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Building on family history to shape a passion for equity and justice

Lisa Hasegawa, Regional Vice President, Western Region | 5/23/2019 8:17:48 AM

(With support from Bridget Jackson, Senior Public Affairs & Communications Advisor, Western Region)

May is Asian American and Pacific Islander (AAPI) Heritage Month, and we are highlighting the contributions and engagement of those communities through our staff and network organizations. We asked NeighborWorks America's new Western Region Vice President Lisa Hasegawa to share her perspectives on community, family and service to others. Lisa's new role with NeighborWorks continues a decades-long career in community development, housing and public health. She now brings that same dedication to her 14-state territory and 69 housing nonprofit NeighborWorks network organizations. A fourth-generation Japanese American, she shares her passion for addressing and solving the housing and community development challenges faced today by communities of color and low-income communities. In large part, her approach is shaped by her family's history. Here's how her family's experience impacts her daily work and approach to the NeighborWorks mission. 

Lisa Hasegawa's family, including her grandmother, mother and grandfather.

I am a descendant of early 19th-century Japanese immigrants to the United States, and like so many, the incarceration of Japanese Americans during World War II has deeply shaped my views on institutional racism and equity for communities of color. It is a complicated story, but one that hopefully sheds light on how I see the world and my place in it. 

My paternal grandmother was a picture bride and my grandfather was a farmworker. My maternal grandmother was a garment and domestic worker, and grandfather was an auto mechanic and gardener. In 1942, Executive Order 9066 resulted in the incarceration of more than 120,000 Japanese Americans during World War II. My mother's family immediately was forced to sell their home and farm in Fresno, California and my father's family lost theirs for pennies on the dollar. My mother, Joyce Kuniko Hasegawa, was born at the Fresno Racetrack which was an "Assembly Center," one of 15 temporary detention centers in the Western United States established during World War II before people were sent to long-term incarceration camps. After only a few days following her birth, the family was moved again by train to another incarceration camp in Jerome, Arkansas. 

Subsequently, my grandfather, in an attempt to avoid further family separation, decided to renounce his U.S. citizenship in the hope that he would be deported to Japan together with his mother. The plan did not work; he was deemed disloyal by the U.S. government and imprisoned in federal penitentiaries in California and South Dakota.

My mother's immediate family was ultimately deported from the United States in 1945 and forcibly separated from my great-grandmother — sent away from their country of birth to a country they had never even visited, because of their race. Fifteen years later, the McGrath v. Abo decision restored my family's United States citizenship, which allowed them to return to the United States in the 1960s, but the legacy of damage remained. (*McGrath v. Abo was a class-action lawsuit that resulted in the reinstatement of Japanese Americans' citizenship rights, finding that many renounced their citizenship under wartime duress.) 

Lisa Hasegawa stands at the former site where her family was held in the Jerome, Arkansas internment camp.
My family was already poor, but following their incarceration and deportation, their economic and social status was pushed further behind. They were unjustly deprived of the life opportunities they worked so hard to achieve. They returned to the United States to face economic challenges and housing discrimination that directly affected their lives and subsequent generations, including my own.

In 2014, I traveled to Jerome, Arkansas, with my mother and grandmother, where a memorial stone now stands in honor of those once imprisoned there. The trip gave my grandmother some closure. But I couldn't help reflecting that our country still has so much further to go to address racial injustices. She held my hand as we stood at the memorial stone, eyes filled with tears, as she said to me, "I'm so glad people remember." 

I bring her and the stories of my community with me to my new job at NeighborWorks. My own family's history of discrimination and experience of wealth-stripping will forever connect me to broader civil rights issues, and certainly to my work at NeighborWorks. I cannot help but see the connections to the realities of post-9/11 discrimination faced by South Asians, Arabs and Muslims, Latino and other immigrant and refugee families striving for a better future and the income inequalities and disparate rates of incarceration faced by African Americans, Native Hawaiians, Pacific Islanders and Southeast Asians. 

As many of you know, I served as the Executive Director of the National Coalition for Asian Pacific American Community Development for 15 years and worked for the White House Initiative on Asian American and Pacific Islander communities (AAPIs) in the Clinton and Bush administrations. In those positions, I had the tremendous opportunity to work with community leaders who gave birth to NeighborWorks organizations like Chinatown Community Development Center, Asian Americans for Equality, East Bay Asian Local Development Corporation and the Little Tokyo Service Center CDC. They continually strive to lift up the stories and data that shifts the narrative of the diverse AAPI communities to one that centers the 2 million AAPIs who live in poverty and are not "crazy rich."

Community members and volunteers from Asian Americans for Equality stand together and hold a sign that says, "Housing is a right."If not for my family's experiences, I may not have had this connection to social justice and civil rights issues, and I wouldn't have found myself in the housing and community development field. The issues that we address every day at NeighborWorks and our network organizations through our homeownership and financial capability, capital investments and affordable housing development in neighborhoods impacted by historic redlining are all ways in which we are moving our country towards equity.

NeighborWorks America comprises a strong network of professionals dedicated to addressing and solving the challenges caused by racial inequality and economic disparity, and all of us, I know, bring our own family and/or individual experiences to this important work — whether you have grandparents who are refugees or immigrants who gave up lives and families to escape persecution, family shaped by racial discrimination in the Jim Crow South, or other example of racial bias that unjustifiably slammed the door of opportunity in your or a family member's face.

That collective experience is a powerful motivator to seek out solutions to the most pressing community development challenges we face as a country and as a network. I am so inspired by the story of Dorothy Richardson and our founding 40 years ago to ensure that low-income African American communities got resources directly from Congress and financial institutions. Together, we can have a significant impact in bringing knowledge, skills and resources to improve the lives of communities of color. NeighborWorks America, our network of members and our partners are uniquely positioned to align our efforts with financial institutions and government entities to ensure that low-income communities and those who face the brunt of social and economic disparities are included in our economy, which will benefit us all. 

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