Interviewed by Samantha Joo
During one of the interviews for the study, Lisa Hasegawa was mentioned. As a student of biblical studies who has spent all her time between stacks of books in dust-ridden libraries, I honestly did not know who she was. But being a google junkie, I looked her up and was quite impressed with her resume. So I decided to contact her but at that point she was vacationing in China with her husband, Sandy. How lucky is she?! When I got an opportunity, I emailed her and she responded promptly. Thanks to Alice Y. Hom who not only gave me the contact information, but also the privilege to use her name.
The reason why I decided to feature her in our website was not because of her wealth of experiential knowledge. She is a treasure trove of information. I think I took five pages of notes just in the first 15 minutes of our conversation. No. Actually, I was impressed with her good humor, enthusiasm, and down-to-earth attitude. By mistake I had sent a personal email that was intended for a friend, Lisa K., to her. She laughed about it (LOL) and pleasantly proceeded to attend to business. And I must admit, I do love a person who can delight in the most mundane mistakes.
The questions were designed specifically for her. She had expressed some changes in her life-journey in our short conversation and I was well, curious. I hope you too, can enjoy the interview. The 45-minute conversation whizzed by … I mean, I only realized how much we had talked when I had to transcribe the interview. Though I must admit, as a southern California woman, Lisa could pack a lot of words in a minute. A LOT!
Her vivacious personality cannot be fully conveyed in writing but I hope you can get a sense of her candor and animation through her words. She is truly a remarkable woman and as I thought, funny, absolutely hilarious. Every conversation was full of jokes and therefore filled with peals of laughter.
I did not include the whole conversation but parts to give everyone a sense of the kind of woman she is. Since I had to transcribe the conversation (over 4 hours), I wanted to reward myself by keeping some of the personal stories just between us. Since I had to listen to my voice, which sounds so much better in my head, over a dozen times on a Saturday morning, I felt I deserved some fond, shall I say intimate memories of this time.
Sam: When and how did you know that this was the kind of work that you wanted to do?
Lisa: “This” meaning social justice work?
Sam: Yes, social justice work.
Lisa: I’ve been telling the story a lot lately because a lot of students [at UCLA] wanted to know … I did not have a game plan when I graduated from college like they all seem to do. They seem to know exactly where they are going and what they want to do and that was not me when I graduated. I got a internship through the Asian American Study Center to work at the Asian Pacific Healthcare Venture which was a new health focus nonprofit organization in API community here in Los Angeles. I was an intern there for a summer and I was the only intern that wasn’t going back to school because I had already graduated. I kept telling myself that I was gonna get a real job, a real job. She [the director of Asian American Study Center] was kind like well, “this is a real job!” She had offered [me the job] since I wasn’t going back to school. Okay, if you stay, I will pay you this time. She was going to pay minimum wage … I serendipitously fell into nonprofit job. And really because I didn’t know much about what I wanted to do. I kind of knew what I didn’t want to do. I didn’t want to go to grad school. Well, not right away.
[So this was how she started work in a nonprofit organization through a internship. She started by answering phone calls and using personal computers - a very new thing which young people, like Lisa, were more adept at mastering. Through her work, she realized how unfair the healthcare system was. Even though she was a student of Asian American Studies and therefore was versed in Asian American history and social movements, she didn’t “know” that the action was in nonprofit work. It was here that she realized that nonprofit work can be a career, a full-time job that pays one to serve the API community. She began to describe what working as a 4th generation Japanese woman who did not speak the language felt in the API community. And it is here that I want to use her own words.]
Lisa: Of course, I should be in the nonprofit … Once I figured it out that I could actually work full time in the Asian American community even though I didn’t speak any Asian language. My Spanish is probably better than any of my Asian language. I also took Japanese and Vietnamese but I wouldn’t say that I was fluent. And also that was where I didn’t think I was particularly helpful as a more English speaking Asian American. I think that health hearing [mentioned in the conversation that was not transcribed] was the first time that I saw a role for myself in doing this work…
Sam: When you first talked to your family about entering into nonprofit work as a career, what kind of response did you get?
Lisa: I have to say that it was a pretty supportive response. I think that the reason was because my parents were of the generation that got a ton of pressure to do a certain thing. So my father was the youngest of seven kids and he was like the greatest hope. He was the only kid in the family, the first kid to go to college. And they put all their hopes and dreams on him. They wanted him to go to medical school. He made it into dental school and so he became a dentist.
