Lifetime Achievement: Toshikazu Okamoto
A dedicated soldier for the entire Japanese American community.

BY GARY IWAMOTO

Toshikazu Okamoto and wife, Toshiko. Photo credit: Melissa Ponder, www.melponder.com.

Toshikazu Okamoto is a Nisei (second generation Japanese American) veteran and proud of it.

He has served our country and our community with distinction. Like most Japanese Americans, “Tosh” was sent to an internment camp during World War II. But ironically, the same government who questioned the loyalty of Okamoto and other Japanese Americans by sending them to internment camps decided that Tosh was loyal enough to be drafted into military service. At the age of 17, he joined the all Nisei 442nd Regimental Unit and was stationed in Italy toward the end of the war.

When the war ended, Tosh went to Edison Technical School to learn the skills to be an auto mechanic. But Tosh couldn’t find a job because the auto shops would only hire union mechanics. The union wouldn’t accept him, telling him that the waiting list to join the union was too long to get a job immediately. He knew this was a lie because the white students in his program found jobs easily. He eventually found a job with the Seattle Fire Department where he worked for 32 years, ultimately ending up as a supervisor in charge of vehicle maintenance.

In 1971, Tosh was serving as the Commander of the Nisei Vets Committee. As part of his duties, Tosh visited Isseis (first generation Japanese Americans) living in a nursing home, who had lost sons in the course of military service, called “Gold Star Parents”. Tosh happened to visit an elderly Issei man who was living in a nursing home on Seattle’s First Hill. The son of that Issei resident came up to Tosh and asked him for change. Tosh was told that the staff would only respond to a patient pushing the call button if they had change in their hand; otherwise they would be ignored.

Tosh was upset at the treatment of that “Gold Star” father, the father of a Nisei veteran who died in the war. At about the same time, a Japanese boarding house was closing. Tosh saw that the safety net for the Issei elderly was disappearing. Aging Issei had nowhere to go to receive culturally sensitive nursing care. Tosh shared these observations with Tomio Moriguchi and both men decided that it was imperative to create a nursing home environment which could meet the needs of Isseis.

Tosh and Tomio, along with Glen Akai, Harry Kadoshima, Sally Kazama, Fred Takeyasu, and Henry Miyatake, — the “Magnificent Seven” — formed Issei Concerns (later Nikkei Concerns) in 1975. Their initial goal was to develop a nursing home to meet the cultural, social, language and dietary needs of elderly Nikkei. Of course, no one had the expertise to create a nursing home. But coincidentally, Tosh’s eldest daughter, Joyce, had just starting working at the Keiro Nursing Home in Los Angeles. Through Joyce’s connections, Edwin Hiroto, the Director of Keiro, came to Seattle who advised the seven to mobilize the Japanese American community.

The group started a community-wide funding campaign. A site and facility were found at the old Mt. Baker convalescent center. In 1976, Seattle Keiro Nursing home opened its doors and it wasn’t long before the nursing home outgrew its limited space. In 1985, when Tosh served as President of the Board, Nikkei Concerns embarked on its second major fundraising effort for a new $6.6 million, 150-bed facility. On May 6, 1986, the new Seattle Keiro broke ground at 16th Avenue and Yesler Way and opened one year later. Today, Nikkei Concerns serves our community through its four programs: Seattle Keiro, Nikkei Manor, Kokoro Kai and Nikkei Horizons. And Tosh is still involved after thirty five years with Nikkei Concerns, serving on its advisory board.

While his work with the Keiro Nursing Home is Tosh’s proudest achievement, his contributions to the community don’t stop there. He has served on the board of the Kawabe Memorial House, including terms as President and Vice President, since 1987. He helped found the Meiji Kai Senior Lunch Program which served Issei at Nisei Veteran’s Hall for years. He served as a community advisor for the Kame Project (dementia research of Japanese Americans) and Japanese American Community Diabetes Study. He helped establish the National Japanese American Memorial to Patriotism in Washington DC and was the funding co-chair for the Pacific Northwest which raised more than $1.6 million for the Memorial. He has been a long-time member, past Commander, and current Executive Board member for the Nisei Veterans Committee. And at the age of 84, Tosh shows no signs of stopping.

Tosh has been married for more than sixty years to Toshiko. He is the proud father of four children, Joyce, Susan, John, and Sheila, and grandfather to nine grandchildren. Long-time friend and collaborator Tomio Moriguchi said, “Tosh as a World War II veteran, is a great, caring, outstanding provider of quality of value and life for his whole immediate and extended family. A person that has been able to extend these values to his community.”

