By: Melissa Han and Scarlett He

March 2015

[In collaboration with Traci Kato-Kiriyama, students from Professor Glenn Omatsu’s Asian American Studies 119: Asian American and Pacific Islander Labor Issues (Winter 2015) conducted interviews with Asian American community activists based in Los Angeles. As part of this activist narrative project, Melissa Han and Scarlett He wrote this activist narrative of Sandy and Kenwood after their interview, conducted February 18, 2015.]

Sandy Maeshiro and Kenwood Jung are two visible activists in the Asian American community and both dedicate their lives to the Asian American movement. However, they do not see Asian American activism as “special.” Rather, the particular Asian American history and experience is special because it was never part of the mainstream. They recognize that each nationality came at a different time and that their particular experiences were all unique. The phenomenon of the Asian American experience is that each one had particular differences whether it was the Japanese Americans in concentration camps or the Chinese Americans building railroads. What Asian Americans shared was that they were all ruthlessly exploited and oppressed. “It wasn’t just racism,” Kenwood said. “You’re talking about institutionalized, discrimination, oppression, exploitation, and exclusion. That’s what needs to be changed.”

Asian Americans have always been seen as “the other,” not seen as being part of this country’s history and their contributions never truly highlighted. Therefore, Asian American activism must take a different route for its issues to be heard. “The Asian American approach to activism is an emphasis on community and grassroots organizing,” Sandy explained. “We understand the importance of justice. It becomes who [we] are as people.” Most importantly, while Kenwood and Sandy were prominent leaders in the Asian American movement, they recognize that the movement was based on collective action, not individuals. “I am just thankful that I was there to witness these inspiring and heroic people,” Sandy said.

Sandy Maeshiro: The story of a passionate woman activist

Sandy Maeshiro (b. 1949) was inspired by activism ever since she was a child growing up in multiethnic communities. Her communities shaped her viewpoints about the world and her own feelings towards being Japanese American. The first neighborhood she lived in was west of Crenshaw and had a large Jewish population, which influenced her greatly. As a child, she would enjoy ice cream from the local ice cream man’s truck. One day she learned that the ice cream man and his wife were Holocaust survivors. “I remember asking them what that [the Holocaust] was and they told me they were in a concentration camp in Germany,” Sandy said. “This sparked my interest and I wanted to learn more about these camps and the people there.”

In elementary school, Sandy recalls her kindergarten class had mostly white students with only a handful of Asian Americans. As she made her way through grade school, the demographics changed and her classes had mostly Japanese Americans and Blacks due to white flight. Sandy met people from all different parts of the country and her interactions with them at a young age fueled her curiosity about the role that racism played in people’s lives. When Sandy was 10 years old, she met her new neighbors and even at this young age, she realized discrimination shaped people’s perspectives. “My friends kept asking me about a line, but I never understood what they were taking about. I would always say, ‘what do you mean by line? There is no line anywhere,” Sandy recalled.

After a while, she realized that her friends were from the segregated South and they wanted to know how far they could go before they were not allowed anymore. In their minds, they thought they were confined to a certain area, as they had been as Blacks living in the South. These were the seemingly small but profound experiences and people Sandy encountered that made her question what was really going on at the time in terms of race and ethnicity.

High school was another defining moment that shaped Sandy’s view on activism for Japanese Americans and other ethnicities suffering from unfair treatment. “On Pearl Harbor Day my teacher was going on and on about the Japanese sneak attack,” Sandy said. “I raised my hand and asked ‘what about the Japanese being interned in camps?’” She noticed that there was never any mention of the concentration camps in the history books at her school. The teacher gave an answer that shook Sandy to her bones when he said, “I bet you don’t sing I Remember Pearl Harbor at your house.” Her teacher’s total shutdown and her Japanese American friends’ anger that she had even brought up the topic humiliated Sandy. It was through typical classroom exchange that she realized Pearl Harbor was a source of shame for Japanese Americans – shame in the sense they somehow felt they were responsible.

Throughout her childhood, Sandy was unaware that Japanese Americans were even sent to concentration camps after the Pearl Harbor attack. She thought her mom was talking about summer camp when the word ‘camp’ was mentioned. Her mom mentioned dances and friends, but gave no indication of hardships and there were never any direct references. Sandy even found her mother’s identification card and barely bothered to consider its significance. Despite this, there were moments that remain in her memories about how “camps” carried a certain kind of stigma. “I remember we never ate Jell-O when I was younger,” Sandy said. “In camp, that’s what my mom was served and it was always melted.” Small connections such as this gave Sandy a bad feeling about these camps and she was intrigued to find out more.

