Home People Ruthann Kurose on Her Parents’ Legacy

Ruthann Kurose on Her Parents’ Legacy

Ruthann Kurose

Interview by Elaine Ikoma Ko, Special to The North American Post
Photos courtesy of Kurose family

In Seattle, the Kurose family name is both legendary and synonymous with peace, activism, and community service. While the family has produced three generations of community activists, they have also experienced more than their share of personal tragedies: losing a family member during World War II, the wartime incarceration of parents Aki and “Junx” [Junelow], and losing three children—Hugo, Roland, and Guy—to cancer.

Roland Kurose, Ruthann’s brother.

Yet, we bear witness to the first Seattle public school to be named after an Asian-American woman, Aki Kurose Middle School, an affordable housing complex named Aki Kurose Village, daughter Ruthann Kurose and her lifetime of community activism and service, and Ruthann’s daughter, Mika Kurose Rothman, continuing in the same tradition.

I have known ”activist-sister” Ruthann for decades with utmost respect, and have come to know Mika, who represents a new generation of leadership, through her community work. In this issue, we begin an engaging two-part interview series with Ruthann and Mika, while acknowledging that other family members have and continue to support and engage in important community efforts. This week’s interview is with Ruthann Kurose; the next issue will feature Mika Kurose Rothman.

You have always credited your parents in following in their footsteps of community activism and social change. How did they influence you growing up? 

“Junx” and Aki Kurose, Ruthann’s parents.

My parents taught us that activism takes many forms, and that started in our home. My mom, Aki, often hosted organizing meetings in our living room. And my dad, “Junx,” always had compassion for others and created a welcoming environment at home for any one of our friends who needed a place to stay or some food to eat.

My mother and father also formed meaningful relationships inside and outside of the Japanese-American community. Because of Seattle’s racially restrictive housing laws, we grew up in a multiracial  (African-American, Asian-American, and Jewish) neighborhood, and our social networks and political alliances reflected that diversity.

My mom participated and played an active role in the local civil rights movement, which was unusual for Asian-American women. She joined the Seattle chapter of CORE (Congress of Racial Equality) in their organizing efforts to integrate the Seattle Public Schools and end housing discrimination and racial segregation in Seattle neighborhoods.

Was there an aha moment or most memorable experience that stands out for you?

In 1966, at the height of the civil rights movement, local leaders of the African-American community organized a protest to demand an end to racial segregation in Seattle Public Schools. At that time, African Americans were concentrated in schools that were underfunded, staffed with less-experienced teachers, and had lower test scores and graduation rates.

A two-day boycott was organized after many failed attempts to work with the Seattle School District to implement measures to address the racial inequity. My mother volunteered with African-American leader Roberta Byrd Barr, and a coalition of African-American churches, Jewish temples, and other religious and community groups, to help organize the boycott.

For the two days, my siblings and I boycotted our school and instead attended Freedom Schools and learned about African-American history, art, and science. That was one of my earliest experiences using civil disobedience to help bring awareness to the people’s demands for equity and justice.

What experiences molded your mother in her lifelong community service and activism?

My mother’s experiences during World War II sparked her activism against racism and injustice in our society.

The day after the Pearl Harbor bombing, mom returned to school and was confused when her teacher angrily told her, “You people bombed Pearl Harbor.”

Aki Kurose, Ruthann’s mother.

She later realized that her teacher associated my mother’s Japanese ethnicity with the Japanese government’s military aggression.

My mom graduated from high school during incarceration and was allowed to leave the camps to attend Friends University, a Quaker institution in Wichita, Kansas. The Quakers, a religious organization committed to pacifism and non-violence, denounced the incarceration of Japanese Americans and set up programs that allowed incarcerees, like my mother, to leave camp early, including accepting Japanese-American students at Quaker colleges and universities.

After the war, she joined the local Quaker-American Friends Service Committee meeting and helped with their relief efforts for Hibakusha, victims of the atom bombs in Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

She experienced and bore witness to the evils of war, in the incarceration camps and by participating in the relief efforts after the bombings. I think this left her with an undeterred commitment to peace and nonviolent conflict resolution.

What did your parents share about how their experiences in the internment camps impacted their lives?

My parents remembered how humiliating and dehumanizing it was in the camps: the dirty horse stalls, the mattresses filled with hay, how their families started to break apart under the conditions. It was incredibly traumatizing, and many Nisei were understandably reticent to talk about their camp experience or the recurring instances of racism and discrimination in their own lives. My mother and father’s takeaway was that they needed to be more outspoken about the racism and xenophobia that led to their incarceration.

