Murase elected first JA president of S.F. School Board

Emily Murase wears a number of hats in San Francisco. She is executive director of San Francisco’s Department on the Status of Women, the first Japanese American to serve as San Francisco Unified School District’s board president and a mother of two.

Her father, Kenji Murase, was among the first parents to help create the school district’s Japanese Bilingual Bicultural Program, and inspired her dedication to public education. 

The Nichi Bei Weekly asked Murase, who was unanimously voted in by the school board Jan. 13, about the significance of her serving in public office. This interview has been edited for length.

Nichi Bei Weekly: How does it feel to become the first Japanese American school board president?

Emily Murase: So while I am delighted, … I also feel angry and frustrated because I really shouldn’t be the first. I should be number 12, number 25. To be the first is a huge responsibility and obligation, but I also have to think about why am I the first and why haven’t there been other Japanese Americans in the 160-plus-year history of the school board who have taken this step.

NBW: So what does this milestone mean to you then?

EM: From a historical vantage point, there were some dark days in the San Francisco School Board in the early 1900s. Students of U.S. history will know that the San Francisco Board of Education took a very provocative step in excluding Japanese who were, up until that point, fully integrated into the public school system. They decided they didn’t belong in the general education classes and had them segregated into the “oriental school,” which became an international, diplomatic, incident.

The Japanese families of San Francisco brought complaints to … the Japanese government. The Japanese government then communicated with Teddy Roosevelt’s administration at the time saying Japanese citizens were being discriminated against by the San Francisco Board of Education. And in an unprecedented move, the president summoned members of the San Francisco Board of Education to the White House to explain that there were some much larger forces at work. … (The U.S. was allied with Japan at the time for the Russo-Japanese War.)

Eventually, the school board was forced to rescind its decision and Japanese children were allowed to be reintegrated into the public schools, but not until after serious repercussions in U.S.-Japan relations.

For that reason, I think it’s so important that our school board represents all the different communities in the public school system. It just pains me that it’s taken this long.

NBW: What made you decide to run for school board in the first place?

EM: I am a graduate of San Francisco public schools, K to 12. And I had some really amazing teachers along the way who really made the foundation for me to be able to do some interesting work. I was able to work for AT&T in Tokyo, worked on trade policy for the first Clinton Administration, worked at the Federal Communications Commission. … I have two daughters who are in San Francisco public schools. …

When I first ran for office — I ran in 2008 and lost that election, ran again in 2010 and won that election — it really goes back to the legacy of my father who was a Nisei in the Central Valley. The son of immigrant sharecroppers from Yamaguchi prefecture, grew up literally dirt poor. They had very little, but he went to public schools and he did well in public schools and it laid the groundwork for him to pursue a career in academia. Were it not for a public school system in Parlier, Calif., he would have led his life as a farmhand.

NBW: How long have you been involved with JBBP?

EM: My brother and sister were in the first JBBP class, kindergarten and first grade class, but I was already in the third grade and the program started K to two. So I was not in the program. But when my husband and I decided to raise a family in San Francisco, I was very curious about what has been going on with the program. I joined the JBBP Parent Teacher Community Council when my older daughter was still in preschool because I wanted to see what the community was like. It was stronger than ever. …

NBW: I understand that one of your priorities as a board member is to increase language education, so how does this tie in?

EM: Last year, the school board spent the year focusing on a strategic planning exercise to decide a vision for public education in the year 2025. I (made) sure that multilingualism made it into our strategic plan.

SFUSD offers nine different foreign languages, many of them beginning in kindergarten. And it’s one of the reasons why families stay in San Francisco and educate their kids in our public schools. It’s one of our strengths. … Several years before I was on the board, the board passed a multilingual resolution urging that every student have an opportunity to learn other languages and that’s a really important piece of our offering.

NBW: What are your thoughts on the state of Japanese Americans or Asian Americans running for public office today in San Francisco?

EM: Michael Yaki was the first, followed by Jeff Adachi, and the 

Japanese American community has been tremendously supportive. I’ve received so many wonderful notes and offers to help. I could not have gotten this far without the Japanese community. But also the fact that there hasn’t been many means that there’s a whole education process about what it costs to run a campaign and how costly campaigns are.

Most of my friends, when I first ran, had never written a political check before. But knowing that a school board campaign can run from — my first campaign was about $70,000, this campaign was about $50,000 — just incredible sums of money is something that our community aren’t (sic) used to. But many people … have stepped up. I think there is a stronger tradition of writing big checks for political purposes that’s not in the DNA of our community.

And we need to identify and groom and cultivate successors. I think we see that in Congress. After Bob Matsui passed away, we have Doris Matsui, … Congress really had to keep encouraging young people to explore public affairs, public services, to intern with elected (officials) and gain experience. We really need to make a proactive effort.

NBW: Would you say there aren’t enough Japanese Americans in public office today?

EM: I wish there were more. For example, the Japanese American Democratic Club is no longer active because their founders are now very senior. It’s important that, as a community, we encourage engagement whether it’s Republican, Democrat, Green Party, whatever it is. The problem is, if we don’t have a voice, and the democratic clubs voice are the means of bringing voices into the political platform.

NBW: So this year, I understand you will be speaking at Day of Remembrance. What important lessons can students take from World War II?

EM: So I think I will keep my remarks focused on education. I’m not sure you’re familiar with the Nisei Student Relocation Scholarship Fund? Of course, Franklin Delano Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9066. At the same time, Eleanor Roosevelt fought very hard for college-aged Nisei to leave camp to continue their education. And my father was one of the, I think, estimated 4,000 students who were able to continue their education in colleges throughout the Midwest and East Coast …

So the alumni of that program, including my father, created a scholarship fund called the Nisei Student Relocation Commemorative Fund. In the early ‘80s, they decided … to award scholarships to Southeast Asian refugees.

I was a bratty middle school student and my dad was working on this and I asked, “Hey how come the scholarship doesn’t go to Nikkei kids?” And he sat me down and explained that the Southeast Asian refugees have come with nothing. They had to leave everything behind. They tried to make a life here. Many come from an agrarian background and don’t have a college-going tradition. This was a way to transform the trajectory of their lives …

But this is a way for where Nisei who benefitted from education are able to give back to the community, to a different community, that can really benefit from education. That’s one of the very positive legacies for all of the trauma suffered by a community at the result of the wartime incarceration.

NBW: That’s all the questions I had, did you have any other thoughts?

EM: No, I think it’s just that, as a community, we should be trying to identify young people and encourage them to go into public affairs. We do need more voices at the table. I think wartime experience shows what happens when we trust in others’ major decisions and how it doesn’t always serve us.

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