Strength in Numbers

March 9, 2018 • Feature, Homepage Feature, In-depth

Consortium stakeholders sign a memorandum of understanding. Pictured (from left) are JANM CEO Ann Burroughs, JANM Board Member Harvey Yamagata, Friends of Minidoka Chair Alan Momohara, Friends of Minidoka Executive Director Mia Russell, HMWF Chair Shirley Ann Higuchi, HMWF Vice Chair Doug Nelson and JACL Executive Director David Inoue. (Photo: Maggie Locker-Polding)

A consortium dedicated to preserving and sharing the Japanese American incarceration experience gathers in Los Angeles to solidify its mission.

By Maggie Locker-Polding, Heart Mountain Wyoming Foundation

During this year’s Day of Remembrance observances, a group of organizations and individuals dedicated to preserving and sharing the Japanese American incarceration experience met in Los Angeles to solidify their collaboration. On Feb. 18, the Japanese American Confinement Site Consortium met at the Japanese American National Museum in Little Tokyo to further define its structure and purpose.

The JACSC began as a small group of stakeholders who met in 2015 to discuss the potential of a national body to help the various historic sites, museums and preservation groups build capacity and reach wider audiences. While there has been great enthusiasm for the effort, building consensus and trust has taken time. The Feb. 18 meeting demonstrated the evolution, with representatives from 17 different organizations present.

The JACSC has progressed thanks to the funding of the Japanese American Confinement Sites program, which awarded the Heart Mountain Wyoming Foundation $60,599 in 2017 to serve as conveners for the JACSC.

With those crucial resources in place, the process picked up speed, as leaders from JANM, JACL and HMWF met in Washington, D.C., in October 2017 to discuss the next steps. At that meeting, the three organizations discussed how to enable more stakeholders to participate and launch an action-oriented consortium.

JANM hosted the February meeting, as more than 40 people representing organizations including the Amache Preservation Society II, Densho, Korematsu Institute, Manzanar National Historic Site, Friends of Minidoka, the Historical Museum at Fort Missoula, the National Japanese American Memorial Foundation, Poston Community Alliance and the Tuna Canyon Detention Station Coalition convened to refine their vision of what the consortium could and should try to accomplish. The overarching consensus was that there is strength in numbers.

“The consortium has the potential to channel tremendous energy and resources toward wide-ranging initiatives that illuminate the Japanese American experience and provide valuable social justice lessons,” said Brian Liesinger, coordinator of the consortium and author of the JACS proposal, which received funds for the project.

A more recent example of the power of collective action of the consortium was the legal and social media advocacy that stopped the auction of the Eaton Collection — items created in the camps that were acquired by Allen Hendershott Eaton for the purpose of a public exhibition to honor the endurance and creativity of those Americans unjustly imprisoned during WWII. While Eaton published a book depicting the art he had collected, he was unable to mount the exhibition he intended. When Eaton died, the collection passed to his daughter and later to a neighbor of Ms. Eaton’s, ultimately ending up in the hands of Rago Arts, a New Jersey auction house.

When it was discovered that the priceless artifacts of the incarceration were at risk of being scattered to bidders around the world, the Japanese American community rallied together to prevent the scheduled auction through protest actions that made national headlines.

A Facebook group called “Japanese American History: Not For Sale” revealed a broad-based public outcry in opposition to the auction, and the HMWF gave notice of plans to file an injunction against the auction house — actions that were followed by a decision to cancel the auction. Shortly thereafter, the entire collection was acquired by JANM, which is committed to the challenges of both preservation and providing access to the items and the stories they contain.

In January, a number of the items from the Eaton Collection went on display at JANM, and a traveling tour of selected items is scheduled for museums and former campsites beginning this summer. JANM has been crowd-sourcing information about items through on online platform to more quickly and accurately bring context to the pieces.

It was this potential to effect change that brought consortium members from around the country together on Feb. 18 — not only to sort out the structure of the group but also to come share new campaigns and initiatives.

The Historical Museum at Fort Missoula in Montana was once a Department of Justice camp where Japanese Americans who were considered “persons of risk” were sent soon after the attack on Pearl Harbor. Often leaders of their communities, these men were held at Fort Missoula for brief periods before being sent on to other camps.

“The consortium has the potential to channel tremendous energy and resources toward wide-ranging initiatives that illuminate the Japanese American experience and provide valuable social justice lessons.”
— Brian Liesinger, coordinator of the consortium and author of the JACS proposal

The Historical Museum at Fort Missoula has received two JACS grants to preserve the site, and it intends to apply for another in order to renovate a building that it recently discovered was the courthouse where prisoners were subject to loyalty hearings. The building is being repurposed as an archive, museum space and education center, along with the restored old courtroom.