What was it like growing up in an “activist family?” 

Neither of my parents minced words when articulating issues of fairness and justice. And knowing what our parents encountered, we understood the urgency of actively opposing ignorance, bigotry, and violence in all forms.

My father was a Boeing machinist and would often get into political discussions with his white coworkers about civil rights. Sometimes they’d tell him to go back to where he came from.

Aki, with children, Marie (left), Guy, and Ruthann, and grandchildren.

And my dad would say, “I was born and raised here. If you don’t like what I say, you go back to where you came from.”

Often, that was enough to silence them, given that my dad was six feet tall with the physique of a black-belt judo martial artist.

My mom was a schoolteacher and when the Seattle Public Schools instituted a teacher and student desegregation program, she was moved from Martin Luther King Jr. Elementary, which had predominantly Black and Asian students, to Laurelhurst Elementary, which had mostly white students.

Some white parents confronted my mom with extremely xenophobic sentiments and a few removed their children from her class. Though some white parents continued to harbor similar ignorance, my mother overcame her feelings of anger and bitterness in the classroom. She taught her students about peace and justice, environmental science and conservation, and appreciation of global cultures. And she eventually made allies out of many of the parents who challenged her.

My mom also taught us about the human toll of war. As a science enthusiast, she was appalled that scientific research was used for the evil, widespread destruction of human life. When we were young, my mother hosted the Hibakusha, survivors of the Hiroshima atomic bombing, at our home while they received medical treatment at UW Hospital. I gave up my room while they stayed with us and remember walking into my room one day and seeing the bare back of a woman scarred with Japanese kanji letters that had been seared into her skin from her shirt the moment of the bomb flash.

The atomic bombs dropped in Hiroshima and Nagasaki killed over 170,000 people. The US deployed the bombs at a time when Japan had all but formally surrendered the war. The memory of the woman’s scarred back serves as a reminder of the needless suffering, the dehumanizing of innocent people, that accompanies war and violent conflict.

How did your parents’ activism impact you, your siblings, and entire family? For example, your brother Guy was very influential in helping at-risk youth up until his untimely passing. 

Our parents set examples for us between my father’s acts of compassion, in his personal relationships, and my mother’s community work as a teacher and civil rights activist.

Paul (left), Hugo, and Guy Kurose (right), Ruthann’s brothers.

Guy followed my mother’s example of working with young people. He spent years counseling at-risk youth, some of whom had been involved in gangs. Guy also resembled my father in that he earned the respect of young people through compassion: he invested in them and listened to their stories, took them out to eat when they missed meals at home, and found housing and jobs for young men struggling with homelessness and transitioning away from gangs.

Guy understood that young people lacking acceptance or structure at school or in other aspects of their lives might turn to gangs. He helped young people find the acceptance and support they needed by encouraging them to focus on improving their communities, finding peace within themselves, and taking pride in their culture.

He and my brother Rollie ran a volunteer martial arts program at Rainier Beach Community Center and used positive affirmations to help their young students, instructing them to repeat mantras about doing well in school, respecting their parents, staying away from gangs and drugs, and building personal strength through peace.

Guy Kurose (back) with martial arts class, Rainier Beach Community Center.

My brother Paul has similarly followed my mother’s example. Paul continues to teach the martial arts program at Rainier Beach Community Center, which has been offered to young people for over thirty years. He has devoted his career to teaching math, harnessing his passion for helping students from underserved communities.

My sister Marie has had an impactful career in public service. She is a strong voice for equity in workforce development.

You have always held important leadership positions and were a strong leader during the 1960’s and 1970’s and beyond. What was it like during those intense times and what were some of your successes?

I first got involved in student activism at Garfield High School with the Black Power movement and the school desegregation efforts, AAPI empowerment,  and anti-war demonstrations. I was motivated by the principles of peace and racial justice instilled by my parents, and the examples set by mentors like Shirley Bridge, Constance Rice, Dolores Sibonga, and Ruth Woo. They felt that the work of improving our communities and our country is never finished.

When I started at the University of Washington, I joined the ongoing student activism against racism, poverty, and the Vietnam War. I have many memories of joining demonstrations and protests: marching on the freeway to protest the US invasion of Cambodia, rallying in support of Indian treaty rights, and demonstrating in front of the Kingdome with Uncle Bob Santos to call attention to stadium commercial interests that threatened to displace the International District.