Outstanding Individual: Albert Shen
Advocating the business of philanthropy and empowerment.

BY CHRISTINE CHEN VELAZQUEZ

Albert Shen. Photo credit: Melissa Ponder, www.melponder.com.

Ten years ago, Albert Shen, equipped with degrees in Chemistry and Environmental Science from the University of Washington and several years experience as an environmental chemist, felt he needed to strike out on his own.

“As a minority male in a very corporate, established culture, my desire to excel had been inhibited,” said Shen. He formed Shen Consulting with one employee – himself – and went to work. “Through small business ownership, I knew I could develop my own career without the limiting, single-track glass ceiling structure of many corporate environments.”

From Family Businesses to Business of the Year

Shen knew the engineering and construction fields were dominated by large and established companies. However, he had his eyes on the prize. By 2010, Shen Consulting had tripled its sales, multiplied its number of employees and became a $1 million dollar company, earning the Seattle Mayor’s Award for Small Business of the Year.

“My parents were immigrants who had no formal business training,” said Shen. “However, while working in their restaurant and small businesses growing up, I learned that hard work, relationships and perseverance were the keys to running your own business.”

Shen Consulting helped drive projects such as the Third Runway and Airport Stormwater Management Program. He’s currently working on the Consolidated Rental Car Facility at the airport and just launched the new e-parking signage system for the City of Seattle.

Community Connections

Because of Shen’s experience in transportation infrastructure, development, and economic growth, he makes it a priority to volunteer time for several key non-profits.

“I believe in non-profit board leadership,” said Shen. “Not only are you giving back, directly, but you are also interfacing with others who have the same values. Together, you are able to affect change, with passion.”

Currently, Shen serves on the Board of Trustees for Seattle Community Colleges, guiding an educational system for a multi-cultural student base. He just wrapped up serving as a commissioner for Governor Gregoire’s Asian Pacific American Affairs Commission, providing her guidance at the State level around issues for the API community, such as economic and community development.

Shen was the Board Chair for the Seattle Chinatown International District Preservation and Development Authority (SCIDpda), engrossed in the continuous efforts to protect the cultural history of the neighborhood, make improvements, raise its profile community-wide and provide economic revitalization for the various small businesses run by immigrant families.

To honor his mother, a breast cancer survivor, Shen serves as a board member for the Susan G. Komen Breast Cancer Foundation. In the past, Shen has also served on the boards of the Asian Counseling Referral Service, Northwest Asian American Theatre, National Association of Asian American Professionals and the Seattle Opera Bravo Club. In addition, Shen supports his friends’ causes, giving thousands of dollars a year to various causes close to their hearts.

Political Gusto

Shen believes community and business contributions need to be bolstered by having a strong voice in politics to make a long lasting impact.

In the summer of 2010, Shen was selected to join the “Stimulating Change Roundtable” in Washington, D.C. He worked face-to-face with top representatives from the U.S. Small Business Administration and other Federal Agencies, the Minority Business Development Association and the White House Initiatives on Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders to address the most critical issues facing small, minority-owned businesses.

To unite the API voices in Washington State, Shen created, founded and served as Board Chair for the Northwest Coalition of Asian Pacific Americans Political Action Committee.

“Our mission is to bring together separate Asian communities and form a coherent force,” said Shen. “Only then, unified, can we affect change within local, regional and national politics.”

“It all works together – business, community and politics. And you can’t give up.”

Individual Arts: George “Geo” Quibuyen
A hip hop dynamo with a social consciousness.

BY IAN DAPIAOEN

“Silence is defeat, my solution is to speak” – Geologic, Opening Salvo

George “Geologic” Quibuyen. Photo credit: Melissa Ponder, www.melponder.com.

George Quibuyen, also known as Geologic/Prometheus Brown of the hip hop duo Blue Scholars, is a poet, teacher, cultural worker, activist and loving husband/father. Sharpening his skills at the Theater Off Jackson (when it was called the Northwest Asian American Theater) for isangmahal arts kollective open microphone events more than a decade ago, he now finds himself in the center of a hip hop movement in Seattle.

“For me, it’s everything,” says Quibuyen about arts and culture and its importance in Seattle’s Asian Pacific Islander movements. “The theater was a space where I found myself surrounded by people who looked like me and had shared experiences and goals, something I’ll never take for granted having performed in many spaces where this isn’t the case.”

