Naomi Ishisaka is “The Seattle Times’” Assistant Managing Editor for Diversity, Inclusion and Staff Development. Her weekly column covers race, culture, equity and social justice topics and people who are systematically under-reported. Each article is thought-provoking and challenging and garners strong comments and reviews. Her column appears weekly on Mondays.
Naomi Ishisaka’s life journey is layered with distinct and creative paths. Born and raised in Seattle, she graduated from Garfield High School and attended The Evergreen State College studying journalism and ethnic studies. She has since become one of the most important public thought leaders on these topics in this region.
You have a mixed-race ancestry. Tell us about your Japanese paternal grandparents and maternal Caucasian grandparents.
My dad’s Japanese father, Wataru “Roy” Ishisaka, was born in 1906 in Kumamoto prefecture, Kyūshū, Japan. He immigrated to the U.S. in 1923 to be a college student but ended up doing odd jobs and marrying Ruth Haruye Ito, a second-generation Japanese American (Nisei). I don’t know a lot about my grandmother’s family, but I know they came to the U.S. before my grandmother was born. After she married, she helped run the farm, raise four kids and care for her extended family. Later, she worked for the California Department of Motor Vehicles (DMV) as a file clerk. My grandparents had four children: daughter Kimi, twins Woody and Howard, and my father, Anthony Hideki, the youngest child.
They lived in Northern California and farmed before and after WWII. During the war, they were incarcerated in Camp Amache, near Granada, Colorado. They didn’t own their farm but were tenant farmers, so they had to leave it all behind.
My dad was born in the camp in May 1944 and was sickly with rheumatic fever and rickets. In addition to his parents and their four kids, my father’s grandparents also lived with them in Camp Amache. It was a very hard time.
In the book, “The Issei: Portrait of a Pioneer” (1983), my Japanese grandfather spoke about the incarceration and the injustice of it.
He said, “I believe that America revealed the worst part of its political system to the whole world during the war. Though the Japanese obediently followed the orders, the government did something which was against its own Constitution. It really is a shame. There supposedly is no way possible to evacuate citizens of the USA and place them in camps without due process of law. It was one of the most shameful acts in American history. But I did not lose pride as a Japanese.”
My mother’s family was originally from Germany on my grandmother’s side and from Sweden and England on my grandfather’s side. My maternal grandparents, Ruth Loretta (Horton) and William George Baker, settled in Sacramento and also had four children, with my mother, Joanne, being the youngest. My grandfather worked as an analyst for the state of California. He was an artist and wanted to be an artist for his career but because of the Depression, ended up being an accountant.
The hardships of the Depression really shaped my maternal grandmother, who had to survive by herself when she was a young teenager after her family couldn’t afford to support her. She was sent to live with extended family and learned how to do just about anything with her hands, specifically piecework to earn a living, such as canning, sewing and knitting. She was always incredibly thrifty and taught us to reuse and recycle things before it was cool to do so.
When I was growing up, both sets of grandparents lived within walking distance of each other in Sacramento. In the summers, when we would visit my Japanese grandparents’ house, we would eat from the kumquat tree and feed the koi in my grandfather’s pond.
My father and mother met while working at the California Department of Motor Vehicles. They both attended the University of California at Berkeley in the 1960s.
Your father was a beloved community leader and I remember him well. He was well known for his work as co-founder of Seattle’s Asian Counseling and Referral Service (ACRS), which helps both recent immigrants and the US-born, and received many awards as a professor at the University of Washington School of Social Work.
It seems like every week someone tells me they were either my dad’s student or were influenced by him in some way. As his students would say, “Uncle Tony” was an academic “foster father” to many of them. Our house was a waystation for those who didn’t have family in the area and needed a place to celebrate holidays or just find a place to belong and eat foods that reminded them of home. He would “adopt” graduate students — mostly students of color — and learned to cook food from around the world so when they visited, they would feel at home. My dad was a supporter, mentor, champion and adviser to many students and colleagues.
His work to create ACRS spoke to his philosophy of social justice he gained through his family’s experience being incarcerated as well as from his education at UC Berkeley. He modeled the philosophy, “you have to create the world you want to see.”
“My dad was a supporter, mentor, champion and adviser to many students and colleagues.”
Back then, there was no culturally specific mental health care for the Asian American and Pacific Islander communities. Conventional mental health wisdom actually promoted the idea that Asians didn’t have the same mental health issues as other groups. To me, this was mind-boggling, especially given the trauma that so many communities experienced including the expulsion of the Chinese in the late 19th century, the incarceration of Japanese Americans during WWII, and the dislocation of Southeast Asian refugees from Vietnam and Cambodia.