Her parents, especially her dad, influenced her significantly about how to interact with different people. Sandy’s father was more open than her mother because he was from Hawaii and was used to being discriminated by other Asian Americans and Japanese Americans. He travelled throughout his life as a Merchant Marine and saw a lot of discrimination. He always told his children, “We should treat everyone the same.”

This mentality is the motivator for Sandy’s activism. From being a part of multiple Cuban delegations to participating in the first pilgrimage to the Manzanar concentration camp – Sandy is a symbol of hope for those fighting for justice and a role model for women activists looking to make their mark.

 In 1942, shortly after the attack on Pearl Harbor, the United States forced its own people into concentration camps and hid this information for over 27 years. This was not merely a question of security, but one of economics. Japan was seen as the enemy and thus the government isolated Japanese Americans in these concentration camps. One of the only groups that supported the Japanese Americans were the Quakers, even the American Communist Party stood on the wrong side of history. The American public, politicians, media, and others were in agreement the Japanese had to be placed in concentration camps. 

When Sandy was a student at the University of California, Santa Barbara (UCSB) she heard about two priests who went to Manzanar every year. It was during this time that she began to look into the Japanese American history.  Besides her mother who did not speak to her about the concentration camps, the Nisei in general did not want to talk about the experience. To them, it was like a prison record and they questioned Sandy’s determination in digging up an old story “that is better left buried.” But Sandy was relentless, and despite it being an unpopular thing to do at the time, she decided to search for the information herself.

In 1969, Sandy and a passionate group of Japanese Americans and supporters decided they needed to make a statement about the injustice of the concentration camps.  “We needed something symbolic, with political essence,” Sandy explained. “Why don’t we march to one of these camps we keep hearing about?” Many Japanese Americans had not been back to the camps and considered that “chapter to be closed.” Sandy and the group wanted to see for themselves.  At the time, Warren Furtutani and Victor Shibata were working for the Japanese American Citizen’s League (JACL) and initiated the idea of a pilgrimage to Manazanar, one of two camps in California. Sandy, along with many others, thought a pilgrimage would be the “perfect journey back for us to pay our respects.”  The group was excited about the prospect of seeing a camp up close. Once they arrived, witnessed the isolation, experienced the extreme weather, and saw the barbed wire and other remnants of the camp, there was a deep and profound understanding and appreciation of what their parents and grandparents experienced. Manzanar was just one of eleven concentration camps where the Japanese Americans were sent, but there were generations buried in the area. The participants cleaned up the small cemetery for those whose lives ended at Manzanar and repainted the white monument that has become one of the lasting symbols of that time. Coming together at this monument in the middle of the desert was powerful and Sandy recalled how she felt a part of this community. “We didn’t have to say anything. We just all felt it.”  The pilgrimage taught them that history was not right and something needed to be done. This moment became the pivotal point for the group. “We saw a completely isolated area, people with rifles in the backs of their trucks,” Sandy said. “The area itself was physically hostile with bad weather that was extremely hot and extremely cold.” The group wanted to protest after seeing the deserted station posts and broken glass. “But we thought: who were we going to protest?” Sandy questioned. “There was no one around for miles. It really struck us that people were even able to survive those conditions.”

The group soon learned that Manzanar was one of the camps built by people who ended up living there. Each new revelation fueled Sandy’s motivation to make this point in history known. “The camps were just terrible. My mother told me a story of having to live in horse stalls during the temporary housing period before the camp was built,” Sandy said.  From that time on, Manzanar became a rallying point. After the first pilgrimage, the group returned home and started talking about their experiences. “The Sansei started to raise issues of camps, even though it was upsetting for the Nisei,” Sandy recalled. “But as we kept talking about it and bringing it up, more and more people joined in the conversation.”

Sandy continued her activist spirit in 1970 when she joined the Venceremos (“We will overcome”) brigade to Cuba. This was an opportunity for North American radicals to experience a socialist country. The idea was for them to experience life in Cuba by working. Sandy did exactly this when she worked in citrus production on the Isle of Youth for four weeks. The final two weeks gave Sandy the chance to tour the entire island. This experience was life changing for her. “I went mainly because I wanted to understand what kind of a society we were working towards and to have the experience of working with people across the country,” Sandy explained. The revolution in Cuba at the time was less than fifteen years old and people fighting on many fronts throughout the world were there to support the Cubans. “It was an exciting moment. We even got to see Fidel Castro speak in Havanna.”

