NEVER TOO LATE: A pillar of community, Isao Fujimoto receives Ph.D. at age 76

ALL SMILES — Isao Fujimoto as degree marshall at the Cornell University commencement over Memorial Day weekend last month; photo courtesy of Isao Fujimoto

Isao Fujimoto is quite possibly one of the most positive community activists you can meet. Both his passion for the community and his humble hope to further the understanding of minority groups are evident, and he has an ever-present smile on his mustached face. At the age of 76, he seems not at all concerned with slowing down as an active professor emeritus at the University of California, Davis.

In February, he completed his Cornell University Ph.D. dissertation on community development in California’s Central Valley. He was initially enrolled at Cornell in Ithaca, N.Y.  50 years ago as a Ph.D. candidate in community development to study the development of the Philippines. His personal educational goals, however, were put on hold in 1967, when he joined the brand new community development program at UC Davis and eventually became a pillar of support for the world community.

Born on a Reservation

His life has been a colorful one. He was born and raised on a Yakima Indian reservation in Washington State. The Alien Land Law, which kept non-U.S. citizens from purchasing or renting land, could not be enforced on the reservation since it fell under the U.S. Department of the Interior. In 1942 Fujimoto’s family was forcibly relocated to the Heart Mountain, Wyo. concentration camp.

After the war, the family moved to California. Fujimoto and his 12 younger siblings resettled in a town south of San Jose, to sharecrop strawberries. He attended high school there, and after graduating, his family moved to the hamlet of Coyote — between San Jose and Morgan Hill — to farm on their own. His family made up 10 percent of the population there.

At the age of 18, Fujimoto flagged down a Greyhound bus on U.S. 101 to travel up to UC Berkeley. This was his first chance to experience a world outside of the rural minority enclaves he had been living in up until then. The culture shock was obvious.

“I tried to flag down buses on the street [after I got off the Greyhound], but they wouldn’t stop for me,” he said. “It was then I realized those people waiting on the side of the street weren’t waiting for a parade to start.”

At Berkeley, he initially studied to become a doctor. However, during his junior year in 1954, he was elected to head up a delegation of Berkeley students who traveled to Indonesia to help the student movement there. They spent their time establishing connections with the Indonesian students, mostly at the University of Indonesia in Jakarta and Gadja Marda University in Djokjakarta. They helped design the student union building at Gadja Marda. He realized then that medicine was not to be his career. He returned to Berkeley and finished his degree.

His career was put on hold again, however, when he was drafted into the Army to serve in Korea from 1956 to 1958. Fujimoto worked as an Army news correspondent in South Korea, where he continued to develop an all-inclusive worldview on life. It was there that he witnessed the Russian launch of Sputnik, shortly before his return home.

He returned to San Jose to become a chemistry teacher, but he quickly left to further advance his understanding of science at Cornell under a government program to retrain science teachers to help them catch up to the Russians. Once he was there, however, he decided to stay and start working on a doctoral program rather than return to teaching.

His decision came after he went down to the village of Santa Rita de Yoro in Honduras in 1961 with a group of students. The group was one of many that traveled to Honduras from Cornell to help with community development. His work there inspired him to remain at Cornell to study community development in the Philippines.

The Power Within

Fujimoto’s focus never left the community. He is fascinated by the power each and every person has within himself or herself. He explains that there are three tiers of power within the world.

“First there’s a few hundred countries in the world. Within them and around them, there are multi-national corporations — there are maybe 20,000 of them. Now there are one hundred times more nonprofit community citizen action groups. That’s a lot of people; they all have a tremendous amount of power.”

Fujimoto finds the power vested in community to be compelling, especially after witnessing the birth of many of Davis’ famed achievements from right under his front doorstep.

In 1967, Fujimoto was asked to join UC Davis to help develop the new program on community development. There, he helped direct students to create a number of programs that residents of Davis now take for granted. These fledgling groups needed a place to house their meetings, files, and, in some cases, their organizers themselves. Programs such as the Davis Farmers’ Market and Davis Food Co-Op originated from his students, and were directed right from his home.

“At one point there were about six community organizations at my house,” he said. “When I came back from my leave to Montana, I found another program under my bed. My front lawn was dug up for a garden, and bees and chickens were in the back.”

