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"Serve the people and you help yourself": Japanese-American anti-drug organizing in Los Angeles, 1969 to 1972.

IN THE SUMMER OF 1971, A SMALL GROUP OF JAPANESE-AMERICAN ACTIVISTS SHOOK their heads at the Los Angeles County coroner s reports. According to the official documents, Sansei (third-generation Japanese American) teenagers throughout Los Angeles County were dying from heart attacks; yet these activists, having known and worked with Sansei youth, suspected that the heart failures were caused by sudden and massive drug overdoses, not coronary disease. (1) They knew that the coroner's reports were incomplete and did not account for deaths that were unrecorded, but not forgotten. From their small cluttered office at Japanese American Community Services (JACS) in Little Tokyo, Sansei activists Mori Nishida and Ron Wakabayashi carefully added the coroner's reports to a list of names compiled by Los Angeles community groups. Realizing that their tally was incomplete but more thorough than the public record, the activists announced their unprecedented findings. In 1970 alone, at least 31 Japanese-American teenagers died from barbiturate overdoses, and a sobering two-thirds of those deaths were young Japanese-American women. (2)

From July 1970 to June 1972, the Los Angeles County Coroner's report revealed that barbiturate overdoses comprised 32% of all drug-related deaths and 70% of all drug-related suicides in the county. It also indicated that women in all ethnic and racial communities overdosed at three times the rate of men. (3) Activists in Los Angeles were especially attuned to the escalation of drug abuse in communities of color. In 1970, Los Angeles held 11% of all Japanese and Japanese living in U.S. urban cities. (4) Of those 55,845 residents, almost one-third were youth under 18 years of age; 51% of them were females ranging from 15 to 19 years old, the age group most affected by the drug epidemic. (5)

The alarming rate of women dying from drug overdoses in her generation led Merilynne Quon to apply for a Young Women's Christian Association (YWCA) grant to start Asian Sisters, a drug abuse counseling and outreach program for Japanese-American young women in Little Tokyo and the greater Los Angeles area. Quon had just graduated from UCLA with Phi Beta Kappa honors and had been admitted to graduate study at the Columbia School of Social Welfare in New York and the UCLA School of Social Welfare. In "a life changing decision," she chose to forego graduate school, return to her community, and dedicate her life to making substantive social change. (6) In May 1971, her proposal was accepted by the Magnolia Committee of the YMCA, which was comprised of progressive Nisei (second-generation Japanese American) women. With access to a small office, YWCA resources, and a $400 monthly stipend, Quon founded Asian Sisters in June of that year. Based on the "serve the people" principle, Asian Sisters was the first self-help drug abuse group run by and for mostly Japanese-American young women, offering crisis intervention and individual and family counseling. (7)

Unlike campaigns for voting rights, educational equity, access to public accommodations, or fair hiring practices, organizing around the effects of drug abuse may not seem to be the kind of issue that could play a crucial role in the development of a race-based social movement. But focusing on the drug epidemic among Japanese-American teenagers in Los Angeles triggered memories in the community of a long chain of injuries--of displacement, war, internment, employment discrimination, urban segregation, and myriad other barriers to full citizenship and social membership. This article examines the grass-roots political work of Sanseis who confronted the drug epidemic by launching an anti-drug offensive that addressed the immediate and practical needs of their community. It traces how they established treatment and counseling opportunities for young drug users and their parents, created supportive networks that linked communities to health care professionals, and identified the broader social conditions that made drug abuse such an attractive option for so many youth. With networks that bridged ethnic, racial, generational, and neighborhood divisions, organizers developed "serve the people" campaigns and fostered a transformative praxis that linked self-help to community self-determination.

"Serve the People" Programs

Organizing around drug abuse was not new to the Japanese-American community in Los Angeles. Since the late 1960s, community service centers run for and by local people had emerged in response to the widespread drug epidemics and socioeconomic problems affecting poor and minority communities. The JACS office was one of these programs, founded and staffed by ex-offenders, former inmates, and former drug users who were committed to direct service community programs. In 1969, Mori Nishida and other former hard-core drug users started a program out of the JACS office called Asian Involvement (AI) that specifically addressed the drug epidemic through peer counseling, outreach, and education. As part of AI's outreach efforts, they formed Asian American Hard Core (AAHC), the first and oldest drug abuse self-help residential program run by and for Japanese Americans in the Crenshaw area of Los Angeles. (8)

Both the JACS-AI office and AAHC were founded on a "serve the people" philosophy of self-help and community building that played a central role in the development of local and national Asian-American activism. Drawing from the writings of Mao Tse-tung, these organizers believed that ordinary people could solve their own problems by working together. "Serving the people" meant building sustainable community programs run for and by local people; creating relationships that valued people's well-being over profit; empowering individuals to become active members of society rather than passive observers; situating personal and community struggles within social, economic, and political contexts; and, as Nishida put it, "working for something bigger or more meaningful than its own existence." (9) The ideology linked the transformation of the individual to that of the community. For AI and AAHC, "serving the people" became a way for the most disenfranchised members of the community--drug users, convicts, youth, and the elderly--to be that community's best medicine.

The humiliation of state-sanctioned incarceration, the reorganization of family life and gender roles, and the staggering loss of homes, personal property, farms, businesses, and jobs resonated with a long history of racial discrimination in the United States, and it triggered an internalization of that violence within the Japanese-American community. (10) Social worker and activist Amy Iwasaki Mass believes that after the period of forced removal and incarceration, the Nisei population was overwhelmed by the desire to prove their patriotism and obedience to the same country that imprisoned them. "We had a need to excel. We had a need to show ourselves as perfect and together and doing well.... There was a conscious driving to be 110% American. You don't want to be just a good citizen. You want to be a super good citizen." (11) Like other minority groups that experienced severe repression, many Japanese Americans attempted to deflect negative ascription by proving themselves to be model citizens--hard working, quiet, restrained, and compliant. Beyond the stigmas associated with communities of color, Niseis and Sanseis also inherited the specific disadvantages of internment, relocation, and widely circulated myths about Japanese-American disloyalty and wartime espionage. (12)