The delegation returned to the United States in hopes of dispelling the myths of the Cuban revolution and to educate people about what was really going on in Cuba. They wanted to share knowledge about the United States’ role with the embargo, describe the interesting race relations of the country that had many misconceptions, and explain how Cuba’s strong African traditions came because of its role in the slave trade.  Most importantly, Sandy wanted to express how important it was that Cuba had eradicated institutional racism – something she hoped would one day happen in the United States as well.

When Sandy returned from Cuba she worked with consciously multiracial radicals to open the Storefront, which aimed to promote “Third World unity” within the diverse Crenshaw community. She felt the need to build a more multi-ethnic organization. The Storefront community organization was located in the older part of Crenshaw where many Japanese Americans had lived prior to World War II and ultimately returned to after the war. “Working in the Asian community is very limiting,” Sandy explained. “So I wanted to do something that was more neighborhood based.” She succeeded with the Storefront, which grew to be a base in the community providing services and education. The Storefront also launched a bookstore, creative workshop for youth, film series, newspaper, and popular food co-op program. “There was even a Friday night film showing to raise political consciousness,” Sandy added.

Sandy also worked in the Asian Women’s Center located in Koreatown for a year. The federally funded center provided a range of services for women in the neighborhood. She worked with others to develop an Asian American Women’s Library and other educational programs. “The great thing about the [Asian Women’s] Center was that it was truly all women. There were no men involved and we had a big house in K-town,” Sandy said about the experience. The Asian Women’s Center was federally funded and in spite of the bureaucratic roadblocks, it was successful in being a safe haven for women addressing social issues, such as drug abuse, domestic violence, and male chauvinism.

With years of activism and dedication for the movement, Sandy has a unique perspective as a woman activist. “Looking back on it, the whole idea was very liberating,” Sandy said. “As women, we were able to express ourselves and not feel so subordinate. Cinderella was our ideal in the 1950’s – we wanted to find Prince Charming. The movement gave us so many more options.” The movement gave women more control over their lives. They could choose to have a family or not and they could choose their own careers. In the 1950s and 1960s, women were expected to become nurses, teachers, or secretaries. Sandy explains how the movement gave women the ability to see themselves as leaders, as having a voice, and as giving a voice to their experiences. “It’s never going to be easy though,” Sandy said. “It is a continuing struggle. Women still do ninety percent of the work in the home.” Sandy believes that the challenge facing Asian American women today is that there are many stereotypes of Asian women such as “Tiger Mom.” But as a whole, the most daunting obstacle facing Asian American women and Asian Americans in general is that they are always “being seen as the other, not of this culture. And this viewpoint must be eliminated for change to happen.”

From Asian American issues at home to race issues abroad in Cuba to women’s empowerment, Sandy Maeshiro is truly an inspirational activist who as touched the lives of many. For her, the movement was a life-changing event that helped her understand the importance of fighting for justice. “We adopted values based on what we believe. What kind of human beings do we want to become? What kind of human beings we want to create?” Sandy asked. “It’s a moral compass for how you are going to be and act in this world.”

Kenwood Jung: The story of an activist continuously serving the community

Kenwood (b. 1951) began to truly embrace his activist spirit in 1970 when he was working at the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA). He advocated for the Asian American High Potential Program, which was quite unknown as the time as the result of concession towards minorities and their lack of representation. As the direct result of Asian American activism in the Los Angeles area, the community, students, and faculty joined forces to fight for Asian American students who did not fit the profile of a typical student.  “The faculty and staff demanded that they choose the students, including the whole process and way of selecting,” Kenwood explained. “This was how they got involved in the movement.”

From this point on, Kenwood brought his ideals of justice to all aspects of his life. During the 1980s he worked with youth and basketball programs. He wanted to teach children the values that he held during the movement days. “It was important to share the movement values and push them on the 7 to 10 year olds,” Kenwood said. “Values such as collectiveness and concern for all members of the team rather than individualism or one hero.” Kenwood easily translated this message to the youth through his basketball program, specifically the Yellow Brotherhood team he coached. When awards were given out to the players such as “Most Valuable Player,” Kenwood and the other coaches would emphasize that it was a team effort – making sure to contrast individualism and the mutual good of the whole body.

