By GWEN MURANAKA
(Originally published on June 28, 2016)
(Update: East West Players announced on June 29 the selection of Snehal Desai as its artistic director.)
Are there big “help wanted” signs hanging out in the JA community?
In the span of just a few weeks, Priscilla Ouchida, JACL national executive director, and Greg Kimura, JANM CEO and executive director, both bid sayonara to their respective organizations. Whether they left of their own choosing or were shown the door by their boards, it means these cornerstone institutions are in flux and in search of new leadership and direction.
The most anticipated departure happened Friday afternoon. Shawn Miyake, president and CEO of Keiro, officially stepped down. Not forced out as some in the community may have wanted, but lauded for his years of service to the organization by board chairman Gary Kawaguchi.
If you read these press releases (and yes, I take to heart critics who say Rafu should dig deeper than merely reprinting press releases), you’ll notice some similarities. Commonly used phrases like “commitment” and “dedication” are the purple prose of a management trying its best to move forward and control the narrative. I’ve never understood why organizations feel the need to express “gratitude” and “appreciation” for departing executives, even if everyone behind the scenes is actually cheering for the regime change.
Those of us on the outside are left to wonder what really happened.
Kimura must be praised for bringing new audiences and dynamic programs to the museum. Men adorned in full tattoos for the “Perseverance” exhibit and thousands of Sanrio geeks wandering Little Tokyo all happened under his watch.
Kimura also had sharp elbows that never quite fit in, signaled early by his firing of Chris Komai and then later by the aggressive handling of the Eaton auction. The signs of discord came in the letters of protest from Heart Mountain Wyoming Foundation and others published here in The Rafu.
As for Ouchida, I think it is fair to note that if the leader of your organization abruptly quits mere weeks before the national convention, then that is a signal to the outside community that all is not well. Bill Yoshino of Chicago has been a stalwart for JACL for decades and will again handle leadership duties during the transition. I’m also glad to see the elevation of Stephanie Nitahara, who has done much here in Little Tokyo during her short time as Pacific Southwest regional director.
Transitions don’t have to be fraught and controversial. This past week saw the departure of another leader under vastly different circumstances. Tim Dang’s exit was announced last year and the L.A. City Council recently celebrated “Tim Dang Day” in honor of the East West Players’ artistic director. Last Sunday’s closing performance of “La Cage Aux Folles” was a final bow and curtain call for a leader who brought artistic vision and leadership to his organization and made Little Tokyo a better place in the process.
Whether EWP continues that momentum will depend greatly on the board’s choice of the next director. The same goes for JANM and JACL, and all the other organizations that are facing this moment of seismic change within the JA community. It’s time to adapt or die —that sounds dire, but it also represents what could be a moment of opportunity and hope.
Replacing your top man or woman gives an organization the chance to restart despite whatever happened to cause that departure.
Keiro and its board should especially take this to heart. There are opportunities to reset the narrative and Shawn’s resignation will help with that. The fact that Keiro is sitting on a mountain of cash gives it a leg up on organizations struggling with fundraising.
It’s still a lingering question mark where Keiro is actually heading, which makes the choice of an executive even more crucial. The problem is that the community has lost faith in the board’s ability to guide the organization, and repairing those relations will be key, especially now that Shawn will no longer be there as the focal point of criticism.
* * *
As all these organizations employ executive search firms to find their new CEOs, it makes me wonder why it is that Japanese American organizations so often turn to non-JAs to lead them.
It maybe politically incorrect to point out what is an undeniable trend. Let’s face it, Vince Beresford and Anne Burroughs are not Vince Tanaka and Anne Shimozaki. The unfortunate hiring of Greg Willis at the JACCC is also a not-so-distant a memory.
This is not to impugn either Beresford or Burroughs, nor to question their qualifications to lead Go For Broke or JANM. By virtue of the board’s selection and their biographies, they have been shown to be top-notch. Burroughs’ experience in both non-profit management and as an anti-apartheid activist in her native South Africa would seem to fit with JANM’s educational and human rights mission.
She warmly introduced herself at the Little Tokyo Community Council meeting on Tuesday, explaining that she will be leading the museum on an interim basis.
It’s rather a question for the JA community and to spotlight a gap in our leadership development. It is hard, maybe impossible, to imagine a Jewish or African American or LGBTQ organization looking outside their ranks for leadership to represent them at their core institutions. So much of their mission comes from shared memories of oppression — whether institutional racism or daily instances of bigotry that have burrowed into our beings.
A white person simply cannot express that in the same way as an Asian American could, and I would imagine that those leaders acknowledge that there is a steep learning curve set before them. They will have to rely on staff and volunteers to share that ingrained history and it would be more difficult for them to represent the JA community on issues where race is at the center.
My guess is there aren’t enough qualified Japanese Americans applying for these positions. Those that are highly skilled are happy to stay where they are, and perhaps those who could fill those jobs haven’t advanced far enough in their careers to prove themselves capable of dealing with the complicated issues that face a CEO.
There is also that JA characteristic of not wanting to raise our hands, boast about ourselves, or stand out in a crowd that hurts career advancement. I have been at community meetings with large numbers of mostly white city officials and JA community members. The white guys were more likely to stand up and express their opinions, and the JAs tended to come up afterwards and talk one-on-one. That’s my tendency as well.
Organizations like Kizuna, Rising Stars and LEAP are working to change that by creating pipelines for young Japanese Americans and AAPIs to step up and become leaders. I was happy to meet Amy Watanabe, who until recently worked alongside Floyd Mori at Asian Pacific American Institute for Congressional Studies in Washington, another organization trying to do the same thing in the political realm.
I hope talented leaders arise from these efforts and that a new generation will be there to innovate and bring new ideas into the older institutions that still define the JA community.
* * *
One of the oldest of those institutions is of course The Rafu Shimpo itself. This past weekend, volunteers, columnists and staffers all manned booths to sign up new subscribers at the Venice JCC Summer Festival, SFV Obon, Gardena Valley JCI Carnival, West Covina Obon and Long Beach JCC festival.
Thank you to everybody who helped out and everyone who stopped by our booths. I imagine the other columnists will be providing their own thoughts on how it went.
I was at Gardena JCI with Iku Kiriyama, Jordan Ikeda and J.K. Yamamoto and we signed up a few new subscribers to both print and online. Jordan was able to get a few more followers for the Rafu Instagram.
There is nothing like a JA festival to give me a sense of hope for this sometimes fractious community.
Little kids dancing hula, seniors playing ukulele, icy snow cones — the sounds of Japanese and English spoken in the crowd, shouts of “Yakisoba!” and that first slurp of udon in the social hall.
Summer is here, let’s celebrate!
Gwen Muranaka, English editor-in-chief of The Rafu Shimpo, can be contacted at email@example.com. Opinions expressed are not necessarily those of The Rafu Shimpo.