For Sanseis coming of age during the late 1960s, these dramas dovetailed with pervasive myths celebrating Asian-American success and exceptionalism. When the myth of the Asian-American model minority emerged alongside the myth of the Black underclass during the mid-1960s, both served to preserve the segregationist status quo by shifting the blame of racial discord away from state-enforced practices that bolstered white entitlement and toward the alleged incompetence of aggrieved groups. Protecting the unearned and unjust benefits of white privilege, this myth baited interracial conflict and pitted communities of color against each other. (13)

None of the organizers held professional or graduate degrees, but they all believed that addressing the causes and consequences of drug addiction required an experiential and critical understanding of societal politics, street life, and, especially, the struggles of the Sansei generation. They recognized their parents' struggles with resettlement and identified how the model minority myth exploited the trauma of internment by shifting the focus away from its gross violation of constitutional rights to encourage a brand of Japanese-American hyper-patriotism that positioned them against other communities of color. The ideology of the Asian-American model minority as simultaneously successful yet subduable, as exemplary yet obedient, corresponded with how many in the Japanese-American community coped with internment. Grass-roots organizer Nick Nagatani identified the model minority myth as one example of how the government can manipulate racist ideologies to preserve illusions of democracy, merit-based success, and equal opportunity:
 It is convenient to have a uniform group of people who are
 committed to "out-whiting the white man." The government needs
 this, because if this group were nonexistent, then all that is left
 is that America, as we know it, has the deck stacked against people
 of color. Here, they can say, "Hey, wait a minute, time out. What
 about the Japanese? Look how they are doing in school. Honors
 students, degrees, professional careers." We have become the
 "model" to be pitted against other ethnic communities.
 Unfortunately, the so-called leaders in our community refused to
 call out divide and conquer tactics, and say "you know what, we
 ain't going to be used." (14)


Reflecting on her observations as a community social worker, Mass discussed the rationale of assimilationist strategies and their lethal, intergenerational consequences:
 For the Nisei generation, appearances were really important. We
 needed to fit in. We didn't want to make waves. We wanted to be
 seen as a model minority.... But when you do that, you're denying
 your children their humanity, because all of us make mistakes and
 have problems and go through ups and downs.... If you have parents
 who can't tolerate that, can't allow that, then I think it is
 really easy to turn to drugs.... I think the coming together of the
 drug scene and the anguish that the Sansei were going through
 explains why drugs were turned to. (15)


Patricia Iwasaki, an Asian Sisters organizer, believes that the false standards set by mainstream social pressures on Asian Americans surfaced with deadly consequences among the teenagers with whom she worked:
 One thing that I truly believe is that idealism kills.... You can
 have the best intentions and hopes and dreams and beliefs. And then
 life just smacks you upside the head, and it's very painful. If you
 don't have other ways of drawing strength and being able to really
 take stock of that and be tough enough to protect yourself, it can
 do you in. (16)


Understanding their lives as symptoms and reflections of the society in which they lived, Sansei organizers believed that one's freedom from addiction came from understanding the roots of the motivation to abuse drugs. Working with and "serving the people" became the method through which Mass, Iwasaki, Nagatani, and others encouraged individual and societal transformation. AI co-founder Ray Tasaki states:
 Our strategy for getting people to turn their lives around was by
 having them participate in socializing actions. We organized
 activities like working with others in the community who were also
 having problems. We organized sessions so they could learn and talk
 with people about the conditions that made people turn to drugs and
 gangs--the alienation they felt and what was needed to change
 themselves and the world. In doing this, their own transformation
 would begin to happen. They got involved in community work and
 began to rely less and less on needing to get loaded. (17)


Inspired by the radical "serve the people" programs implemented by the Black Panther Party, Sansei organizers put into practice their ideas of how to "relate, educate, organize, and mobilize" their surrounding communities. Kathy Nishimoto Masaoka, a member of JACS' Youth and Drugs Division, explains the vision of self-transformation that informed their praxis. "You change your own self-concept by serving others and people seeing you in a different way.... We were going to transform people ... by working in the community." (18) They valued the practical work of face-to-face interaction, deliberative talk, and collective decision-making, because it made clear the mutually empowering relationships between individual action and community building. Through workshops, internships, community outreach, and education, these groups turned self-help into community making.

"A 24/7 Kind of Thing"

One of the first youth-centered anti-drug programs was Yellow Brotherhood, a predominantly male community organization that targeted young Sansei drug users. Yellow Brotherhood was an anti-drug abuse self-help house originally founded in 1970 by former members of the Ministers, a Japanese-American youth gang in the Crenshaw area of Los Angeles. Located near Pico and Crenshaw Boulevards, the Yellow Brotherhood house had been established in response to community needs by the first and second generation of Ministers.

Yellow Brotherhood member Nick Nagatani had just returned from military service in the Vietnam War when he noticed the widespread abuse of drugs by younger Sanseis in his home neighborhood. Nagatani's interest in Yellow Brotherhood was part of a much longer personal history of community engagement. He was the second of three sons born to Nisei parents who had been interned during World War II. His father was interned at the Jerome, Arkansas, camp and his mother was interned at Manzanar in California. Much like Quon's family, Nagatani's parents were released early under the condition that they not relocate to the West Coast. They moved to Chicago, where Nagatani's parents met, married, and raised their family. In exchange for working as custodians, his family was allowed to live in the back room of a suburban radio station that played Eastern European, Polish, and polka music. In the late 1950s, when Nagatani was about six years old, his father got a job as a tool designer in the booming defense industry in Los Angeles. They moved to the Crenshaw neighborhood, which Nagatani described as a "mecca" of diversity. It was his first exposure to a sizable Japanese-American community and neighborhood. As an adolescent who never felt "the need to be polite to everybody," Nagatani began experimenting with drugs and eventually joined the Ministers. (19)

