Toshiko Grace Hasegawa
Gives Voice to the Community through CAPAA
by Bruce Rutledge
Years ago, “Uncle Bob” Santos was talking about the future of the International District with some friends over a cup of coffee at the Eastern Cafe. Who would carry the torch after his generation is gone, someone asked. Uncle Bob was not worried. He said he saw a lot of young people in the community, especially young women, ready to fill his shoes. He didn’t name names that day, but I would bet a lot of money that one of those young women he saw leading the community was Toshiko Grace Hasegawa, executive director of the Washington State Commission of Pacific American Affairs, or CAPAA. Toshiko is energetic, eloquent, and empathetic. Talk with her and you feel like change is possible, especially because she doesn’t sugarcoat things. She knows what it takes to give Asians and Pacific Islanders (APIs) a voice in state governance. I spoke with her about her work at CAPAA, her support for Elizabeth Warren during the Democratic primary, and her life as a “Beacon Hill girl.” Excerpts from the conversation follow.
“The problems are varied. But we are also a very unified community and we have tremendous advocacy. ”
Toshiko Hasegawa was appointed by Governor Jay Inslee as executive director of the Commission on Asian Pacific American Affairs in October 2018. Previously, she served as the communications manager at King County’s Office of Law Enforcement Oversight where she worked to inform and engage the public on efforts to improve systems of police accountability at the Sheriff’s Office. She was appointed by Gov. Inslee in 2016 to represent CAPAA on the Joint Legislative Task Force on Deadly Force. Toshiko has worked legislative government at the federal, state, and county levels where she collaboratively helped pass policies related to immigration, labor trafficking, police accountability, and criminal justice reform. She is a fourth-generation Seattleite and lifelong resident of the Beacon Hill neighborhood in Seattle. She holds a master’s in criminal justice from Seattle University with a specialization in investigative criminology.
NAP: What has your work life been like during the pandemic?
Toshiko: Well, first I just want to thank you for your interest. As executive director of CAPAA, it’s my tremendous honor to serve such a reputable agency originally founded by the will of the people to make sure that APIs had a voice in state government. Here, with COVID-19, we are seeing the need for our voice and representation more than ever. We have historically concentrated our work in a couple of different target issue areas: education, health and human services, civil rights and immigration, economic development, and also, of course, census. What we’re really finding in this pandemic is that the issues have not changed but the equity gap has deepened.
I think a lot of people are erroneously referring to this as “unprecedented.” Perhaps in the magnitude, but in fact the challenges that we are facing are not unfamiliar to us. We know that Asian Pacific Americans (APAs) were hit hard by the impact of this. Due to stereotypes of Asians that were exacerbated by COVID-19, people stopped attending Asian-owned businesses and restaurants because of the perception that they were unsanitary or contaminated even long before the statewide closure. Folks at various levels of their immigration status could not qualify for the much-needed relief because a lot of it was not provided for anyone who didn’t have a Social Security number. And even if they did qualify, there was that added cultural barrier of being able to become aware of these opportunities in a timely fashion. There are tremendous challenges.
The equity gap in education has long existed. I think the OSPI (the Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction) has been very mindful to work deliberately on some of those areas of that equity gap. But now in light of the stay-at-home order, there are significantly deeper challenges: accessibility to the tools that are necessary to do remote learning; Wi-Fi, which should be considered a civil rights issue. It’s about people’s access to information, and it is a huge indicator of whether people are able to keep up or fall behind. We all know that once you fall behind, it’s really hard to catch back up.
The last thing is the Census. All of that came to a screeching halt. We have been tremendously engaged in getting an accurate count. We know that Washington is one of the fastest-growing states in the nation. We know that Asia Pacific Americans are the second largest and the fastest growing population. We are expected to reach a million strong by 2024. But people have had to reassess what a meaningful field approach to getting an accurate count would even look like. And that requires more time. It requires additional resources.
The problems are varied. But we are also a very unified community and we have tremendous advocacy. CAPAA works with 12 commissioners who represent the cultural and geographic diversity in the state.
NAP: I read an interview with you where you stressed that CAPAA sends information up; it doesn’t work top-down like so many governmental institutions.
Toshiko: That’s exactly it – because we understand the experience and the wisdom is within the community. We will never have equal representation of the 37 counties across the state just like we won’t have equal representation of the 42 different nations across Asia and the Pacific Islands represented in the state. So, knowing we have blind spots, what does meaningful representation look like? We have to be mindful about closing those blind spots. I think that’s where some of the fear lives: The uncertainty exacerbated and compounded by the bigotry. Not only are we fearful that some people will get left behind by the government, there is an additional stress of social tension due to deeply seated racism in America.
NAP: Some leaders are dog whistling, calling COVID-19 a “Chinese virus.”
Toshiko: When we look at history and we see examples in the 1800s of the Chinese Exclusion Act, or the mass incarceration of Japanese, or even just back in 2017, the Muslim ban―these are things that we remember. And the social attitudes and the race-baiting by politicians has historically been a move in the playbook preceding institutionalized and systemic oppression. History doesn’t repeat itself, but it certainly does rhyme, and we know what the next verse is. Which is why it is not only appropriate, but it’s prudent that our elected officials on every level of government with varying levels of connection with communities and society speak out against hurtful terms that other-ize people of Asian ancestry.