While most people knew my dad through his community and academic work, those who knew him best remember his warmth, sense of humor and curiosity about any subject. Even though some might see my dad as a serious scholar and academic, which he certainly was, he was also irreverent, enjoyed people, didn’t like pretension, and loved grassroots people, food and culture.
Because of the farming life, my dad grew up in rural Elk Grove around people of all different backgrounds and cultures, which really shaped his approach to life and close connections with many cultures. He learned fishing and hunting, connected with migrant laborers and created a community with Latinos, Native Americans, and Filipino Americans. This, in turn, sparked his curiosity about the foods, cultures and languages of people very different from his family. It also sparked his lifelong interest in anthropology and archaeology. With his parents working, my dad was largely raised by his grandparents and only spoke Japanese until elementary school.
He was always, at his core, still a country boy. He would always have things in the freezer or fridge, such as game meat like elk. I remember once he decided to smoke kokanee salmon on top of the basement furnace. He definitely brought the farm to the city!
He loved learning about people and cultures and particularly understanding them through their food. Some of the things he particularly loved to cook were Korean kalbi beef, Chinese salted fish and pork meatloaf — my mouth waters just thinking of those dishes!
What type of influence and impact did both of your parents’ work have on you and ultimately what you ended up doing as an adult?
My dad’s work really shaped my sense of identity and purpose. Through his work with ACRS and the UW School of Social Work, I was fortunate to not only have my parents, but a multitude of “aunties” and “uncles” who modeled for me a way of being in the world. It was rooted in care for community, bending the arc toward justice, and a sense of pride in our multi-racial communities of color, particularly the Asian American community.
Some of my aunties and uncles included Maria Batayola, Theresa Fujiwara, Steve Wilson, Dan Rounds, Uncle Bob Santos and many others. I remember playing and napping under banquet tables at Chinese restaurants in the Chinatown International District (CID) when I was little. I attended Inter*Im’s annual pig roast with my dad (and Uncle Bob!) who both always stayed up all night to turn the roasting pig and carve it in the morning!
I can’t ever remember a time when I didn’t see myself carrying on that legacy in some way. I never thought about becoming a doctor or lawyer, but when I discovered journalism, it felt like a different way to serve the same goal. My sister and I were never pushed to work to make lots of money but rather to make a difference in the world. Both our parents modeled that for us throughout our lives.
My mom has had an enormous influence on my life. While more people know my dad, my mom taught me from a very young age that gender did not limit me in any way. My mom is tough, resourceful, smart, kind, loving and deeply committed to the causes she believes in. She is a huge role model for me. She is the kind of woman who knows how to do everything — and is much happier with a new hammer than with a bouquet of flowers.
Growing up, my mom went to Catholic school. At home, she was taught by her father to do everything her brothers learned how to do, such as carpentry, brick work, and more. As an adult, my mom worked in elementary schools as a teacher for many years working with students needing special attention. My mom’s passions include climate change, social justice and environmental stewardship. She has been very involved in preserving and protecting green spaces and has been a park steward for decades. Today, she continues to do volunteer work in forest restoration.
I also have one sibling, Toshiye, who also lives in Seattle, and a niece, Eveline, age 14.
You are a queer (lesbian), mixed-race woman, and while this city is generally accepting and embracing of diversity, what was this journey like for you? What is it like today?
Growing up, I didn’t see a lot of people who looked like me — particularly in the media — and didn’t have a lot of role models outside of my immediate and extended family. But because of my Japanese American name and my Asian appearance, I came to realize that many people don’t realize I am half Japanese and half white — even people who had met my mother many times! Now, there are so many more Asian Americans and mixed Asian Americans in the media and in public service.
When I was older and began identifying as queer, I was really fortunate to come from a progressive family that was affirming and supportive of me in all ways. I never worried about their reaction. One day I brought a girlfriend to my parents’ house and that was that — they welcomed her as they had everyone else I had introduced them to.
The culture today is so much better than when I was growing up. Then, I never saw queer or transgender people represented in the media or in public life. It’s beautiful to see the younger generations be able to express their gender and sexual orientation in all kinds of ways. While I am not married or partnered, I now see a multitude of ways to live a fulfilling life in a world that doesn’t hew to tradition or convention.
