APA Spotlight: Karen Narasaki, President and Executive Director of the Asian American Justice Center

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).

Karen K. Narasaki is the President and Executive Director of the Asian American Justice Center (AAJC), one of the nation’s leading voices advocating for the rights and interests of Asian Americans.

Ms. Narasaki serves in a number of leadership positions in the civil rights and immigrant rights communities. She is vice chairwoman of the Leadership Conference on Civil Rights, the nation’s oldest and broadest civil rights coalition. She heads the Rights Working Group, a coalition of human rights, civil rights, civil liberties and immigrant rights groups working to address the erosion of civil liberties and basic rights of immigrants since 9/11. In addition, she is a member of the Federal Communications Commission’s Advisory Committee on Diversity for Communications in the Digital Age.

Ms. Narasaki also serves on the board of the Lawyers Committee for Civil Rights Under Law and is a past-board member of the Independent Sector. She also serves on the National Commission on Adult Literacy, a project of the Council for Advancement of Adult Literacy which promotes adult literacy across the country.

As chairwoman of the Asian Pacific American Media Coalition, Ms. Narasaki is a widely renowned leader in the Asian American community. She has also served as the immediate past chairwoman of the National Council of Asian Pacific Americans.

She is also a member of the Asian Pacific American Advisory Council, a group of nearly a dozen community, civic and business leaders who advise Nielsen Media Research, an international provider of television audience measurement and advertising information services. The Council advises Nielsen on a range of issues involving the sampling of Asian Americans for television audience measurement while assisting Nielsen to reaching out to Asian American communities.

Through her work, Ms. Narasaki is a nationally respected expert on immigrant rights, voting rights, affirmative action and civil rights issues. A regular guest on News & Notes with Ed Gordon, Ms. Narasaki has also appeared on ABC and CBS News, Fox News, PBS’s NewsHour with Jim Lehrer, MSNBC’s Hardball with Chris Matthews, America with Dennis Wholey and National Public Radio shows including Talk of the Nation and Powerpoint. She has also been quoted by national newspapers including: The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Wall Street Journal, USA Today, The Chicago Tribune, The Houston Chronicle, The Seattle Post-Intelligencer and The Los Angeles Times.

Recognized by Washingtonian Magazine as one of the “100 most powerful women in Washington” in 2001, 2006 and 2009, Ms. Narasaki has received numerous awards and accolades. She was the 2005 recipient of the American Bar Association Spirit of Excellence Award, and has received the Congressional Black Caucus Chair’s Award, International Channel We the People Award, and was named one of the “100 Most Influential Asian Americans of the Decade” by A Magazine.

Ms. Narasaki is a graduate, magna cum laude, of Yale University and Order of the Coif, of the UCLA School of Law.

The Asian American Justice Center is one of the nation’s leading experts on issues of importance to the Asian American community including: affirmative action, anti-Asian violence prevention/race relations, census, immigrant rights, immigration, language access, television diversity and voting rights.

What is the mission statement of your life?

To bring people together to build a world of dignity and justice.

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

I was fortunate to benefit from affirmative action policies. I’m Japanese American and my parents were both interned with their families during World War II. During the time me and my brother and sisters were growing up in Seattle in the 1970s, there were many areas of the city that had property covenants that prevented minorities from buying homes so we ended up living in a blue collar suburb south of Seattle and attending a high school that did not send that many kids to college. I was waitlisted at Yale and eventually admitted because of their affirmative action program. It was only a decade since Yale had begun admitting women and alumnae men would visit the campus and openly complain about our presence. I grew up hearing from my Mom about how she and her girlfriends were discriminated against for promotion to supervisory positions at the local utility she had worked at.

I decided I wanted to go to law school which was a stretch at the time since there were very few Asian American women who were lawyers – in fact there were few Asian American lawyers at all. In my third year at UCLA Law School, the Dean was a woman — one of the first to head a major law school. She put me in contact with a federal appellate judge who had hired two white male law clerks and was interested in finding a qualified woman or minority — I was third in my class so she urged me to apply. After the clerkship I joined a premier law firm in Seattle and became active in the local Asian American Bar Association of Washington and in the Hirabayashi WWII internment Coram Nobis case — and from there in the newly launched National Asian Pacific American Bar Association. While on the board, I worked on the civil rights committee and met Asian American civil rights activists like Paul Igasaki and Dennis Hayashi who later recruited me to run the Washington, DC office of JACL –which at the time was the only AAPI organization with a full time civil rights lobbyist in Washington. It was a tough decision as I enjoyed my job as a securities attorney and was close to making partner at the firm but I wanted to make a difference in the world. My father used to tell me that the internment happened because the community was not strong enough to defend itself. We did not have attorneys who could stand up for our families. I felt fortunate in the opportunities I had been given and wanted to make sure that what happened to my parents and their families didn’t happen again to any other community. Three years later AAJC was formed and I was eventually recruited to become its executive director. I’ve been in DC now for almost 20 years.

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

My life has been too uneventful to become a Hollywood movie so they would need to take a lot of creative license. While it is pretty incredible that the daughter of parents who were interned during war time as presumed enemies would find herself in the White House meeting with Presidents over civil rights or standing on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial speaking at a rally for equality; endless coalition meetings inside the halls of Congress over legislation is not inherently very sexy so it would take someone with a lot of talent to make it interesting– perhaps Keiko Agena who is best known for her role as Lane in Gilmore Girls or my sister in law Sharon Omi.

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

They can go to www.advancingequality.org. AAJC also recently became a member of the Asian American Center for Advancing Justice so if they want to learn about our partners as well, it is www.advancingjustice.org. We have a lot of ways people can get involved. We need people to call their members of Congress about issues of importance to the Asian American community; organize town hall meetings or house parties; retweet our information; or volunteer with our local affiliates on a myriad of projects.

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

I’ve had the advantage of watching the next generation of AAPI leaders emerging –some are students, some are immigrants working to help their communities. Just as the Latino community has begun to take center stage in the progressive movement; it will soon be the AAPI community’s turn. We have gone from fighting for a seat at the table to now having the opportunity to be leaders at the table. As globalization of our economy and our cultures continues to spin forward, AAPIs will play an important role in bringing progressive movements around the world together.

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

Be willing to take chances even if it means you might fail. For AAPIs I would add, speak up and make sure your presence is felt in the room. We are brought up to believe that we can be successful by just working hard and keeping our head down. That might work to get you through school but it does not work in the real world where you need to stand up to stand out.

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

Udon and sukiyaki, along with fried chicken and beef stew are my go to comfort foods. They remind me of growing up – both Japanese and American in Seattle where the rainy weather often called for a nice steamy hot bowl of noodles. My father would cook amazing fried chicken and beef stew that he learned from my Mom’s dad who was a cook – we would go out to the International District in Seattle for the Japanese food.

Bonus Question: What’s your guilty pleasure?

Watching reality shows like Project Runway and Top Chef Masters and dramas like Grey’s Anatomy. When I was growing up, Mr. Sulu on Star Trek was the only AAPI character on TV. George Takei is still one of my favorite actors. My brother Ken Narasaki is an actor and a writer so I know how discriminatory Hollywood has been and AAJC has done a lot of work over the last decade to turn it around. I feel good that we are beginning to see Asians as part of the American landscape on television.

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About 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.
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