Sharon Tomiko Santos, the popular state representative for the 37th district, is co-chairing the Japan America Grassroots Summit this September 18-24. Seattle is hosting the annual summit for the first time, and Santos sees it as an excellent opportunity to solidify Japan-US ties on a person-to-person level. She came by the North American Post office to chat with us about the summit, her life in Seattle and her political career. As we started the interview, Publisher Tomio Moriguchi poked his head in and reminded us that Santos’ father, a longtime minister at Blaine, Kenneth Miyake, was a charter member of Keiro Northwest. “Without people like him, it would have been difficult” to form the retirement home, Moriguchi said. Excerpts from the rest of the interview follow.
Interview by Bruce Rutledge
Q: Please tell us what to expect from the Japan America Grassroots Summit in September.
We’re very excited. This is an annual summit. Every other year it takes place in the United States. And the opposite year, it takes place in Japan. It is a joint project that includes the Japan America Society and the Manjiro Center in Japan. It has always involved an American-based NGO and a Japan-based NGO. The purpose is to pull together a summit of Japanese and Americans to start promoting international ties, international friendships.
It’s the whole notion of citizen diplomacy. One of the reasons I wanted to talk to you about this is that it strikes me how important — especially in this day and age — it is to focus on citizen diplomacy. When you take a look at what is happening with the leadership of this country, and how easily those well-established and hard-fought-for international relationships can become unraveled, it becomes all the more important for us to ensure that we are building those relationships one person at a time at the grassroots level. That’s what this is. It’s a grassroots summit pulling together ordinary people from both countries to begin to develop those human relationships.
I think the big context is that we live in an increasingly tense world, whether it is the tensions that are going on in the Asia region itself, or between the United States and choose your partner anywhere around the globe. That’s why I really want to emphasize how important it is to have the grassroots connection of young people in particular, to develop a strong sense of affinity as well as friendship among ordinary citizens. People who are not in government, to have a sense that, while we have the president that we have today, who is very unpredictable, our country does not harbor ill feelings toward Japan. We want to maintain our relationship. That, more than anything, is the most important thing that I want to tell your readers.
Q: What’s involved in being the host city?
For the host community, there is a lot of preparation, fundraising involved. We started working on this two years ago immediately following the Texas grassroots summit. We have host communities scattered throughout Western Washington. Each host locale commits to a certain number of host families and they do programming particular to that city — Bellevue, Olympia, Big Bend Community College in Moses Lake.
The summit will kick off with a welcoming ceremony. A very small group that will include some dignitaries from Japan will welcome the visitors on Blake Island. But the big, big event is the closing ceremony at Hyatt Regency Lake Washington at Seattle’s Southport in Renton.
Q: You grew up in Seattle. When did you become politically active?
I got my taste and introduction to politics as a young person, partly through the work of the redress movement here in Seattle where one of my first and earliest mentors was Ruthann Kurose. I met her when I was 15 years old. I was very engaged as a high-school student in the redress movement; I helped re-establish the Asian Student Council at Franklin High School. And in addition, Ruthann got me involved in a desegregation issue. At the time, we were under federal court order for Seattle Public Schools to desegregate. This was how I had my introduction into how government works. We had this federal judge in San Francisco who made the determination that the Seattle schools were segregated and was going to draft a plan for how to desegregate them. We in Seattle thought, you’re sitting in San Francisco. What do you know about our community, our neighborhoods, what we want? I was brought to the table with a community of activists to represent the students’ voice. We came together to say that we need to develop our own plan that is based on what we see as our interests, our needs for our students and our schools. We came up with what became known as the voluntary desegregation plan. We had to pitch it to the public. I worked with my fellow students to talk about the plan in schools across Seattle. We encouraged core groups of students and activists to lobby the superintendent. The school board actually adopted this desegregation plan.
Regardless of what we think about bussing today, at the time, it was a pretty radical thing to go against a judge and say, we want to come up with our own plan. We put ourselves on the map for that.
My interest in education, equity, economic justice and civil rights really stems from my upbringing here in the Seattle area and a lot of what was going on in terms of the Asian Pacific Islander civil rights movement. That movement gleaned so much of its character and momentum by being in coalition with other ethnic communities. It’s very special. We don’t see this elsewhere in the nation. But because I was fortunate to grow up in Seattle, that’s the thinking that I was able to acquire.
Q: You were married to famed activist “Uncle” Bob Santos until he passed away two years ago this month. How did you meet him and what was he like?
When I was getting involved with the political side of things, I actually knew Bob Santos because he worked with my mother and my father. People who are engaged in civil rights know each other. And I attended junior high school and high school with my husband’s children. I say laughingly that my stepdaughter and I are in the same graduating class of Franklin High School, which is true.
