Florin JACL Celebrates 75th Anniversary

SACRAMENTO — The Florin chapter of the Japanese American Citizens League (JACL), one of the most prolific of the national organization’s 110-plus chapters, recently celebrated its 75th anniversary. And although the small farming town of Florin no longer exists — having been swallowed up by the larger Sacramento metropolis — its namesake chapter continues to burn a candle in the name of civil rights and education.

Established in 1935, the Florin JACL has witnessed the ups and downs of the community, including its forced relocation and incarceration in wartime American concentration camps, as well as its successful fight for redress.

And the former small farming community — Florin was once dubbed the “Strawberry Capital of the World” — has emerged as a major force, particularly in the areas of education and civil rights.

Much of that reputation was built by late educator and author Mary Tsukamoto, a 1986 JACLer of the Biennium recipient for her work in Japanese American redress, as well as Andy Noguchi, JACLer of the Biennium in 2002 for his civil rights activism.

Through their leadership, they have produced an annual Time of Remembrance historical exhibit since 1983, and led efforts to raise awareness of racially-motivated hate crimes and the scapegoating of Muslim and Arab communities during times of war.

But the chapter has also had a talented and visionary core leadership, who have produced programs such as the Women’s Day Forum, Multi-Racial Forum and has helped to establish the Japanese American Archival Collection housed at the California State University, Sacramento Library Archives, where some 80-plus bound copies of interviews produced by the chapter’s Oral History Program resides.

In recent years, they have also led pilgrimages to the former Manzanar, Calif. concentration camp — a joint program with the Council on American-Islamic Relations — as well as cultural programs such as an Obon Workshop and “Mochi Madness,” where participants get together to pound traditional Japanese rice cakes.

Under the banner of “Strength Through Unity” and theme of “Kansha — With Gratitude,” the Florin JACL honored those who they have collaborated with at their 75th anniversary celebration Jan. 24 at the Radisson Hotel Sacramento.

“We stand on the shoulders of those early leaders,” said Florin JACL President Marielle Tsukamoto, who followed her mother Mary in the field of education.

The chapter has also made strong connections through its partnerships, such as with the Elk Grove Unified School District, where the Mary Tsukamoto Elementary School opened in 1992. The school district, over the years, has sent thousands of school children visit the Florin JACL-produced history exhibits in order to gain a better understanding of the infringement upon civil liberties.

“I don’t know of another school district that has such a long record of support,” said Tsukamoto, in presenting the Elk Grove School District with the chapter’s Education Partnership Award.

The Community Partnership Award was presented to Kais Menoufy, the former MVP of the Egyptian national basketball team who has become somewhat of a community MVP through his relationship with the Florin JACL.

“When tragedy strikes, many people come forward,” said Noguchi, noting how Japanese Americans quickly came to the support of Arab, Muslim and South Asian communities after the 9/11 tragedies left them vulnerable to scapegoating.

That event was the launching point of Menoufy’s involvement with the Japanese American community. The CEO of Delegata has since participated in a Time of Remembrance panel, helping to lead interactive workshops, and helped to put together similar workshops at Muslim schools while supporting a pilgrimage to Manzanar.

A Florin JACL member since attending a post-9/11 press conference, Menoufy has established three community initiatives that celebrate diversity and foster better human understanding.

“He’s much more than a bridge builder,” said Noguchi. “He builds a road to that bridge.”

The chapter is looking at a couple of directions that make a broader connection with people, said Noguchi. These include “reaching out to other communities based upon our own JA experience” and “reaching out to young people through community-building activities.

The “heart” of the chapter, however, remains social justice and education. When the first Gulf War was launched in 1991, the Florin JACL quickly organized a press conference to address the spike in hate crimes against Arab, Muslim and South Asian communities, as well as to address discussion about concentration camps for those communities.

Noguchi said it was important to “make people aware” of the dangers of repeating the wartime treatment of Japanese Americans.

He noted that the legacy of their late leader Mary Tsukamoto still permeates throughout the chapter, which was awarded the Chapter of the Biennium by the National JACL in 1996.

“She brought in and propelled a whole lot of us here today,” Noguchi said, noting her efforts in Japanese American redress.

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