Weaving in intersectionality, that is, the intersection of my race, gender, sexual orientation and abilities into my work as a social justice columnist and editor, is deeply important to me. I try to center intersectionality into my writing as much as possible.
How did you get involved in journalism and lead “ColorsNW” magazine for many years? Was that a groundbreaking magazine at the time?
I first got the journalism “bug” while at Seattle’s Garfield High School. I was a very quiet and shy person but my writing was loud. One of my teachers read my work and encouraged me to work on the school newspaper. I quickly realized the impact journalism could make on highlighting inequities, shaping culture and centering marginalized voices. I was fortunate to be part of a number of journalism training programs for students of color that further helped me to see myself in this business, even though I didn’t know any professional journalists.
After working in newspapers for several years, I worked at “The Seattle Times” in the late 1990s then had the opportunity to become the founding editor of “ColorsNW,” a magazine by and for communities of color in the Pacific Northwest. This opportunity aligned the things I was most passionate about — journalism and racial equity.
While there had always been excellent ethnic media about specific communities of color, “ColorsNW” was the first glossy local magazine to showcase all communities of color together as well as the intersectionality of race and sexual orientation, religion and gender.
I am so proud of the work we did at “ColorsNW,” despite tremendous obstacles. We believed in the value of the communities we covered and the communities valued being seen in their struggles as well as in their beauty.
You began writing for “The Seattle Times” on diversity topics in 2019. Please share your experience today as an important public thought leader.
For years after leaving “ColorsNW,” I searched for opportunities in journalism that matched my skills and passion. When I saw the social justice columnist opportunity at “The Seattle Times,” I thought, “This is the one.”
The column had been in place for decades. One of my predecessors, Jerry Large, held the position for most of those years and brought so much heart and compassion to his writing and reporting. Following Jerry, Tyrone Beason took on the role and brought his beautiful writing and introspection to his work. Both left big shoes to fill.
I was initially intimidated with this important position. But my years working at “ColorsNW” and in the community helped me look at the possibilities for coverage through a broad lens. I knew that there was a racial and social justice component to nearly every subject, if you were asking the right people the right questions.
I also knew that being in this role would make me a target for a lot of hate, frustration and ire and I was right about that. Particularly as a woman of color and queer person, my very existence makes some people angry — and particularly one having the audacity to share my opinions every week. The feedback I get is mostly negative, though I have become much better at not letting the attacks hurt me.
My editors have been incredibly supportive and in 2020, I became part of the newsroom’s leadership team as an Assistant Managing Editor, focusing on Diversity and Inclusion. Again, this role marries the things I am most passionate about and it has been an honor to serve in this role.
What have been some of the most impactful columns you’ve done? Was it the “A1 Revisited” series recalling the newspaper’s coverage of the WWII Japanese American incarceration because it was so personal?
The A1 Revisited project on “The Seattle Times’” 1942 coverage of the Japanese American incarceration was definitely one of the most impactful pieces I have done. It was a huge responsibility — to both hold the paper accountable as well as make sure to represent the truth of the history so many decades later.
Other pieces that stand out include the Sunday front cover story I did during the George Floyd protests in 2020. It reviews the history of activism in the city. There is also a story on stopping the use of “API and AAPI” to describe Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders. This story is a complicated one. Advocates in the Pacific Islander (PI) community, also known as the Pasifika community, had expressed their frustration with Asian American organizations who add the “PI” to their name without actually having any substantive PI presence or doing any work in those communities. They asked that Asian American and other groups stop the practice and honor the very real needs and differences of the PI communities.
Overall, my current position has afforded me the opportunity to meet an incredible array of people from all walks of life. I am deeply grateful for their willingness to share their stories with me and the community. They are the true heroes of this work.
You have received awards and accolades and many public speaking requests. What is most significant for you about this recognition?
The most powerful and meaningful reward for this work is when someone says, “I have never thought about that before,” or says, “For the first time in my life, I feel seen.”
Those kinds of experiences make it all worth it. Awards are wonderful and appreciated but it’s knowing that the work makes a difference that means the most to me.
What are you most hopeful about for the future?
We have so many challenges facing us right now. Climate change, COVID-19, wealth inequality and systemic racism are all persistent problems. Areas where we have seen progress in recent years such as gay and transgender rights and anti-racist education are also under renewed threat.
But despite those realities, I do feel hopeful. I see younger generations who are politically conscious and connected and are pushing older generations to change. I see a greater willingness now to challenge convention and forge new paths in how we work, live and love.