Julie Azuma, Activist

 

Julie Azuma is a Chicago-born New Yorker with an extensive career in social activism, both as an educational activist for children with autism, and as an activist for Japanese-American rights. With a career spanning more than two decades, Julie has used the influence and success of her company, Different Roads to Learning, to speak for those without a strong political voice. Julie’s work in bringing awareness to issues such as the educational gap for autistic children, and the necessary reparations needed after the holding of Japanese-Americans in concentration camps during World War II, has sparked important change and started needed conversations about human rights. As she continues to work for progress in our country, she talked about her extensive life and career, and the effect her work has had on herself.

Interviewed by Alexis Perez

I would say that all of the activist work I have done was not calculated, but very natural. It all felt very necessary and essential to the life I was living. Growing up in Chicago, with two Japanese-American parents who had lived in America during the second World War, I felt very personally affected by the history of the use of concentration camps during that time.

During this time, Japanese or Japanese-Americans folks were held in these internment camps right after Japan’s attack on Pearl Harbor. Both of my parents had been held in one of these camps, and my mother was even pregnant with me during her year-long imprisonment. This was about as extensive as my history of their experience at the camps was; my family refused to talk about what had happened, or the effect it had on them thereafter. If I was ever to ask about what had happened in these times, my parents would shut down on me. This past was treated as though it didn’t matter, although it was very clear to me that it had scarred my family and others for generations.

My mother, a first-generation Japanese-American, and my father, a Japanese-American immigrant, both seemed to hold significant scars after their imprisonments. These effects were also seen on my distant cousins who were held in the camps, and consisted of a general, underlying fear of authority. I also felt that it made them want to blend into the background politically, and they have not wanted to stick out in the face of authority since. Even discussing the effects or happenings of the concentration camps felt like a can of worms best left unopened.

Not knowing more than this about their history, and the history of other interned Japanese-Americans, caused me to seek out, later in my life, a place to learn and discover more about it. I was greatly affected by the shame and humiliation these events had caused in my family, and was open to meeting with others who felt the same. I sought out a group working for Redress Reparations in California, and eventually, I got involved with a group that met weekly, or sometimes monthly, in the basement of a church to work towards receiving these reparations for Japanese-Americans affected by these concentration camps. We wanted to find a way to stand up for the detention our people faced, and we truly believed we were capable of fixing the issue. We worked tirelessly until we won in 1980, when the bill was passed to start a reparation program. Working with this program for years, I got to meet many famous Japanese and Japanese-American activists that I felt so privileged to be able to enjoy. Since that time, I am still in touch with many of these people, and continue to reach out to this day.

Being a part of that movement, and involving myself later with other Japanese New Yorkers helped me create my space in America as a Japanese-American. We felt as though the Japanese New Yorker experience was different than those in other regions, as we were generally more artistic or bohemian. Prior to discovering this circle, I had always felt as if I had no sense of community. It seemed as though Japanese-Americans were previously pushed into the background, and continued to face oppression because it was assumed that we wouldn’t yell, or make noise about what we were facing. Gathering a community of Japanese Americans, and continuing to raise awareness about what our ancestors had faced, fostered the greatest sense of community for us. Even now, we try to gather as often as possible and have a potluck of Asian food, and it has given us our own, different space to feel a part of.

This has been a big part of my activism over the years–wanting to create a sense of belonging on many levels for those that didn’t have this before. Whenever inviting someone new to come along to our potluck, my mantra is: “I promise you’ll meet someone that you like!” This has been my favorite way to foster community among those who had felt neglected before.

Like my activism for Japanese-Americans, my work for educational support for autistic children also came from what seemed like a place of necessity on my part. Moving into adulthood, I had always wanted many children and imagined myself having quite a few. My older daughter, however, Miranda, was adopted by my husband and me from Korea. We noticed fairly early that she had severe behavioral issues, and was disabled in some way.

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Deborah, Helping in Sanctuary

 Deborah, a Guatemalan immigrant facing deportation, was interviewed at St. Paul and St Andrew Church in New York where she has been has been living in sanctuary at the church since June.

