As a volunteer in her children’s schools, Arlene Oki saw many inequities that needed to be addressed and thought there should be a strong multicultural component to the education they received. She worked to form the Committee for Southeast Schools to advocate for more school resources in Southeast Seattle and later joined the Coalition for Quality Integrated Education and the District-wide Advisory Committee on Desegregation.
After working on Charles Royer’s campaign for mayor, Oki left her nursing career to become a special assistant to the mayor. Oki worked for Royer for over 5 years, and the City of Seattle for over 30 years. She recently retired from her work as a planner in the Seattle Human Services Department. She was board president of the Seattle chapter of the Japanese American Citizens League (JACL), and was a founding member of the Japanese Cultural and Community Center (JCCC). She currently serves on the board of the International Examiner.
What inspired you to get involved in politics?
Oki: President John F. Kennedy was the first candidate I believed would make this a more just nation. I was devastated when he was assassinated in 1963. When Senator Robert Kennedy decided to run for president in 1968, I took my three little girls in our station wagon to try and see him at the Olympic Hotel.
The next week, a young couple came to my door asking me to help with the Kennedy campaign and, of course, I agreed. This was the first of many local and national campaigns I worked on.
I was devastated again when Robert Kennedy was assassinated in June 1968. This was also the year when Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated so you can imagine the turmoil and pain this country was facing. Shortly after, I became a precinct committeewoman in my legislative district and learned much about issues, the political process and met many politicians.
What are the current needs in the API community in relation to politics?
Oki: The community is fortunate to have a whole new crop of smart, energetic young people who are now engaged in political organizing for candidates and policy/budget issues. They need funding and support from more Asian Pacific Islanders (APIs). We all know that political campaigns cost a lot of money and in this current economic downturn it has become more difficult to raise funds for the candidates and causes we support.
Unfortunately, those who contribute large sums of money have more access and influence in politics. If wealthy APIs become major donors, it might be possible that elected officials would be more responsive to the concerns and needs of our community. Clearly, those who organize support within their groups and raise large amounts of money are able to drive government decisions as they relate to budget and policy priorities, foreign relations, immigration, equal rights, corporate bailouts, war, etc.
Initiatives that hinder the capacity of government to collect revenues have passed without much API opposition. Some of these initiatives have forced the State of Washington to cut funds for critical health and human services needed by the community.
APIs have worked with other communities of color to fight anti-immigrant and anti-affirmative action initiatives. Despite a strong effort by the Asian Pacific Americans for Civic Empowerment (APACE) to defeat Initiative 200, the measure passed and programs to help people of color compete for government contracts and jobs were dismantled.
What is your vision for politics in the API community?
Oki: My vision is that more APIs would become actively engaged in supporting politicians and causes that benefit the community. This vision includes a more transparent and fairer system that provides all people regardless of race, creed, color, sexual orientation, or socio-economic status an equal opportunity to influence government actions.
Currently, a redistricting process based on the U.S. Census shows signs that the creation of a majority-minority congressional district in the state of Washington may be possible. Of the four models presented, three include majority-minority districts. Though there are APIs and other people of color in the state legislature, there has never been a person of color representing a congressional district in Washington State. I hope that all communities will work together to send a person of color to the U.S. Congress.
APIs are underrepresented in political offices and the judicial system. Though there are many African American, Latino American, and Jewish American mayors, county executives, governors, and members of Congress, only a few APIs have been elected to these offices. Ditto for judgeships. There are many highly-qualified API lawyers who should be appointed to judgeships at every level of the judicial system — including the Supreme Court.