Even off the court, Kenwood made sure to continue creating a unified and cooperative atmosphere for the young basketball players. “Whenever we travelled, we always tried to spend the whole time together: the family and the players,” Kenwood shared. While families from other teams in the tournaments would separate until the game, the Yellow Brotherhood stayed together. The multiple families would eat and go to shows together as one large family. Kenwood knew that when trying to build a community there would always be natural divisions within any group, but it was vital to consciously promote a sense of togetherness rather than allowing the differences to grow and fester and become a problem. Basketball captured the kids and the Yellow Brotherhood team was unique because many of the parents had experienced and participated in different aspects of the Asian American movement themselves, whether it was the anti-drug era, the national movement such as Kenwood did, or the Storefront with Sandy. The collective feeling of partaking in the movement days created an unbreakable, positive bond for the entire group that the players could feel as well.

Kenwood continued his activism even as his children grew up and left the youth basketball team. His passions and efforts may be varied, but they all have one cause: to fight for what is right and help bring justice to those who need it. In 2012, Kenwood joined forces with the Chinatown Community for Equitable Development (CCED) to protest the opening of a new Walmart in the neighborhood that had the potential to wipe out all the local mom-and-pop stores. He partook in several demonstrations and invited his friends from the movement days to join him in his cause. Initially, he was hesitant and saw this effort as a “young people’s group” and also felt that he had a tremendous handicap because he did not speak Chinese. But when he attended meetings and saw the younger generation’s eagerness and genuine desire to empower the Chinatown community, his perspective changed. “I wanted to build a multi-generational organization,” Kenwood said. “This ended up being the perfect opportunity because I grew up there, so I had a natural connection.”

Walmart did end up moving into the neighborhood and CCED held discussions about what to do. Some people wanted to agitate and others wanted to work in Chinatown around local issues. When they decided that they wanted to do more than just anti-Walmart actions and wanted to do community organizing instead, Kenwood became extremely involved in the cause. “I had previously worked on a lot of wage claim disputes and this was a great opportunity to go back to Chinatown and do that same kind of work,” Kenwood said. One of the main issues surrounding the core of Chinatown at the time and today is that there are major luxury condo developments. Gentrification is rampant and as more commercial businesses enter the area, the developer drives out the small shops. “Places like Coffee Bean & Tea Leaf have a lucrative lease and anchor a very expensive coffee shop which makes coffee itself expensive,” Kenwood explained. “Chinatown has $1 tea and drinks at local shops but those won’t survive as low-income working people need to move somewhere else.”

Kenwood still believes that Chinatown is a good place with affordable housing for low-income immigrants. He feels that the luxury condos are not only ruining the housing, but also that gentrification is causing physiological harm. “Families have to leave their community school, doctor, and Chinese-language services such as hospitals and stores. They’re ripped away from all of that,” Kenwood said. He notes there are signs of this taking place right outside Chinatown, but that it is also becoming more intrusive in the heart of the community. To combat the gentrification process, he is currently providing resources and support to families week to week that have been evicted.

Besides gentrification, Kenwood is also fighting for fair treatment of immigrant workers. He recently supported two young women who were former employees of Little Tokyo’s Ozero Tea & Desserts shop. This shop is an example of a chain operation, rather than a mom-and-pop store, moving into an ethnic community and taking advantage of new immigrants. The woman in charge hired young Chinese American men and women to work. “One day, two young ladies came to [the CCED] and said the owner wasn’t paying them overtime and would give them a personal check as payment,” Kenwood said about the situation. He soon learned from their story that the workers were told their taxes were paid, but found out the owner was lying when the IRS sent them a letter saying they owed taxes. “They were asking what they could do,” Kenwood said. “I wanted to do more than just fight for them, I wanted to teach them how to fight for themselves.”

Kenwood took on the case and helped the young workers filed wage claims for overtime and missing breaks. Then they filed a claim for worker misclassification. Throughout the process, Kenwood emphasized working with the workers rather than for them. “I told them ‘I’m not an attorney, but I will go with you to court and help you be assertive and stand up for yourself,’” Kenwood said. “I hoped they would help someone else do this in the future. That they would teach them how to organize and fight for what is right.”

The process took almost seven months and Kenwood supported them with everything from assembling story facts, filling out tedious paperwork to document their past work schedules, and analyzing each point thoroughly. The young women approached Kenwood when they were scared and afraid, but came out empowered and successful from their efforts. “I worked with them, but they’re the ones that did all the work by representing themselves. Now one of them even wants to come work at the CCED to help others who were unfairly treated,” Kenwood explained humbly. “That’s the real victory.”

