By Mahlon Meyer
Northwest Asian Weekly
It was doing what she hated that led her to doing what she loves.
Janice Deguchi is three months into her job as executive director of Neighborhood House, one of the oldest social service organizations in Seattle. She’s been the leader of a number of nonprofits, transforming them in profound ways. But it was answering phones for the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) straight out of college that taught her life must have more than this to offer.
“It was soul–crushing,” she said. “And I knew I wanted to do something that would have an impact, that it mattered if I showed up the next day for work or not.”
She was inspired by mentors in the Japanese American Citizens League (JACL) to consider social activism. With their guidance, she wrote a grant for curriculum development about the internment of Japanese Americans in concentration camps during World War II, which her family had lived through.
“Where else is a 20–something–year–old going to get an opportunity to chair a committee, run a project, be an officer on the board of directors, and you’re surrounded by all these people in the community that really want you to succeed and they’re willing to help you, open doors for you, have coffee with you?”
She changed jobs, and with the help of Al Sugiyama, the late community leader and activist, worked for the Seattle Vocational Institute as a registration and recruitment specialist.
“I felt I was having an impact,” she said. “I was helping people connect to jobs or training that was going to lead to jobs, and it mattered whether I showed up to work.”
With this realization, she set a goal that she wanted to become the executive director of a nonprofit. Also through the JACL, she got to know women that were making a difference in their community.
“I saw people, women, that looked like me that were leaders, and I wanted to be like them,” she said.
In the interim, she had several other jobs, and then in 1996, she applied to be executive director of the Denise Louie Education Center (DLEC), which provides preschool for low–income children.
“I wanted to work for an organization that I could really believe in,” she said.
But they hired someone else. She waited another year and applied again.
“I got it the second time,” she said.
She soon faced a major crisis.
In 1999, the federal government was looking to take away funding for the Head Start early childhood education program. There were five grantees in the area at the time. The government wanted to cut it to two.
That could have meant the end of the organization.
With the help of her board, Deguchi sprang into action.
She learned that the national Head Start director was in Seattle for the national conference.
“We went on a full–court press, we had a huge parent meeting,” she said.
She and her board arranged for KING 5 to come to the parent meeting. They interviewed her and some parents. She collected letters from parents in multiple languages and sent a stack two–inches thick to the regional office. The next day they were awarded a site visit, the first step needed to gain funding, which they eventually got.
“That was a hugely pivotal moment for us,” said Deguchi.
Family background and childhood
Part of what made her fight so hard for her clients was that she and her family in an earlier time might have been clients themselves.
“I’m not that far removed from the immigrant experience and some of the experiences that our clients have had,” she said.
“I had the privilege of being born in the United States, but my parents and grandparents suffered a lot of discrimination and a lot of hardship.”
Her great grandparents and grandparents on her mother’s side came over from Japan for economic opportunity in the early 1900s and became farmers in Bellevue.
“They lived in Bellevue before it was a city. It was forest and trees, and they cleared the land,” she said.
They took a ferry across Lake Washington to sell produce at Pike Place Market.
Her grandmother had nine kids. Seven survived.
“But they had enough food because they lived off the farm,” she said.
When World War II broke out, they were sent to Tule Lake, a concentration camp in northern California.
Because Deguchi’s great aunt was an American citizen and the farm was in her name (Japanese Americans could not own land), the farm was not taken away. However, when they returned, “it was a mess,” said Deguchi.
According to the book, “Strawberry Days: How Internment Destroyed a Japanese American Community,” by David A. Neiwert, modern Bellevue is paved–over Japanese American farmland taken from the original Japanese American farmers who cleared it.
On her father’s side, her grandmother was a seamstress, doing piecework, in the International District. Her husband died when she was pregnant with her sixth child.
“So she was very poor,” said Deguchi.
Her dad struggled, she said, and made it to the University of Washington (UW).
But when the war hit, he was expelled and sent to Minidoka, a concentration camp in Hunt, Idaho, with the rest of his family.
Eventually, he enlisted in the U.S. military and became an interpreter in the Military Intelligence Service (MIS) in the Pacific.
One of his duties was to interrogate Japanese prisoners of war. Ten years ago, the UW awarded him an honorary degree.
Deguchi grew up in South Seattle. She remembers walking by Holly Park and other communities that were served by Neighborhood House. In middle school, she was bussed to West Seattle, as part of desegregation.