Drawing inspiration from his life living in Bremerton, Beacon Hill and even on the islands of Hawaii, Quibuyen considers the International District as the catalyst that kickstarted his musical career. “Beacon Hill and the University District were formative relationship-wise, but it was in the International District that a community was most present. Blue Scholars played its very first Seattle show at the Nippon Kan Theater. Our first music video was filmed in/around Hing Hay Park. Many lyrics were written in and about the International District.”

A former exhibit coordinator at the Wing Luke Asian Museum, Quibuyen preserves cultural histories through his lyrics and storytelling, heightening awareness around issues such as political killings in the Philippines to the war in Iraq.

“As much as a thriving culture benefits those who participate in it in the present, I also see it as a social document for future generations,” says Quibuyen. “Most of what we know about previous generations is things we cull from their cultural productions and so for Asian Pacific Islanders in Seattle, it’s also self-preservation.”

With much experience under his belt and tens of thousands of miles traveled to perform his music, Quibuyen feels as if he’s just getting started.

“Engaging with Seattle’s rich Asian Pacific Islander history in my time working at the Wing Luke Museum…interviewing people in their 80s and 90s and doing research and meeting folks like Uncle Bob Santos, I realize that I got a long way to go and a lot of footsteps to follow!”

Quibuyen, also a movie buff and avid photographer, posts photos and movie reviews at www.prometheusbrown.com.

Blue Scholars will release their third album, Cinemetropolis, on June 14. This “Blue Scholars Signs With the People” release is funded entirely by their fans through an online campaign, raising $62,000 in less than two months. Visit www.bluescholars.com for more information.

Tatsuo Nakata Youth Award: Mary Nguyen
A lion for justice and equality.

BY LIEZL REBUGIO

Mary Nguyen. Photos courtesy Mary Nguyen.

I first met Mary Le Nguyen in 2007 when she applied for an internship with the National Asian Pacific American Women’s Forum. During that interview, she exuded passion, curiosity, humility, and a dedication to social justice. From that moment, I knew that she would be doing something amazing for the community.

Mary will be awarded with the Tatsuo Nakata Youth Award at the International Examiner’s annual Community Voice Awards on May 18. Mary is a perfect fit for this award, named after a young man who demonstrated leadership in the API community before his untimely death in 2006.

Mary’s family came to the United States as Vietnamese refugees. She was the first person in her family born in the country and would often tell her siblings, “I’m the only one that can be president.”

The Nguyens were the last Vietnamese refugees to arrive in Washington in 1976. In fact, the Emmanuel Lutheran Church of Longview, WA petitioned U.S. Senators Henry Martin Jackson and Warren G. Magnuson and Governor Daniel J. Evans to allow one more refugee family to come to Washington. Thankfully, the lawmakers granted their entrance into the country. It was as if destiny knew that Mary would do amazing things for the community if the Nguyens were permitted to come to Washington.

Mary’s upbringing in the small logger town of Longview, Wash. created her foundation for justice and equality for communities of color. She was one of the few people of color in her cohort, but that did not prevent her from becoming engaged in school activities. Mary was on the volleyball and basketball teams, in student government, honor society, and voted “Best All Around” her senior year. Amidst all of this, she still longed to be part of a community that understood her and her desire for justice.

As an undergraduate student at the University of Washington-Bothell, Mary saw that there was not a lot of support for LGBTQ students. Instead of just complaining or wishing things were different, Mary stepped into action. She co-founded the university’s first Gay Straight Alliance.

Stepping into action is something that Mary does well. In 2010, the Board of Pharmacy threatened to limit patients’ access to medication by modifying a rule that requires pharmacies to give medications to people without discrimination or delay. Mary recognized the API community had to be heard, so she represented the NAPAWF-Seattle Chapter in a coalition of reproductive rights advocates and testified before the Board. The result? Mary’s action made a difference and patients’ access to medicine is protected.

At 30 years old, Mary has a number of milestones to be proud of. Completing her Masters of Policy Studies at the University of Washington-Bothell, fiercely leading the NAPAWF-Seattle Chapter, and working with Wal-Mart workers as a community organizer at the United Food and Commercial Workers Local 21 in their efforts to advocate for their rights are to name a few.

However, campaign successes cannot fill Mary’s heart like her family does. In the past year, Mary brought together her family in a very special way. Last fall, she purchased a home in Renton, where her parents, brother, and partner have created a home together. Her sisters are minutes away and the Le and Nguyen home is often filled with the laughter of children and conversations about peace and justice.

