By GWEN MURANAKA, Rafu Senior Editor
Citing steep revenue losses and uncertainty caused by the COVID-19 pandemic, the Japanese American Cultural and Community Center reduced staff last month, restructuring and laying off five employees from the Little Tokyo-based nonprofit organization.
In a statement, the JACCC said: “COVID-19 has created an enormous and unprecedented challenge for businesses, organizations, and communities across the country, including in Little Tokyo and Southern California. Nonprofit organizations have been especially hard hit – particularly in the visual and performing arts space — and JACCC is no exception.
“Pandemic restrictions have closed JACCC to the public, darkening our theater, cancelling performances and space rentals, eliminating our in-person programming opportunities, reducing the demand for community office space leasing, and suspending the inaugural opening of the Toshizo Watanabe Culinary Cultural Center.
“As the crisis continues to escalate and recovery moves further away, the organization acknowledges the increasing depth and length of the economic downturn as well as the lasting change to consumer choices and attending theatre and group events in the future.
“In response to such challenges economically and to our business model, the JACCC chose to consolidate some of our leadership, management and operations teams to preserve the sustainability of the organization, as well as to prepare for a new future.
“Any change, especially one that is personal and unexpected, is challenging and difficult. This particular decision to reduce staff and consolidate responsibilities, while necessary and important, does not soften the emotional impact for the JACCC or those affected by this change. The JACCC will do its best to support those who are leaving and acknowledges their contributions and legacy to the purpose and mission of the organization.”
The Rafu Shimpo confirmed that those who lost their jobs were Marlene Lee, receptionist and the longest-serving staff member at JACCC, Alison De La Cruz, vice president of programs, Eiko Fujino, Michelle Moreno, vice president of operations, and Terry Hashimoto.
Artists, many of whom have had long relationships with JACCC, expressed anger at the decision, saying the layoffs gave the impression of a “corporate-style approach.”
Forty community members signed a letter, led by Nobuko Miyamoto, founder of Great Leap and co-founder of FandangObon; traci kato kiriyama of Pullproject Ensemble and Nikkei Progressives; and Dan Kwong, Great Leap associate artistic director and FandangObon director. Other signing on in solidarity include Francis Cullado, Quetazl Flores, Mike Hagiwara, Naomi Hirahara, Kennedy Kasabares, Jully Lee, Sean Miura, Atsuko Okatsuka, Sharon Omi, “Atomic Nancy” Sekizawa, Aaron Takahashi and Jenny Yang.
“We understand that balancing the need for organizational fiscal health with humanitarian compassion is sometimes a very difficult task. We get it: bills must be paid, a budget must be balanced. But this could have been handled so much better. Instead you have infuriated and alienated many key people whose artistic labor is part of what makes JACCC relevant.
“We love the JACCC as we love our community. We don’t expect perfection, but we do expect better than this.”
Speaking to The Rafu, kato kiriyama said the loss of De La Cruz, in particular, left many questions about the vision of JACCC moving forward. She credited De La Cruz with broadening the audience, supporting artists, and helping sustain JACCC during its transition period following the departure of former JACCC CEO Leslie Ito, in 2018.
De La Cruz was known for welcoming audiences to the Aratani Theatre, inviting everyone to take a deep breath of anticipation before the show would begin. During her tenure at JACCC, the Aratani played host to numerous events, including “Allegiance,” the wartime musical starring George Takei, and “Tales of Clamor,” an innovative exploration of the CWRIC (Commission on Wartime Relocation and Internment of Civilians) testimonies led by kato kiriyama and Kennedy Kasabares.
No events have been held at the JACCC campus since the start of the pandemic in March. This week would have been the Nisei Week coronation, normally held before a packed audience at the Aratani.
“Their way of making decisions doesn’t feel inclusive. So many things they could have done to involve and value the artists in the community to help with solutions,” kato kiriyama said.
“Artists put in a lot labor, not for big money. We’ve given a lot of time, but it’s about something more than that, it’s about community and our love for people and making things happening and being bridges between communities.”
In a posting on Facebook, De La Cruz took a photo as she turned in her JACCC keys, saying: “It’s been an honor and a privilege to be a steward of the Aratani Theatre and the JACCC campus, to create opportunities for artists and cultural bearers for small business and for the LT community.
“My deep bow of gratitude to have been in community with you and be your partner in reflecting the Los Angeles we are form, creating the LA we needed and envisioning our LA of tomorrow.”
Patricia Wyatt, JACCC CEO and president, said she welcomed dialogue and has reached out to the artists and also Vigilant Love, which also sent a letter to the board. JACCC board and staff are bound by labor law from discussing individual employees.
According to Wyatt, the decision was made after looking at all possible alternatives. JACCC was unable to hold their annual gala or open the culinary center, causing a financial loss that Wyatt characterized as in the “hundreds of thousands of dollars.”
“My hope was that with the PPP loan originally we had been thinking we would be back up and going early September, and it just kept getting worse with no end in sight. It became an existential decision in order to preserve JACCC for the community. I hope people can understand we had no revenue since March,” Wyatt said.
She added, “I think it’s really important to hear one another and understand the concerns and issues that we all face. My hope is that we can face them together.
“My personal goal is to help create an economic model that enables JACCC to sustain itself through challenges like this, even though we hope it will never happen again.
“And seek to build the reserves so the community is assured of the health and vibrancy not only for JACCC but for the artists who want to work with us.”
A past emcee for the JACCC gala and a recipient last year of its Community Spirit Award, kato kiriyama welcomed further dialogue, but said that it should be a larger conversation involving community members and the board.
“We are not putting together these statements to bring them down. We want to share that we are upset and disappointed but we also are trying to offer ways we are thinking of how we support the center and community and how we think about treating each other and collaborate when thinking about solutions.”