When he was 18, he and three close friends enlisted in the Marines during the Vietnam War. Nagatani recalled that his experiences with the military directly contradicted the respect for difference that he had learned by growing up among African Americans. Rather than cultivating a culture of understanding, Nagatani felt that the Marines regularly employed a "divide and conquer" strategy and would "play that game on a daily basis." (20) Nagatani explained, for example, that when platoon members were unable to keep up with daily exercises, drill instructors would stand them in front of the group and command the rest of the platoon to start their exercises from the beginning. The next person to falter was directed to stand in front of the platoon and watch the platoon repeat their drills again:
 So after a while, you are down there, and you are doing push-ups,
 swimming in the dirt, or whatever their torture is for that day,
 [and] you start to think--or they want you to think--that the
 reason why you're doing this is because of these guys [standing up
 front, but] ... it's because of [the drill instructor] that we're
 doing it! But it works, it works. So you bring that [realization]
 back to the community. (21)


His experience within the military taught him important lessons about the power of dividing, rather than building, communities. What Nagatani witnessed in his training as a Marine helped him to appreciate the unique community building philosophy of Yellow Brotherhood. When Nagatani returned from Vietnam, he was deeply troubled by the number of drug overdoses occurring among young Sanseis. He immediately joined his comrades in Yellow Brotherhood and challenged youth to face the growing epidemic. (22) With the guidance of older Yellow Brotherhood members, Nagatani and many others created a drug prevention program:
 We went to neighborhood schools, introduced ourselves to the Asian
 kids, invited them to the YB house and got to hear and learn about
 their situation by organizing "rap sessions" with them. We followed
 up [on] these contacts by dropping by their homes and meeting with
 their families, letting them know about our facility and the intent
 of our program. Within a short time, the YB house became a magnet
 for Asian youth from the Crenshaw community. (23)


These young community organizers recognized the pressures that teenage Sanseis negotiated through substance abuse, and that knowledge gave them a stronger sense of compassion, patience, and urgency. Nagatani remembered that the pressures that led him to drug use were not always clear:
 At first, for me, it was just experimenting.... "I'm game and how
 is this little pill going to make me feel?" I ain't going to lie.
 The "high" made me feel different.... At first, you feel better,
 and that's why I continued it. But you continue to use, even though
 you now realize it's an escape. You rationalize it, and it becomes
 a self-destructive lifestyle. (24)


Witness to both the escape and destruction that drug abuse created in his and others' lives, Nagatani quietly explained that:
 for a brief period of time, you get to be someone that you're not.
 When you get "high," you become someone different. At first you may
 even dig your new "identity" more than yourself. My prolonged usage
 or addition resulted in a cycle of self-hatred. It's like, what is
 so wrong with me that I don't want to be me and I need to take this
 stuff? That's the underlying issue. What am I truly escaping from,
 because at the end of the high, you always come back to you. (25)


Nagatani and other organizers knew that tendencies toward self-hatred and low self-esteem stemmed from more than ordinary teenage angst. They recognized the racialized nature of their challenges and their links to historical subjection, wartime internment, anti-Asian violence, and discrimination.

In 1971, several months before the formation of Asian Sisters, Nagatani joined Victor Shibata and others as they reopened the Yellow Brotherhood house to act as a community resource and drop-in center, especially for youth at Mount Vernon Junior High School, which was located only five blocks away. Like Asian American Hard Core, Yellow Brotherhood provided alternative forms of community for young people that they hoped would be more constructive than gang life. The young people who "hung out" at the house could be found playing basketball in the backyard, lifting weights in the garage, socializing, playing pool, and listening to music. They attended study sessions with college and high school tutors who volunteered their time, listened to community members speak on identity issues, and participated in Yellow Brotherhood's physical fitness programs and sports teams.

Organizers supplemented these activities with political education workshops that aimed to provide youth with the tools and language to understand the racism and discrimination that permeated their lives on the streets. They went on pilgrimages to the Manzanar internment site and visited Agbayani Village in Delano, where they built housing for elderly Filipino farm workers. To help raise money for their programs, Yellow Brotherhood threw fundraising concerts and dances where Asian-American groups like Grain of Sand, Hiroshima, and Asian Persuasion would perform free of charge. Far more than an after school program or social club, the community building and education at Yellow Brotherhood "was like a 24/7 kind of thing," explained Nagatani. (26) Their work inspired younger Sanseis, including Quon, Iwasaki, and Masaoka, to take up the challenge of organizing young, female drug abusers.

"We Face Four Levels of Oppression"

Never having organized around drug abuse before, Quon nonetheless recognized the struggles of Sansei youth raised by a Nisei generation that was still processing the violent experience of government-sanctioned wartime internment. (27) From a young age, Quon was attuned to the difficulties her parents' generation faced during World War II. Her mother's family had opted to forego internment at the expense of relocating their entire family from the Crenshaw area of Los Angeles to rural Utah. The demands of agricultural life and the trauma of forced relocation wore on the family, and following her grandmother's untimely death, they moved to Japan. When Quon was three years old, her mother left an abusive husband in Japan and returned to the Crenshaw area in Los Angeles. Her mother worked long hours as a secretary before eventually remarrying. Quon's family, like many Japanese Americans, felt that the resettlement was, in some ways, more difficult than internment, because most Nisei experienced the postwar anti-Japanese racism of mainstream U.S. society with no job, no home, and few resources. (28)

They coped with historical displacement, inherited trauma, and contemporary discrimination, manifested in ways that were private and personal, public and political. Quon remembers that many Nisei parents resorted to alcohol and substance abuse or experienced depression and denial. She and other Japanese Americans attribute this directly to the after-effects of internment. One study estimated that 40% of all Nisei deaths before the age of 60 were directly linked to alcohol abuse. (29) Together, Quon's family struggled with the difficulties that internment and racism introduced into their lives. The strength of her mother during those years made a lasting impression on her, and Quon drew on that model after she graduated from UCLA and moved to Little Tokyo to organize Asian Sisters. Although the Nisei eventually formed communities, families, and social organizations, they grappled with the consequences of internment and community displacement for many decades. (30)

Inspired and aided by the work of many Sansei activists, Quon devoted herself to Asian Sisters. The organization attracted the attention of Sansei women already involved in drug abuse organizing in the Los Angeles area, including AAHC and Yellow Brotherhood, Search to Involve Pilipino Americans, LOVE (Hollywood), Come Together (Gardena), and Go For Broke (East Los Angeles). It also attracted the attention of Asian-American women interested in putting their learned theory into practice, as well as women interested in reproductive rights, sex education, childcare, and juvenile delinquency. Although most of the organizers and young women were Sansei, Asian Sisters also included women of Chinese, Filipino, and Korean heritage.

