By Kai Curry
Northwest Asian Weekly
When this human bundle of energy walks into a room in the International District, everyone takes notice. Born and raised in Beacon Hill, she seems to know each person there, and they all seem to know her. She speaks to the barista in Spanish. The smiles ricochet through the room as she strides with purpose to her table. While she’s speaking to the Asian Weekly, the who’s who of Seattle came up and we asked her, “Are you going to be the first Asian American president?”
Who is this enigma with the vibrant personality, the impressive tattoos, and the full day planner, that speaks with authority on topics of importance to Asian American Pacific Islanders? This is the face of a new generation of activists and politicians, who will push change in paradigms that have existed for too long in life-affecting matters, such as healthcare, policing, and immigration. This is Toshiko Grace Hasegawa, the new executive director of the Commission of Asian and Pacific American Affairs (CAPAA).
But you probably already know her.
Toshiko arrived at the CAPAA after Michael Itti’s departure last year, and she’s full speed ahead, traveling the state to solicit feedback and inform the public about what CAPAA is working on. She had been involved with CAPAA previously as part of the Joint Legislative Task Force on the Use of Deadly Force in Community Policing.
“I was really glad to be able to give voice to the Asian American Pacific Islander community because it is oftentimes seen as an issue that impacts everybody but AAPI’s,” she says. “We’ve gone statewide and continue to do story-finding and give voice to that testament because it absolutely happens to us, and no longer are we going to be witnesses to injustice.” When summarizing what’s been accomplished so far through legislation such as I-940 and 1064, Toshiko grows impassioned.
“We’re at a tremendous brink of subverting a paradigm, and I can’t over-emphasize how important it is that every single one of us pay close attention because the numbers of the outcomes and impacts for our communities don’t lie.”
Toshiko and CAPAA are vigilant that policies and practices take into account the AAPI population, and that the government and the public consider new ways of resolving issues of concern. Some are more concerning than others.
“Since day one of when I took office,” Toshiko relates, “I have heard, on a regular basis, pleas from members of the community who are facing imminent deportation because they are now targeted by ICE due to prior criminal records…Addressing the prison-to-deportation pipeline has been a big one that we’ve had to grapple with.”
In healthcare, CAPAA made strides in 2018 when Governor Inslee approved a COFA healthcare system, for the people of Micronesia, the Marshall Islands, and Palau. This year, they are working on an accompanying dental package, which is sitting on Inslee’s desk. In other areas, there is much to be done. Suicide and addiction have been spotlighted, and the need to de-stigmatize mental health care among AAPI’s.
“Some languages don’t even have a word for ‘addiction,’” Toshiko notes. “To do justice by our communities, we have to acknowledge that no two are the same. They come from unique experiences, unique cultures, unique languages, and all those define how communities are interfacing with some of these complex issues on mental health…How are we shining a light onto the depth of the issues in our own communities? And…even if we are shining a light, how are we streamlining promoting access to services…that is also culturally accessible?” Speaking from her own culture, Toshiko says, “I can tell you that in Japanese culture, you’re supposed to gaman (‘suck it up’) — you don’t complain. Not even just with mental illness, maybe just with sickness in general.”
Healthcare. Immigration. Safety and security. These are issues with big repercussions that Toshiko and CAPAA are proficient at addressing. They have to be. Recently, their plate was piled higher by their securing authority to formally advise the state legislature in addition to the governor and state agencies. It’s a good thing, and do-able, when you’re motivated to create overdue new paradigms, not just for the AAPI community, but for everyone.
Child of former teamster leader and current senator, Bob Hasegawa, and mental health counselor, Lindy May, Toshiko is a proud combination of what her parents taught her.
“I had proximity to concepts such as advocating solidarity, [which] was a key concept in understanding that joining forces in order to advocate could actually win you your victories…collective power can be a catalyst for tremendous change,” she describes. “It’s always been deeply inspiring for me to see results from that sort of collective action. But also closeness. With other people and other communities.”
Toshiko was also inspired by her older sister, Mineko, who was the “good kid” while Toshiko was the troublemaker.
“My sister is the one who showed me what standing up and getting engaged in youth leadership looked like,” she recalls. At Garfield High School, Toshiko participated in the Genocide Remembrance Committee and the Freedom Crisis Project. She studied in Costa Rica for a year (thus the Spanish), and upon her return sat for jury duty on a case that changed her life, about a 15-year-old Micronesian boy being tried as an adult.
“It all has culminated in a variety of experiences that all informed where I am today,” Toshiko explains. “My background was very much in police accountability work.” Prior to CAPAA, Toshiko was the communications manager at King County’s office of law enforcement oversight, where she and her colleagues “really got to reboot this vision for civilian input in policing practices.”
CAPAA recently celebrated 45 years, and Toshiko is aware of the important legacy she has inherited, as well as the unique positioning that enables CAPAA to carry out its mission.
“What’s so beautiful about CAPAA is that it’s not this patriarchal model where we’re mandating things and people can either get on board or leave it,” she explains. “We flow the opposite direction where we mine the community for their wisdom and then we report upwards and tell decision-makers how they can serve us.” Toshiko and CAPAA are makers of a new reality. But they can’t do it on their own. Toshiko quotes Mako Nakagawa, community elder, “There are three kinds of people in the world. Ones who watch things happen. Ones who make things happen. And ones who say, “What the hell just happened?”
“The best thing that we can do and ask people to do is to use their voice,” exhorts Toshiko. She realizes many hesitate these days, with insecurities about the 2020 Census, and breaches of trust such as the state Department of Licensing sharing confidential information with law enforcement.
“If I can do one thing over the course of this tenure and call it a success, it is to create safe spaces for people to feel like they can show up, weigh in, and be heard, and still have their voice represented.”
Throughout her conversation, Toshiko references strong men and women that she admires. She calls one of the women a “firecracker.” It’s clear that she has learned from those who beat out the path before her, and looks up to them. Now, Toshiko is lighting the way with CAPAA, for the state, and hopefully the nation.
CAPAA’s next public board meeting is on June 8, from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m., at 7566 High School Road N.E., on Bainbridge Island.
Kai can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.