Photo courtesy of Washington State Commission on Asian Pacific American Affairs.
Fittingly, Kendee Yamaguchi began her first day of work at the State Attorney General’s office on Feb. 19, on the 61st anniversary of the signing of Executive Order 9066, the presidential edict that authorized the unjust incarceration of 110,000 Japanese Americans during World War II.
Yamaguchi, former director of the Washington State Commission on Asian Pacific American Affairs (CAPAA), was recently tapped by newly-elected Attorney General Bob Ferguson to serve as his director of policy, legislative affairs and external relations.
“At first, I didn’t even know about this coincidence,” Yamaguchi said. “It kind of gives me chills – thinking that my life is all coming together in this one significant moment, with the intersection of the Japanese American internment, Asian Pacific legislative day and my first day of work at my new job.”
As the former executive director of CAPAA for the past three years, Yamaguchi has been a tireless advocate on behalf of the Asian Pacific American (APA) population, giving counsel former Governor Chris Gregoire and state policy makers about unmet needs in education, human services and economic development.
CAPAA was established in the early 1970s to advise the Governor and other elected officials on policy and legal issues affecting APAs and to make government more accessible to Asians and Pacific Islanders.
Yamaguchi’s grandfather, Jack Yamaguchi, authored “This was Minidoka,” a book about the experience of Japanese Americans who were ousted from their homes in Seattle and incarcerated in Minidoka, Idaho during World War II. The injustice of that government action is what inspired Yamaguchi to pursue a law degree from Seattle University and a career in government.
“I wanted to make sure that something like this wouldn’t ever happen again,” she said. “This awareness of civil rights issues formed an important part of my background growing up. Those values I carry wherever I land. I don’t necessarily see myself wearing a different hat, but simply continuing to advocate for diversity and social and economic empowerment in different places.”
Yamaguchi says her transition into the Attorney General’s office should be relatively seamless. She says she worked with more than 20 state agencies during her time at CAPAA, including the Attorney General’s office.
“We worked on several consumer protection issues involving the Asian Pacific American community,” she said. “So I think that a lot of what I’ll be working on will be very similar. It’s really about increasing participation and the responsiveness of government.”
Under Yamaguchi’s leadership, CAPAA launched a “health disparities” initiative, with the goal of “improving data collection, treatment and education” for APAs under the Affordable Care Act.
“We strongly supported the ‘disaggregating’ of data to uncover information that would enable the state to bring targeted resources to address the concerns of individual ethnic populations,” she said.
Yamaguchi also counts among her major achievements an education initiative which included community focus groups and two education summits that shed light on issues such as insufficient data gathering by school officials and the high dropout rate among some Southeast Asian and Pacific Islander groups.
Yamaguchi, who previously worked in the Clinton Administration, drew upon her past contacts to bring President Obama’s White House Cabinet Secretary Chris Lu and other high-level officials to a “sustainable growth summit” at North Seattle Community College in July 2011. The summit, jointly sponsored by CAPAA and the White House’s Initiative on Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders, featured workshops on government programs to support sustainable green jobs.
“On a daily basis, I feel fortunate I was able to be at the policy table on a multitude of issues,” Yamaguchi said. “We would’ve had a different result if we weren’t there.”
With the recent appointment of Yamaguchi and other Asian and Pacific Islanders (APIs) to high-level state posts, is there still a need for CAPAA? Yamaguchi believes the answer is yes: “It’s needed even more than ever. We are the fastest growing minority population group in the country. In this state, we have over 700,000 APIs, over 47 different groups, speaking between 100 to 300 languages.”
How has Yamaguchi been able to keep up with the rigorous demands of a job that takes her from her home in Seattle down to her office in Olympia and across the entire state to endless community meetings, often on weekends?
She said she is a former triathlon competitor who wakes up early every day to work out. After developing knee problems, she has switched from running to cycling and yoga. She adds that she has also received “tremendous support and guidance” from her participation in a national fellows program sponsored by the Center for Asian Pacific American Women in San Francisco.