Interviewed by Jillian Ridler and Valentina Gonzalez

My name is Deborah and I am 32 years old. I came to America in 2005. I had to leave Guatemala because it was not safe for me there. I had no choice, I had to leave. I was young and I left my entire family behind. It was a long and hard journey to get to the United States. I did not know anyone in America but I was so happy once I got here because I was safe. Westchester for has been my home for 13 years. Ever since I came to this country I lived there. It is the place where I feel secure, where I feel safe.

When got to America I was scared I was going to only be able to work cleaning houses all the time. But I was able to do so much more than that. I was with Early Childhood Education. I was just promoted, and I was studying to get my GED so I could go to college and get a degree. I want to finish my schooling, but now I am stuck. I can’t even work anymore and can’t finish my studies. I have to put this dream on hold.

I have been living in sanctuary at the Church of St. Paul & St. Andrew since June. I had to leave my home to protect my family. ICE told me I can’t be here anymore and I’ve got to leave. Then that was that. I got placed in this church through a program called Sanctuary. They pair people facing deportation with churches to keep them safe. They put me here because it was the first space that opened up. Once I got here, I had to notify ICE that I am not hiding, and that I am here in sanctuary until I am able to see a judge.

I had to get sanctuary because it was not making sense for me to hide. I would not be allowed to drive a car anymore, to work as I used to, not even to go to school. Hiding would change everything. So, I left everything. I left my house, my family, my friends, my community, my job. Everything. I miss them, but I can’t go back yet. I don’t know if I will ever be able to go back.

It’s hard right now because it’s not only me living in sanctuary at this church. I am here with two children. When we got here, my son was 10 and my daughter was two. Now he is eleven and she is three. I feel sad living in the church because the children are suffering. They are traumatized. How’re you going to explain to them, your child, that you can’t leave the church. They don’t comprehend.

My son goes to school here now – but I cannot take him to school any more. I can’t check up that everything is okay with him at school. That is very hard for me. I’m the type of Mom that will show up to school without no appointment and say, “I want to know how my son is doing.” But I can’t do that anymore.

My son, he has been a very good boy. He keeps fighting too because even if Mommy can’t do the usual things with him, he still focuses and stuff. Like he is really is a very busy boy. They have to learn. I can’t have him watching TV all the time. He is fighting because he needs to study, he needs to be focused. I always been telling him that whatever is going on in your life, you have to fight for the things you want. Everybody has their goals and things they want to reach. Our situation isn’t going to stop him. He isn’t going to give up. It may feel like we are stuck a little bit but we are going to get out of this place.

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Sofi Chavez, Immigrant Protector

Sofi Chavez, 22, is actively working for the New Sanctuary Coalition in New York City, N, which places undocumented immigrants in safe situations.

Interviewed by Erin McNally

I have always been an activist, since I was a kid. Being a fourth-generation Mexican American, I further wanted to understand and solidify my own identity, with each one seeing exclusive and pulling me in either direction. But here I was, senior year of college and still not sure what to do with my life. At age 22, who does?

I thought back to my college career and was reminded of a course I took, Borderlines and Immigration my senior year. It was different than any other class that I took. I loved it because it wasn’t your traditional class, sitting at a desk for an hour and a half, blankly staring about the whiteboard and trying your hardest to stay awake. It had an experiential learning aspect, taking me outside of the dull, white walls and down to the American Southwest, making stops in Tucson, AZ, San Diego, CA and Tijuana, Mexico.

In Tijuana, I spoke with migrants from all over Latin America who had been recently deported back to Mexico. I remember one moment where that little voice in your head tells you, This is wrong– the moment I witnessed Operation Streamline. For those not well versed in the egregious immigration policy that is Operation Streamline, the picture is terrifying. Shackled in chains, immigrants line up in front of judges. Reading off names and charges, they seal the fate of those risking their lives for a better life. It was one of those times that you stand back and think, This is going on in my home, in my backyard, in my neighborhood. I need to do something about this. I found the need to marry my work with my activism. Interested in pursuing literature, I graduated college with the plan to take a year off and apply to graduate school.

