By Nina Huang
Northwest Asian Weekly
When asked what his hobby was, Mark Okazaki candidly answered, “Neighborhood House and the community.” As the executive director of Neighborhood House, a nonprofit organization dedicated to serving low-income communities and alleviating poverty in Seattle, Okazaki has dedicated most of his life to serving the community.
Born and raised in South Seattle, Okazaki stayed local and attended the University of Washington to study sociology and psychology. His college volunteer experience pushed him to work for the community.
“There was a real awakening, and there were ways that I wanted to be helpful that led me towards this trajectory in my career,” he said.
Mark’s first job after graduating was working with the City of Seattle’s Summer Youth Employment Program. He has volunteered with the Seattle Keiro nursing home, the Asian Family Affair newspaper, and has also found opportunities through his church, Japanese Baptist Church, to give back to the community.
Since 1906, Neighborhood House’s mission has been to provide opportunities for children and families to escape poverty. According to Okazaki, the four aspects of the organization are to be the community’s safety net, focus on creating more economic self-sufficiency, adjust to the community’s health needs, and be a community builder. He also noted that, even though the organization serves a large number of APIs, the majority of those served are of East African decent.
In addition to his role at Neighborhood House, Okazaki has also been involved with the Asian Pacific Directors Coalition and both the First Hill chapter of the Lion’s Club and the Rotary International Club.
Okazaki described Al Sugiyama, a life mentor and friend who he has worked with for many years, as the “most pivotal person in my career.” The two first met about 35 years ago, while volunteering together for the Asian Family Affair newspaper. Sugiyama described Okazaki as “very dedicated, hardworking, committed, and an outstanding volunteer.”
Okazaki also looks up to Bob Santos, Sharon Tomiko Santos, Ruth Woo, and many others as his inspirations in the community.
Sugiyama called Okazaki “easy to work with because he’s a team player. Mark embodies the term, ‘service above self.’ ”
After 12 years at Neighborhood House, he cited the proudest moment in his career as his ability to assemble an amazing leadership team at the organization.
“They’re all smarter than me,” Okazaki said, referring to his team of four department directors. “I absolutely believe in surrounding myself with people who are committed to the mission of Neighborhood House, and people who are smarter than me.”
He confidently noted that the organization could go much further than he could take it with his powerful leadership team.
Erin Okuno, a board member of Neighborhood House, has worked with Okazaki for nearly three years. Okuno said that Okazaki is one of the most genuine people she has worked with, and is incredibly humble.
“One of the things I appreciate is his honesty. He has created a culture within his leadership team where they treat each other with kindness, and sets an example for how we lead and treat our clients,” she added.
“We, the leadership team and board of trustees, have led the organization through challenging times,” Okazaki explained.
They completed three back-to-back capital campaigns to ensure they had facilities for their programs. The work paid off. Okazaki and his team beat the odds by doubling their budget.
In 2009, they raised over $13 million for a new community center. They partnered with other organizations to fundraise and now own two buildings, including the Rainier Vista.
Okazaki finds motivation from the community.
“I belong to a community and I identify with the API community, and I draw strength, wisdom, courage, and support from my community.”
Sugiyama is also familiar with Okazaki’s work ethic and passion. “Mark’s biggest contribution to the API community is the number of years he has volunteered to make our community a better place. He’s not a one issue guy. He sees the whole picture and has dedicated his whole life to improve our community. Mark has guts, he’s not afraid to speak up, and he’s not afraid to put his career on the line, all in the name of improving our community. If we had just 10 Mark Okazakis, we would sure be a lot further in achieving our goal of equity and fairness for all.” (end)
Nina Huang can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.