Al Sugiyama has been an activist for more than 40 years. He was the person behind establishing Seattle Central Community College’s Asian American history class — the first of its kind in the Pacific Northwest. He also helped develop the first Asian American student organization, the Oriental Student Union.
In addition, he was the founding director of the Center for Career Alternatives (CCA), a non-profit organization established in 1979. The agency provided free education, training and career development to more than 25,000 people in King and Snohomish counties. Many of these residents came from diverse backgrounds or were disadvantaged youth and adults. CCA operated for 30 years. Recently, it merged with another organization, Sea Mar, which operates health clinics all over the state.
What happened in your personal life that inspired your work in this cause?
Sugiyama: The civil rights movement inspired me and others to “even” the playing field. To do this, we created programs to help all those who were disadvantaged due to color, gender and economics. During the ‘60s, ‘70s and early ‘80s, we saw the emergence of non-profit agencies and government programs, such as the Asian Counseling and Referral Service, International District Health Clinic (later known as International Community Health Services), etc. Starting a non-profit to serve the community, was an “extension” of the civil rights movement to me.
You were the founding director of CCA. Why did you feel an agency of this type was needed in the Northwest?
Sugiyama: CCA clientele was multi-ethnic, and we focused on education, employment and training to those that were primarily low-income. In 1979, we had one program and one office. Two years ago, CCA operated 24 programs and had five locations. During the early years, most agencies were ethnic specific. For example, the Asian Counseling and Referral Service served Asians, Urban League served Blacks, Seattle Indian Center only served Natives and El Centro served Latinos.
What continued to drive and sustain you for 30 years, through all of the challenges and changes, to lead the organization?
Sugiyama: Thirty years went by faster then you would think. A lot of that had to do with the success we were having as an agency, the freedom to develop specific programs to meet the needs of the community and to further my community involvement. For example, my agency allowed me to serve on the Seattle School Board. I was the first Asian Pacific Islander to serve on the board in its 100-plus year history. I could not have done that if I was not working at CCA. This was a huge win for the community.
What did you do to ensure the organization remained funded throughout your term as executive director? How did it grow?
Sugiyama: We were successful due to the fact our programs matched the community needs and were provided in a strategic, professional and caring way. For example, we provided employment workshops to the Muckleshoots before they had a casino. They never forgot us and funded our program once the casino was established.
During the economic downturn, how did you attempt to shift gears for the organization?
Sugiyama: The economy would go up and down so you had to plan for the bad days. With the exception of two years ago, we grew. When the economy went bad, our services were needed more then ever.
What lessons did you learn or that you would’ve done differently?
Sugiyama: I was always looking at how we could be better. I was never satisfied with our performance, regardless of awards.