Her mother, Aki Kurose (1925-1998), with grandchildren

The goal of these demonstrations was to attain a critical mass of people power to force our issues into conventional mainstream awareness, to quite literally stand up for what we believe in. At demonstrations and organizing meetings, I developed friendships with fellow Asian-American, African-American, Chicano, and Native-American activists.

We worked together to develop strategies for advancing social and systemic change in our communities. For example, Guy and I joined the Native activists’ “fish-in” occupation of Frank’s Landing along the Nisqually River. The occupation was organized to protest numerous arrests of Native-American fishermen at Frank’s Landing who had been targeted by state authorities. These arrests violated a 100-year-old treaty that protected Native fishing rights. The occupation prompted a federal lawsuit that concluded with the Boldt Decision restoring the fishing rights the tribes were entitled to. Joining this work gave me a way to identify with the struggles of others, lessening the divisions there were between us and enhancing our shared beliefs.

In the late 1970’s and early 80’s,   I served as an aide to Congressman Mike Lowry, channeling the energy of activism into legislative action. Lowry championed direct compensation for the WWII incarceration of Japanese Americans. As a member of his staff, I had the opportunity to contribute to the burgeoning movement for redress. The summer and fall of 1979, we organized a small campaign to galvanize support for Lowry’s direct compensation bill, HR 5977, the World War II Japanese-American Human Rights Violations Redress Act.

We communicated with staff in other offices to get co-sponsors for the bill. I had regular strategizing calls with redress leader Cherry Kinoshita (Seattle), late at night in my Washington D.C. apartment. I’d then return to the office and slip “Dear Colleague” letters under the doors of other House member offices, often with help from Phil Tajitsu Nash, a well-known Sansei civil rights lawyer. In total, we contacted over 100 Members of Congress. My colleague, Kathy Halley, was critical to securing the support of the Congressional Black Caucus, which was beginning to discuss reparations for the enslavement of African-Americans—a debt which is still long overdue.

Our bill proposing direct compensation was followed by another bill, supported by the Nikkei  congressmen, that proposed a preliminary step of commissioning a study of the incarceration. This made passage of the commission bill more likely. And while our bill didn’t survive, the principle—that the US government was obligated to redress its wrong—eventually became law, ten years later, in the Civil Liberties Act of 1988.

The redress movement was a monumental achievement. My involvement ended after my three-year tenure in Congressman Lowry’s office (Seattle, 1978; D.C., 1979-1980), but other advocates persisted. They refused to let the passage of time silence the call for the US government to make a substantive apology.

There have been far too many episodes of our government’s failure to preserve and protect the dignity and life of all people. I protested in opposition to many such episodes of injustice. And there is no amount of money, no apology forceful enough that can repair these harms. But the redress movement, the occupation of Frank’s Landing, and many other gains achieved by activists still give me hope in the power of collective action to successfully pursue justice.

What do you think about the youth and young leaders today leading the Black Lives Matter and other movements for racial and societal change? Does it seem different now than at the height of the civil rights movement in the 60’s and 70’s?

Today’s Black Lives Matter movement reminds us that the changes we demanded decades ago have been incremental and our democratic ideals have yet to be fully realized. The deaths of Jacob Blake, Breonna Taylor, George Floyd, Charleena Lyles, John T. Williams, Tommy Le, and many more are a direct result of decades of unaddressed inequality and racism.

I am inspired by the young Black leaders of the movement who are organizing with urgency to enact transformational change. The popular maxim chanted at many protests I attended as a young activist—justice delayed is justice denied—is still painfully true today.

Ruthann with John Lewis.

A significant similarity between today’s movement and the civil rights movement of the 60’s and 70’s is the young people of color who are turning out in masses to hold our country accountable to live up to our founding ideals. Young people led the civil rights movement of the 60’s and 70’s and they are at the forefront of the Black Lives Matter movement today, demanding change through protest and civil disobedience. It is what the late civil rights icon, John Lewis, would call “good trouble, necessary trouble.”

The Black Lives Matter movement gives me hope because I believe our future depends on young people claiming a stake in moving towards a world in which the full humanity and dignity of all people are respected.

Next issue: Interview with Mika Kurose Rothman

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Elaine Ikoma Ko is the former Executive Director of the Hokubei Hochi Foundation, a nonprofit that helps The North American Post with projects and events. She is a member of the U.S.-Japan Council, an alumnus of the Japanese American Leadership Delegation (JALD) to Japan, and leads spring and autumn group tours to Japan.