“The idea was to mingle and intermix kids of color with white kids,” said Deguchi.
But as with so many others, the results were less than ideal.
“I had to go to a school that was far from me, I did feel like I didn’t really want to participate in school activities because it was so far away,” she said. “But everyone made the best of it, we made friends with kids we wouldn’t have made friends with.”
Deguchi went to high school at Rainier Beach, and this time the white kids were bussed there. But many white parents took their kids out of public school at the time and enrolled them in private school, in what was called “white flight.”
Rainier Beach, at the time, was “a school divided,” she said, with kids in the highly capable classes and others in general education. Deguchi enjoyed English.
“I thought I tanked at math, but actually I probably didn’t. I was in Calculus and did all the usual stuff,” she said. “I just doubted my ability.”
In college and over the rest of her life, she would gain that confidence. At the UW, she studied business administration and learned about, “income statements and balance sheets and risk and ethics,” among other topics, she said.
These would come in handy for her future career.
After remaining at Denise Louie for 17 years, she had left it utterly transformed.
When she came into DLEC, she was the seventh executive director in five years. By the time she left, however, the organization had expanded in almost every way.
Besides securing the Head Start grant, she added additional Head Start slots for more students, implemented three major renovations through a $2.1 million capital campaign, tripled the budget, and built a four–month cash reserve, among other changes.
Her signature mark, perhaps, was the care she showed not only for clients but for her employees.
By the time she left, she had instituted an employer–matching contribution for employees’ retirement fund, flexible spending accounts, long–term and short–term disability leave, an employee assistance program, and a tuition reimbursement programs.
Now she wanted a new challenge.
“I’m constantly seeking to learn and grow as a leader,” she wrote in response to the interview committee at Neighborhood House. “One of the reasons I left DLEC was so that I could grow and DLEC could grow.”
She now went from caring for kids to caring for seniors.
She took up the position of Chief Operations Officer at Keiro Northwest for several years. During this period, she wrote grants that helped alleviate social isolation for seniors, helped start a new home care program, and expanded the senior travel business.
Using her business background and experience, she revamped the outdated fee structure to be more equitable and generate more revenue.
After three years, she moved to become Executive Director of Community for Youth (CfY), a nonprofit providing mentorship to young people.
While she had built partnerships throughout her career, at CfY it became an absolute necessity.
“Community for Youth receives no government funding,” she wrote, in her response to the interview, which she shared with Northwest Asian Weekly. “We rely on the generosity of our supporters.”
Serving as executive director gave her an “appreciation for the importance of relationships to fulfill the mission and all the hard work that goes into building and maintaining positive relationships with supporters,” she wrote.
During her tenure there, she personally called to thank every person that donated more than $1,000. One call—and the subsequent support she found from the donor—led to a gift of $30,000 and a promise of ongoing commitment.
All this prepared her for her current role at Neighborhood House.
During a recent board meeting, for instance, she put up chart paper around the room so that board members would walk around and write comments about board goals.
“We did a survey of board members,” she said, “then we did a gallery walk about the goals that board members should have.”
The topics that she asked board members to consider included fund raising, advocacy, linkage (back to the community), and board operations.
She is also a strategic advocate through outside organizations. She serves as the chair of the Asian Pacific Directors Coalition (APDC), which will be convening a meeting with several state legislators this month to discuss education, human services, and housing issues.
One critical issue she’ll be advocating for is increased funding for early learning.
Neighborhood House enrolled 160 children in Washington’s Early Childhood Education Assistance Program (ECEAP). The state pays them a set amount. But in providing teachers, TAs, food, supervisors, family support, parent meetings, family goal setting, and many more services, the organization is subsidizing the program $150,000 each year.
Always the advocate for the marginalized, Deguchi comes across as warm and open, yet at the same time tenacious and quietly girded for action.
One of the questions she was asked, as part of her interview was: “Why do you think poverty is so difficult?”
After recounting the genocide of Native Americans, the enslavement of Africans and massive institutional racism, she wrote,” Poverty and inequality are baked into our systems and will continue until there is sufficient outrage and advocacy to counteract the vast power and influence of the top 1 percent.”
“Unlike corporations and the 1 percent, clients served by Neighborhood House don’t have lobbyists,” she added.
But they do have an effective advocate.
Mahlon can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.