NEW YORK – Three Japanese-Americans — a long-time advocate of the two countries’ friendship, an aspiring basketball coach and a psychology professor — were among 15 women of Asian or Pacific Island heritage honored at the White House as this year’s Champions of Change.
“We remember Asian-American and Pacific Islanders who have made our country bigger and brighter again and again, from Native Hawaiians to the generations of striving immigrants who shape our history, reaching and sweating and scraping to give their children something more,” Valerie Jarrett, senior adviser to President Barack Obama and chair of the White House Council on Women and Girls, said after Monday’s ceremony, quoting a presidential proclamation.
“Their story is the American story, and this month we honor them all,” Jarrett said.
The 15 honorees come from various backgrounds, ranging from business and sports to academia and beyond. The ceremony was held as part of Asian-Pacific American Heritage Month to celebrate U.S. citizens of Asian or Pacific Island lineage.
Tokyo-born Atsuko Toko Fish, who became an American citizen in 2008, founded an executive program in Boston in 2005 preparing Japanese women to become leaders of nonprofit organizations and most recently raised nearly $1 million (¥99 million) for disaster relief in the Tohoku region after the March 11, 2011, earthquake and tsunami. Thanks to Fish’s fundraising efforts, 24 grants were given to 19 NPOs.
She arrived in northeast Japan a month after the disasters struck, ahead of many relief workers, and immediately began laying the groundwork for the Japanese Disaster Relief Fund-Boston, a collaboration among three Boston-based NPOs.
She recalled observing how local women took the initiative in playing an “important role” in the region’s recovery and said they became “a driving force behind the scenes.”
“Through my program and all the efforts, Japanese women are finally breaking through the bamboo ceiling,” said Fish, who served as an adviser to former Massachusetts Gov. Michael Dukakis on tourism and trade for seven years.
Another of the recipients, California native Natalie Nakase, a video coordinator for the Los Angeles Clippers, is aspiring to become the first female coach in the NBA.
She was the first woman to coach a team in the bj-league, Japan’s professional men’s basketball league, guiding the Saitama Broncos for part of last season. Nakase was also the first Asian-American player in the National Women’s Basketball League following her college career at the University of California, Los Angeles.
“I want to represent the idea that the most unattainable goals can be achieved,” the former point guard said of her hope to coach an NBA team. “I want women to believe that the opportunity is there. I believe it takes a lot of courage to do something our society hasn’t seen before.”
Karen Suyemoto, a professor of psychology whose father was an American-born Japanese interned during World War II, focused her academic career on improving the lives of Asian-Americans and those who suffer from mental illnesses, as her mother did.
“My parents’ experience with racism and disability and the cultural variations in my family really shaped my history, my sense of being Asian-American and my commitment to social justice,” she said.
Suyemoto and her academic team have studied how racial and ethnic identities and experiences of discrimination are associated with the development and mental health of Asian-Americans.
Other honorees included a doctor from Hawaii, a disabled Korean adoptee, a modern-day slavery survivor and other leaders from across the United States.