Rep. Karen Bass receives the Mike Watanabe Leadership Award from Watanabe and Councilmember Marqueece Harris-Dawson at the Asian American Drug Abuse Program’s 50th anniversary gala on Sept. 17.

By GWEN MURANAKA, Rafu Senior Editor

“People need people,” said Asian American Drug Abuse Program CEO Dean Nakanishi, emphatically summing up the 50-year mission of the organization devoted to helping people in their darkest moments deal with the scourge of substance abuse.

“Tonight is the culmination of 50 years of your blood, sweat, rage and tears. As well as the culmination of 50 years of vision, inspiration, kindness, and faith that make up AADAP and the strong belief that, say it with me — people need people,” Nakanishi said. 

“We are still at war with a drug epidemic much like the 1960s when AADAP began. While the fashions and the music may be different 50 years later, the devastation the impact and the denial are the same. Our kids are still overdosing. We have a homeless population that is suffering. And our clients need to be embraced by positive folks like you.”

There was a sense of aloha and homecoming at the AADAP 50th anniversary gala on Saturday evening at the Westin Bonaventure Hotel & Suites in Downtown L.A. Many wore aloha attire, including emcees Mitch Maki and Angela Baraquio Grey. Ohana (family) was the theme of the event that highlighted the nonprofit organization’s work of the past five decades.

AADAP recognized Rep. Karen Bass, Nick Nagatani, Marlene Lee and the Aratani Foundation.

Ron Wakabayashi presents the AADAP Heart and Soul Award to Marlene Lee.

Bass received the Mike Watanabe Leadership Award, named for AADAP’s retired executive director. The mayoral candidate received the honor from Watanabe and City Councilmember Marqueece Harris-Dawson.

Bass and Watanabe both shared memories of early meetings to discuss the crack cocaine epidemic in South L.A. that led to a decades-long partnership between AADAP and Community Coalition, a Latino and Black organization based in South L.A. that seeks to transform social and economic conditions.

“I’ve watched Karen implement the organizing principles in her roles in the State Assembly, in Congress, the Congressional Black Caucus, and now she will take those principles and our shared values to the Mayor’s Office in our great city, where she can pull disparate groups together,” Watanabe said. 

Bass told the gathering of 500 that it was too soon for Watanabe to retire, citing the city’s homeless crisis.

“We also know over the last 10-15 years the whole substance abuse safety net that we’ve had in L.A. has really atrophied and it’s atrophied because of some very bad policies. So I just want to announce tonight, Mike Watanabe, I know you retired but we need you! We need you. We need you to help rebuild and expand that safety net so we can reclaim our people on the street and get them off the street and get them in housing. So tomorrow morning people don’t die on the streets,” Bass said. “Mike Watanabe has to be in the center to make sure it doesn’t happen.”

Saundra Bryant and Miya Iwataki introduced Nagatani, who received the Social Justice Award, paying tribute to his work as a public defender, an activist with Yellow Brotherhood and cofounder of AMMO – Asian Movement for Military Outreach – a safe place for Asians serving in the military to deal with their war experience, and to fight to end the war in Vietnam.

In 2016 he wrote “Buddhahead Trilogy,” a fictional account of three generations of a Japanese American family. Iwataki also teased Nagatani for his lack of cooking skills.

Left: Social Justice Award recipient Nick Nagatani. Right: AADAP CEO Dean Nakanishi.

“His special relationship with AADAP is in recognition of his work in helping to lead the tremendous community effort to get Ronnie Nakashima, who had a life sentence, released from prison,” Iwataki said.  

“Nick Nagatani, you are an OG icon that we are all extremely proud of.”  

Nagatani shared his love of L.A. sports, recalling listening to Vin Scully, going to see the Dodgers at the L.A. Coliseum and having his heart broken by Celtics legend Bill Russell when they played the Lakers.

“I bring this up because it follows in sports that at the end of the season an individual is given an award. But in fact the recipient stands on the shoulders of his teammates,” Nagatani said.

He recognized family and friends who have supported him, especially his kids and wife, Wendy.

Ron Wakabayashi paid tribute to Marlene Lee, recipient of the Heart and Soul Award, whom he affectionately referred to as “Mama.” Lee was an integral part of AADAP’s early years, including the Hardcore House. She was also part of the Asian Sisters Organization, Yellow Brotherhood, and Asian Women’s Center.

Emcees Mitch Maki and Angela Baraquio Grey.

During her time with AADAP, Lee, who was also a beloved staff member of the Japanese American Cultural and Community Center, worked with three executive directors.

Wakabayashi revealed that Lee has a superpower.

“So what is Marlene’s superpower?  She can see your heart. She does it by simply looking for your heart. Most folks don’t bother. She bothers,” Wakabayashi said. “If you think about it, that’s caring — and when you receive genuine caring with no strings, it feels so good. It’s healing.

“Her superpower brought AADAP our special sauce. You see, the culture of drugs is secretive and distrustful. People come with heavy armor. Marlene does the ‘extraordinary’ disguised as ‘ordinary.’ Every conversation she has is a heart conversation.” 

Monies raised at the gala will help AADAP continue its work, which has faced challenges during the COVID pandemic. Nakanishi explained afterwards that AADAP had periods of lockdown during pandemic due to exposure issues and that all treatment programs were under strict guidance with L.A. County Public Health, which offered guidance and working together to obtain PPE supplies.

The executive director said one challenge has been stabilizing outpatient services.

“The community looked out for AADAP as well. Services were hurt mostly in the outpatient setting. We lost clients in the process of transitioning into a virtual setting. Also it is very difficult not to have a social aspect with treatment. Programs like ours rely on self-help and clients helping each other. Without meeting in person, we lose that. So since the pandemic, we are still trying to stabilize outpatient services. (A virtual setting) has its benefit in reaching a wider area and some clients prefer it and we stay in contact more, but then there’s the flip side as well,” Nakanishi said.

Photos by MARIO GERSHOM REYES/Rafu Shimpo

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