LOS ANGELES — Bill Watanabe, the founder and executive director of the Little Tokyo Service Center (LTSC) for the past 31 years, announced his plan to retire, effective June 30, 2012.
“When Bill informed the LTSC board of directors of his plan to retire, we knew that LTSC would be facing a major transition. Bill is the face of the organization and personifies LTSC’s motto of ‘Helping People, Building Communities,’” stated LTSC Board President Alan Nishio.
“We are proud of the growth of the organization and the many accomplishments under Bill’s leadership, including the thousands of people who have been assisted by LTSC services,” added Nishio. “While choosing to retire, Bill has left LTSC with a strong and dedicated staff, including senior leadership overseeing community development, social services, and operations.”
Watanabe was born in the Manzanar, Calif. concentration camp during World War II. He is the son of Japanese immigrants who settled in the San Fernando Valley during the 1930s to grow and sell flowers in the then-booming wholesale flower market.
After a short stint as a mechanical engineer, he attended the prestigious Waseda University in Tokyo for one year and then received his Master of Social Work from UCLA’s Graduate School of Social Welfare in 1972.During the social upheavals of the 1970s, he helped form and joined an Asian American Christian urban commune.
When Watanabe founded LTSC in January of 1980, the Japanese American Cultural and Community Center (JACCC) had just been completed and LTSC occupied a space on the fourth floor. Yasuko Sakamoto and Evelyn Yoshimura joined Watanabe on the LTSC staff later that year, and gradually, the organization began to grow.
LTSC now employs nearly 150 paid staff, most being full-time and many being multi-lingual and multi-cultural, as well as dozens of volunteers. There are numerous programs now, including childcare and youth, family counseling and parenting classes, affordable housing and business development, services for the elderly, and computer classes for seniors and non-English speaking clients.
Watanabe has been an instrumental presence in Little Tokyo, and LTSC has developed high-profile projects such as:
• Hundreds of units of affordable housing, including the award-winning Casa Heiwa project;
• Transforming the historic Union Church into a live theater, art gallery and visual arts center as the home for the East West Players, LA Artcore and Visual Communications;
• Restoring the century-old Far East building, a winner of the Save America’s Treasures Award in 2003.
The National Trust for Historic Preservation honored Watanabe as a Preservation Hero in 2007.
Watanabe has also served in a leadership capacity in a number of organizations, such as: past president of the Asian Pacific Policy & Planning Council, the largest Asian American community service federation in Los Angeles; founder of the Asian Pacific Community Fund, which has raised more than $2 million for community charities; co-founder of the Asian Pacific Counseling & Treatment Center, the largest Asian Pacific Islander mental health clinic in Los Angeles County; co-founder of the National Coalition for Asian Pacific American Community Development to advocate for policies and funding to build community development capacities in API communities nationwide; and co-founder of the Coalition to Abolish Slavery & Trafficking.
Watanabe also initiated the current effort to build a multi-court sports and activity facility in Little Tokyo, to draw many new families, youth, and visitors to the ethnic enclave.
Nishio will chair a board committee that will identify a new executive director.
“It is certainly a daunting task to find a qualified candidate to replace Bill but the LTSC board is confident that that we will find the right person to continue his legacy,” stated Nishio.
It is expected that the new director will be named in early 2012 “to provide adequate time for a smooth leadership transition,” said an LTSC statement.
In making his announcement to the LTSC board, Watanabe stated, “I feel very blessed in having had a job that I loved, and I will miss it, but at the same time, I am looking forward to a new phase of life, and to new opportunities!”
“Little Tokyo is undergoing a major leadership change, with the recent retirement announcements of the executive directors of the Japanese American National Museum and the JACCC,” stated Kathy Masaoka, an LTSC board member. “Many of our community’s institutions will be led into the future by a new generation of leaders signaling a time of change and new ways of doing things for three major Little Tokyo institutions.”