Interview by Elaine Ikoma Ko, Special for The North American Post
Photos courtesy of Kurose family
This issue features the second article of a two-part interview series. The first part was with Ruthann Kurose (Sept. 11). Today, we continue with Ruthann’s daughter, Mika Kurose Rothman.
I first met a very young Mika through her mother. Mika was aware at an early age of the examples of community service and activism set by her grandparents, Aki and “Junx” (Junelow) Kurose, and their six children (Hugo, Guy, Ruthann, Roland, Paul, and Marie).
In addition to Ruthann’s strong example of activism, Mika was also fortunate to be mentored by “Auntie” Ruth Woo, and “Uncle” Bob Santos, two late beloved leaders in our local Seattle community. They saw the potential in young Mika, in her brother Mori, and in scores of other youth as our future leaders. Not to disappoint, over the years, Mika has grown to become an advocate for racial and social justice, and represents the best of today’s generation of young leaders.
How has your family and mother’s community activism impacted you growing up and how has it continued to influence your life’s work?
Growing up, I watched and listened to people who centered their life’s work around efforts to promote equal access to education, quality healthcare services for underserved communities, livable wages for all workers, and stable, affordable housing. The idea of centering work around social and racial justice provided a blueprint for my future.
My mom exposed my brother Mori and me to political activism at early ages, bringing us to organizing meetings, community events, and rallies for racial justice, equity, and immigrant rights. Through these experiences, we were influenced by the examples of our community “aunties” and “uncles.” I remember Uncle Bob Santos’ relentless commitment to serving marginalized and underserved communities. When he led the Department of Housing and Urban Development’s Seattle office, he decided to open up the federal office building at night to shelter homeless men and women. Auntie Ruth Woo set an example as a tireless champion of young people of color in politics and public service. She launched countless political careers and never hesitated to remind her beneficiaries of their duty to help the next generation of young people.
What do you remember about your grandmother, Aki Kurose?
As a young girl, I knew my Grandma Aki was not just my grandma, she was also Mrs. Kurose, an elementary school teacher. Every so often, Grandma Aki would bring Mori and me to her classroom at Laurelhurst Elementary. I can still see the large world map painted on the floor. Grandma Aki used the map to teach about global cultures and emphasize our interconnectedness and shared humanity. I later came to understand her approach to her life’s work as a teacher: to inspire children to take up the mantle of peace and non-violence, ensuring that her vision for peace would extend far beyond her classroom.
Grandma Aki also loved science and nature and kept a few “pet” walking stick bugs in terrariums at her house. She’d challenge us to find the bugs amongst the tangle of twigs and then carefully place the delicate bugs in our palms. Her surreptitious “lesson” in the natural ability of this small insect to camouflage itself from predators continues to remind me to respect all living things.
As a teenager, you took on public service and political organizing work. How did you get involved and what was it like?
My mom’s activism laid the foundation for my interest in public service. I saw it as an avenue to pursue the types of social change that I believed in and thought were important. During my junior year of high school, I participated in a year-long program with The Service Board, or “tSB”, a youth leadership program in Rainier Valley. Every week, I came together with other Seattle-area youth to discuss social justice issues in our communities and plan service projects to address those issues. We prepared and served meals at homeless shelters and repaired play structures for children in community parks. tSB gave me the opportunity to collaborate with peers to take meaningful action in our communities.
A year later, Auntie Ruth Woo opened the door to an internship with Senator Maria Cantwell’s Washington, D.C. office. While observing a committee hearing, I heard then-Senator Barack Obama speak about the value of diplomacy in quelling international conflict and in promoting peace. His words resonated with me because they aligned with Grandma Aki’s teachings of peace and non-violence. In 2007, when Senator Obama launched his presidential campaign, I knew I wanted to contribute in any way I could.
After my freshman year at New York University, I spent my summer in Iowa working for the Obama campaign. At the time, Senator Obama trailed in polls measuring who was most likely to win the all-important Iowa caucus. I spent day and night with other young campaign workers building support for Barack Obama by making calls to Iowans, handing out campaign literature at community events, and canvassing neighborhoods to talk with people on their front porches about Barack Obama’s plans to improve their lives. The work was never-ending but we were energized and inspired by our shared pursuit of electing a president and transforming our country.
When I returned to school in the fall, I created NYU Students for Barack Obama and found a group of like-minded peers to kick-start political organizing on campus. In mid-September, the campaign assigned us our first task, to distribute one thousand student tickets for a rally with Barack Obama in Washington Square Park. So many students wanted to see Senator Obama speak, the tickets flew out of our hands.
During my winter break, I returned to Iowa with two of my NYU friends to work on the campaign’s final caucus night. Senator Obama won the Iowa caucus, but there was still more work to be done. Throughout the winter and spring, we canvassed the dorms and registered students to vote, called voters in primary states, and took weekend road trips to work with the campaign in primary states along the East Coast.