[She talked about her father and his passion for orchids. He did not want to be a dentist but he became one for his family. If he pursued his love of orchids, he probably would have had a wonderful farm, doing what he loved.]
Lisa: Because I was the kid of someone like that who felt pressured into taking a path that he wasn’t passionate about, my father always said to me, “Do what makes you happy!” But I realized that was very unique relative to my counterparts. I think also my mother had a way of spinning what I was doing in a way that sounded very socially acceptable. So when I was, you know, the kids that I was working with were calling me the “sex lady,” my mom was like, “my daughter is a health educator and she is going to medical school.” She is pursuing her career in health. And when I went to Harvard in Public Health, she was like, “my daughter is at Harvard.” And so I am all very socially acceptable …
My parents were pretty supportive even though they did not completely understand what I was actually doing. When I started going more into the political world, I worked at the White House Initiative on the API. That was an issue because my family except for my mom, the whole Hasegawa family, my dad’s family, they are all Republicans. The fact that I was going to work for the Clintons was actually kind of an issue.
Sam: They weren’t proud of you that you were going to the WH, forget the politics, you were going to the WH!?!
Lisa: Yeah, exactly … I don’t know if they fully understood what I was doing there or why I was there. Also they didn’t always really understand why I was always talking about Southeast Asians and Pacific Islanders and why was I, a champion, for these other communities that they didn’t see as part of their community. So there was this lack of full understanding. I think that they get it now…
Sam: I think, this is the same thing as my mother. Basically, if you’re not helping Koreans, why are we helping other communities? And she doesn’t see the relationship because her identity as a Korean is so solid. But you are right.
Sam: When you sort of look back in your career, what do you think are the two top highlights for you?
Lisa: Well, I certainly think that working at the WH initiative on the API, that very first initiative … that executive order being signed and that having been something I’ve worked on at the very earliest stages, that I felt was pretty significant. It was the very first executive order signed by a president that specifically had to do with Asian Americans other than that put my families in internment camps. Right? So to be able to work on the positive, the next executive order was a positive one was really awesome.
And that being able to say that I had a hand in creating an institution at National CAPACD (Coalition for Asian Pacific American Community Development), that’s what I had dedicated my life to for the next 15 years after I left the administration … I think I am very proud of that. So its not a particular moment but I would say, an accomplishment…
[She realized at the WH that the infrastructure in the API community was weak. Fortunately, she saw the creation of lot of ethnic specific and national organizations. She feels that there is still lot of opportunities to build national infrastructure.]
Sam: Lisa, if you also look back … and mention some of the darkest times, personally and professionally. I think with every up there is a huge down at some point. What would you say was personally darkest period, first, and then professionally?
Lisa: They are both kind of blended. Both personal and professional. When I came from DC, I was the presidential management fellow and this was before the executive order had been signed. I worked on the API Action Agenda for the Department of Health and Human Services. And then I really did not feel it was going to go anywhere after that and so I was like, I need to get out of DC. We did not have the power to change what we needed to change for us to get more equity cause basically it was my job to run around to all the different agencies asking them to put on a plan on how to better serve the APIs. I heard over and over again that this was an unfunded mandate and that they could put some things here but they weren’t gonna give any new grants or they weren’t going to commit any new resources. What am I doing?! And so I went to Oakland to work for Sherry Hirota at Asian Health Services. And I was so excited to be working at a local community based health center … But Sherry was like the mother of API health advocacy. She had started AAPCHO (Association of Asian Pacific Community Health Organizations). She had started API Health Forum and so I wanted to learn from her. Right? And so I worked at the Asian Health Services for a couple of years. And we were really excited and we were able to get this grant to start experimenting with different kinds of health insurance coverage programs for immigrant small businesses. And so we got this big grant from the Kelloggs Foundation and they hired a director for that program and she basically looked at me and was like, “I would never hire you to participate in this program. You’re not from the community. You don’t speak the language. I can’t send you out there to work with small businesses and expect you to be an organizer.” I had this moment of like you’re right but why not?! It just made me really think about my role … If not, there was this clash of where my heart was and what I thought I had wanted to do. And someone’s very honest assessment was the fact that I was not the right person to be doing certain things. Right?! And I think that was the moment where I felt like … dismissing federal policy and real work was at the local level and that was how you get real change. It was a moment where I felt like I understood my role and where I am most valued. It was a dark moment because she, me and this boss did not get along personally at all. It was like going home, crying every day. It was my dream job but it was the most horrible situation I had ever been in. So basically, she was trying to get me to quit, which I eventually did.