There is something about Mary that inspires all those who meet her. And it’s really easy to pinpoint. It could be her wit, her smile, her intelligence, or her commitment to her family and community. It is a combination of all her special qualities that make her an incredible daughter, sister, partner, friend, and leader.

Cheers to Mary for her many successes and for many accomplishments to come.

Outstanding Organization: ArtXchange
A conscientious gallery bridges cultures and communities.

BY JESSICA DAVIS

ArtXchange team: Mugoux Varra, Cora Edmonds, Lauren Davis, and Islanda Khau. Photo credit: Melissa Ponder, www.melponder.com.

“Ever since ArtXchange started in 1995, our mission has been to bring cultural exchange to our community through art, film, and photography,” noted Edmonds. “We have crossed paths and collaborated with so many individuals and community groups in the last decade and a half, we love and are proud of doing what we do!”

When Diem Ly, editor of the International Examiner, visited ArtXchange Gallery to personally tell ArtXchange the news about receiving a Community Voice Award, it was a complete surprise and honor, noted Edmonds.

“ArtXchange Gallery being recognized as a community asset is amazing,” said Edmonds. “Bringing a unique and diverse perspective to the Seattle/Northwest community is always how we think of ourselves and it’s wonderful to have that be confirmed by the community.”

The 3,000 square-foot gallery, nestled in Seattle’s Pioneer Square neighborhood, showcases contemporary artwork from all over the world and locally. In addition to exhibitions, the gallery has hosted numerous community events over the years, including artist workshops and lectures, book readings, film screenings, fashion shows, tea tastings, and more.

“Art is a reflection of culture and I believe as a city, the arts in Seattle are still catching up to reflect our cultural diversity,” noted Edmonds. “Traditional fine art is primarily Euro-Western defined and critiqued and I would love to see a broader, more anthropologically based view of art. I believe that Seattle’s diverse, multicultural population provides a great setting for an internationally-based art gallery such as ArtXchange.”

Edmonds has had a fascination with culture throughout her life. Born in the concrete jungle of Hong Kong, Edmonds and her family moved to Seattle in 1978, when she was 12 years-old. She was raised bilingual and biculturally.

“This laid a foundation of lifelong interest in worldwide cultures, people, and places,” said Edmonds.

She later went on to study international business and began her career in commercial film production for international clients. Also, as a marketing manager, Edmonds launched the first television campaign for Microsoft. Presently, as an international photographer, her research of indigenous cultures and love of photography have kept her traveling extensively, to more than 30 countries throughout the world. Japan, Burma, Cambodia, and Laos are just a few of the countries she has photographed.

Perhaps, one of the most poignant trips she made was when she traveled to the remote Humla region of western Nepal in 2000, capturing the image of a young boy with his palms together in the traditional Namaste gesture of greeting and respect. The photograph was a success in Seattle, incidentally catching the eye of Phil Crean, a man who felt compelled to meet Edmonds. They married several years later.

“Phil is an amazing human being who has a clear vision, efficient strategies, boundless patience and support for me, a most generous heart that inspires me everyday to do my best,” she said.

Throughout the years, Edmonds has been supported by many talented individuals who were drawn together and inspired by the gallery mission. Five years ago, she was joined by gallery manager Lauren Davis, whose specialty in accessible, community-oriented art exhibits and programs was a perfect fit for the educational mission of ArtXchange. Graphic designer and independent curator Islanda Khau joined the gallery in 2008. Gallery staff Mugoux Varra and Gail Reed round out the team and provide crucial community outreach, and administrative support.

In 2008, Edmonds and her husband, Phil Crean, founded the Namaste Children’s Fund, a non-profit organization dedicated to supporting community-based education for women and children in the remote regions in the hidden Himalayas of Nepal, where she had visited almost a decade earlier.

The immersion of culture and diversity continues at home with her multi-racial family of seven, including her husband who was born in a small town in New Zealand with a population of 150 people, and the recent addition of three adopted Vietnamese-Ukrainian children.

“We certainly have our cultural differences, but we focus on what is most important to us, what connects us to each other,” said Edmonds, adding that this is not so different than what ArtXchange aims to do with artwork.

ArtXchange Gallery is constantly looking for links and bridges between cultures, she noted. “Our gallery is interested in artists whose work articulates contemporary global culture with original and unique aesthetics. The artwork must tell a story, add a bridge of connection and provoke viewers to ask questions.”

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