I knew of him because of his own notoriety. I knew of him because of my parents. I knew of him because he was a parent of a classmate. And I also knew of him because he ran for office. It was hard to not know of him, but I didn’t know him until I was first volunteering and then hired to work on Mike Lowry’s 1988 senatorial campaign. At that time, Bob was a member of Mike’s congressional staff, and it was commonplace at the time for those whose jobs relied on the person’s re-election to come down to the campaign office after hours. That’s how I became acquainted with Bob. He was always a very fun guy. Up until the very end, he would especially like to hang out with women! He liked to hang out in bars. Back then it wasn’t so much singing. You actually had to drag him to sing karaoke. We would go dancing. Or we would hang out at the Bush Garden and relax.
Q: You are up for re-election this year, but you’re running unopposed. Did you ever think you’d be serving as a state representative for two decades?
I am the first Nikkei woman to be elected to the Washington state legislature. Until recently, with Representative Monica Stonier, who represents the new face of our community and is both Japanese and Mexican American, I was the only one. Now there is a grand total of two of us in the almost 150 years of our statehood.
My involvement in politics came from an interest in things like quality public education, things like redress, things like immigrant issues. But I was initially raised to be a very good Japanese girl. You’re quiet, you don’t do anything to stick out. I always thought that my skills and my personality led me to be a good right-hand person to an elected official, somebody who did the research, made the recommendations. Not the person who runs for office.
All the things people don’t like about politicians — you have to put yourself out there, you have to talk to people, you have to ask for money — those are things I didn’t care for either (laughs). I worked for elected officials, and there were two epiphanies that led to my running. One was, even as the best right-hand person I could be, I could make a recommendation and you, the elected official, could still do something else. I thought, why did I waste all that time coming up and doing all this homework and interviewing people and trying to do a thoughtful job and you’re still going to do something else just because of the political position. I didn’t like that so much. It was a rude awakening for me that I could be a trusted adviser and still my recommendations fall by the wayside.
But that was not what got me to run. I look across this country and see how many people aspire to serve in office. I never aspired to serve. These people see it as a stepping stone. I see my journey — and I think this is true of a lot of Asians in particular — as one of obligation and opportunity.
Being raised by the Issei community had a profound impact on me. As the eldest child, I was probably more nestled in that community than my brother or sister. My sense of obligation to honor their sacrifices, to make sure that our United States government never revisit the kind of experience that the Issei went through in World War II. It is a very powerful compulsion to do my part to make sure that government always lives up to its promise and its potential. I always thought public service was going to be my route, and I was happy with that.
But then, in my neighborhood in Rainier Beach, I was working with some folks to address some inequities in how that school was receiving public funds, the programs that were promoted there, the support that our teachers were receiving. You hear stories even today of faculty having to take an old, outdated textbook, because that’s all they have, and having to copy the pages for all of the students. I remembered thinking, I thought we solved that 30 years ago when I was a student trying to provide equitable education for all kids. And here in my own neighborhood there is still evidence of the lack of equity for students. Because Rainier Beach is primarily poor and students of color, I became very angry. I would lobby the Seattle School District superintendent and the board. And the patronizing responses that we received from then Superintendent Olchefske and that school board were maddening. When there was an opening in the legislature, I thought to myself, if you’re not going to listen to me as a taxpayer and as a citizen lobbying for my neighborhood high school, then, gosh darn it, I am going to run for this open seat at the state level and make you listen to me.
Q: From there, you rose to chair of the House Education Committee. I guess they have to listen now.
After I got elected — this is one of the most satisfying things in some ways; but it’s also very telling too — the Seattle school district officials went around to have meetings with all the legislators, particularly the new ones. Olchefske came in to lobby me on behalf of the school district. After he was done, I said to him, well superintendent, I guess I have you to thank for me being in this position because you pissed me off soooo much that you wouldn’t listen to me. You’re going to have to listen to me now!
He never came back … ever.
The 28th Annual Japan-America Grassroots Summit (http://jassw.org/blog/2017/09/15/share-the-splendor-of-washington/)
September 18-24, 2018
The Japan-America Society of the State of Washington in partnership with the John Manjiro-Whitfield Commemorative Center for International Exchange in Japan will host the 28th Annual Japan-America Grassroots Summit 2018 in Washington State. Nearly 150 Japanese visitors will come to Seattle, where they will participate in various tours of the city. They will then disburse to 15 local sessions across the state to experience our region’s culture as part of the three-night home stays.
They are still looking for host families and volunteers.
To volunteer, visit http://jassw.org/grassroots-summit/.