Asian Sisters held weekly meetings at the JACS office, and they advertised through word of mouth and in Gidra, the local Asian-American activist newspaper. Weekly meetings for youth and parents drew loyal attendance, and the sustained support for Asian Sisters and other drug abuse groups affirmed their need in the Japanese-American community and the effectiveness of their work. Like Asian American Hardcore and Yellow Brotherhood, Asian Sisters offered rap sessions and counseling groups at JACS, but they also gave presentations and workshops at community centers throughout Los Angeles and built extensive community networks, especially through the churches. (31) From 1971 to 1973, the group served more than 200 Asian-American women aged 12 through 21 years old. (32)

Yellow Brotherhood's model of organizing and self-help inspired Quon as she formed Asian Sisters, but she also noticed important differences among young Sansei women. Although they shared similar issues with drug abuse, societal expectations, historical legacies, and the stresses of adolescence, the way those struggles manifested themselves in the everyday lives of Sansei women and men was deeply gendered. Listening closely to the dramas of their younger peers, the organizers of Asian Sisters realized that directly modeling Asian Sisters after Yellow Brotherhood would impose a masculinist model of drug abuse counseling and support upon the women. The community model of Yellow Brotherhood was informed by the previous work of Asian American Hardcore and inspired Asian Sisters, but the former's drug abuse counseling was primarily for and by Japanese-American young men accustomed to street life. Amy Iwasaki noticed how the tactics employed by the men in Yellow Brotherhood resonated much differently with the young men than with the women:
 It's a spillover from what is survival on the street--this really
 tough talking, confrontational, very in-your-face style to more or
 less scare the bejesus out of these young boys so that they would
 straighten up.... It's using intimidation as the ends and the
 means, but that doesn't work with women.... Punching women in the
 stomach doesn't work. Neither does yelling and screaming and
 intimidating them, because all that happens is they just become
 more internal. It's a whole different language, and it locks women
 into this absolutely scared, petrified [state] ... There's no
 support and there's no getting stronger. (33)


When Nagatani worked with young women through the Drugs and Youth division at JACS, he noticed the distinctly gendered and racialized reasons that drew young women to drugs:
 A lack of positive identity and negative racial stereotypes
 contributed toward drug abuse among Asian sisters. At an early age,
 they were bombarded with unattainable white standards of beauty:
 "Blondes have more fun," the rounder your eyes are, the "finer" you
 are, flat noses are not attractive, on and on. If you "fall" for
 the "campaign," then it becomes hard to maintain your own positive
 image. (34)


Nagatani could identify the insidious ways in which racism seeped into the self-esteem of young Asian Americans by creating unattainable and unrealistic standards of "American" beauty and self-perception at their expense.

For women, these struggles with self-esteem were shaped by their intersecting racial and gender identities, which were under continual assault by mainstream American norms. Illustrating the persistent gender and racial stereotypes that work to debilitate all communities of color, Sansei girls maneuvered within a society that either exalted and mistrusted them as Asian, or exoticized and demonized them as women. According to Quon, second- or third-generation women of color face triple oppression from the capitalist system, racism, and sexism, which together generate the ideologies and practices that sanction subjugation in U.S. society. She added that Japanese-American, Chinese-American, Korean-American, and Filipino-American women also endured "male-dominated environments with feudal cultures" in the home, prompting her to identify not three, but "four levels of oppression, because we have American sexism, and then we have Asian [sexism]." (35)

To empower themselves, Asian Sisters turned to the uprising of the domestic and international women's movements. Japanese-American women and men alike were inspired by women's activism as they demanded equal pay for equal work, sought control of their reproductive bodies and health care, and learned from the pointed antiracist critiques made by feminists of color. The struggle for reproductive rights in the United States enabled Asian Sisters to discuss women's sexual health and provide much needed resources. Iwasaki learned how sexism affected women's motivations for drug abuse and endangered their sexual health. (36)
 When guys get high, they might get belligerent, crash cars, and
 what not. But ... when you're totally messed up ... and you're
 female, you can bet money that if there are males around, you're
 going to get taken advantage of.... These young Asian women were
 either going to be taken advantage of or raped, so there were all
 these other issues that came up. (37)


Knowing the crises that young women were facing, Asian Sisters invited Asian-American nurses to meetings. They offered sex education workshops that covered topics such as the "female reproductive system, birth control, social and psychological effects of sex, and feminine hygiene, abortion." Asian Sisters also solicited help from social workers who volunteered to give several pregnancy counseling sessions. Organizers also introduced the women to a feminist clinic in Los Angeles that offered information about women's physical, mental, and sexual health. Organizers sought to expose young women to community clinics as an important resource for reproductive planning, prevention, and contraception. Iwasaki remembered, "It was a big deal. You have got to deal with not only all this stuff in your life that's pushing you to take drugs to begin with, but on top of all of that, you have got to deal with [howl you might be pregnant and have a kid.... There are some alternatives. You can take some control." (38)

Given the dangers that drug use posed to young women's sexual health, the organizers of Asian Sisters offered their younger peers the testimony of their experiences and a network of women's and sexual health resources in the community. Knowledge about community resources was an important part of Asian Sisters, but its effectiveness depended largely on the sustained personal relationships that were formed through day-to-day support and interaction. Kathy Masaoka describes the work involved with drug intervention as "intense and very demanding," because youth were:
 getting loaded every weekend. Then they'd get hurt, or they'd get
 beat up, or they would be lost or in danger. It would be critical
 that you find them or go after them.... We had to be doing that
 kind of stuff. A couple of people [still] overdosed while we were
 working with them.... It's emotionally draining. It's overwhelming.
 (39)


"It's Not Just You"

