By Nina Huang
Northwest Asian Weekly
Sue Taoka is changing the world.
Although she didn’t have much growing up, Sue Taoka had a big heart and a passion for helping those in her community. She looked up to civil rights leaders such as Martin Luther King, Jr., Min Yasui, Fred Komastu, and Gordon Hirabayashi.
“Any person of color runs into blatant and subtle discrimination, and figuring out when you have to face it and be bold, and when you just have to take it, is a hard thing,” she explained.
Taoka grew up on a sizeable vegetable farm in a small Colorado town called Hudson with her three siblings, parents, uncle and grandfather. She lived there until she attended the University of Colorado, where she earned her bachelor of science degree.
After graduation, she came to Seattle in 1979 because she decided to go to law school after realizing how some people weren’t able to receive the legal support they needed due to language and cultural barriers.
Years ago, Taoka met Bob Santos in Washington, D.C., and he told her what was going on with Seattle community organizers. He even offered to help her find a job if she ever moved to Seattle. Taoka received her law degree from Seattle University School of Law.
Taoka explained how she was able to meet very important people in Seattle, such as Santos, Ben Wu, Paul Mar, Donnie Chin, Maxine Chan and her husband, Richard Mar. These people were grounded in the community and wanted to make it a better place for residents, which inspired her.
While at InterIm, a housing and community development organization in Seattle’s Chinatown, Taoka and colleagues did influential work. They helped get the senior meal program to what it is today. She also took part in the building of the Danny Woo community garden, which received a lot community advocacy and support.
When Norm Rice was elected mayor of Seattle in 1989, and Taoka became the deputy chief of staff, she felt fortunate to work with such a diverse group of individuals.
“That was one of the times that we felt like we were going to change the world,” she said.
She met more influential people, including Bob Watt and Eric Pettigrew. At that time the team was involved in the first education summit in Seattle, which led to the first education levy.
“We didn’t change the world, but we made a lot of changes, and I feel pretty proud about that.”
Taoka’s friend Tim Otani described her as one of those exceptional leaders with a quiet and highly effective style. “She is someone who is never looking for the spotlight and is more concerned about getting the job done.”
During her 14-year tenure at SCIDpda (Seattle Chinatown International District Preservation and Development Authority), Taoka worked on the Village Square 1 and 2 buildings.
Executive director of SCIDpda Maiko Winkler-Chin said Taoka had a vision for the Village Square phase 2, and helped implement and make it all happen.
“That’s the physical representation of what she’s really known for,” said Winkler-Chin. “She had her own vision and was able to make it happen, which is much harder sometimes.”
Taoka was told that they would never be able to do the project, but they did. The first thing she and other organizers did was to set out to learn what the local residents most wanted in their neighborhood.
“When we first started we spent a lot of time talking to lots of different people in the community,” said Taoka. “Two things came out fairly strongly — a community center and the need for a library. People want to read books and magazines and periodicals in their own language.”
An area for children was important, too, she said.
“Kids need a place to burn off energy.”
Today the Village buildings comprise a senior housing facility (most of which is assisted living), a child care center, adult day care, a library, a community center with meeting rooms and a computer area, a gym, some retail space, and an International Community Health Services medical and dental clinic.
“It was challenging,” she said. “Great fun and hard work.”
While Taoka was in charge of the project, she said she had a lot of help.
“I may have been the head person overseeing it,” she said, “but in order to make it happen, lots of great people were involved.”
After Village Square 2 opened, one proud 5-year old boy told Taoka about how he was going to get his own room for the first time in his life. He held her hand and walked around the corner, pointed and said, “That’s my library!”
That was the moment when Taoka said she realized, “OK, we did good.”
Winkler-Chin described Taoka as an extremely humble, authentic, and smart person who thinks strategically.
“She is authentic, meaning what you see is what you get. She really cares about the neighborhood and the people that live here,” she said.
“My passion around all of this is the community,” Taoka said. “I want to support what people in the community want, and be available to them. I just want to do what’s right.”
After realizing how difficult community financing can be, she joined Craft3 in 2007, where Taoka is now the executive vice president. She spends her time developing the urban market focusing on distressed and immigrant communities.
Craft3 is a nonprofit community development financial institution (CDFI) with a mission to strengthen economic, ecological and family resilience in Pacific Northwest communities. They are a “triple bottom line” lender, in which the loans create impact in social equity, economic opportunity, and environmental sustainability.
Taoka said she is proud to work with colleagues who are incredibly dedicated to the Craft3’s mission.
“When the group can spend time together and share meaningful content and have good interaction, it strengthens the fabric of the organization,” she said.
Although the International District is still very close to Taoka’s heart, Craft3 has broadened her perspective, given her opportunities to work in other areas, and expanded her understanding of how community financing can affect and make a difference in people’s lives.
In addition to her full-time job, Taoka enjoys gardening, knitting and reading. Otani mentioned that Taoka was one of the pioneers who brought the concept of Taiko drumming to this region.
Taoka is also on the board of the Seattle Urban League and Friends of Little Saigon. She hopes that the Little Saigon landmark project will be completed in the next few years because she knows how influential it will be for the area.
“It’s really important because that’s going to help anchor and set the tone for the development of Little Saigon. It will be critical for that community to have something that’s theirs,” she said. (end)
Sue Taoka will be honored at the Top Contributors award dinner on Dec. 6 at the House of Hong Restaurant in Seattle, from 6–9 p.m.
Nina Huang can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.