By Zachariah Bryan
NORTHWEST ASIAN WEEKLY
It’s only fitting that the late community activist Alan Sugiyama had a street named after him on Beacon Hill.
When he first moved here, it wasn’t a perfect neighborhood, but it was one of the only areas in Seattle where he could buy a house, thanks to discriminatory practices preventing Asian Americans from buying elsewhere. Larry Matsuda, a longtime friend of Sugiyama who also lives in Beacon Hill, said people used to call the neighborhood “Rice Hill.”
But, in typical Sugiyama fashion, he built a community around himself and made this place his home. This is where he went on jogs, hosted softball and flag football games, and raised his family.
“His life was around here,” said Willon Lew, another longtime friend. “His home base was here.”
About 100 people, including friends and family and public officials, gathered together on Friday, Aug. 3 to celebrate the sign’s unveiling on the intersection of South Nevada Street and 15th Avenue South, just a few blocks away from Sugiyama’s former home.
At a time when Beacon Hill is changing and gentrifying, along with the rest of Seattle, the event served as a moment to remember how Sugiyama has contributed to the neighborhood and the city.
“It shows you Seattle, at its best, learns from its civil rights leaders, from its communities, from its activists,” said Mayor Jenny Durkan, who gave remarks at the event. “We have seen so much change in our city, so rapidly … but what we have to make sure remains is that commitment to being a better city that Alan stood for.”
And what a long list of things he did.
In the 1960s and 70s, he fought for Asian American representation at local colleges, co-founding the Oriental Student Union at Seattle Central Community College and, when he transferred, leading the Asian Student Coalition at the University of Washington.
He founded the Center for Career Alternatives in 1979, which provided education and career development services to over 30,000 people over 30 years.
In 1995, he became the first Asian American to serve on the Seattle School Board.
And, up until a few years ago, he acted as director for the Executive Development Institute, which provides Asian and Hispanic leadership development.
Sugiyama, who passed away on Jan. 2, 2017 after a two-year battle with cancer, continued to speak up until the end. He called for police accountability, hiring Asian Americans for senior positions in the police department, and improving public safety in the International District.
Lew gets exasperated just thinking about everything Sugiyama did in his life. “I don’t know how he found the time,” he said.
That’s just who he was, though. Sugiyama made time for anybody and everybody, said daughter Alysa Sugiyama. It didn’t matter who you were, whether you were an immigrant from Ethiopia or a barista who worked just a couple blocks away from his house, he would do everything he could to help.
It’s a value that Alan Sugiyama would instill in his two daughters. Alysa said she and her older sister Mari grew up going to community events.
“We thought it was normal to go to all these agency functions,” she said. “He wanted us to engage with people every day, to get out there and talk to people.”
Mari Sugiyama remembered when her high school required a certain number of hours for community service and her only response was, “Yeah, so what?” Compared to her father’s demands, the requirements were nothing.
Both Mari and Alysa Sugiyama said that their dad had inspired them to help people in their own careers. The former has made a career out of working with nonprofits, while the latter works with special needs children as a teaching assistant.
Matsuda, who’s known Alan Sugiyama since grade school, can’t help but to laugh at all his friend achieved in life. He remembers when they were in the Army Reserve together. Matsuda was a sergeant when Alan Sugiyama showed up one day, looking lost.
“He was just a little private. He didn’t know what shoes to wear. He didn’t even have a uniform,” Matsuda said. “But we watched out for him.”
Later on, their roles would reverse, when Matsuda was the Seattle Public School superintendent and had to take orders from Alan Sugiyama, who was elected to the school board. It was an example that you should treat people below you kindly, because you never know when they’re going to be your boss, Matsuda said.
Reflecting on Alan Sugiyama’s life, Matsuda said he grew into a great leader: “Truthful, honest, unlike our politicians today,” he said. “He wasn’t in it for self interest. He was in it to help people.”
Mari Sugiyama said the street sign is important, because not everyone living in Seattle right now know people like her father — people who are willing to give everything and then some to the community.
“There are more and more people (living here) who don’t know people like that. Not everyone has a Sugiyama as a dad,” she said.
Hopefully, Alysa Sugiyama said, people will see his name on the sign and Google it and learn about what he has done for the community.
Alan Sugiyama’s values and actions should never be forgotten, Matsuda said. He likes to ascribe a famous Andrew Jackson quote to his friend, “One man with courage makes a majority.”
“That’s how he lived his life,” he said. “He was five-foot, three-inches tall, but he was a giant.”
Zachariah can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.