JACL’s National Youth/Student Council consists of students and young professional leaders representing their peers on the district and national levels of the JACL. Together, it supports and empowers young leaders to create positive changes in their schools, workplaces and communities. They are the voices making a difference for our today and our tomorrow.
The year 2020 has been a confluence of crises — in terms of climate, public health, systemic racism and economic crash. How have your experiences and reflections of 2020 shaped your perspectives on advocacy or the JA community? What are your hopes for 2021?
When COVID Cancels Your Youth Retreat, Take Time to Decide If a Hot Dog Is a Sandwich: The Importance of Community in Overwhelming Times
By Mieko Kuramoto, JACL National Youth Representative
If there were ever a year to teach us about the importance of community, it would be this one. Isolating at home has taken a toll on all of us in one way or another, but for the NY/SC, it was unexpected: We discovered ways to connect in new ways and expanded the possibilities of what the NY/SC could be — as a community, advocacy group and hub for young Japanese and Asian Americans.
Like every organization, our NY/SC community has undergone change in the past year. In the beginning of the COVID shutdown, it was not too much of a shift for the NY/SC. Because our members are from all over the country, we were used to having our biweekly meetings over the phone or on videochat.
As the months flew by, though, we saw the dramatic change in our work: Summits that we had planned in-person were canceled, others were moved online. As campuses closed and JACL chapters stopped meeting in person, many of our traditional avenues for work were no longer there.
In June, it became clear that JACL’s National Convention would not be in person, and shortly after, we made the decision to hold our Fall Retreat online as well.
In the midst of it all, myself and other members started to experience cycles of burnout, Zoom exhaustion and feel the effects of isolation.
There came several points when we felt like we were running out of steam — we were burned out on webinars, overwhelmed by the number of crises that there were to address, and every day, the news cycles seemed to alternate between the rise of COVID, racial injustice, the climate crisis and economic collapse.
In the midst of exhaustion, though, the important moment for us came when we stepped back for a moment from the pressures to produce and publish. We started to take more time to look inward as a community and talk to one another.
As much as we needed to address what was going on in the world, we realized also that each of our members is also personally making sacrifices, experiencing significant changes and trying to make it through an extraordinarily difficult year themselves. Finding that place of support in one another was critical for the Council this year.
Out of that realization came some of our best moments.
Our retreat, for example, took intentional breaks to do silly things — we warmed up with Radio Taiso, made musubi together virtually and each took three minutes to give a PowerPoint presentation to the group on any topic we wanted (topics included: mushroom propagation, how to structure the perfect date, an explicated list of reasons that people don’t put back their shopping carts and an in-depth dive into the debate over whether a hot dog is a sandwich. I don’t remember the conclusion, but I remember that it was extraordinarily well-researched).
We’ve taken more time to focus on communications work, and each week, we try to build in a little bit of check-in time to our calls.
In the coming year, we’re hoping to center work around the community model, including hosting discussions and events over dinner, conversation-style.
This year has seen some incredible youth activism: Young people are taking to the streets to demand justice; they are checking in on their neighbors and delivering food; they are reminding us to pay attention, be compassionate and be politically active.
But it’s also true that there are times when doing advocacy work can feel like chipping away at a huge boulder with a tiny chisel. In those moments, it’s important to take the time to nurture the people in your community.
Take time to check in with each other, build in time to bond, socialize and laugh, and be forgiving with one another.
At the end of the day, we’re there because we want to do the social justice work, but the most effective organizations are built on strong networks of trust and support. A good leader is someone who not only understands this, but also emphasizes it.
This year, I am grateful to the community I have in the NY/SC. I’m particularly thankful for my talented co-chair, Justin Kawaguchi, who has brought an infusion of energy, passion and new ideas, but also to every single one of the other nine NY/SC members. They keep me smiling every week, and their diverse talents, niche interests and boundless new ideas are what make our community thrive.
I can’t wait to see what we’ll do next.
Opportunities to Connect Occur Sometimes When You Least Expect It
By Justin Kawaguchi, NY/SC Youth Chair
For lack of better words, 2020 has been messy. From navigating a virtual learning environment in my senior year at the University of Southern California to supporting Little Tokyo advocacy campaigns via coordinated Zoom calls even though I was a mere three miles away, the past nine months have been rife with a mixture of challenges and learning opportunities.
I would be remiss to fail to acknowledge the accomplishments and achievements of the “quarantime” as well: I was elected JACL National Youth Chair, had the opportunity to interview George Takei in collaboration with the Japanese American National Museum and Okaeri and successfully completed my first semester of graduate school (all online!).
If there’s one thing that I’ve learned from being cooped up in my apartment, connecting with friends and loved ones on video chat rather than in-person, it is that opportunities to connect occur sometimes when you least expect it.
Although several in-person events were canceled due to the pandemic — from our NY/SC fall retreat to the Okaeri 2020 Gathering — I am grateful to have been surrounded by talented leaders who are willing to lean into the uncertainty of this moment and create innovative solutions to still drive our organizations forward.