After Senator Obama secured the nomination, I took a leave of absence from school and returned to Seattle to work for the campaign through the general election. Some of my most cherished memories include seeing throngs of young students in our office enthusiastically volunteering for the campaign, registering people to vote at community events and celebrations, and handing out campaign fliers with friends and family waiving “AAPIs for Obama” signs in the Chinatown-International District Seafair Parade.
Each of these experiences affirmed that collective action is the foundation for making change. And each experience gave me the tools and inspiration to continue the work and advance the causes I believe in.
As a fourth-generation Japanese American and “hapa,” how does the work you have done tie in with your commitment to community service and social change?
From the time I was a young girl, I learned about the WWII incarceration of Japanese Americans. My mom helped me draw connections between the injustice our family experienced during the incarceration and the injustices other communities faced throughout our country’s history. I learned how the law could be used for both good and evil, to both uphold freedoms and deprive people of them. As I grew older, I thought about how I could equip myself with the tools to be a strong advocate for social change. My experience in public service guided me towards becoming a lawyer.
I served in the Office of the White House Counsel, which dealt with legal matters in the White House and across the administration. I worked alongside lawyers with whom I shared a common purpose: using levers of the federal government to promote a truly equal and just society.
Our office ensured that President Obama’s policy initiatives would survive legal scrutiny and sabotage by the Republican-controlled Congress. One example is DACA, Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, which allows immigrants brought into the United States as children to remain in the only country they know. A second example is the Affordable Care Act, also known as “Obamacare,” which has made quality healthcare more accessible.
I also worked closely with lawyers on President Obama’s initiative to commute sentences for over one thousand federal prisoners serving unjustly long prison sentences for drug-related crimes. With Republicans in Congress stonewalling any attempt to enact criminal justice reform, President Obama sought non-legislative avenues to redress the harms caused by archaic and overly punitive federal criminal laws.
Working alongside lawyers in the White House gave me a glimpse of how knowledge of the law could help me forcefully advocate for causes I believe in. While I am extremely proud to have contributed to this work, I know that the commutations represent just one small step towards reforming our criminal justice system and ending mass incarceration. It takes the collective work of many individuals to redress harms, dismantle old systems, and rebuild new ones based on values of justice and equity.
I went to law school so that I could be part of this collective work. Today, as a civil rights lawyer, I use our legal system to uphold the promise of equal protection under the law.
Your brother Mori and your cousins are also doing important community services.
Mori is a journalist and producer for PBS Weekend Newshour in New York. He develops news stories on a variety of subjects like the lack of access to healthcare in rural areas, the effects of climate change on small island countries, and women’s rights in Saudi Arabia. Mori has used journalism to give voice to overlooked perspectives and shed light on urgent issues.
My cousin, Kenji Kurose, is a college student preparing to become a math teacher. Kenji has worked as a math tutor in a high school serving predominantly low-income students. He has witnessed how our educational system harms students by pushing them along and failing to make adequate investments in them to help them succeed in school and in life. As a mixed Latino and Asian-American, he wants to teach students from disadvantaged backgrounds who have been neglected by the educational system. And he is active in student-led initiatives to sustain anti-racist activism on campus.
My cousin Miya Woo, also a college student, has attended many of the Black Lives Matter protests and demonstrations. She is compelled by the movement because it advocates for radical transformation and rejects simple reforms meant to placate everyone. She places an important emphasis on intersectionality: she pays attention to the ways in which racism, sexism, and other prejudices overlap and subject people to multiple layers of discrimination and oppression. Miya encourages her peers and social networks to lift up and support the voices of opposed communities.
How do you see your generation’s race and social justice activism and the Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement?
The moment we’re living in has laid bare the fact that racism is very deeply embedded in our institutions. The young activists of the Black Lives Matter movement are meeting it with unapologetic and impatient demands to reimagine and restructure our institutions. In the context of police brutality and the disproportionate over-incarceration of Black and Brown people, young activists are prompting discussions and conversations about solutions to these insidious problems. It is possible to reimagine public safety by disinvesting public funds from the police and reinvesting those funds in communities that have regularly brutalized. It is possible to restructure our criminal justice system so that fewer people sit in overstuffed prisons and instead become productive members of society.
This bold activism will help us move closer to repairing the harm inflicted on communities of color and making institutions truly serve and support all people.
Do you have hope for the future?
It is difficult to feel hopeful right now. Our communities are hurting from the pandemic, poverty, racial injustice, and the climate crisis. Our current president and his followers use racism, ignorance, and greed to deepen division and silence dissent. Those who stand to lose power are attempting to rig the process by disenfranchising voters and spreading disinformation.
But I am hopeful because I believe in the undeniable power of collective action to create change. As I have learned from three generations of advocacy in my family, everyone can contribute to the cause.
Electing a new president and Congress is a necessary and urgent first step on the long, complex path towards a future where all people have equal opportunity to thrive. Make sure your friends and family are not only registered to vote but have planned how they will vote. Consider supporting organizations that are conducting outreach to register eligible voters. Educate yourself on all of the races and initiatives on the ballot. After the election, keep advocating for the causes you believe in. Join me in doing whatever you can, no matter how small, to both change the world and nurture the next generation of activists.