Sam: By her negating you, she’s actually pushed you in the direction where you know where you were meant to be.
Lisa: Yeah. That’s the way I would say it now in retrospect. But it was very painful at the time to feel like I had failed … I wanted to spend the rest of my career at this community center. That was it. And I felt at that moment, I felt like I was running away. I couldn’t handle it. And I was like going back to DC. In retrospect, yes, I had many opportunities, great opportunities in DC.
“I really did not feel like it was going to go anywhere.”
Sam: If you look back, what is your number one regret? If you have any, that is?
Lisa: I think that for a very long time, you do feel like if you work in a nonprofit sector that you have to suffer and sacrifice. And you expect everyone to suffer and sacrifice too. Cause you had to do it. I would say that maybe one of my regrets is that I didn’t come to the realization that you really need to have more of a balance. Sooner. I also feel like … I tend to put myself last. And also since I see my family, my partner, my parents, my brothers, and everybody as part of me, I also put them last relative to the community, who is like … the people who don’t know me but I somehow super care about them. I think that putting that heart and energy into your own family is probably a good thing. That is probably the realization that I had … 7 or 8 years into it. I do think that I sacrificed health, relationships, and things like that.
Sam: Do you feel like you’re living your life in your own terms now?
Lisa: Ask me in about 6 months.
Sam: That is a bad response.
Lisa: I would say yes because I made the decision to leave National CAPACD. It was a pretty smooth, planned transition and I had the great privilege of having other very experienced executive directors who were the board of directors. So it was not new to everybody and it wasn’t traumatic for me. As a result, I had a lot of support. They supported me having a 3-month sabbatical; they supported me working from southern California, even though we did not have an office here, to be closer to my family. And now I have almost a full time, a 75% time job. And I am still trying to figure out what’s next. So I don’t quite feel like I am living my exact dream life but I feel like I have the tools to make it so.
[She explained the wonders of having a life coach - hers is Alice Y. Hom - who is helping her figure things out. And she is take concrete steps to live out her values - her family and her passion for the community.]
Lisa: I am in conversation with a good friend of mine and we are thinking of launching … a consulting practice.
“I have the tools to make it so.”
Sam: What do you like to do during your downtime?
Lisa: I have been doing a lot of yoga and I have been binge-watching super-hero Netflix series.
Sam: Which ones?
Lisa: I am going to be watching the Defenders because I really love Jessica Jones and Flash, Arrow, Daredevil, etc.
Sam: You’re watching them all, aren’t you?
Lisa: That’s actually the thing that I found I have in common with my other half, Sandy. That is something we could do together. Otherwise he’s doing all this other sports thing that I could really care less about…
[Then our conversation took us to discuss my favorite superhero show but I will not share. It is too embarrassing … well, too embarrassing for my nieces and nephews. They don’t want to associate with anyone who watches that show.]
Lisa continued: We travel a bit. And I love that. Sandy’s aunt used to work for the State Department so she just has the travel bug. So she takes the whole family with her. We get to go to all different kinds of fun places.
Sam: Lisa, those are my questions. I wanted to thank you. It has been a great hour speaking with you. Thank you.
Lisa Hasegawa is the former Executive Director of the National Coalition for Asian Pacific American Community Development (National CAPACD), the first national advocacy organization dedicated to meeting the housing and community development needs of Asian American and Pacific Islander (AAPI) communities. For over fifteen years, she led the organization and worked to improve the quality of life for low-income Asian American and Pacific Islanders by promoting economic vitality, civic and political participation, and racial equity. Lisa returned to her alma mater UCLA as the 2017 inaugural Activist in Residence for the UCLA Asian American Studies Center and the Luskin School of Public Affairs Institute for Inequality and Democracy. She is currently the Assistant Director for Federal Affairs for UCLA and is enjoying serving as a mentor to graduate students at the School of Public Affairs in her role as a Senior Luskin Fellow. She currently serves on the boards of the Local Initiatives Support Corporation (LISC), Progressive Congress, and Asian Pacific Islanders in Historic Preservation (APIAHiP). Prior to joining National CAPACD, Lisa was the Community Liaison for the White House Initiative on AAPIs where she worked to involve and inform AAPI community groups across the country about Initiative activities to change federal policy to better serve underserved AAPIs. She also worked for the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Health Resources and Services Administration and the Office of Minority Health. Lisa started her community activism through her experiences at two community health centers serving low-income AAPIs in Los Angeles and Oakland, California. She is a fourth generation Japanese American from California, and is a graduate of UCLA, and the Harvard School of Public Health.