The NY/SC successfully held its first virtual retreat, complete with an incredible guest speaker, onigiri-making workshop and gift boxes filled with Japanese snacks and our new NY/SC merch.
I am optimistic that the new year will be a time for communities to recenter, buckle down on what they believe in and find new ways to move forward.
Change is inevitable, and I am proud to be a voice that is driving the conversation forward. Happy 2021 everyone, and I wish you all a healthy, happy new year!
SEIA WATANABE, PSW Youth Representative
When everything seemed to be worsening, and the world came crashing down on me, what remained was community and my passion to connect more with the Japanese American community.
This year, I was able to see the JA community come together for each other and truly see how the work we do continues to strengthen and uplift community members even through the most bleakest moments.
Personally, my involvement in the community gave me hope during a dark time. I was able to experience first hand how the Japanese American community continues to evolve, adapt and strives to be better every single day.
MARIKO ROOKS, EDC Youth Rep Representative
This year has been a year of monumental change. Much of the changes in my world have been bleak, but I have really cherished the unexpected joys, both big and small, as a result.
Transitioning away from in-person meetings, for example, has really allowed me to re-engage with the California-based Japanese American community where I was raised and think about new and innovative ways to connect with the youth members of the Eastern District Council.
I’ve also met so many new extraordinary individuals and organizations via virtual organizing efforts, and it’s amazing that I’ve developed new friendships without ever meeting people in person.
As a Black Japanese person, I’ve been particularly heartened by how much progress against anti-Blackness I’ve seen both within the Nikkei community and outside of it; people are having conversations that I never expected would happen.
Having more time to think and reflect has allowed me to regain some of the introspection and creativity that so often get lost when we’re overbooked and busy. I hope I can channel that into the New Year, along with continued gratitude for the people and relationships around me. Going into 2021, I hope for more healing, more learning and more action toward justice.
BRIAN HELEKER, IDC Youth Representative
With a pandemic and a presidential race, 2020 has been a time of high tensions and division. That said, I have seen people coming together and supporting causes in impressive numbers and with incredible passion. With the coming year, I am hopeful that this will not die out, but instead, we will ride the momentum to create a year of significant progress.
I am also optimistic that the coming years will be a time of great healing for our nation where we grow in our understanding of each other and move forward with a greater unity than we have displayed in recent history.
KENDAL TAKESHITA, MDC Youth Representative
I’m really looking forward to a break from school and time to rest from all of the stress and chaos that’s occurred. I know that this year has certainly not been ideal for those who had plans for study away programs, internships, jobs, etc., but I want to reach out to anyone who may feel isolated: You are NOT alone!
Things that have kept me motivated are exercising, eating right and keeping in touch with family, friends and teachers/mentors.
JENNA AOKI, CCDC Youth Representative
This past year has been a whirlwind of different emotions. Due to Covid-19, many momentous milestones were either postponed, went by uncelebrated or were celebrated in unconventional ways. At the time, it was disappointing and saddening to get used to the “new norm” of social distancing and distance learning.
However, my family was a constant reminder of how fortunate I am. Family has always been a huge part of my life, and the pandemic put into perspective the small daily interactions that I often took for granted. Looking toward the new year, I am hopeful and optimistic that we all will take steps toward creating a more understanding, loving and accepting society.
SHEERA TAMURA, PNW Youth Representative
It’s been a unique year to say the least. With the Covid-19 pandemic taking a toll on several businesses, families and individuals, I think it’s fair to say that 2020 has been a hell of a year.
For the vast majority of the year, I was very fortunate to have been home with my family in Hawaii. However, during that time, I had moments where I found myself struggling to upkeep my mental health. Somedays, I’d feel sad, and on other days, I’d find myself feeling extremely lonely to the extent that it left me feeling like I was riding an emotional rollercoaster. But, despite all of the negativity, this phase allowed me to reflect upon the importance of mental health from an Asian American perspective.
Growing up, I was always told that Japanese Americans faced so much adversity throughout history. From surviving World War II to being forced to live inside American concentration camps, my mother always told me that we must be strong for not only ourselves, but also for our culture.
It was at this moment where I realized that I shouldn’t be ashamed of my feelings and emotions. As a Gen Z Japanese American, I am learning to prioritize myself and my mental health so I can inspire other Asian Americans to not feel ashamed of their struggles. Quarantining during this COVID-19 pandemic has made me realize that Japanese Americans will always persevere through the toughest of times. We are strong and resilient.
CLAIRE INOUYE, At-Large Member
With the social distancing that has impacted our ability to interact personally and freely, I’ve been focusing on cultivating a community of connection using social media and the many online options available at our literal fingertips.
One value that has been instilled, and is now more relevant than ever, is to be “flexible and gracious.” While the curtailment of activities has been difficult, we now can increase our awareness of alternative means of building connections in order to maintain relationships critical to personal progression. It is more imperative than ever that we reach out with inclusivity to negate the isolation predominant in our society during this difficult year.