Faced with intense work that was crucial to the survival of their community, organizers drew upon personal resources and community networks. In doing so, community problems became opportunities for community building. When Masaoka graduated from college, she remembers walking into the JACS office to offer her time and work. "I came in and said, 'I want to volunteer' ... and they said, 'Okay, you take over this Youth and Drugs program [which was started by Richard Toguchi].' I said, 'What?' I didn't know anything about drugs." Yet through her work with Nagatani, Larry Iba, and Greg Fukuda, she slowly began to understand anti-drug organizing and community building. Together, they administered a community survey at the annual JACS community health fair on Weller Street in downtown Los Angeles to better understand why young people turned to drugs. After collecting survey responses, they learned that one of the largest concerns was a lack of intergenerational communication between parents and children. (40)

Moved and directed by their community's needs, they organized a parents' group out of the JACS office to complement the already existing youth groups throughout the city. They sought the support of Japanese-American social workers such as Mass, who were deeply concerned with the effects of the drug epidemic on families and intergenerational relations. They formed three parents' groups that were facilitated by Mass and a fourth Japanese-speaking group led by Shinya Ono, a community worker at the nearby Resthaven Psychiatric Hospital in Los Angeles. (41) Although open to youth and their parents, meetings were dominated by parents who attended the small breakout sessions, followed by larger group discussions. Mothers mostly attended the meetings, especially immigrant mothers in the Japanese-speaking parents' group whose Nisei children were using drugs. Parents who did not own cars were driven to and from the meetings by Sansei activists recruited by Masaoka and Iba for weekly carpools. Attendance quickly grew to over 20 parents per weekly meeting. (42)

Parents offered each other support as they listened to and shared the confusion and turmoil of bridging linguistic, generational, and cultural gaps with their children. Parents did not understand the multiple reasons that motivated their children toward drug use, so these groups offered important spaces where their grievances could be processed collectively with community allies involved in anti-drug work and social work. (43) Activist Evelyn Yoshimura pointed out that "they needed the community to acknowledge that something was happening, and they needed other people to say, 'It's not just you.'" (44) The groups fostered a space for deliberative talk where parents could learn to handle, discuss, and respond to the crisis in constructive and connective ways.

The crisis and prevention work of the anti-drug organizers reached parents, children, schools, churches, and community groups throughout Los Angeles. The careful and compassionate outreach to family members and the willingness to work with youth earned them the respect and gratitude of the Japanese-American community. Mass explains how these organizers sustained a vision that allowed them to reach groups that social workers and other concerned professionals could not:
 The parents' generation could not relate to these kids at all. It
 was just beyond them that their kids would be doing these things,
 but the Yellow Brotherhood guys and the Asian Sisters ...
 understood and they reached out. They went out on the streets and
 looked for them.... I think it was really brave and hard. These
 people, doing it out of the goodness of their hearts, at first must
 have gone through some pretty hard knocks in terms of people not
 responding. But if they hadn't reached out, then these people would
 have been lost totally. (45)


In their attempt to root out the causes of drug abuse, Asian Sisters and other organizers traced Sansei grievances to a historical amnesia that required Japanese Americans to assimilate themselves into a society premised on racial exclusion, racial violence, and racial exploitation.

When the Black Power movement emerged with its messages of community self-determination and antiracist critiques of U.S. society, Sansei organizers were greatly transformed by what they heard. By focusing on institutionalized power rather than on personal prejudice, the Black Power movement helped activists to see the systemic causes and consequences of local problems. Sansei students attended Black Power meetings at their high schools, while older Sanseis closely followed their speeches and community actions. They witnessed the formation of African-American grass-roots organizations with programs to serve the young and elderly, and political education workshops and rallies that illustrated the contradictions and hypocrisies of the U.S. racial system. Yoshimura explains that organizers believed that if:
 young people had a sense of their history and identity, [the
 epidemic] would not be so bad. If they had pride in who they were,
 and had not felt like they had to be somebody else, that it would
 not be so bad. That they would not need drugs if there were
 alternatives for them to act out what they felt and who they were.
 (46)


The self-reflection and self-activity provoked by these experiences with another community of color moved Iwasaki and Quon to incorporate political education into the drug treatment and prevention work of Asian Sisters.

Community support and collaborative networks grounded anti-drug organizing among Japanese-American youth and made it possible for Asian Sisters and Yellow Brotherhood to reach local youth in a sustained way. With its emphasis on political education, intergenerational outreach, and community collaboration, their philosophies were grounded in a praxis of self-help informed by a belief that "the only real way to get off drugs or things like that is to get outside of yourself and to help others." Quon observed that this notion of critical self-help through community work was a nationwide phenomenon: "The Black Panther Party, the JACS office, the Chicano movement, the Native American movement, and everybody is saying, 'we're here in the community. Serve the people. Serve the people and you help yourself.'" (47)

The work it took for the Sansei organizers to share their experiences and help their teenage peers transform themselves was slow and gradual, but its emphasis on meaningful relationships within their outreach programs created sustainable community bonds. Quon explained that the work of Asian Sisters, Yellow Brotherhood, and Asian American Hardcore was "very grounded with the community. We didn't see community people as a bunch of faces at a rally. We knew them. We knew their families. We were down with folks, so we had to know how to relate." (48) The work of these women and men built the foundation for the anti-drug organizing in the Japanese-American community for generations.

The work of ex-users who established Asian American Hardcore and Yellow Brotherhood demonstrates the extent to which self-help relied upon a critical understanding of how individual health coexisted with community and social health. Emerging before large-scale, institutionalized social work began in the Japanese-American community, these groups provided resources that were otherwise absent. Iwasaki stated:
 there was no manual at the time. Street people knew more about how
 to deal with drug overdoses than the doctors, because it hadn't hit
 the main population. It was really hitting minority communities, so
 there is no such thing as drug or alcohol counselors. You really
 were just flying by the seat of your pants on what you were doing.
 (49)


Organizing crisis hotlines, parents and youth groups, as well as community outreach and education, these previous drug users drew upon the wisdom of their experience to help and educate those younger than them. Although these organizations were firmly guided by the knowledge of former drug users, they were also rooted in the experiences of non-users who were deeply affected by the impact of the drug epidemic on those around them. The experiences of Masaoka, Iwasaki, Nagatani, and Quon all speak to the effects of drug epidemics on family and community members. Mass spoke on the politics of empathy that moved many involved in anti-drug work:
 If you experience pain, if you experience trauma, and you
 experience rejection or hurt of whatever, and then you have people
 who help you with that, who are tuned into you and respond to you,
 I think that's how you develop empathy. It is possible to
 experience the pain and deal with it with understanding. If you
 don't have people who respond to you and help you with it, you just
 build defenses.... [E]mpathy is possible if you have somebody who
 cares enough to listen and respond and find that kind of
 kindredness. (50)