“I’ve inherited an example from people who came before me about what it looks like not just to stand up for each other but what it means to stand up with each other in solidarity.”
NAP: I am not a native Seattle person like you, but I find the way different ethnic groups in the city have come together to make the pie more unique. Is my take too rosy?
Toshiko: As a daughter, I think there is something tremendously precious about the civil rights history in Seattle and in Washington State. It’s powerful. I’ve inherited an example from people who came before me about what it looks like not just to stand up for each other but what it means to stand up with each other in solidarity. It was the same people who marched to empower community on the ground level who understood that change will come from within and we needed an institutionalized seat at the table for the highest office in the state, which is why, coming out of the civil rights movement, they demanded CAPAA be established. In 1974, so it was. That’s a legacy I honor. I am who I am because of them. And as a woman of color, the rights and the privileges I have are because people before me advocated.
I think solidarity has always been a cornerstone of our community’s advocacy. May is APA heritage month. When we talk about the term “APA,” it’s a double-edged sword because it’s an umbrella term, which means that in some ways we lose some of the intricacy and the diversity of our community. But the other side of that sword is that there is tremendous power in solidarity. There’s strength in numbers. For me as an institutional actor, it always becomes a balance of what does mobilization for systemic change look like and how do we balance that with inclusion and visibility for the people who are most marginalized and adversely impacted.
NAP: You were born and raised here.
Toshiko: Beacon Hill girl!
NAP: Your dad, Bob Hasegawa, is a well-known politician. But I don’t know as much about your mom, Lindy May, the mental health counselor.
Toshiko: My mom dedicated her career to assisting survivors of trauma, people who were victims of domestic abuse, rape, the types of things that strike into the soul of a human. She’s one of the most compassionate, generous people … She is the most compassionate, generous person that I know. Now she continues to serve as a direct mental health professional at King County. That’s her life’s calling. She’s the type of person who you look into her eyes and you are seen by her. You juxtapose that with my father, who is really a macro-level organizer. My mom understands what it means to connect with an individual and get into the soul of the experience. I always was a mommy’s girl. Without her guidance, I don’t think I’d be able to be an effective servant. What this world really needs more of is fundamental human connection. That is what will get us through our darkest chapters.
NAP: What was it like introducing Elizabeth Warren when she visited?
Toshiko: I’ve spoken to large crowds before. I emceed the Women’s March; I’ve done rallies. But particularly through my last few jobs, which have been during the Trump Presidency, there has been an undertone at some of these events of pain or depression, collective anger, and a demand for change. The Elizabeth Warren event was different because it was pure joy! Pure excitement! I can’t tell you how therapeutic and exhilarating I think it was for every person in that room.
On stage, I was eerily calm because something just aligned and I knew that I was speaking my truth to power. I was empowered by her campaign team to control my own message. Even after I came off the stage, it felt like an out-of-body experience. It’s one of those things that is so profoundly important that you can’t even react. I treasure that experience and I treasure Elizabeth’s candidacy even after she dropped out. I think a lot of us really needed her in that moment.
NAP: How about when she took down Michael Bloomberg in the debates?
Toshiko: Oh! I get chills just talking about it! I stood up, grabbed my head and said, “Oh sh@#!” (she laughs) He paid a lot of money to get his ass handed to him by Elizabeth Warren!
NAP: Who else inspires you?
Toshiko: There are many people who have influenced me and a few who made it a point to take me under their wings. At one point, I was a young girl who needed guidance. At another point, I was a young professional who needed guidance. We are always emerging; we are always becoming a new iteration of our identity. One of the influential figures in my life has been Velma Veloria (the first Filipina elected to a US state legislature). There was a time when my father was elected to the legislature, and I couldn’t live with my mom, and I couldn’t live with him because he was in Olympia, and I needed an adult in my life. Velma invited me into her home, and I lived with her. She would sit on her couch with a blanket and her cat, and I would be on the other side, and she would tell me about the first time he ran for student body in high school, or when she worked with the Republicans to pass a human trafficking bill – it became the model for the entire country. She saw me through many, many transitions as I became an adult.
The other influential figure that immediately comes to mind is Representative Sharon Tomiko Santos. She invited me to be her campaign manager, and it was one of the most formative professional experiences of my life. She was also the person who recommended me to the governor for an appointment prior to my current position to represent CAPAA on the Washington State task force on deadly force. She did that quietly, and I didn’t even know – later on, she told me she planted the seed of the idea.
The third one that I would be remiss not to mention is my colleague at the Japanese American Citizens League Seattle chapter. He is the first person to have recruited me. He is the sensei of the board there. His name is Bill Tashima. He has been a tremendously supportive and influential figure in my life as well.
Mentors are like guardian angels. For them to pick you out and guide you is something I treasure and truly hold on to.