Activism is synonymous with Kenwood Jung. His role in the immigrant community has impacted the lives of many. Through his leadership, there have been many more supporters of justice. Whether it is his own family, friends, or even strangers, Kenwood wants to unite with others who have an activist spirit to work for the betterment of the Asian American community.

Fighting Injustice Together

Sandy and Kenwood met through a mutual friend who was a member of the Storefront [a multiracial left political formation that promoted “Third World unity” in the multiracial Crenshaw neighborhood] and also worked with Kenwood in the UCLA Asian American Studies Center. They married in 1976 and together they support each other’s activist efforts. They even went on a Cuban delegation together in 2001 to promote cultural exchange between the Japanese and Cubans. Sandy was asked to go because she was extremely fluent in Spanish and Kenwood, as her husband and someone equally passionate about the issue at hand, brought their children to experience socialism as well. This was an opportunity for Sandy and Kenwood to show their kids, who only understood the movement in an abstract sense, the movement firsthand.

Both Sandy and Kenwood continue to stay active in their community to fight for what they believe in. Even with busy lives including family responsibilities and work obligations they make time for community involvement because activism is ingrained in their lives. “Our passion is making change and a leaving a legacy behind for others to continue to fight for what is right,” Kenwood said. “If it is a question of choices, what do we choose? We choose to fight for justice. We choose to fight for a better world.”

They hope to instill the same sense of community service and activism in the younger generation, especially students because Sandy and Kenwood recognize the power that students have to make a difference. For students who are unsure of this power, they provide relatable stories and give insightful advice on how to maximize their power. Sandy also questioned her power as a student in college and found her answer in Cuba. “I dropped out of school and went to Cuba to fight for the revolution and everywhere I went Cubans would ask, ‘What do you do?’” she recalled. “I would say, ‘We’re revolutionaries,’ but they kept asking, ‘No, what do you do? What is your contribution to society? Are you a revolutionary teacher? Or a revolutionary plumber?’” This inspired Sandy to go back to school, graduate, and become a teacher. She realized that it is important to fight for a cause with a skill, that everyone has to do something, and that there is no such thing as a “professional activist.” Sandy says that, if a writer uses writing skills, then students have the opportunity to learn and hone a skill that they choose – they are not facing issues separately from anyone else, but rather from a different perspective.

Kenwood notes that students have the power and responsibility, but more specifically the privilege, to be able to get the best education and training in the world. He mentions that students have historically been involved in progress movements and have a wider worldview. “Students are able to look at history and have a chance to examine that versus someone who is raising a family and going to work – that is a power students have – the time to explore and the luxury to be an activist. Don’t let society take that away.”

Sandy and Kenwood are true Asian American activists of our generation. Their passion for social justice is in their DNA. Students and any prospective community leaders can benefit from emulating their dedication and lifelong commitment to their work. “Being a part of the movement for Sandy and myself is not just a fad or a thing we went through in college,” Kenwood said. “It changed who we are. Fighting for revolution, that’s who I am, that’s who she is; that’s who we are.”

Final Thoughts

As the interviewers who had the privilege of meeting with Sandy and Kenwood, we definitely learned more about the Asian American movement than we would have in any classroom setting. Speaking with activists who have experienced the movement firsthand gave us valuable insight about the issues facing the Asian American community historically and today. From our interview, we came away with several key takeaways.

First, we realize the importance of humility. True activists and immigrant workers have passionately worked to build our communities and fight for justice without attention or glory in mind. Rather, they have dedicated their lives to important issues and worked on the grassroots level to build support – truly modeling the tradition of “militant humility.” We also recognize that activism ideas can be applied everywhere. We were inspired by Kenwood’s intertwining of movement ideals into his youth basketball team and Sandy’s Storefront that shaped an entire neighborhood. These creative approaches taught us that we are able ignite change every day, on both large and small scales.

Furthermore, Sandy and Kenwood have showed us that we as students not only need to maximize our time to understand activism and fine-tune our skills, but also that we should use our talents to serve our communities. Sandy and Kenwood’s activism led them to different organizations, places, and people. From their story, we see benefits of joining together with other activists and immigrant workers for even greater impact. We have been inspired by Kenwood and Sandy’s passion and commitment and we will be sure to apply their advice to positively change our own communities.