However, with nothing planned in the meantime, I moved in with my parents in New York City. My mom, Linda, had been volunteering with an organization for a little under a year and I still did not have any summer plans. So, when my mom asked if I had wanted an internship with the organization that she had been volunteering for, I thought, Why not? Little did I know that this was going to change my life forever

Interning at New Sanctuary Coalition (NSC) opened the door to narrowing my activist work and to meet some amazing people that were so passionate, driven and inspiring. But I was still an intern, doing work around the office, filing paperwork, and getting documents ready for my superiors. I did not feel true belonging to the organization until one ordinary afternoon, a woman called saying that she was having difficulty navigating the area and finding the office before a community meeting. Stepping up, I left NSC and went after the woman, ultimately finding her by the West 4 subway station. It felt like I was part of something greater than myself, that I was the first face this woman saw from the organization and being seen as NSC.After my internship, Sara, my boss, asked me to take on a full-time position in the fall. I happily obliged. I had found community with this organization and people. It was a new position that was created for myself and another summer intern.

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Maria Valdez, Hunger Volunteer

Maria Valdez, 22, is a volunteer at the West Side Campaign Against Hunger headquarters in the basement of the Church of Saint Paul & Saint Andrew United Methodist Church. She was born in the Dominican Republic, raised  in the Bronx. Valdez attended and was graduated from Siena College in Loudonville, NY, is fluent in Spanish and English and discussed working at  WSCAH, a food pantry that services 1,298,089 meals to 18, 121. .

Interview by Valentina Gonzalez

Foremost, the reason I decided to volunteer at West Side Campaign Against Hunger is because of the core mission the pantry supports which is in service of others. WSCAH’s mission is to not only providing food, but to provide quality food that is fresh. The supermarket style pantry implemented by Doreen Wohl, who was the executive director of WSCAH, goes a step further to provide dignity and respect to individuals who step into the safe environment and busy threshold of the WSCAH good pantry.

I have never gone without food. However, this was in part because my family had food pantries as a support system. There were instances throughout my youth in which my family fell on hard times, and my parents would make the commute to a local pantry to provide a home cooked meal. When I was a little girl I came to this pantry, WSCAH. It’s funny, my parents tell me the story of how I came to WSCAH as a child the place I am now employed and volunteer. Granted, there were other food pantries that my parents went to, WSCAH being one of them. Part of the passion I feel for food scarcity is that I have first-hand, intimate awareness that families do rely on food pantries to make it through difficult times.

We went to the pantries to get food for ourselves, but also sent back some of the food to the D.R. (Dominican Republic).  We shipped food that we didn’t necessarily enjoy–wasting food not being an option–but we also gave food that we enjoyed as well because we understood that we had extended family members who were also in need of nutritional assistance as well as other forms of assistance.

Although my nuclear family has since left the D.R., we still remain connected to our cultural roots. During the holidays, specifically Thanksgiving, of course we have turkey, but being Dominican my mother also cooks pernil, a traditional roasted pork popular in Latin cuisine. Although food insecurity was present, a love of food was nonetheless cultivated if not an even greater appreciation for food developed.

While many cultures tend to assimilate to American society as a form of survival, food was a way back into the D.R. Despite the physical distance I feel closer to my native country’s culture because my mom prepared foods in a Dominican style were present at home. Sometimes I think that the more time I spend away from the D.R. the worse my Spanish gets. I know that many of the patrons at WSCAH are either immigrants, children of

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On Why Puerto Ricans Move to New York

Essay: Why Do Puerto Ricans Move to the United States?

Carmen Says

Why do Puerto Ricans move to the United States? Why did I?

