Analysis: Was dearth of national president candidates a mere blip — or something more concerning?
By P.C. Staff
At its 2018 National Convention in Philadelphia, the Japanese American Citizens League was still shy of its 90th birthday, but it appeared that a youthful wave had arrived with new energy, diversity and reinvigoration for the nation’s oldest Asian American civil rights organization.
At that event’s Sayonara Banquet, newly elected JACL National President Jeffrey Moy said, “You may have noticed something a little bit odd about tonight’s swearing in. I’m here to confirm that your worst nightmare is coming true: Young people are taking over.”
The tongue-in-cheek comment elicited laughs in the moment, but it did reflect the reality that JACL, which was for most of those nearly 90 years an organization led by its second-generation Japanese American founders (bolstered, eventually, by Sansei and others), had finally entered a new era as the Nisei waned in numbers, power and influence three decades following the JACL-led success of the Redress Movement.
Fast-forwarding to 2022, things were definitely different, and the “nightmare” of young people taking over had devolved into a different nightmare scenario: No one had committed to run to become JACL’s national president.
Fortunately for the organization, Larry Oda — who, at 77, represents someone from a previous generation of JACL leadership, having served in the position of JACL national president from 2006-10 — stepped up before contingency plans for how JACL would get a new president would have had to be implemented.
In the collective memories of the longtime active JACLers contacted for this think piece, none could recall a time when there was a complete absence of anyone interested in leading the organization as its national president. Yes, there were occasions where a presidential candidate ran unopposed — but a JACL National Convention without a presidential candidate? It was without precedent.
Some of the words used included “sad” and “embarrassing.”
All of those who spoke anonymously recalled when there were hotly contested campaigns not just for the position of JACL national president, but other national offices, too.
In a nod to author S. E. Hinton, that was then, this is now.
Without a doubt, the Covid-19 pandemic can get some blame for the status quo. After all, what didn’t the virus and all its mutations affect? Because of Covid-19, the 2020 JACL National Convention was canceled and 2021’s was a virtual affair, both unprecedented events. That the 2022 National Convention was a success as an in-person affair, with only one person reported to have tested positive for Covid, was a minor miracle.
But none of the longtime JACL observers were willing to put all the blame on Covid.
Even with the virus-inspired rise in anti-Asian violence, was it possible JACL had done too good of a job of breaking down societal and legal barriers that kept previous generations of Japanese Americans and Asian Americans from enjoying all the rights, responsibilities and privileges that came with U.S. citizenship?
That notion didn’t fly, either.
One observer thought that it was possible that the organization had veered “a little too far left” with some of its positions, possibly turning off those members who were more middle of the road.
There was also the observation that Moy had in his four years failed as national president to use his bully pulpit, via vehicles such as this newspaper, to communicate to the membership what was he was doing to steer the organization during the rise in anti-Asian violence and the challenges the organization faced during a global pandemic.
Now, it must be said that desiring to be the elected leader of JACL — or any such organization — requires many things. Although it can be a thankless task at times, serving as JACL national president can truly be like a second job in terms of time and energy required — but minus a paycheck.
Also, one needs to be at the right place in life where kids and career aren’t paramount concerns. Furthermore, a healthy (emphasis on healthy!) ego is required, as well as a grounding in reality that one has the right stuff to be that leader.
Many of the problems facing JACL in 2022 are the same ones that confronted JACL of yesteryear: declining membership, relevance, fiscal woes.
But JACL also offers avenues to getting real-world leadership experience, not to mention educational and career opportunities. JACL, as one of the few organizations to take on the federal government on civil and constitutional rights and win, also has something to offer with regard to the long-simmering issue of reparations for slavery.
In other words, it’s not over yet for JACL, which was fortunate that Oda, as someone with experience and institutional knowledge, was able to step into the breach.
The answer to the question of whether dearth of candidates for JACL national president at a JACL National Convention — the theme for which, unironically, was “Strengthening Our Community Through Action” — was an anomaly or the new normal will be answered in 2024, when we find out at that event’s Sayonara Banquet whether the “sayonara” is figurative or literal.