Al Sugiyama speaks after being honored at OCA’s Golden Circle Awards ceremony on February 7, 2015. • Photo by Keoke Silvano
Al Sugiyama speaks after being honored at OCA’s Golden Circle Awards ceremony on February 7, 2015. • Photo by Keoke Silvano

Long-time community leader and executive director of the Executive Development Institute (EDI) Alan Sugiyama, facing a tough personal battle with cancer, recently announced his resignation from his current post, making way for EDI Programs and Events Manager Marci Nakano to take the helm at EDI.

Sugiyama spoke publicly about his decision to leave EDI at two recent community events: the annual Lunar New Year celebration hosted by the Greater Seattle Chapter of OCA—Asian Pacific Advocates and the monthly meeting of the Asian Pacific Directors Coalition (APDC).

Nakano, who joined EDI in a part-time position nine years ago, has worked the last two years under Sugiyama’s leadership. “It’s been tremendous because Al knows so many people and has made so many business contacts over the course of his career,” she said. “He can call anyone and ask for something and they’ll say yes. I don’t think I can fill his shoes.”

“Sugiyama scoffed at Nakano’s modesty: I have different shoes. She’s an extremely capable person. If she takes something on, I don’t have to worry about it. That’s what makes her extraordinary. She has a real sense of follow through, commitment, and professionalism.”

Born in Hilo, Hawai‘i, Nakano is a graduate of the EDI program, where she discovered her true passion was not accounting, but curriculum and leadership development. Prior to EDI, Nakano had worked as audit manager at Deloitte & Touche.

Sugiyama said he is battling cancer of the pancreas and esophagus and is no longer able to commit his full energies to leading EDI, a Bellevue-based agency established in 1994 to provide training and support for local Asian American leaders. He said he will stay on part-time as executive director emeritus, mentoring Nakano as well as representing EDI in the community. Sugiyama said he was excited about having a younger person step up as executive director.

Sugiyama said he’s been going through chemotherapy for the past four months and remains optimistic even as he faces further rounds of radiation and potential surgery. “I’m fully expecting to beat the cancer,” Sugiyama said. “I don’t care that people say people say pancreatic cancer is fatal. I’ve lived a good life. I don’t look at this and say, ‘Why me? Poor me!’ I feel I’m going to beat it.”

Sugiyama was honored on February 7 by OCA with a lifetime achievement in a moving ceremony at a banquet at the Joy Palace Restaurant.

On February 11, Sugiyama attended the regular meeting of APDC, a coalition he helped co-found 26 years ago. As participants made self-introductions, those who’ve known and worked with Sugiyama in the past each took a few moments to wish him well and thank him for his continuing inspiration and leadership. Peter Tsai, reporting on the annual Asian Pacific Islander heritage day at the Seattle Center on May 3, called on Sugiyama to help with the “Hom Bow” eating contest. “Oh, I can win that one,” Sugiyama said as others in the room laughed.

Sugiyama, a lifelong Seattleite, has been a vocal advocate of Asian Pacific American causes and minority civil rights for over four decades. As a student activist in the early 1970s, he helped advocate for affirmative action hiring and American ethnic studies at Seattle Central Community College and the University of Washington. He co-founded the Asian Family Affair newspaper in 1972. In 1979, Sugiyama founded the Center for Career Alternatives, where he served as director for 31 years prior to the agency’s closure in 2011. In 1989, he became the first Asian American on the Seattle School Board.

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