He found that Davis was on the map for its progressive policies. When he left for Butte, Mont. to start The National Center for Appropriate Technology, he asked a visitor from Davis where he should send people who want to learn more about Davis; they gave him the address to his house.

This later became a central theme to his dissertation. “If you’re looking to do something, look in your own backyard.”

Returning to Unrest

As he returned to California, though, the atmosphere of the University of California was that of unrest. Fujimoto and UC Davis clashed with the outside world when Fujimoto received a call from the United Farm Workers of America in the Central Valley. He learned that the county had stopped buses from picking up the children of the migrant farm laborers, forcing the children to walk along the highway to get to school. At the same time, UC Davis had purchased a number of used double-decker buses from London for the school’s new bus service. Fujimoto asked one of his teacher’s aides to take one of the buses through the country roads to pick the children up.

“Can you imagine a red London double-decker bus that says ‘Buckingham Palace’ on it, going over there? People will ask, ‘What are they doing here?’” And so people did ask that question, and the story made it onto a local talk radio show — which caught the angry attention of local big growers.

The ire drew heat toward the university and local growers called Chancellor Emil Mrak, who in turn called to fire the teacher’s aide. She then decided, along with her friends, to picket the administration building to tell the chancellor the university should help everybody, not just those people with money.

From that incident, along with other concerns surrounding the university, students and faculty came together to debate over the role of the university and its effect on society, such as the displacement of workers due to the invention of the tomato harvester. The outcome from that discussion drew heat toward Fujimoto.

“The discussion got published in an agriculture magazine, and I got all these letters,” he said. “They said I was a ‘persona non-grata,’ that I wasn’t welcome in their counties.”

The Birth of Asian American Studies

Meanwhile, in 1968, Sen. Robert Kennedy and Martin Luther King Jr. were assassinated, and the “urban crises” grew. Mrak, seeing this and taking the discourse from the earlier discussion on the role of the university, asked the campus community to hold a weeklong moratorium on classes to discuss what a rural campus like Davis could do to help. This weeklong discussion led to the creation of environmental studies, ethnic studies and women’s studies.

During these discussions, students approached Fujimoto to discuss the creation of Asian American studies. He helped set up the Asian American Research Project, which conducted research to create a curriculum for the program and led to the creation of one of the nation’s first Asian American Studies programs at UC Davis.

Thus, the initial incident involving a double-decker bus helped result in the creation of ethnic studies. Fujimoto bore witness to all of this within his first three years at Davis.

After 10 years as a lecturer at the university, however, he was unable to attain professorship and tenure. Finally he was pressured into leaving temporarily in 1977, for Butte. However, when Fujimoto did return, he managed to stay on as a lecturer until 1994, when he retired to become an emeritus lecturer. By then, he had become a lauded member of the faculty.

He found that the community only needed time to adjust. “If it’s the right thing to do, people will eventually accept it.”

Central Valley Project

His work post-retirement, however, was no less than what he did before. In 1996 The James Irvine Foundation asked Fujimoto to help them create the Central Valley Project (CVP), the eventual focus of his dissertation.

The CVP brought various smaller minority and political action groups throughout the Central Valley together into one large collective. Fujimoto was brought on as an advisor to help coordinate them. At its peak, 22 groups formed the CVP before its decline in funding due to the economy. This group allowed smaller groups located throughout the Central Valley to regroup and share strategies and goals with each other for a new perspective on common issues.

Back to School

With its decline, Fujimoto wished to leave something behind to acknowledge the CVP and its members’ hard work. A friend and colleague from Cornell contacted him and suggested he restart his thesis. He was contacted by Thomas Lyson, who joined his reinstated thesis committee, but later passed away in 2007. When he brought the idea to Cornell, the school welcomed him back with open arms.

“Nobody asked any questions, they just said, ‘Yeah, we’ll start it back up.’”

As he finished his dissertation, word of his accomplishment spread throughout the community. Cornell invited him to not only attend his graduation ceremony over this past Memorial Day weekend, but also to become the degree marshal.

“I was invited to be the degree co-marshal for the procession to the commencement, where I would lead and accept the degree on behalf of all of this year’s graduates,” he said. “That e-mail was followed by another one concerned about problems I might have walking in the procession. I told them, ‘Hey don’t worry about it. I still bike to campus just as I did when I started at UC Davis and I’m the same weight as when I was on UC Berkeley’s wrestling team in the early ’50s.’”

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