At the early age of 6, I was exposed to politics and government through my mother, who was then serving as the first chair of the City of Federal Way Diversity Commission. She had volunteered to serve on the body, encouraged in 1981 by Ruth Woo and Delores Sibonga, who put the idea in over a lunch that it was something worth aspiring to when mom was in her 20s, nearly a decade before I was born.
The daughter of two second generation, U.S.-born Japanese Americans, who were still teenagers when they were incarcerated with their families during World War II, mom said it was a mystery whenever her folks talked about a placed called “camp” with other Japanese Americans. Their voices got so quiet—it was a topic that never died.
The legacy of the forced evacuation and incarceration of over 120,000 people of Japanese ancestry who had their constitutional rights stripped away was never far—it had continued to be the proverbial elephant in the room. In one instance, my grandparents had quietly worried what their white neighbors might think when a third Japanese American family bought a house in the next block, it was a memory my mother never forgot.
So when she was in seventh grade and her social studies teacher introduced his class to politics, she wondered if politics might someday offer some solutions and help empower change. He said politics was: “Who gets what when, where, why, and how.” She wondered if it might help her family.
Over the years mom shared community stories about Asian Pacific Islanders such as Wing Luke, Lloyd Hara, Ruby Chow, Liem Tuai, Dolores Sibonga, and, yes, Auntie Ruth, among many others. She wanted me to know of the pioneers that stood up, challenged stereotypes of our collective Asian Pacific Islander American communities, helped to open doors of opportunity, and worked for a more just and equitable world.
When mom grew up, women were not always active in community organizations outside of schools, churches, and small groups. Men made many of the decisions. Women often were relegated to menial tasks like getting coffee. She was heartened to hear about women like Ruth showing by example that things could be different. She was encouraged by Ruth’s belief that it was not important just to elect people from the diverse communities into office, but that it could further serve to make our participation the norm by volunteering for boards and commissions.
Auntie Ruth was a role model for both of us. Ruth was raised by Japanese Americans, worked in the community, and did not necessarily seek to be in the limelight, but felt that she was called to and felt passionately about the need for all of us to have representation in the decision-making process. She was willing to work hard, campaign for good candidates, and mentor those who were trying to change the system when almost no one else was out there. While I am gregarious and my mother is a low-key introverted person, we share a passion for politics, want to contribute to building community, and believe like Ruth that politics can be a tool to achieve justice and equity. This is a thread that Auntie Ruth, my mother, and myself share.
In the Spring of 2015, my mentor and friend, Al Sugiyama, took me to meet Ruth over lunch. During our conversation, which ranged from my background, how I got into politics and then campaign to retain my seat on the Fife City Council, I was struck by how carefully she watched, listened, and observed. When the subject of politics arose, her gaze sharpened and her smile noticeably widened. When I shared how my mother praised that long ago lunch with Ruth and Delores as giving her courage back in the day, she said she thought that was something but wouldn’t accept credit.
For nearly an hour we talked about the latest political gossip, a few stories of the old days and a little campaign strategy. I enjoyed myself so much I nearly forgot to inquire if she might endorse me. When that moment arrived, she said, “yes.” It’s a memory I will cherish for as long as I live.
Ruth, like Al Sugiyama, knew that the way to achieving this was to intentionally seek out, recruit, persistently encourage, and make all efforts to find individuals who could step into these roles. She believed in those who might not recognize their own potential and helped them along to find their voice.
Ruth Woo was motivated by the belief that our politics and government institutions are only as good as those who serve in them, which is why these bodies should be reflective of the incredible diversity we have in our region and state—why especially Asian Pacific Islanders, women, and people of color must have representation.
The question that remains is who will pick up the torch from Ruth Yoneyama Woo? The need for equity and representation today is as relevant as it was in the 1960s. We need to continue making gains and keeping them.
How can we continue to honor our collective past, to further build upon the progress Auntie Ruth dedicated her life, to honoring the legacy and spirit of those who have come before?
Not everyone will or wants to run for public office. In our own way, we must make our voices heard. But it is up to each and every one of us to do what we can to encourage talent and recruit people to seek positions on boards and run for public office. Our community and society work best when each of us is doing their own part to use their talents and skills to help build a better world.
Bryan Yambe is a Fife City Councilmember and an APACE Board Member.