APA Spotlight: Mari Watanabe, Executive Director, Oregon Nikkei Endowment

APA Spotlight is a weekly interview of Asian Pacific Islander Americans (APIA) community leaders. It is a spotlight on individuals who have dedicated their careers to issues surrounding the APIA community with the goal of bringing much deserved recognition to their work and cause(s).

Mari Watanabe is the Executive Director of the Oregon Nikkei Endowment (ONE), a non-profit that preserves the history and culture of the Japanese Americans in Oregon. Prior to joining ONE, Ms. Watanabe worked for 25 years in the apparel field with major brand labels where her work took her primarily to Asia, Europe and Central America. Since transitioning to work in the non-profit field and ONE in July 2008, she has she has expanded the educational focus to a more diverse audience which includes educating Japanese students about the World War II internment experience.

Appointed by Oregon State Governor Kitzhaber in May 2011, Mari serves on the Oregon Commission for Asian and Pacific Islander Affairs (OCAPIA). She was selected in 2011 as one of 13 delegates from across the United States to visit Japan as part of the Japanese American Leadership Delegation sponsored by the Japan Foreign Ministry and the U.S. – Japan Council.

Mari is also part of a 24 member national steering committee focused on planning the Congressional Gold Medal award festivities in Washington D.C in November 2011. She sits on professional and community boards including Friends of Minidoka, the Japanese Ancestral Society; the steering committee of the National Veterans Network, Japan Related Organizations Committee; and advisory board of the Asian Pacific American Network of Oregon (APANO). Ms. Watanabe received her BA from Washington State University, and has completed various leadership trainings, including the Leadership Education for Asian Pacific (LEAP)Executive Directors program, Executive Development Institute (EDI), and the Center for Asian Pacific American Women (CAPAW) APAWLI leadership program. Born and raised in Seattle, Washington, Mari moved to Portland in the year 2000.

What is the mission statement of your life?

To make a difference.

How did you end up doing what you’re doing?

During my time in the corporate world I was finding myself constantly saying that I wish I had more time to work in the non-profit world. I really enjoyed volunteering for different organizations, sitting on their boards, and being a tiny part of hopefully making a difference in the community. Finally after 25 years of working in the apparel business, I decided to leave and look for something that fulfilled my life mission. After I left my corporate position, Oregon Nikkei Endowment approached me about applying for the Executive Director position in their organization. It is a good fit for me as my parents and grandparents were incarcerated in internment camps during World War II. It is an important American history story to tell as it still relates to things happening today.

If Hollywood made a movie about your life, whom would you like to see play the lead role as you?

That is a hard one since it should be an Asian women and unfortunately, there are very few Asian female movie stars but it would be fun to have Lucy Liu play me.

How can people find out more about your organization or get involved?

We have a website that has a wealth of information about Oregon Nikkei Endowment and about our educational programs. Or you can stop by the Oregon Nikkei Legacy Center in Old Town Chinatown, 121 NW 2nd Avenue, Portland. We are always looking for volunteers, board members and committee members.

If you had a crystal ball, what do you see for the future of the Asian Pacific Islander American community?

In regards to the Greater Portland area, I hope to see more APA’s sitting at the table in elected positions, business and executive corporate positions – to have a greater voice as a community. There are very few Asians in leadership positions and my hope for the future is too see more and more of these positions filled by qualified API’s.

Bonus Question: What advice do you have for young professionals? What advice do you have for young Asian Pacific Islander American professionals?

Yes, for young API’s, our cultural values tell us to keep our head down and work hard and we will be noticed. This may be true in Asian societies but it doesn’t work as well in American society. My advice is to not be afraid to speak up to get noticed. Doing great work will get you only so far, get comfortable talking about the great work you have/are doing. And finally, the weight of the entire Asian population is not on your shoulders if you fail. Step up and work on projects that put out of your comfort zone. This is how you will grow.

Bonus Question: What are your comfort foods and what memories do you have associated with them?

Hmm. I just love food……but I do remember when I was a little kid, maybe 5 or 6 years old, the memory of my grandmother’s teriyaki chicken. My grandparents owned a farm and my dad and uncles all had to work it, especially on the weekends. I just loved my grandmother’s teriyaki chicken and would always eat a lot of it, which made my grandmother very happy. So, whenever my parents took me down to the farm to visit, my grandmother would say “Mari’s here, I am going to make teriyaki chicken for lunch.” I still try to make it the same way my grandmother did. Yum.

Bonus Question: What’s your guilty pleasure?

I love to get massages and even though they are really “good” for you, they can be pricey. So, my treat for myself every few months, it is get one. Love it.

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Author: Koji Steven Sakai

Writer/Producer Koji Steven Sakai is the founder of Little Nalu Pictures LLC and the CEO of CHOPSO (www.CHOPSO.com), the first Asian English streaming video service. He has written five feature films that have been produced, including the indie hit, The People I’ve Slept With. He also produced three feature films, a one hour comedy special currently on Netflix, and Comedy InvAsian, a live and filmed series featuring the nation’s top Asian American comedians. Koji’s debut novel, Romeo & Juliet Vs. Zombies, was released in paperback in 2015 and in audiobook in 2016 and his graphic novel, 442, was released in 2017. In addition, he is currently an adjunct professor in screenwriting at International Technological University in San Jose.