Masaoka remembers how her experiences in the Youth and Drugs division of the JACS office transformed her as a person and organizer. She was:
 able to connect to people I didn't feel I could before.... I was
 sort of raised in a certain kind of environment and saw myself in a
 certain way.... [It was] not that I was not open, but I had never
 had the opportunity to be with people that were that different from
 me. Working with people on drugs, or relating to people on an
 everyday basis, like Nick [Nagatani]. I would probably have never
 had met them, never had gravitated towards hanging out with them,
 or knowing them. (51)


Street life and drug use were not part of her experience, but her work with the JACS parents' group and collaborations with people from different backgrounds showed her how to build kindred relationships based on organic solidarities across difference that were as powerful, and sometimes more expansive, than those based on similarities.

The self-help philosophy espoused by these activists was grounded in an understanding that drug abuse was a symptom of deeper societal ills and inequalities directed at communities of color. Given this, an attempt to remedy the ills in one's self could be linked to healing the problems of the community at large. Healing the self became a way to heal the community, and helping the community gave rise to nontraditional relationships built on organic solidarity and values. Quon explained that Asian Sisters made links between personal and social struggles by helping "the person see the bigger picture [and] how they fit in. We talked about women's oppression, racism, [and] capitalism." (52) Mass believed very strongly in the importance of situating personal struggles in the context of the broader society. She explained that:
 when individuals feel so bad about themselves, and feel so guilty
 and responsible and blame themselves, it is really important for
 them to understand how they were set up, how the whole societal
 setup contributes to the experiences that they have had. (53)


In the early 1970s, situating themselves within a broader local, national, and international context of uprising was not difficult. The movement among communities of color for human rights and self-determination was occurring nationally and across the world. Women of color were uplifted by the U.S. feminist movement and challenged the sexism inside and outside their own communities, while also sharply critiquing the racism within the predominantly white mainstream women's movement. Nationwide protests against U.S. involvement and escalation in Vietnam and Southeast Asia were cutting across gender, race, and class lines. Black and Latino communities challenged the disproportionate recruitment, enlistment, and fatalities of their young men in the military, while Asian-American soldiers endured racist mockeries and degrading comparisons to Southeast Asian opponents. (54)

It was a time when, as Iwasaki explained, they were "trying to make out what their role and their path was ... [through] feeling our own sense of self-identity." (55) One of the most profound impacts of the Vietnam War for Yoshimura was "seeing images of Asian people fighting back ... and [seeing] women in the army [when] ... Asian women were not supposed to be like that!" (56) The uprisings in the United States were not the sole impetus for the uprisings in her own community. Iwasaki states that their organizing "was because of that time. It was because of not only the rise of movements of color in communities throughout the U.S. It was the international images, the kinds of growing awareness of imperialism and what the role of imperialism was." (57)

Sansei organizers held educational workshops and demonstrations that criticized federal intervention in Southeast Asia and connected that critique to anticolonial struggles elsewhere in Asia, Latin America, and Africa. Drawing on their experiences in anti-drug work and military service in Vietnam, organizers made connections between U.S. wars in Asia, anti-Asian discrimination in the military, and the uprising of aggrieved communities of color in the United States. To Quon, Iwasaki, Nagatani, and Masaoka, protesting against the escalation of war in Vietnam was not far from their protests against the illegal flooding and abuse of barbiturates in their own communities. They understood that the root causes of drug abuse were not merely the challenges of adolescence, but were tied to historical and contemporary legacies of political and economic disenfranchisement, racial discrimination, and sexism experienced by members of the Japanese-American community.

"Contradictions Manifested Within Us"

The members of Yellow Brotherhood, Asian Sisters, and other anti-drug activists determined their agenda by assessing the most pressing needs of their community. (58) They organized people into programs aimed at changing themselves and society. They remained relentlessly local in their focus, yet through a process of organizational learning quickly discovered that local issues also had systemic causes and consequences. They had no official ideology, no organized or disciplined party structure, and no organized plan for taking state power, but many key organizers were informed by the antiracist, anti-capitalist, anti-imperialist, and anti-sexist politics of that time. Disciplined, political living collectives such as the Community Workers Collective in Boyle Heights and the Westside Collective in the Crenshaw area of Los Angeles provided spaces where activists would grapple with how to link immediate reforms with long-term visions for fundamental social change. The grass-roots "serve the people" programs and early Asian-American movement activists recruited community members into the processes of participatory democracy--deliberative talk, face-to-face decision-making, direct action protest, and collective self-help. Instead of presenting themselves as leaders in search of followers, they initiated actions that generated new leaders from the most desperate parts of their community. (59)

In April 1972, Clara Ueda, an 18-year-old Asian Sister, died from a barbiturate overdose following a sexual assault. It was the first fatal overdose since the organization had formed, and Asian Sisters struggled with the stark reality of their work. Asian Sisters honored Ueda by compiling a series of articles and poems that were published in the May 1972 issue of Gidra. In the eulogy, Merilynne Quon wrote:
 Sometimes it's hard to integrate rhetoric with reality, to see how
 sexism, racism, and capitalism affect us. Too often they seem like
 words uttered from far away. But at times, we see how much they are
 a part of us, how they can destroy us.... Clara's death reflects
 the gross contradictions of sexism, racism, and capitalism which
 destroyed her and still affects all of us, individually and
 collectively. We must look at ourselves and the contradictions
 manifested within us and support each other to define and build
 real alternatives. We must heighten education in the community and
 work towards destroying the conditions which will continue to kill
 brothers and sisters in the community. Only in this way will we be
 able to live with Clara's memory. (60)


Asian Sisters saw Ueda's passing as symptomatic of the violence generated by the intertwining structures of capitalism, racism, and sexism. It was also, as Iwasaki remembered, a moment of individual and collective self-reflection, a reassessment of one's commitment to the struggle, and a sobering reminder of what was at stake. (61)

