By Assunta Ng
NORTHWEST ASIAN WEEKLY
When Al Sugiyama died on Jan. 2, so many people felt they had lost a great friend. That’s the way Al was — personable, caring, and committed to helping and supporting the people he knew.
I don’t remember exactly when I met Al. But he quickly impressed many of the Northwest Asian Weekly editors as a remarkable leader. (Over the years, I had many editors.)
Not everyone can be a leader, but we can learn from the way he treats people and he’s always approachable. From big shots to the everyday person, Al was interested in talking to people, finding out what and how they were doing, and how he could make a difference in their lives.
Once I invited him to be the keynote speaker for the Northwest Asian Weekly Foundation’s high school diversity scholarship dinner. Yes, he’s a charismatic speaker, witty, and great at ad-libbing.
And he always ended on time. After the event, he stood at the door to greet and shake hands with more than 40 student nominees and their parents. He shook close to 80 hands.
As founder and executive director of the Center for Career Alternatives (CCA), which is now closed after 30 years of operation, Al could have sought out some easier clients. But no, he visited out-of-the-city prisons to find out if the inmates there needed job training once they got out.
One time, he came back all excited. “Guess what? The prison’s deputy superintendent is Asian! You should do a story.”
What Al was doing was not only giving us story tips, he was also connecting community members.
Al was a frequent news tipper to our newspaper. Through the Asian Weekly’s stories, younger Asian Americans learned of other Asian Americans breaking the glass ceiling, and being successful in diverse occupations. Al’s goal was to promote Asian Americans and seek out successful role models. It was part of his empowerment objective to develop people of color and the underprivileged communities.
Most Asian Americans would prefer not running for office, especially the school board, because it’s demanding and thankless. Plus, it doesn’t pay very well.
Al was the first Asian American to win a seat on the Seattle Public School Board. He told us that he spent as many as 100 hours a month in that role, in addition to his full-time job at CCA. He went on his own time to visit all the schools in his district. When he visited, he usually brought along cookies to share with staff and teachers. To this day, I hear praise about Al from his fellow board members.
Here is Al’s amazing legacy. When he finished his two terms, he persuaded another Asian American, Jan Kumasaka, to run in his place. Kumasaka defeated another outstanding candidate and completed two terms. I can think of only two Asian American elected officials who thought of an exit plan, and the desire to groom other Asian Americans to take their place. One was former Seattle City Councilmember Dolores Sibonga, who had mentored Martha Choe until the day Sibonga announced that she wasn’t going to run again, and that Choe would be the perfect replacement.
When former Governor Gary Locke ran for that office, some fellow Asian American leaders were angry that he didn’t call them personally to ask for their support. They griped that he was taking them for granted. They would withhold support until he called.
“Has Gary called you yet?” I asked Al one day.
“No, he hasn’t,” he said without any bitterness. “But I am not going to mess with it just because he hasn’t called me. Gary is my guy.”
Ego can destroy relationships. A big picture guy, Al understood what was important and what was petty! Al realized that there are so few Asian Americans at the top. How could we not show anything but solidarity?
And Gary did eventually call Al.
Hum Bow contest
The Hum Bow contest came about because Al loved food. The contest was part of the API Heritage Month he founded, held annually at the Seattle Center on the first Sunday in May. The man was always thinking — how he could bring the community together and celebrate for the common good. Hence, the idea for API Heritage Month was born.
In 1982, Al was elected the first chairperson of the Asian Pacific Directors Coalition, a group of API executive directors and leaders who advocated for the API community. In 2002, he organized a subcommittee to promote API Heritage Month, according to Peter Tsai, who worked for Al for 25 years at CCA.
Al was inspired by Vancouver, B.C.’s API heritage celebration. “Can you believe their (BC) program for the API month was so thick, with pages and pages of events?” he remarked.
Al used his experience of putting on API heritage celebrations and events at colleges, universities, and high schools in the 1970s to create what it is today — part of the Seattle Center Festival series promoting cultural awareness and diversity. The festival has included local and national API performing groups, educational displays and workshops, art contests, hum bow eating contests, API authors’ showcase, and API film festivals.
The festival is part of Al’s legacy. There will be about 60 to 70 volunteers, said Tsai, who has taken a big role in organizing the event.
So attend this year’s festival on May 7 at the Seattle Center Armory, because Al will be there in spirit. Discover how the community is going to honor Al. You can find some additional info on apdcwa.org.
Assunta can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.