By Kai Curry
Northwest Asian Weekly
“Okage sama de (I am who I am because of you).” It is a Japanese phrase that Toshiko Grace Hasegawa wears as a tattooed reminder, and the theme of the Unity of Voices virtual celebration on Jan. 13, organized by Black and Asian American and Pacific Islander (AAPI) community leaders. The online gathering honored a shared past, while recognizing Western Washington’s newly-elected and appointed Black and AAPI officials in what was the banner year of 2021.
“As I step into this role as a separately elected official and yes, the first Asian American woman to serve in this capacity, I do so humbly because I recognize that I’ve only arrived at this place, at this moment, because of the fight and the sacrifice, the beautiful audacity of the people before me who advocated so that I might,” said Hasegawa, a newly-elected Port of Seattle Commissioner, in her rousing closing remarks. “We also recognize that it’s not just our right, but it’s our responsibility, to preserve that legacy and to pay it forward.”
Seattle Mayor Bruce Harrell, the keynote speaker, emphasized to the over 70 incoming AAPI officials the importance of reciprocal support and inspiration, and of love, especially to a younger generation filled with frustration and anger in the face of an unjust system.
“We have to show patience to the younger generation. We have to show leadership to the younger generation, which means WE listen [and] we show how to listen. We’ll be better leaders if we do that.”
Harrell reiterated his “One City One Seattle” aspiration and his meaning that, while the Black and AAPI communities might not agree on everything, they can agree on certain values and stand stronger together, as they have done in the past.
“We realize it is our collective power, not our sameness, but our collective power to love one another…that’s how we get things done.”
Throughout the call was a warm and safe feeling of understanding and mutual respect.
Emcee Nate Miles discussed the history of Black and AAPI allyship and the hope that this unity would continue into the future, for the success of both communities.
“We also want to…celebrate the strength that the Asian and African Americans have enjoyed over the last several years…going back to a time when people like Senator George Fleming teamed up with people like Ruth Woo, but even before that…[to] Wing Luke, when he ran for the City Council…we all had to come together because we knew we were stronger as a group than we were divided.”
Fellow emcee and former Seattle Deputy Mayor Hyeok Kim recalled the help she received from Miles himself at the start of her political career.
“Nate was one of the first faces I saw in Olympia…Think about this incredible, beautiful tapestry, and legacy, that…the giants before us laid the groundwork for…of Asian and Black elected officials working together, collaborating, supporting each other.” That’s what Unity of Voices was about. Kim continued, “Honoring that legacy, but also heralding some of the new elected officials, the new Black faces, the new Asian faces, that are going to pick up that legacy and take us to the next level and into the future.”
Following Harrell’s remarks, an impressive list was read of each of the newly-elected Black and AAPI officials in King, Pierce, Thurston, and Snohomish counties, as well as at the federal and state levels. Each honoree received a few words on their accomplishments or responsibilities, and if present, they were brought to the screen and congratulated publicly.
Significant milestones were mentioned, such as the diversity of Harrell’s administration, which includes three women of color as deputy mayors. The refreshingly broad age range of new officials introduced includes seasoned political veterans and newcomers like Tukwila Councilmember Mohamed Abdi, the youngest Somali to hold the position.
Recognition and thanks were given to event organizers and fellow community leaders like the Weekly’s publisher, Assunta Ng, who Miles described as a “voice for the voiceless, and a voice for all of us when we need somebody to speak up for us”; and Cindy Wong-Li, of Vibrant Cities, who received a gift basket and certificate for her help in putting the evening together.
“Excuse my French,” joked Miles. “You’re a badass…in a great way!”
Throughout the night was this feeling of shared respect and appreciation, as well as high hopes for what changes might be achieved by new and old blood alike.
“It really is a tremendous honor for me to share this platform with people who I have across my life so long admired, figurative but also literal giants in our community, who are breaking ceilings and making history,” said Hasegawa. “We could all take a look at the attendees today and give gratitude to someone among us who has mentored you or empowered you or held you accountable to be your greatest self.”
Hasegawa spoke of how the Black community held fundraisers when Japanese families were released from internment, so that those families might “find their footing.” And how, in the aftermath of George Floyd’s murder, Asians marched holding signs that read “Yellow Peril Supports Black Power.” Or how, when violence rose along with the coronavirus, it was the NAACP who first spoke out against anti-Asian hate. She and the other speakers proved we have many examples “of what it looks like to stand up for each other, but more importantly, with each other,” to organize “inter-racially,” “inter-sectionally,” and “inter-generationally,” because “infringing upon people’s rights is a slippery slope, and a threat to one of us is a threat to all of us.”
Harrell, too, described a legacy of unity. He remembered empowering slogans like “I’m Black and I’m proud,” “Black is Beautiful,” or “Black Power,” whereas now the message is “We matter.” “We have to say, “we matter,” he explained, “when we look at African Americans dying at the hands of police, unnecessarily [and] with the rise in violence against Asians.”
Harrell talked about the Chinese Exclusion Act, and the myth of the “Model Minority,” the belief that everything is going well for AAPIs, when it’s often not.
“Look at your history books,” he urged. “Here we are in 2022 grappling with the same issues. The good news is we are here to make history.”
Harrell asked the audience, “What inspires you?” The answers came in a flood.
“Remembering the struggles of those who went before me,” said Tiffany Washington, Seattle deputy mayor. “Great leaders like Bob Santos, Roberto Maestas, Larry Gossett, and Bernie Whitebear,” listed event organizer Tim Otani. “The students of Seattle Public Schools,” said Brandon Hersey, new Seattle school director. In sum, we are inspired by a heritage of leaders and loved ones, and the legacy we wish to leave our children and grandchildren.
“What I hope we do in 2022, and the purpose of this gathering, is that we learn how to inspire people,” said Harrell. “Let’s inspire one another. Let’s hold each other up.”
Kai can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.