When you look at the faculty roster of Seattle Central Community College (SCCC) today, you’ll recognize some pan-Asian American names. That wasn’t the case 40 years ago.
“The lack of diversity in the administration and faculty at SCCC was kind of shameful,” Mike Tagawa remembers. He was a student at the college in 1970. “Here, we were right in the middle of the Central Area, South Seattle, Capitol Hill, at this community college, and there was no one from the Asian community in any sort of administrative or leadership post.”
So, with the help of another student, Al Sugiyama, they organized what would be Seattle’s first Asian American demonstration. Tagawa said, “The demonstration was an effort to force school authorities to hire more Asian Americans to be part of its administration team.”
Together, they planned a demonstration on February 9, 1971. Tagawa remembers it was just an hour long. He and other students stood outside on the sidewalk in front of the administration building, holding placards and signs, and chanting how they wanted the college to hire more Asian Americans. Yet, their effort didn’t change the status quo. “If there was no movement in that direction, we’d be back,” Tagawa said of the group’s plan.
And, they did come back on March 2nd.
With a few more weeks to plan, Tagawa recalls how that demonstration drew more than 100 people including the media. The demonstration caused the administration building to shut down. Finally, school officials listened. “The idea of being excluded from certain positions because of race or ethnicity didn’t fly,” said Tagawa. “So by doing this demonstration, they realized there were some Asians out there who were willing to shake things up a little bit and protest this kind of treatment of another minority group.” Soon after the demonstration was over, the process to start hiring Asian Americans in administrative roles was underway.
Tagawa said that demonstration should serve as a life lesson for students to look beyond the classroom for answers. “They can learn that if you want something to change, you’ve got to try to confront the powers that be.”
Tagawa suggests that confrontation could be taking on a leadership role, writing a letter to people with the power to change policies, or being a quiet member in a crowd at a demonstration. He points out it’s up to each individual to determine what their level of participation to change the status quo will be. Activism is not a one-size fits all.
“There are a lot of things that are wrong with this society, and they will always be wrong,” said Tagawa. “That’s why you always need people who are willing to be activists because things never truly change 100 percent. They change for a while and sometimes they change for a long while. But, things keep getting recycled. All that racism back in the ‘60s wasn’t much different than all the racism in the ‘50s or ‘40s or all the way back to colonial times. There will always be those issues.”
Tagawa knows all too well about those “issues,” being born in 1944 in the Minidoka Relocation Center, a place where the government’s Executive Order 9066 forced Japanese Americans, most of whom were U.S. citizens, to live during World War II.
Having experienced various forms of racism throughout his life, Tagawa knows it’s in his power to keep challenging social injustice. Thanks to his efforts and those of others, the education is richer for students today at SCCC with a faculty roster that better reflects who they are.