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A lifelong lesson in embracing diversity

Don Nakanishi

Don Nakanishi, a scholar of race and ethnic studies for the last 40 years, didn't have to go far from where he grew up to find his first primer on the subject of race.

Growing up in multicultural East Los Angeles with Chicano boyhood friends and Jewish-American playmates set the stage for what would become his life's work. "I saw a lot of diversity — I hardly had any Caucasian friends — and I also saw a lot of demographic changes in my neighborhood," recalled Nakanishi, who has directed the nation's premier research and teaching center of its kind, the UCLA Asian American Studies Center (AASC), for the last 19 years.

So it's no surprise that Nakanishi, a leader in Asian-American studies nationwide, will be refocusing his attention on East Los Angeles after he steps down as AASC director on July 1 and retires this September, winding up his 35-year career at UCLA.

"I've come full circle, and I'm going back to East L.A. to get involved in the community in a much more indepth way," said Nakanishi, who lives in neighboring El Sereno. Topping his to-do list is joining a grassroots effort to enable unincorporated East L.A. to become the ninth largest city in Los Angeles County.

"Right now, there are 150,000 people who do not have the opportunity to voice their opinion as a community," said Nakanishi, who was involved with an unsuccessful attempt by residents 30 years ago to win cityhood for East Los Angeles. "I hope to correct that failure. They (cityhood supporters) are far more sophisticated than we were 30 years ago."

Throughout his career, Nakanishi has tried to help the community, students, scholars and university administrators to grasp the importance of race and ethnic studies as an academic field.

His own epiphany came one fateful day at Yale where he, a freshman and a third-generation Japanese American, was studying with the goal of becoming a physician. Dec. 7, 1966, had been uneventful until "at 9 p.m., everybody in the dorm suddenly converged on my room and started throwing water balloons at me, chanting 'Bomb Pearl Harbor, bomb Pearl Harbor.'" Then one student, a former high school debate champion, stood before a drenched Nakanishi and recited President Franklin Delano Roosevelt's declaration of war speech.

"I didn't know what to make of it – whether to laugh or cry," the professor recalled. But soon his curiosity about why people felt so strongly 25 years after Pearl Harbor sent him to the library where he checked out the very first Asian American studies book he had ever read. Written by three UC Berkeley professors, "Prejudice, War and the Constitution" was their historical account of race relations and the law, leading up to Roosevelt's infamous Executive Order 9066, which authorized the incarceration of 120,000 Japanese Americans in the wake of the bombing of Pearl Harbor.

"That's when I learned for the first time what had really happened. I then understood what my parents (who were sent to an internment camp in Poston, Ariz.) had never told me and what my K-12 education had never taught me," he said.

Months later, after the assassinations of Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert F. Kennedy, followed by a summer spent as a VISTA volunteer in a small Oklahoma town divided by race and poverty, Nakanishi changed his major to political science. While at Yale, he not only co-founded the Asian American Student Association, which still exists today, but he was one of 12 students who founded the first Mexican-American student organization at the New Haven, Conn. campus.

In 1970, Nakanishi, still at Yale, decided to publish the Amerasia Journal with a friend. "From the beginning, we saw it as a publication that would help develop the field of Asian American studies," he recalled.

But after one issue, they realized it could not survive financially. "It didn't have alumni support or a community base," he said. But they knew that a new Asian American studies center had opened at UCLA in 1969. "We convinced people at the center to join us." After two more issues, Amerasia Journal became the sole publication of the AASC at UCLA.

Today, the Amerasia Journal is the leading scholarly journal in Asian American studies, and the AASC center is widely recognized as the largest, most comprehensive center of its kind in the nation. With an endowment of more than $6 million, which supports six endowed academic chairs, the AASC currently encompasses more than 40 tenured professors in 25 departments, including the Department of Asian American Studies, formed in 2004. There are now some 60 classes offered in Asian American studies to more than 3,000 students.

"It's played an indispensable role in the national development of Asian American studies," said Nakanishi. For example, the first book the center ever published, in 1971, "Roots: an Asian American Reader," became the standard textbook for introductory Asian American studies classes across the nation and raised the awareness of generations of students to the complexities of race. The center's extensive archives and collections have brought researchers from all over the world to its library.

"When you look at the number of community leaders, elected officials, faculty members, scholars and writers that have come through here, it's made an enormous contribution," Nakanishi said. Among them are Morgan Chu, the nation's top intellectual property attorney; Steward Kwoh of the Asian Pacific American Legal Center; civil rights leader Angela Oh; and Franklin Odo, director of the Smithsonian Institution. Scott Kurashige, now an associate professor at Michigan, also is an alumnus. His book, "The Shifting Grounds of Race: Black and Japanese Americans in the Making of Multiethnic Los Angeles," was selected as the winner of the 2008 Albert J. Beveridge Book Award by the American Historical Association.

On Saturday, May 16, the vast network of supporters of the Asian American Studies Center celebrated its 40th anniversary in Dickson Plaza with a special tribute to Nakanishi. That anniversary milestone will be celebrated by UCLA's three other ethnic studies centers this year.

"What I've tried to do is to anchor and build on Asian American studies and ethnic studies here," he said. "I hope the contributions I've been able to make will sustain them in the future — not just in terms of endowments, chairs or fellowships — but I hope I've helped move the campus toward a more tolerant climate that embraces diversity."

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