Alan Sugiyama. • IE Archival Photo

The fruit-laden trees of the Danny Woo Community Garden, the colorful play equipment at Donnie Chin International Children’s Park. Walking through the Chinatown International District neighborhood, you can see reminder after reminder of inspiring leaders who have dedicated their lives to advocating for the community.

The late Alan Sugiyama, who served as the first Asian American on the Seattle School Board and advocated for children, community, and education, passed away earlier this year after battling cancer for two years. Sugiyama founded and served as executive director of the Center for Career Alternatives for 30 years, helping guide hundreds of disadvantaged young people through job training programs.

Now, a group of Sugiyama’s close friends and family are working to place a commemorative plaque in the neighborhood to remember the activist and school board member. The plaque would christen the intersection at South Oregon street and 15th Avenue as “Alan Sugiyama Way.”

The idea came to Sugiyama’s good friend Larry Matsuda and a group of others during a get-together this past Memorial Day. School districts often name their own schools after important people, but there were no schools that could be named after Sugiyama. The intersection sign and plaque seemed like a good way to honor Sugiyama by marking a point in space that Sugiyama passed every day for 20 years.

Naming a sign or place after a person requires the fulfillment of specific criteria set by Seattle’s Department of Transportation. The group requesting the change must make sure there is a City Council sponsor who can represent the proposed change. Seattle City Council President Bruce Harrell has agreed to sponsor the street naming. Next, the Seattle Police and Fire departments need to confirm that emergency response times won’t be affected by the change and that the new name would not cause undue confusion. In addition, the group must show proof of outreach to communities affected by the change. Lastly, the group must raise the funds for any materials.

Matsuda said that the Alan Sugiyama Memorial Committee raised $2,600 in cash and pledges within three days. The core group is still working on collecting signatures from the community.

An artist’s rendition of an “Al Sugiyama Way” sign.

Leaders and Legacy

Growing up with her father, Alysa Sugiyama imbibed his passion for helping people. She would sometimes sit under his table as a child, peeking out from beneath and watching her father’s clients. Now Sugiyama also works for the school district. She said she didn’t quite think about a street naming memorial, or anything of the sort, until her father’s friend Larry Matsuda suggested the idea. Then she started to see what something as simple as a street name could do.

“It’s going to be special for other people who don’t know him to be like ‘Oh who was that?’” she said. “They’ll be able to Google him and see the accomplishments he did.”

The physical presence of a name, especially in public spaces, is one way to keep the legacies of community leaders alive. Willon Lew, one of Sugiyama’s close friends, said in an email: “Future generations learn from their legacies and seeing a landmark named after a community leader raises the question WHY which generates dialogue.”

Lew also noted that remembering community leaders is an important gesture for the people whose lives were touched by such leadership. “Recognition in remembering our community leaders is important to the people they represented; it is acknowledgement that we exist and that we have a say in our future.”

Sugiyama’s legacy has room to grow. There is still much work to be done in the neighborhood, and in the Seattle school district, for young students of color. Community leader Ron Chew wrote in an email that the street naming is a wonderful gesture and he would like to see Sugiyama’s work continue through programing and direct action.

“I would love to see the spirit of their lives reflected in active ongoing programs supported with government funds. Over time, people will forget who Donnie Chin and Al Sugiyama are unless we find ways to sustain the causes to which they devoted their lives,” wrote Chew.

Larry Matsuda also reflected on the importance of remembering the legacies of our leaders. He conjured the image of a hero, and one that need not be flying in the sky like Superman, but those heroes who help individuals and communities rise with forward momentum. Remembering such leaders is especially necessary, Matsuda thinks, given our current national leadership that “model[s] dishonesty and bigotry.”

“Alan exemplified many outstanding qualities such as ethical leadership, willingness to help people in need, and dedication to social justice,” Matsuda said. “We need heroes to look up to be a strong society, so that lessons are learned and not forgotten.”


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