May 8, 2015

Minoru Yasui: The Power of Collaboration

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

As I read through the texts by past presidents that gave reasoning for AAPIHM, I could see a tension that is ever-present in our community. 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. What message does society send when a heritage month that is supposed to honor all API’s was arbitrarily chosen because of a few coincidental events in May? There is so much complexity among API’s. Our greatest contributions to this nation are not only what our ethnic communities do, but what we achieve together as a larger community.

Reflecting on my own heritage, I think about a leader from my Japanese American community, Minoru Yasui, because he demonstrated the power of collaboration. Min was born and raised in Hood River, a town about eighty miles east of Portland and right next to where I grew up. He was the first Japanese American to pass the Oregon Bar and practice as a lawyer. His work was cut short during WWII when curfew laws for all people of Japanese ancestry began. 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. While this case didn’t formally happen, the events laid the foundation for Min’s lifetime of civil rights advocacy.

Min provided pro bono legal services to the API community during and after WWII. Further, 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.

Min’s story is one of many in our API communities. He broke out of the Model Minority mold by speaking out and standing in solidarity with others. His story, as well as the many stories within our communities, needs to be told in mainstream society. President Obama stated in his 2009 proclamation that AAPIHM’s purpose is to “learn more about the history of Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders and to observe this month with appropriate programs and activities.” I hope to continue learning about the rich heritage of API’s and how to follow in Min Yasui’s footsteps in working together for a brighter tomorrow.

This May, join us as we look back and honor our collective heritage, but also work together to achieve a future that is more equitable for all of our communities.

Read more stories from AAPI Heritage Month here.