By Jenn Doane
NORTHWEST ASIAN WEEKLY
Gail Nomura is more than a pioneer in her field of study and an accomplished professor — she is an advocate for what is right.
Earning her Ph.D. in History from the University of Hawaii at Manoa in 1978, Nomura spent a number of years teaching at Washington State University and University of Michigan, where she also served as the director of their respective Asian/Pacific American Studies Programs. Nomura went on to serve 18 years as a professor in the Department of American Ethnic Studies at the University of Washington (UW), teaching courses examining subjects such as Asian American Oral Histories, Asian American and Pacific Islander Women, and Asian Americans in the Pacific Northwest.
When asked about her inspiration for becoming a historian (with a particular focus on American Ethnic and Women’s Studies), Nomura expressed her interest in learning about the history of people, places, events, and movements from a young age, pointing out the mostly male and Eurocentric history that was traditionally taught in the K-12 education system. The lack of literature devoted to the perspectives of female and marginalized groups greatly influenced her scholarly endeavors and professorship in the histories of non-Western countries, people of color, and women in the United States.
“We want all our students to see themselves reflected in the history of our nation and all people to recognize the roles of people of color and women in our collective history. Diversity is a word often used without a full understanding and valuing of the people and history behind ‘diversity.’”
She notes that her most memorable moments as a professor were when her students could draw connections between their classroom studies and their own family histories and daily lives.
“They become aware of the importance and relevance of knowing that history and how that history helps them to understand the world we live in and what they can and should do to address inequalities they see.”
Nomura’s most moving moment as a professor came in 2008 when she played a key role in awarding honorary degrees to 449 UW Japanese American students that had been forcibly removed from campus and incarcerated in concentration camps during World War II as a result of Executive Order 9066. Prior to this, only 11 honorary degrees had ever been issued by the UW.
“Watching these students, now in their 80s and 90s, receive their long overdue commencement and degrees gave us a sense of what one speaker told us, ‘It is never too late to do the right thing.’”
She also notes that it’s better to have the courage to do the right thing, at the right time, in the right away.
Despite her retirement from the UW last spring, Nomura continues to be actively engaged in the academic community. She recently served as part of a planning group dedicated to developing a program series addressing the historical connections between the Japanese American community and the Jewish community. The series kicked off with the UW Day of Remembrance on Feb. 18 [Feb. 19 marked the 75th anniversary of Executive Order 9066], where a lively and meaningful panel discussion was held. The discussions centered on the societal and political conditions leading to the concentration camps in Europe and the United States, with a focus on what could be done to combat the rhetoric of hate-provoking and discriminatory treatment. The next two programs in the series are scheduled for April 9 at the Blaine Memorial United Methodist Church and April 30 at the Nisei Veterans Committee Hall.
Nomura also has a few book projects in the works — most notably a new edition of her book Asian/Pacific Islander American Women: A Historical Anthology (co-edited with Shirley Hune), which was first released over 10 years ago. The original edition was the very first anthology devoted to the experiences of Asian and Pacific Islander women in the United States.
Certain parallels can be drawn between Nomura’s work and the current political climate. In the introduction of the first edition, Nomura emphasizes that Asian and Pacific Islander Americans should not be considered a single homogeneous group. Heterogeneity exists not only between and within Asian American and Pacific Islander American groups, but amongst all women of color. Sometimes these differences can cause contention — a few recent examples being the criticism of the Womxn’s March on Seattle, as well as the ‘Day Without Women’ held on March 8, as some women of color felt the events were just further displays of white privilege.
When asked how different groups of women can coalesce to combat shared issues and inequalities, Nomura responds, “I think we can build a working coalition to address inequities through good listening and openness to learning from each other.
“Women of color must speak out and contribute their particular insights on the issues of race, gender, class, and sexuality that intersect with so many of the social issues facing our country.
“We need to recognize and value the different strengths and gifts that people bring to the movement for social justice.”
Nomura’s advice for aspiring activists?
“Cultivate compassion for others and combine this sense of compassion with action and commitment.
“Work alone if you have to, but it is better to build a coalition of like-minded people of good will who are willing to do the hard work to achieve this goal.”
Jenn can be reached at email@example.com.