Representatives of the Tuna Canyon Detention Center, another DOJ camp, also came forward. Recently, the landmark site has come under threat of future commercial development. In response to this threat, the Tuna Canyon Detention Station Coalition has inspired a grassroots effort to retain the grounds and build a monument that honors this chapter of the Japanese American story.

Friends of Minidoka members also presented their plans to build a new 3,000-square-foot exhibition space. And the National Japanese American Memorial Foundation traveled from Washington, D.C., to ask for help in combating graffiti and skateboarding damage at the symbolic national memorial to the Japanese American experience.

One meeting alone is not enough to create a sustainable vehicle for advancing all participants’ shared interests, but after a day of talks, a solid framework for a support structure clearly received strong support from all involved parties.

As part of a larger group, consortium members plan to use their strengthened numbers to lobby for their causes and raise money and awareness.

After the meeting, JANM, JACL, HMWF and Friends of Minidoka signed a memorandum of understanding that expressed their shared enthusiasm, commitment and responsibilities to the consortium and the logistics that go into running it. They have also pledged to provide significant resources, staff time, expertise and convening space.

JANM CEO Ann Burroughs, who has been vocal about her support of the consortium’s goals, offered the museum as a hub for meetings and events in the future. JACL Executive Director David Inoue plans to use the JACL’s experience in advocacy to organize visits to Capitol Hill to promote consortium members’ interests. The HMWF, a nonprofit whose board of directors is made up primarily of former incarcerees and their descendants, operates a successful museum at its former site in northwest Wyoming and welcomes opportunities to share the site’s preservation experience with other camps seeking to achieve similar goals. Friends of Minidoka was the most recent organization to sign on, and Chair Alan Momohara and Executive Director Mia Russell are poised to help lead an expansion of Minidoka’s exhibition and museum space.

Other national groups are exploring the notion of adding their names to the MOU and accepting additional responsibilities, including financial support, to help the consortium run smoothly and assist less-resourced organizations to participate.

The evening before the meeting, consortium members were invited to a digital story screening and panel discussion at JANM’s Tateuchi Democracy Forum.

The nine videos were created at the 2017 Heart Mountain Pilgrimage, inspired by a digital storytelling workshop held in 2016.

The 2017 workshop brought participants ranging from their teens to their 70s to Wyoming, where they recorded poems inspired by the incarceration and then wove them into videos in the span of two days. Spoken word poet G Yamazawa joined Emmy Award-winning filmmaker Jeff MacIntyre to coach the workshop participants and help create the videos. Along with MacIntyre, Los Angeles ABC-7 news anchor David Ono presented the videos.

The Tuna Canyon Legacy Detention Station Coalition seized the opportunity to recognize Ono for his many contributions to the Japanese American community. As a surprise at the end of the event, the Coalition’s Nancy Oda came to the podium to thank Ono for his help in promoting Tuna Canyon’s struggle and presented him with a gift.

Ono, in turn, presented the audience with a wgift of its own: a preview of a new clip from a project he worked on with MacIntyre about Willie Ito, who, after being incarcerated as a young boy during World War II, went on to illustrate the iconic spaghetti kiss in Walt Disney’s 1955 classic animated film “Lady and the Tramp.”

After the screening, the spoken word participants took to the stage to discuss the inspirations behind their films. One woman, who had signed up for the workshop without an idea for her poem, found her mother’s old diary from Heart Mountain a week before the pilgrimage. It was the diary that inspired her video.

Other videos expressed the grief in having lost the family land; the constant presence of sand; the frustration in not knowing why family members were unjustly imprisoned; and the commitment that led white artist Estelle Ishigo to follow her Japanese American husband to Heart Mountain. (These films can be viewed at the HMWF’s YouTube playlist at https://goo.gl/aeGCc1.)

A reception was held following the screening, and the audience had the opportunity to mingle with the filmmakers and workshop participants as Michael Chikuzen Gould played the shakuhachi.

It was a productive weekend that celebrated the Japanese American legacy, reminded everyone what can be accomplished when the community pulls together and served as a sign of future collaboration to come.

Jeff MacIntyre (standing, front) and David Ono (at podium) lead a panel discussion of digital storytelling workshop participants from the 2017 Heart Mountain Pilgrimage at JANM’s Tateuchi Democracy Forum. (Photo: Maggie Locker-Polding)

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