Sharon Maeda speaks at “Legacy of Leadership” on May 13. • Photo by Lexi Potter
Sharon Maeda speaks at “Legacy of Leadership” on May 13. • Photo by Lexi Potter

A night dubbed “Legacy of Leadership” honored Sharon Maeda’s 47 years of social justice advocacy and leadership on May 13 at the Wing Luke Museum. The proceeds from the event helped to benefit office renovations and the mission of 21 Progress, a Seattle nonprofit with the mission to develop leaders and build a 21st century movement for equity and justice.

Maeda’s work has taken her across the country as Deputy Assistant Secretary to Henry Cisneros at the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), executive director of Pacifica Radio, Deputy General Secretary of the global mission board of the United Methodist Church, and an activist in Washington state. She’s been involved in everything from assisting the White House liaison to the Asian-American community to taking part in the controversial Elian Gonzalez custody case back in 2000. At one point, she was even a writer for this newspaper. Maeda had also been a finalist in the appointment of a new Seattle City councilmember in April, a position that narrowly went to current Councilmember John Okamoto.

Maeda most recently stepped down as executive director of 21 Progress. While the organization as we know it today only began offering its programs in 2012, the history of the 21 Progress began in the late 1970s, when Retail Clerks Local 1001, now a part of UFCW 21, launched the nonprofit organization, Retail Clerks Local 1001 Housing Development Association, and constructed an 82-unit apartment building, named Sunset House, for their union retirees and other seniors. By 2008, downtown Seattle was no longer a base for its membership.

After a number of deliberations, UFCW 21 sold Sunset House to Housing Resources Group (now known as Bellwether Housing) to continue the legacy of providing housing for Seattle’s most vulnerable citizens. Just as the vision for Sunset House served the union and the community well for over 30 years, proceeds from the building sale allowed for a dynamic new vision to develop. In 2011, the nonprofit changed its name to 21 Progress. Maeda was put in as executive director.

“I was very fortunate because I was the only person with a non-profit management background,” Maeda said. “What we decided to do was to set aside part of the money and use the rest of it to get started to build the program. It helped 250 undocumented people to get their status and interest-free loans and leadership training.”

One of the services provided by 21 Progress is a free multi-language tax preparation workshop that provides services to community members with limited access to those resources.

“To see immigrant tax payers get major refunds, thousands of dollars back coming back to them, was unbelievable,” Maeda said. “There was one Somali janitor who was going to get $9,700 back. That’s life changing. He absolutely did not believe that it was true at first. But when the check came, he was totally blown away. Previous years he would pay. Things like that were very rewarding to see, and they become leaders in their own lives, because once something like that happens to someone, they tell other people about it.”

Making her 70th trip around the sun this last February, Maeda made the decision to put a close to her involvement in 21 Progress. Taking her place as executive director is Mozart Guerrier, a Haitian-American transplant from Syracuse, NY, that brings with him a long history of working with social projects ranging anywhere from securing housing for homeless families to raising breast cancer awareness. Maeda says she’s confident in leaving the organization in Guerrier’s hands.

“I’m certainly not losing any sleep at night about what’s happening at 21 Progress,” Maeda said. “Leadership development for me has always been something where I wanted to mentor younger folk coming up. I’m almost old enough to be his grandmother,” Maeda laughs when speaking about Guerrier. “He’s very competent and can do more social media stuff than I can do. It’s really important to have that younger generation of leadership. At some point, it’s important to have fresh eyes on the organization.”

“Sharon is a leader who consistently does creative and courageous work with integrity, while at the same time working persistently to uplift, grow, and develops diverse leaders as she moves through the world,” Guerrier said.

These days, Maeda is spending her time going over an archive of interviews and footage to put together a documentary about Silme Domingo and Gene Viernes, two Filipino American labor activists who were murdered in Seattle’s Pioneer Square in the 1980s. Their murders were found to be connected to the Marcos regime, an incident that Maeda believes does not get enough coverage.

“Although the case is old, it is still the first case and only where a foreign head of state has been held liable for the death of American citizens on U.S. soil,” Maeda said. “There have been dictators around the world that have killed 100,000 people, on their own land, but this was in the United States.”

Maeda believes there are still plenty of issues facing the APIA community of today. She lists a number of things, from the ongoing “model minority” stereotype holding back communities to a growing APIA homeless population on the street. Voting rights are another issue that Maeda sees as an obstacle for the future of the APIA community. Her words of advice for the next generation, however, are short and sweet:

“Empower yourself and find ways to stand with others.”

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