Ueda's passing coincided with the receipt of a $100,000 federal grant from the Department of Health, Education, and Welfare. Earlier in the year, Quon had drafted the proposal to expand Asian Sisters into a community center that would offer more comprehensive services. In July 1972, Asian Sisters received the money to form the Asian Women's Center, but the transition was not an easy one. Asian Sisters was one of a number of organizations to receive federal funding for social service development. The Sansei activist community--as well as other communities--struggled over the question of whether to remain community-supported or become federally funded. Iwasaki observed:
 Do you take the money? Do you not take the money? Do you organize
 independently? ... When federal money comes in, it impacts
 organizing by making it very clear: you either become co-opted by
 the funding or you continue to focus in terms of grassroots
 community. (62)


After much heated debate that summer, Asian Sisters dissolved into the newly created Asian Women's Center, which offered a variety of social services to the Little Tokyo community. As the Asian Women's Center and Asian American Drug Abuse Program eclipsed their anti-drug abuse programs, Quon, Masaoka, Nagatani, and others shifted their attention to other pressing community concerns. (63) Their work continued to produce a politics that outlasted the emergence and dissolution of organizations, even their own, because it was grounded in the belief that personal transformation was intimately linked with societal change, that one of the most important conditions for community self-determination was cultivating the well-being of the individual.

NOTES

(1.) Merilynne Quon, interview by author, audio recording, Pomona, CA, April 14, 2002.

(2.) Asian Community Drug Offensive, "Roses Aren't Reds, Violets Aren't Tru's," Gidra 4,7 (July 1972): 19; Merilynne Hamano, "thoughts of remembrance for clara," Gidra 4,5 (May 1972): 8; "Reds Will Kill Ya!" Gidra 2,9 (October 1970): 5; Merilynne Hamano Quon, "Individually We Contributed, Together We Made a Difference," in Steve Louie and Glenn Omatsu (eds.), Asian Americans: The Movement and the Moment (Los Angeles: UCLA Asian American Studies Center Press, 2001: 211-213); Evelyn Yoshimura, interview by author, audio recording, Los Angeles, CA, October 14, 2002; Kathy Nishimoto Masaoka, interview by author, audio recording, Los Angeles, CA, March 8, 2003; Janice D. Tanaka, When You're Smiling: The Deadly Legacy of Internment (Los Angeles, CA: Visual Communications, 1999), video recording.

(3.) David Farber writes, "In 1965, doctors wrote 123 million prescriptions for tranquilizers and sedatives and 24 million for various amphetamines. About 3,000 Americans a year were dying of overdoses of these legal drugs by the mid-1960s." See David Farber, The Age of Great Dreams: America in the 1960s (New York: Hill and Wang, 1994: 174); Asian Community Drug Offensive, "Roses Aren't Reds, Violets Aren't Tru's": 19.

(4.) U.S. Bureau of the Census, "Social Characteristics of the Japanese Population for Selected Standard Metropolitan Statistical Areas and Cities: 1970." In 1970 Census of Population, Subject Reports, Japanese, Chinese, and Filipinos in the United States (Washington D.C.: U.S. Government Printing Office, 1973: 51).

(5.) Ibid.;U.S.Bureau of the Census," "Age, Marital Status, Education, and Industry of the Japanese Population for Selected Standard Metropolitan Statistical Areas and Cities: 1970." In 1970 Census of Population, Subject Reports, Japanese, Chinese, and Filipinos in the United States (Washington, D.C.: U.S. Government Printing Office, 1973: 53).

(6.) Quon, "Individually We Contributed, Together We Made a Difference": 209.

(7.) Ibid., 212; Merilynne Hamano, "Work Report: My Activities as Time Youth Worker, Magnolia Fund Committee, YWCA, June 15, 1971--June 15, 1972," unpublished report, Magnolia Fund Committee, Los Angeles, CA, June 1972: 1.

(8.) "Asian American Hard Core," Gidra 1,9 (December 1969): 14. According to AI co-founder Ray Tasaki, the office also offered a free lunch program for elderly people, legal aid, and draft counseling. They worked with youth in prison and recruited students from college campuses. See Ray Tasaki, "Wherever There Is Oppression," in Steve Louie and Glenn Omatsu (eds.), Asian Americans: The Movement and the Moment (2001: 83-84).

(9.) Mori Nishida, "Serve the People," Gidra 2,7 (August 1970): 14.

(10.) Valerie Matsumoto, "Japanese American Women During World War II." In Vicki Ruiz and Ellen Carol DuBois (eds.), Unequal Sisters: A Multicultural Reader in U.S. Women's History (New York: Routledge, 1994: 436-449).

(11.) Amy Iwasaki Mass, interview by author, audio recording, Berkeley, CA, October 27, 2002.

(12.) Iwasaki Mass, interview, 2002; Donna K. Nagata, Legacy of Injustice: Exploring the Cross-Generational Impact of the Japanese American Internment (New York: Plenum Press, 1993:21-26).

(13.) Claire Kim, Bitter Fruit: The Politics of Black-Korean Conflict in New York City (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2000).

(14.) Nick Nagatani, interview by author, audio recording, Los Angeles, CA, June 9, 2002.

(15.) Iwasaki Mass, interview, 2002.

(16.) Patricia Iwasaki, telephone interview by author, audio recording, Los Angeles, CA, March 24, 2003.

(17.) Tasaki, "Wherever There Is Oppression": 83.

(18.) Masaoka, interview, 2003; Steve Louie recalls that he first encountered the ideas of Mao Tse-tung (including the "serve the people" concept) from members of the Black Panther Party. See Steve Louie, "When We Wanted It Done, We Did It Ourselves." In Steve Louie and Glenn Omatsu (eds.), Asian Americans: The Movement and the Moment (2001: xxii); on Asian-American women's community activism in Los Angeles, see Susie Hsiuhan Ling, "The Mountain Movers: Asian American Women's Movement in Los Angeles" (M.A. thesis, University of California, Los Angeles, 1984); William Wei, The Asian American Movement (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1993: 79); Yen Le Espiritu, Asian American Panethnicity: Bridging Institutions and Identities (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1992: 49, 84).

