By David Inoue, JACL Executive Director
The completion of the 2018 National Convention in Philadelphia brought my first year as JACL Executive Director to a close, and with it, the first convention that I had a direct hand in planning. I am especially grateful that joining me in planning this convention was Rob Buscher from the Philadelphia chapter. We shared a vision for expanding what might be done at convention with regard to programming, and I hope to continue that expansion of our horizons both for convention and the organization going forward.
My broader vision for convention is that it be much more than a meeting of JACL membership. As the only national Japanese American organization, we should be using our conventions to draw Japanese Americans regardless of membership. Our conventions should be seen as a gathering event for all Japanese Americans.
As such, I believe we must begin a shift away from the organization’s business focus to one of expanded programming with an increased focus on education. Our mission is, after all, education.
As we draw in a younger membership, some of our education efforts must also turn toward our membership. We have to ensure that future generations of JACL members are fully aware of the legacy we are being entrusted to continue. We must preserve the story of Japanese American incarceration so that it is not forgotten.
The Saturday panel with Grant Ujifusa, Karen Narasaki and Stuart Ishimaru discussing JACL’s role in redress and the continuing the fight for civil rights only scratched the surface of what they could have covered.
In listening to some of the conversations afterward, it became apparent that we need to do a better job, even within our own membership, of teaching the important role that JACL played in achieving redress and likely throughout civil rights history. Each of those three panelists could have easily provided a 30-minute keynote address, and I wish we had the time to do that.
Ultimately, we need to be focused outside our current membership as well in order to draw in new members and reach those who don’t know the story. It doesn’t help our education efforts if we are only talking amongst ourselves.
Conventions should be the means for launching our outreach efforts to schools and other organizations where we can share our community’s story of incarceration and its relevance to today’s events like the Muslim ban, family separation and overall increasing hatred directed at immigrant populations, just like what we experienced in our own community’s early history.
Pulling all of our membership together annually at convention will be a wasted opportunity if we do not equip attendees with the tools to maintain a strong education committee that can conduct local trainings for history and civics teachers or implement programs to draw in new members and supporters. We can use these meetings to exchange ideas of what is working for some chapters and what has perhaps not worked in operating the chapters.
At this year’s convention, we sought to provide some of these tools with the film festival, breakout sessions on hate crimes, Japanese American Confinement Sites (JACS) funding opportunities and storytelling. It is my hope that next year and going forward, we can devote more than just an hour session to topics like these.
This past year, I have had the opportunity to attend several pilgrimages with attendance exceeding the numbers we see at conventions. Some of the things that pilgrimages do well can serve as a model for our conventions.
The emphasis of conventions is to build a shared community based on the experience of that incarcerated community. Each one is different, but many of the components are the same.
The NY/SC did a great job with its trivia night event, which was a lighthearted version of the multigenerational discussion groups that are central to pilgrimages. While the emotions shared were different, the foundational idea of building a shared community was identical.
It is my hope that our conventions will not be limited to JACL delegates and members, but will attract a broad representation from the full Japanese American community. I believe we have the resources of a national organization to offer to many of our fellow Japanese American organizations, and we have much we can learn from them as well.
Convention should be the clearinghouse where we can have that exchange. I look forward to seeing you and many more next year in Salt Lake City when we celebrate our 90th anniversary and propel JACL forward into the next decade toward our centennial.