Community Insights: Community Identity through Access and Scarcity

This article is part of a new series of insights and op-eds from members in our community. If you would like to be featured in an article, please click here

Insights from Stephanie Nitahara (ELP ’19 and Executive Director of Kizuna) in Honor of Asian Pacific American Heritage Month

Reflecting on over a decade of Nikkei community involvement and leadership, I’ve realized that my identity was shaped out of both access and scarcity. My upbringing created just enough exposure to the community that made me yearn for more, leading me to seek out the opportunities that eventually brought me to Los Angeles to build the next generation of leaders.

The author gives remarks at The 2019 Kizuna Dinner

I grew up in the Chicago suburbs, where I was one of just a handful of Nikkei students in my high school. I remember feeling like a racial impostor when I was constantly asked why I didn’t speak Japanese or why I’d never been to Japan. Yet every weekend, my mother would take my siblings and me to our Nikkei church on the northside of Chicago. Although this felt like a chore at the time, I recognize now that it provided an essential and rare space to practice Japanese cultural traditions.

Although Chicago has several Nikkei churches, temples, and community organizations, the only program I can remember participating in was a basketball clinic that every Nikkei young person I knew played in at some point in their childhood. The clinic was fun, and something I always looked forward to. However, there were still no local programs that educated Nikkei young people on their history or helped build and understand our identity.  

In college, I began seeking opportunities to learn about Japanese American history and to connect my identity to the cultural experiences from my childhood. At that time, I was encouraged to attend a national youth conference organized by the Japanese American Citizens League. This experience accelerated my personal identity development by providing programming that fostered the sense of community and belonging that I had been seeking.

I’ve personally and professionally experienced the importance of accessibility to the Nikkei community and how it built my understanding of my identity. I gradually came to understand how the immense pressure to assimilate to American culture placed on the Issei and Nisei after World War II resulted in the loss of language for many Sansei and Yonsei, and yet gave rise to “acceptable” community spaces such as the church I grew up in. This drives my passion to cultivate spaces for our community and build the next generation of leaders. In doing so, we honor and break the cycle of oppression placed on generations before us. This value guides my current leadership of Kizuna, where I develop the culturally relevant leadership and education programs for the next generation of leaders. I hope that the work we are doing with Kizuna now can be the building blocks of identity development, community engagement, and a desire to invest in the protection of our Nikkei spaces, similar to what I received when I attended the youth conference so many years ago.

When I began working in Little Tokyo in 2012, I had the assumption that my Chicago Nikkei experience was one of scarcity: we had no physical space like Little Tokyo to call home, no community centers, and certainly no organizations like Kizuna. However, I’ve grown to appreciate and recognize all my parents did to ensure I had access to the formative community experiences that brought me here today.

The coronavirus pandemic has posed challenges and a scarcity in community events, but has also provided a unique opportunity for our institutions to innovate and rethink what access to the community looks like. It is my belief that through creative approaches, our community spaces will evolve to be accessible to the next generation through this pandemic, and also equipped to thrive for years to come.

Stephanie Nitahara is the Executive Director of Kizuna, a Nikkei organization building the community through education, empowerment and engagement of the next generation of leaders. She grew up in the suburbs of Chicago and currently resides in Pasadena, CA.