By Ruth Bayang
NORTHWEST ASIAN WEEKLY
Long time community activist Al Sugiyama passed away on Jan. 2 at Swedish Hospital, surrounded by family and an intimate group of friends. One of his daughters told the Northwest Asian Weekly that his death was quick and peaceful.
“During Sugiyama’s last 25 minutes, he was visited by a former student and employee. Her name was Yoli, and Al helped her out when she was 16 years old. About 20 years later, she now has a career in city government,” said Willon Lew, a long time friend of Sugiyama. “I found it so appropriate and timely that one of his many students would be there at that time, at his bedside, to express her thanks. This was Al at his best, helping people get started in their careers and in their lives, like Yoli.”
“From organizing Asian American students at [the University of Washington] in the 1970s, to establishing the Center for Career Alternatives (CCA) for young people in the 1980s, to serving as the first Asian American on the Seattle School Board in the 1990s, to serving as Director for the Executive Development Institute (EDI) until a few years ago — Al Sugiyama was always advocating and looking out for the rights of others,” said the Seattle Japanese American Citizens League (JACL) in a statement.
On running for the Seattle School Board three decades ago, Sugiyama told Northwest Asian Weekly publisher Assunta Ng, “If I don’t do it, who will?” Sugiyama told Ng that he wanted to help students of color succeed in education and narrow the achievement gap.
In September 2015, when Sugiyama was in the midst of cancer treatments, the community held a party to celebrate his accomplishments. At that party, and to the amusement of the crowd, Sugiyama stripped off his sports coat to reveal a Superman T-shirt he had been wearing underneath.
“I’m really not Superman,” Sugiyama said, “but I feel like it with all of you here.”
“I don’t want to have people feel sorry or pity me or say ‘poor me.’”
Sugiyama told the crowd he found strength from all his friends who care about him.
Even while battling cancer, Sugiyama continued to demand police accountability, hiring Asian Americans for senior positions in the police department, and improving public safety in the International District.
He joined the protest at King’s Hookah Lounge in July 2015 over the death of Donnie Chin. The protesters turned to Sugiyama for leadership.
“What do we want?” Sugiyama yelled without missing a beat.
The crowd responded, “We want justice!”
In 2010, the Seattle City Council proclaimed Oct. 28 to be Al Sugiyama Day — in honor of his lifetime community work.
On her Facebook page, Brittany Danyelle Ryerson, events manager at EDI, said Sugiyama “was not only an advocate for Asian American rights in Seattle, but a fighter for any and all communities that were in need. He lived a life of service for diversity, inclusion, and equality, and the community adored him for it. He was a fighter for communities and a fighter for his own health.”
Sugiyama was 67 years old. He is survived by his daughters, Mari and Alysa, and his extended family. Alysa told the Northwest Asian Weekly that her father will be cremated and buried next to their mother at Evergreen Washelli. Services are pending.
Ruth can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.