fred Pagaduan, Urbano Quijance, Mayumi Tsutakawa, Dr. James Watanabe, Rev. Robert Yamashita, Dr. Isabella Yen, and Ben Woo.
There were mixed reactions towards the Council’s creation: some feared the Council would wedge further tension between communities, while others looked forward to the Council remedying these social issues.
After the first two years spent on formalizing the structure, the Council took action on many issues including urging a resolution to disapprove of any King County participation in organizations that racially discriminate against people of color; recommending to have a consistent classification of “Asian Americans” in place of the current classifications of “Orientals” and “Others” on minority employment reports; eliminating Washington State Patrol’s height requirement of six feet tall as a qualification to be a State Trooper as it discriminated against minority groups and women; campaigning to discourage the use of Merriam dictionaries after publishers refused to remove the word “Jap,” after being asked.
As an advisory body under the auspices of the governor, members of the council recognized that their influence could be effective within state government and their community.
“These were really important times for involvement of minority people when we’ve never been involved before in society,” said Pascua.
After concerns that the legislature would defund the Council in the next budget, members of the board drafted a bill to make the Council statutory. In 1974, the bill was adopted, and the formalized Council was renamed as the Washington State Asian American Affairs Commission.
“We were trying to show that we have issues in our communities that impact our communities,” Pascua said. “Washington State had really been the forefront of the Asian American movement.”
This series of op-eds are written to celebrate, reminisce, and highlight the Commission on Asian Pacific American Affairs 40th Anniversary. The anniversary celebration will take place on May 15, 2014. Please visit http://www.capaa.wa.gov/about/40.shtml for longer articles and for more information.