We value the Japanese American Cultural and Community Center (JACCC), one of the premier institutions in our community. It has been the site of many community programs such as Children’s Day and home to many community organizations since its opening in 1980. We express our views in this statement as stakeholders who care about what happens to and at the JACCC.
At the beginning of this year, Sandy Sakamoto, the chair of the board of JACCC, announced the appointment of Greg Willis as the new president and CEO, asserting that Willis “is known for his team building success, collaborative leadership style, and cultural sensitivities.”
Frankly, we were concerned by a choice of someone with no knowledge of the Japanese American community, no experience in nonprofit management, and no apparent expertise in arts and culture, but we decided to reserve judgment and continued to support the efforts of the JACCC board and staff.
However, in the short space of less than seven months under Willis’ management, we learned of rumblings of employee mistreatment, capricious management style, a hostile work environment and plummeting staff morale. Eight or more employees, some long-time trusted staff who started the year at JACCC, are no longer there. Two currently suffer from work-related stress.
We have been told that efforts by staff to appeal to various board members to address these problems fell on deaf ears.
The Nikkei for Civil Rights & Redress was so concerned about further staff abuse that they met with Sakamoto and Willis. It appears that Willis had carte blanche to reign over JACCC’s operations and staff.
The Rafu has confirmed the report that Greg Willis was the same Greg Willis who not only had been accused of “misappropriation, misuse of corporate funds and concealment” and “was convicted and sentenced to five years in prison” and additional penalties in France, but was also involved with a lawsuit connected to two auto-parts manufacturing companies in Canada.
Greg Willis is gone from the JACCC and from our community. He has, however, left in the wake of his short tenure a serious toll on the workers and on the reputation of the JACCC.
The JACCC’s decision-makers must act swiftly and decisively to set the cultural and community center on the right course again. Holding paramount the treatment of its workers, we pledge to stand by them. We urge the board to communicate with the community, its stakeholders, about the steps it will take to support its own workers to begin the healing that is needed to rebuild the trust and long-held respect of the JACCC both within its organization and in the community.
The JACCC needs to rely on the community for guidance as they/we move forward. We don’t have all the answers but we do believe in the wisdom of our community and the power of open communication. We are hopeful that the JACCC will openly engage a broader segment of the community in a dialogue to develop a realistic plan that includes the fair and respectful treatment of its staff.
We are concerned community members who have been involved with Little Tokyo since the early ’70s, working on issues such as welfare and workers’ rights, youth problems, and redevelopment. Many of us have continued to work in the Little Tokyo and the broader Japanese American and Asian Pacific American community on such issues as redress and immigration, often side-by-side and shoulder-to-shoulder with many other community groups and individuals including the JACCC. We have a stake not only in the JACCC but in the future of Little Tokyo.
Traci Kato Kiriyama
Janice Iwanaga Yen
Opinions expressed are not necessarily those of The Rafu Shimpo.