by Jillian Toda
APANO Strong Families member, 2013-2014 Graduate of the Asian Pacific Islander Community Leadership Institute 

For me, Heritage Month is as much about celebrating accomplishments by our API communities as it is about understanding where we still need to go. Having grown up in a rural Oregon town that has a rich history of Japanese American farming families – my own family included – I always had a strong sense of my roots. Yet, when I was growing up I had no JA peers and only a couple of other Asian Americans in the school district. It wasn’t until I went on to college that I began exploring my API identity and learning about amazing s/heroes that grew up in the same small towns in the Gorge as I did.

I learned about a leader from my Japanese American community, Minoru Yasui, whose story blew me away. I was inspired by Min’s collaborative activism, which was everything I had come to value as I was working at the intersections of racial justice and citizenship rights in college. Here was a leader who broke out of the stereotypical mold of the quiet Asian! As I mentioned in my last blog post, AAPIHM was originally created to celebrate the contributions of our hard-working communities. While recognition for API’s is something we strive for, the high standards of achievement that our predecessors set has placed us all in a trap of being seen as the “Model Minority” – the belief that all API’s are high-achieving and don’t face societal obstacles. This, of course, is not true. Our communities are so diverse. Min knew we must all work together to see real change.

Min Yasui defied the model minority when he was faced with WWII curfew laws for all people of Japanese ancestry. In a courageous act, Min broke curfew by intentionally getting caught because he wanted to have a “test case” by which he could prove the curfew unconstitutional. In the process, he began a lifetime of civil rights advocacy. Upon moving to Colorado after the mass incarceration of the Japanese community, Min built strong relationships with not only API, but also African American, Latino and Native American communities. These deep relationships are often cited as the reason Denver avoided racial riots that sparked after Martin Luther King, Jr.’s assassination in 1968. His legacy of working toward equity for all Americans made deep contributions to this nation, and provide inspiration to me.

For this legacy of courageous and forward-thinking activism, Min was honored at APANO’s annual Voices of Change fundraiser event on May 7th. An award recognizing leaders who have promoted civil liberties through activism and advocacy was presented to – and named after – Min Yasui that night. For breaking out of the model minority mold, for speaking out and standing in solidarity with others, his legacy will live on in the Minoru Yasui Voices of Change Award.

This May, I’m reminded of how proud I am to be part of Oregon’s API community. I’m keeping the spirit of Min Yasui alive by working toward a more equitable future for all of our communities. Will you join me?

Read more stories from AAPI Heritage Month here.