By Carmen Bardeguez Brown

Lindo capullo de alelí

si tu supieras mi dolor

correspondiearas a mi amor y calmaras mi sufrir

Por que tu sabes que sin ti

la vida es nada para mi

Tu bien lo sabes capullito de alelí

                        Rafael Hernandez

Dislocations

The smell of aleli

Remembers a distant future

Of coco y pasteles

Yuca,name y cafe con leche

Aromatic memoirs

Chicharrones de Bayamon

VIajando por la carretera #2

Drinking pirogues en el Bronx

Memoirs of salt

Sea

Cana y pina

Translated in millions of taste

Sinsabores amargos

And the lullaby of a pitirre

Cantico del coqui

Frozen in giant mirrors

of voices

Tasting pinones y

Arroz con dulce sin pasas.

I amnot sure what was the final thought that made me decide to cross the Atlantic and move to New York City. I mentioned the idea to my father and he was supportive but he looked pensive when he told me to always focus on education and that I needed to work hard to achieve anything “better than them” in Puerto Rico or in the United States. He did not say it but I knew what he meant. He knew that there was racism in both countries, a different kind of racism but still racism.

Dad and mom instilled the value of education in all of us at a young age. I still remembered how they dutifully checked our homework and asked us about our school projects. They had high expectations from all of us and raised us to value education as the only true vehicle for self improvement.

I was scared about moving to New York. My older sister moved to the city to do her residency in a hospital in Queens. She had told me that after her graduation from the University of Puerto Rico Medical School, she was offered an unpaid internship while most of her more connected friends got paid residencies. Her choice was clear. She moved to New York searching for opportunities denied at home which is the number one reason why most Puerto Ricans move to the United States. Like any other immigrant group, we all search for better opportunities. The only significant difference is that Puerto Ricans are not immigrants as we are American colonial citizens since 1917.

My decision was a little more personal. I was feeling suffocated by what was going on in Puerto Rico and my personal life. I was not sure what I wanted to do after graduating from college. I was not interested in studying Law or getting married. Believe it or not, marriage was still the traditional thing to do for a young woman in the 80s inspite of having an education.

I knew neither of those options were for me. I was also involved with a few leftist organizations and felt that they were turning quite predictable and the cronyism of politics in my dear country was quite rampant. The unofficial black listing of anyone that supported the Independence movement in Puerto Rico was and still is a career death sentence.

The violence and constant surveillance towards individuals and organizations that were unapologetically working towards Independence was evident as in the Cerro Maravilla murder. I was a political science major and students knew who were the undercover agents in classes with professors who were considered radicals or on classes that were on the left side of the political spectrum. We all knew how to live under surveillance but the majority of the mainstream culture called us paranoids.

The sudden death of our beloved father seriously spiralled me into depression. I felt suffocated by the personal loss and the narrow-minded cultural discourse that was typical in colonial societies. I love my country dearly but I needed to venture into the unknown; explore new horizons that will force me to grow. I was in search of my destiny.

Essay: Why Do Puerto Ricans Move to the United States?

A few months after I completed my college degree, I made the final decision that changed my life. I decided to apply at the New School For Social Research and pursue a Master’s Degree in Political Economy. They had a world class faculty of Marxists and Social Democrats and it seemed to be the right fit for me. Once I was accepted, I eagerly ventured into my new adventure.

A Beautiful Sunny and Cold Winter Day

I arrived to New York City on January 4,1984. My sister Arlene and her Italian boyfriend picked me up at the airport. The next day, I woke up as if in a daze, thinking that I was in some kind of a dream. It was a beautiful sunny day and I decided to venture outside. I noticed some of the people in the lobby of my sister’s building looking at me a little strangely.

I was wearing a white T-shirt and jeans. As soon as I stepped outside, I thought I had arrived in Siberia. I felt so cold I could not think. I ran as fast as I could inside the building trembling. The concierge started to laugh quietly and said, what are you thinking? I was perplexed as I was not used to conversations in English. Then he told me in Spanish, muchacha mira que esta frio!

I couldn’t stop shaking and looking through the glass door, I saw the beautiful sun and said: El sol que no calienta.”I know that it didn’t make any sense but I have never experienced winter and couldn’t understand how a beautiful sunny day could be so cold. What a mirage a brilliant sun and a coldness that freezes your soul.