(19.) Nick Nagatani, interview by Janice Tanaka, video recording, 1998, Los Angeles, CA; Nagatani, interview by author, 2002.

(20.) Nagatani, interview by author, 2002.

(21.) Ibid.

(22.) Ibid.; Nick Nagatani, "'Action Talks and Bullshit Walks': From the Founders of Yellow Brotherhood to the Present." In Steve Louie and Glenn Omatsu (eds.), Asian Americans: The Movement and the Moment (2001 : 148-155); Espiritu, Asian American Panethnicity (1992: 84, 85).

(23.) Nagatani, "'Action Talks and Bullshit Walks'": 152.

(24.) Nagatani, interview by author, 2002; Nick Nagatani, electronic correspondence to author, September 11, 2004.

(25.) Ibid., Nagatani, interview by author, 2002.

(26.) Nagatani, interview by author, 2002; Nagatani, "'Action Talks, Bullshit Walks'": 148-155, especially 154.

(27.) Regarding Japanese-American awareness groups such as the "Go For Broke" youth organization in East Los Angeles, Lesley Rangle writes that "their concern is not primarily with the losses incurred in the Relocation Camp experience, but mainly with the great psychological damage done to their parents by these unjust actions, and how this trauma has, in turn, affected their own lives as Americans." She notes that expressions of "dissent and disillusion of these verbal Sanseis can be found in newspaper articles, student term papers, poetry, plays, novels and Asian Awareness text books. Through these various media, it is possible to make an assessment as to the psychological scars left by America's concentration camps of World War II." See Lesley Rangle, "And What Will It Do to Their Children: A Study of Sansei Reaction to the Nisei Relocation Camp Experience and Its Reflection in Their Asian American Awareness Movements," The Welebaethan, eds. (Fullerton, CA: Theta Pi Chapter of Phi Alpha Theta, California State University, Fullerton, Spring 1974: 160-174, especially 161-162).

(28.) Janice D. Tanaka, interview by author, audio recording, Los Angeles, CA, July 29, 2002; Tanaka, When You're Smiling (1999).

(29.) Donna K. Nagata, Legacy of Injustice: Exploring the Cross-Generational Impact of the Japanese American Internment (1993); Roger Daniels et al., Japanese Americans: From Relocation to Redress (Salt Lake City: University of Utah Press, 1986); Quon, "Individually We Contributed, Together We Made a Difference": 208; Quon, interview, 2002.

(30.) Quon, interview, 2002.

(31.) Reverend Mas Kodani organized many events at Senshin Buddhist Church, and he ensured that its doors were always open to community needs. Senshin Church sponsored many events, meetings, and workshops that educated the Japanese-American residents about U.S. wars in Asia, especially Vietnam, Cambodia, and Laos. See Quon, interview, 2002.

(32.) Quon, interview, 2002; Quon, "Individually We Contributed, Together We Made a Difference": 212. Hamano notes that over 150 sisters attended Asian Sisters meetings; see Hamano, "Work Report": 1.

(33.) Iwasaki, interview, 2002.

(34.) Nagatani, interview by author, 2002; Nagatani, interview by Tanaka, 1998; Nagatani, electronic correspondence, 2004.

(35.) Quon, interview, 2002.

(36.) "Self Help," Gidra 4,4 (April 1972): 8.

(37.) Iwasaki, interview, 2002.

(38.) "Birth Control," Gidra 4,4 (April 1972): 8; Hamano, "Work Report," 2; Iwasaki, interview, 2002.

(39.) Masaoka, interview, 2003.

(40.) Ibid.

(41.) Shinya Ono, "Finding a Home Community." In Steve Louie and Glenn Omatsu (eds.), Asian Americans: The Movement and the Moment (2001 : 268-271).

(42.) Masaoka, interview, 2003.

(43.) Ibid.; Quon, interview, 2002.

(44.) Iwasaki Mass, interview, 2002; Evelyn Yoshimura, interview by author, audio recording, Los Angeles, CA, October 14, 2002.

(45.) Iwasaki Mass, interview, 2002.

(46.) Evelyn Yoshimura, interview by author, audio recording, Los Angeles, CA, November 5, 2002.

(47.) Ibid.

(48.) Quon, interview, 2002.

(49.) Iwasaki, interview, 2002.

(50.) Iwasaki Mass, interview, 2002.

(51.) Masaoka, interview, 2003.

(52.) Quon, interview, 2002.

(53.) Iwasaki Mass, interview, 2002.

(54.) Nagatani, interview by author, 2002; Yoshimura, interview, November 5, 2002.

(55.) Iwasaki, interview, 2002.

(56.) Yoshimura, interview, October 14, 2002.

(57.) Iwasaki, interview, 2002.

(58.) Chana Kai Lee, For Freedom's Sake: The Life of Fannie Lou Hamer (Urbana and Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 1999: 63).

(59.) For an analysis of the strengths and weaknesses of this kind of organizing, see Francesca Polletta, Freedom Is an Endless Meeting." Democracy in American Social Movements (Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press, 2002).

(60.) Hamano, "thoughts of remembrance for clara": 8.

(61.) Iwasaki, interview, 2002.

(62.) Ibid.

(63.) That same year, federal monies funded the Asian American Drug Abuse Program (AADAP), the first drug abuse program to specifically target Asian Americans. AADAP formally institutionalized the anti-drug movement within Little Tokyo and still exists today as one of only two drug abuse organizations nationwide that focus on Asian-American communities. JACS, too, continues to support Japanese Americans by providing funding to grass-roots organizations in Little Tokyo and the greater Los Angeles area; Iwasaki, interview, 2002; Quon, interview, 2002.

MAY FU is Assistant Professor of Ethnic Studies at Colorado State University (e-mail: mfu@lamar. colostate.edu). Her research examines the panethnic, interracial, and international affiliations that shaped Asian-American radicalism during the late 1960s and early 1970s. Her broader interests include comparative histories of racialized groups, social movements, labor, sovereignty, and women of color feminisms.
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Author:Fu, May
Publication:Social Justice
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Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Jun 22, 2008
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