High school students taking part in the inaugural Go For Broke Journalism Institute (from left): Esmeralda Medina, Angel Reyes, Annabel Chung, Sidney Berjamin, Dominika Tenorio, Marissa Guadarrama and Aniq Akter.

By MIKEY HIRANO CULROSS, Rafu Staff Writer

Last Friday marked 77 years since the signing of surrender documents by Japan brought an official end to World War II. As the years and decades continue their indivertible crawl, the voices of those who fought and lived through that global cataclysm are fading into the silence of history.

The most recent figures from the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs estimate that 234 WWII veterans die each day. Of the 16 million who were involved in the war, only 240,329 were still living as of last September; the numbers are updated each year on Sept. 30.

With the loss of each veteran, first-hand accounts of the conflict that reshaped the world slip away, many disappearing – unheard – forever.

As president and CEO of the Go For Broke National Education Center, Mitch Maki has taken on the solemn mission of ensuring the voices and memories of Japanese Americans who served are not lost.

ABC7 news anchor David Ono chats with Marissa Guadarrama after the presentations. Ono was part of the mentoring group that included news professionals, journalism professors and Asian American studies experts.

“We tell the story of the veterans of World War II, and one of the challenges we have is how to take an 80-year-old story and make it relevant for young people,” Maki said Aug. 27, during a gathering of high school students, teachers and journalism professionals at the Japanese American National Museum.

“We also work to find ways to make this story relevant for young people outside the JA community. Those are really important issues for us,” he added.

The event at JANM was held to celebrate the culmination of the first student projects in the Go For Broke Journalism Institute, created in partnership with the L.A. chapter of the Asian American Journalists Association.

“We came up with this idea of creating an institute where we give real-life skills to young people, but also we give them the story, and their first project has to be some kind of journalistic piece on the JA veteran experience that ties into contemporary issues,” Maki explained. “This is not just a book report, it’s much more involved.”

Teresa Watanabe, vice president of special projects for the L.A. chapter of the Asian American Journalists Association, spearheaded the organization of working professionals and academics to mentor the high school students in the Go For Broke program.

To plot ideas and draft a roadmap for the project, Maki turned to long-time Los Angeles Times writer Teresa Watanabe, who also sits on the board of AAJA-LA.

“Before I could even get the whole idea out, she said, ‘Let’s do this,’ and we created this institute over the summer,” he recalled. “Teresa had contacts with the Downtown Magnet High School, and the eight students we recruited are all from that school and all happen to be young women.”

Maki noted how none of the students are of Japanese heritage – their families hail from countries including Mexico, Korea, Guatemala, the Philippines and Bangladesh.

“They are all immigrants or the children of immigrants, and that’s what’s been so rewarding, how that’s the level on which they connected with the story,” Maki said.

The students were tasked with creating presentations that capture their own understanding of the JA experience through their personal lenses as high school students in L.A., as well as their cultural backgrounds. The program  connected them with a host of mentors from news outlets including The L.A. Times, New York Times and ABC7 News, in addition to journalism and Asian American studies faculty from UCLA and Cal State L.A.

Mitch Maki, president and CEO of the Go For Broke National Education Center, praised the students for finding common threads connecting their lives to the experiences of World War II Japanese American veterans.

Due to COVID, interviews and conversations in this first iteration of the journalism institute were conducted online. Maki hopes to organize in-person meetings with veterans and mentors in future projects.

It turns out that each of the students taking part in the program has had some journalism experience, by way of their involvement with their school newspaper.

Charlotte Zomer is an English teacher at Downtown Magnet HS, and serves as the journalism advisor for the school newspaper, The Helios. She said she was thrilled when first approached about offering this opportunity to her students.

“It has been a wonderful experience for them to get resources beyond what I am able to provide in a journalism class and get real-life application and learn from professionals in the field,” Zomer said. “These stories are ones that we can all relate to, that they all really related to on a very deep level. Perhaps we don’t tell these stories enough in the curriculum, and I’m certain they would like to have known more about this important part of our collective history.”

For her project, 17-year-old senior Angel Reyes was drawn to a particular individual’s story, one that touched her as the daughter of immigrants and daughter of a nurse.

“I wanted to focus on women’s issues, especially in today’s world,” Reyes explained. “I found out about the Women’s Army Corps, and eventually I wanted to focus on the nurse cadets within WACs.

“As I researched, I found the story of Aiko Tanamachi Endo, a nurse during World War II. I wrote about how her mother inspired her, how she was a hard worker on the family farm prior to being stripped away from her home, how her father encouraged her and her sister to do lots of different things and expand what they liked. Aiko’s sister joined the nurse corps, and my sister is in nursing school right now; I thought there are a lot of parallels between her life and my life, and wanted to write about that.”

Despite having another event to attend earlier in the day, ABC7 news anchor David Ono managed to arrive at JANM in plenty of time to meet with the students and share his thoughts.

“What I love about seeing the young faces in this room is the promise of talented, capable journalists, leading us in telling America’s stories,” Ono said. “I am feeling encouraged for the future of our nation from you.”

Maki said he was delighted with how each of the projects tapped into a common thread, one squarely in line with the Go For Broke spirit: the willingness to fight for a better tomorrow and working toward a more perfect union.

In assembling her project about veteran and U.S. senator Daniel Inouye, Dominika Tenorio told of how she gained new respect for the importance of preserving stories.

“This program has opened my eyes to the big responsibility journalists have for our community,” she said.

Annabel Chung agreed with the sentiment, adding, “I wanted to write a story that helps to make sure these topics don’t die out, because our usual curriculum in school doesn’t include them.”

Through her research, Reyes said the personal kinship she felt to people living, working and sacrificing eight decades ago offers plenty of relevance for her in 2022.

“We tend to view history as a grandiose topic, to a point where we become desensitized to everything that’s going on around us,” she said. “I feel in order to understand and grow more caring toward others, one should learn about specific people who have lived through important events in history. I think we can all better relate to each other if it’s on a very personal level.”

Photos by MIKEY HIRANO CULROSS/Rafu Shimpo

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