Perhaps, my first day was an experiential metaphor of my future life in the United States. The superficial promise of the ‘American Dream’ interlaced with the coldness of the American nightmare.

And after many years…

I have lived in New York City, and now in Westchester (with a short New Jersey stint in between) since 1984. My entire adult life has been experienced by the realities of living in the Big Apple. My career as an educator was with the New York City Department of Education. I was a 24-year-old Black Puerto Rican woman in search of her destiny. Living in the United States transformed my identity and I became a Puerto Rican/Nuyorican. This transformation allowed me to understand my country and my adopted country better.

The journey from the colony to the capital of the most powerful empire in the world, a young country is unparalleled. There are many life lessons to tell and still learning. I hope that I can continue to write about my life and the realities of being a “Black Latina” from Puerto Rico in New York.

I appreciate your comments and feedback. Hablamos pronto.

Essay: Why Do Puerto Ricans Move to the United States?

(About the author: Carmen Bardequez-Brown is a poet and teacher living in Hartsdale. Born and raised in Puerto Rico and educated in the US and PR, she tackles the complexity and nuances of being a creature in both cultures of the East and West, the colonized and the colonizer, in her blog. The birth of this blog is brought about by Carmen’s desire to write and publish which is ushered in by the Aspiring Writers Mentoring Program of 2018.) 

 

Public School Story Telling

WorkersWrite engaged in a project with City Lore called “A Life Well Crafted” to engage students in three New York City public schools to explore contributions of community activists and artists to their neighborhoods and city.

The program was inspired by the Clara Lemlich Awards given each year by Labor Arts and the National Writers United Service Organization, otherwise known as WorkersWrite, honoring women activists. The award is named for Clara Lemlich, a young Ukrainian Jewish immigrant who as a leader of the massive strike by shirtwaist workers in 1909, and by City Lore’s People’s Hall of Fame, honoring individuals who jave made a lasting contribution to cultural life.

Students worked with teaching artists to interview Lemlich and City Lore honorees, created portraits through song and spoken word poetry with some public events for families and neighbors.

Some of the songs and poetry are captured here and there is more information for teachers here

The project helped our organization to establish a partnership with City Lore that enabled us to achieve our goal of bringing our Clara Lemlich honorees and other community based activists to the city’s public schools. It also helped us to achieve our goal of raising students’ awareness of the important roles that artists and local activists play in community life and how the arts can be a powerful tool for civic engagement and social change. Students also learned about their guests’ career paths and how they used their art to serve a greater good.

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There Are Days When You Eat, And Others When You Don’t, But You Always Have To Work

By Pedro Alvarez

WINDSOR, CA – Pedro Alvarez is a migrant farm worker in Windsor. His children and grandchildren live in northern California. He speaks Triqui, a language spoken by indigenous people in his hometown of Santa Cruz Rio Venado, Oaxaca, Mexico.
Copyright David Bacon

I came here the first time in 1985 and went to work at in a vineyard. I didn’t know how to do the work at first, but I eventually learned how to prune, plant, tie vines and remove leaves. I also worked the grape harvest. I already had experience working outdoors on many ranches and in the fields in Oaxaca. It was easier working back there, though.

After a couple of years I brought my son Alejandro to the U.S. He began to work with us, but then cut his hand. The contractor said, “He can’t work. He has to go to school.” I didn’t know anything about the school system, but a friend helped me enroll him in high school. Alejandro graduated and went on to attend college in Sacramento. Two of my sons later joined me and then I brought my family to the U.S. in 1999. My wife, daughter and grandchildren all came.

I work in the fields to help my family. I worked a few years at one winery and then changed companies. It was very hard working for the second winery because they pressured us to work extremely fast, and they did not even provide us with water. You had to be strong, but some people couldn’t handle the conditions. The soil was hard; to do some jobs you had to walk with a shovel and a sack of fertilizer. People used to faint during the harvest because the work was so difficult. If you were behind the others by 20 plants, there was no work for you the next day.

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