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YPC and NY/SC members participated at a regional summit that was held in November 2017 at the Philadelphia Asian American Film Festival. (Photo: Courtesy of Rob Buscher)

With youth the voices of the future, maintaining their involvement in JACL for the long-term is key to sustainability.

By Rob Buscher, Contributor

It should come as no surprise to members of the JACL that our organization is in the midst of a demographic crisis. For much of our history, we have been driven and supported by the Nisei generation. Alas, time slows for no person, and as our Greatest Generation fades, we as an organization must ask how the JACL can survive into the future.

Central to this conversation are the voices of Yonsei and emerging Gosei generations, who mostly range in age between their teens to thirties and are increasingly multiethnic or multiracial. Unique to any generation that has come before them in terms of their diversity of lived experience and relationship to Japanese identity, convincing these young adults to care about an organization that has typically been associated with their grandparents’ generation is no small feat.

We also have a growing number of Shin-Nisei, or children of the Japanese nationals that emigrated in the post-war era who are roughly the same age as our Yonsei/Gosei. While Shin-Nisei increasingly identify as Japanese American over the culture of their immigrant parents, they, too, lack a familiarity with the struggles of our Nisei forbearers within the JACL.

The experiences of JAs are no longer similar enough to be encapsulated within the singular narrative that has historically defined the JACL membership. Given the national trend of declining membership, it would seem that our elders are at a loss for how to convince these new generations to join the organization. However, the path forward may lie in the leadership of the youth itself.

Over the past three years, a group of young leaders comprised of a myriad of ethnic and generational identities have begun self-organizing a new affinity space within the JACL for young adult members who have aged out of the Youth membership category.

Known as the Young Professionals Caucus (YPC), this group is still in development but will likely be officially recognized as a Standing Committee by the National Board. The YPC was conceptualized, in part, as a successor to the National Youth & Student Council programs to help young adult members above the age of 25 remain engaged in the JACL and create an intentional space for this distinct peer group to interact with one another.

National Vice President of Membership and San Francisco Chapter member Haruka Roudebush was one of the instigators of this movement, which he sees as critical to our organization’s survival.

“A crucial component of keeping younger members involved is creating a comfortable space within the organization specifically for the young professional demographic,” said Roudebush, a Shin-Issei born in Japan and raised in the U.S. as a naturalized citizen. “It is our hope that having a supportive social space as well as supplementary programs and trainings through the YPC will also help prepare individual members to take on larger roles and responsibilities at the chapter, district and even national levels of JACL.”

A major issue that nearly all YPC members have identified is that once they have aged out of the Youth membership category, there isn’t much to keep them involved in JACL.

Seattle Chapter member Sylvie Shiosaki, who identifies as a multiracial Yonsei-Han (4.5) since her grandfather was Nisei and grandmother is Sansei, added, “In my chapter, we have noticed that very few youth members convert into regular memberships once they finish college. Youth are provided with lots of support and programming, but once they are no longer in that age group, they may feel that JACL has nothing more to offer. I am involved in YPC to help change this by developing the infrastructure to continue stewarding and supporting our young leaders.”

Considering that roughly half of the organization’s current National Board members are alumni of the NY/SC program, the opportunity that YPC presents as a potential continuation of that leadership pipeline cannot be overstated.

“I am excited at the prospect of having the YPC serve as a space that can play a role in developing our leaders after they’ve aged out of youth programs and activities, particularly if it leads to more representation from the next generations, who are knowledgeable and savvy on both the civil rights and social justice issues the organization addresses,” said Roudebush.

While the age-old question persists of whether JACL’s primary role is as a JA community convener or organization with predominantly JA membership that conducts broader civil rights advocacy, it appears evident that young professionals care a great deal about the JACL’s activist mission.

“It is rewarding to be a part of an organization that affects change everywhere from a local level to the national stage,” said Nick Hori, one of the youngest Sansei members in his Silicon Valley Chapter. “I hope that the YPC will help my peers find a place of belonging and give us an opportunity to channel our energy toward positive social change.”

Data collected by the National Strategic Planning Committee also supports this assertion, since an overwhelming majority of chapters whose membership includes significant populations of young professionals listed social justice as their primary motivation for being a JACL member.

“While analysis of our recent Strategic Plan survey illustrates a spectrum of priorities and issues of importance throughout JACL’s chapters and districts, the most enthusiastic young professional members seem to want the JACL to be an organization that can serve as an outlet for civic engagement and advocacy on current civil rights and social justice issues,” said Roudebush, referring to the SWOT analysis presented at the 2017 National Convention in July. “Many young professionals have been encouraged to see the National JACL engage on issues such as combatting Islamophobia and other discriminatory policies against the Muslim community, anti-blackness and police brutality, compassionate immigration reform and equal marriage rights.”

The world of civil rights and social justice advocacy is constantly changing, and if JACL wishes to remain relevant within these spaces, it is paramount to allow young professionals to drive the direction of activism.

“Young professionals in our age group are best equipped to provide guidance and educate on current social justice issues, which are evolving perhaps faster than ever,” said New York chapter member Takumi Harada, who was born in Japan to a Sansei father and Shin-Issei mother. “Our participation is necessary to provide direction on many issues that are relevant to our mission, which might otherwise be glossed over. There is a great opportunity in the JACL for us to shape the future of our organization and ensure that our mission remains relevant and valuable.”

YPC is already providing a space for these types of conversations to take place, primarily in the form of monthly conference calls, an email listserv and annual meetings that were held at the most recent Las Vegas and D.C. conventions.

“YPC has provided a venue to discuss topics and issues with other young professionals that are otherwise difficult to discuss with a larger audience,” said Shiosaki. “Topics such as domestic violence, the model minority myth and #metoo can be discussed in a safe space among my peers.”

In the past, younger members who expressed progressive political views may have felt alienated by local chapters that were not as engaged in the advocacy efforts of the national organization. Through YPC, these individuals can now connect with other members around the country who are actively addressing these issues, bringing the best practices back to their own chapters.

“While the work the organization does is impactful, JACL has also been an incredibly enjoyable organization to be a part of because it connects me with so many great people from other parts of the country,” said Roudebush.

To this effect, YPC recently collaborated with the NY/SC to host its first joint regional summit in November 2017, which convened approximately 30 members from Chicago, New England, New York, Philadelphia and Washington, D.C., at the Philadelphia Asian American Film Festival.

It is through collaborations like these that YPC hopes to strengthen the pipeline from one membership category to the next.

“I think that the YPC is a fantastic vehicle to promote this type of involvement across the JACL so that future leaders of the organization can be identified and motivated,” elaborated Harada.

Ultimately, as important as our advocacy work is, the JACL has always been about creating space for community. In an era where it has become increasingly difficult to define what the JA community is, the kinship fostered through YPC may be our best chance at sustaining this organization into the next generation.

Rob Buscher is a member of the JACL Philadelphia board of directors.

YPC members socialize after hours at the 2017 Washington, D.C., JACL National Convention. (Photo: Courtesy of Rob Buscher)