Numerous leadership changes at Los Angeles’ Little Tokyo nonprofits


Dean Matsubayashi, executive director of Little Tokyo Service Center photo courtesy of Little Tokyo Service Center

LOS ANGELES — After a long period of stability, various nonprofit organizations in Little Tokyo have experienced significant leadership changes the past few years. Dean Matsubayashi took over at the Little Tokyo Service Center, Leslie Ito at the Japanese American Cultural and Community Center and Mitchell Maki at the Go For Broke National Educational Center. Two others were selected as interim leaders: Gene Kanamori at Keiro and Ann Burroughs with the Japanese American National Museum.

Bill Watanabe, retired executive director of LTSC, observed, “It’s an interesting coincidence that JANM and Keiro are now looking for new leaders. Once they are in place, it’ll give everybody the chance to grow together. I think Dean and Leslie are both doing pretty well … and Mitch has been involved in the community for a long time. I think Go For Broke is very fortunate to get him.”

Nonprofit organizations will “continue to play an important role in Little Tokyo’s ethnic community life,” Watanabe declared. “It’s the executive director’s job to make sure they have the needed funds and the right kind of staff.”

Serving the Needy

Dean Matsubayashi, executive director of Little Tokyo Service Center photo courtesy of Little Tokyo Service Center
Dean Matsubayashi, executive director of Little Tokyo Service Center
photo courtesy of Little Tokyo Service Center

Dean Matsubayashi, who succeeded Watanabe at LTSC four years ago, said the transition has gone “really well. Bill and the board deserve a lot of the credit. Our revenue base is relatively diversified … We get government contracts, foundations, corporate support, individual donors, and income from our affordable housing development.”

LTSC has been serving the needy in Little Tokyo, he explained. “A lot of low-income seniors live here. We’ve been working with others in Little Tokyo to advocate for greater community self-determination and greater control over the future development of our neighborhood.”
Big concerns in Los Angeles are gentrification and displacement, Matsubayashi maintained. “With downtown now the preferred location for young professionals, real estate development has kicked into hyper-speed.

Since the early 2000s, nearly 1,800-plus units have been developed in Little Tokyo and adjacent areas, and only 24 of those units were affordable … We lost a number residents and long-standing small businesses over the years, because rents are now too high or because of ownership changes.”

LTSC has been working with the Little Tokyo Community Council to support the small businesses “that make Little Tokyo the special place it is,” Matsubayashi said. “With Little Tokyo being one of four remaining Japantowns in the entire nation, we need to preserve it as the historic and culture center for the Southern California Japanese and Nikkei community.”

That’s why LTSC is continuing to work on projects like the Budokan community gymnasium, he stated.

“We’ve raised about 90 percent of the total development budget of $26 million for the project … The Budokan is very important because there is a need to draw people back to Little Tokyo, to preserve it for the younger generation.”

The many leadership changes in Little Tokyo present “a great opportunity for local organizations … to move forward together,” said Matsubayashi, who first started working at LTSC in 1996, went to New York in the late ‘90s, and came back to LTSC in early 2000.

Tremendous Connections

Leslie A. Ito, executive director of the Japanese America Cultural and Community Center. photo by Toyo Miyatake Studio
Leslie A. Ito, executive director of the Japanese America Cultural and Community Center.
photo by Toyo Miyatake Studio

Leslie A. Ito, the JACCC’s president and chief executive officer since March 2014, brings strong leadership in the promotion of arts and strengthening nonprofit organizations, and her career has focused on serving the community and making arts and culture accessible to multi-generational audiences, according to a JACCC statement.

Ito, a former executive director of Visual Communications, told Nichi Bei Weekly, “I’ve worked in and around the Little Tokyo community for pretty much my whole life. I started out at 16 as an usher at what is now the Aratani Theatre.”

Watanabe, the JACCC’s interim chief before Ito started, said a top priority in selecting local nonprofit leaders should be community connections. “Leslie has tremendous connections to the Japanese American and Little Tokyo communities … She took over a pretty deep debt problem but she’s been able to trim the budget, stay in the black and chip away at the debt. That is a big turnaround.”

The JACCC’s long-term debt is secured by their property, Ito pointed out. “The Issei and Nisei pioneers had the forethought and political ability to purchase this land.”

When she took the job, the Center Building was about 73 percent occupied, Ito reported. “Now we’re at 100 percent occupancy, plus we moved our operations into the theater building so that we can rent out the space that we were using in the Center Building.”

A graduate of the Executive Program for Nonprofit Leaders in Arts in Stanford University’s School of Business, Ito has a master’s degree in Asian American studies from University of California, Los Angeles and a bachelor’s degree from Mount Holyoke College.

The JACCC is one of the largest ethnic arts and cultural centers of its kind in the United States. Its mission is to present, perpetuate, transmit and promote Japanese and Japanese American arts and culture to diverse audiences and to provide a center to enhance community programs.

The JACCC opened at its present site in 1980. Its facilities include the Center Building (housing the George J. Doizaki Gallery, Japanese Cultural Room, conference rooms, office space for 20-plus nonprofit organizations), the 880-seat Aratani Theatre, JACCC Plaza and the James Irvine Japanese Garden.

The Nikkei community is shrinking demographically, so in order for the JACCC to continue as an organization, it needs to expand, beyond the Nikkei and the Japanese-speaking audiences, to the Mexican American, Indian, and Korean communities, to showcase and preserve their art and culture while connecting them to Japanese culture.

Now that the JACCC is more financially stable, it can expand its definition of Japanese arts and culture into the culinary arts, said the Los Angeles native. “We feel that washoku (Japanese cuisine) is a really great way to reach new audiences … to help preserve our culture and to outreach to the next generation as well.”

Honor WWII Nisei Soldiers

Dr. Mitchell Maki, president & CEO, Go For Broke National Education Center file photo
Dr. Mitchell Maki, president & CEO, Go For Broke National Education Center
file photo

The Go For Broke National Educational Center, established in 1989 to educate the public about the valor and history of World War II Nisei veterans, announced on Dec. 1 the appointment of Mitchell Maki as president and CEO. Maki has served as interim chief since July 2016.

GFBNEC Chairman Bill Seki stated on the group’s Website that Maki, 55, “brings a deep understanding of the Japanese American World War II experience, a strong academic background and the leadership needed to align with like-minded organizations committed to education, awareness and social justice.”

In the current sociopolitical climate, “the legacy of our Nisei veterans is more relevant than ever today, as we engage in national discussions over the rights and duties of citizenship, the importance of due process and the rule of law in our democracy,” Maki said on the Website. “Discriminatory practices … cannot be tolerated. Our World War II Nisei veterans … believed in America, even when America did not believe in them. Their courage and conviction of faith exemplify the best our nation can produce when we do not abandon our core values.”

A native of Monterey Park, Calif., Maki is lead author of “Achieving the Impossible Dream: How Japanese Americans Obtained Redress,” a study of the redress movement.

He previously served as vice president of academic affairs; a dean of two colleges; and a professor at California State University Los Angeles, Cal State Dominguez Hills and UCLA.

Keiro Changes Direction
Established in 1961 to deliver compassionate, culturally-sensitive, quality health care to Issei pioneers, Keiro provided a retirement home and nursing facilities for the Japanese American community’s elderly residents.

Keiro changed direction in February 2016, when it sold its properties to a real estate corporation, and focused instead on delivering supportive services to 70,000 older adults of Japanese heritage in Los Angeles, Orange and Ventura counties, including 600 residents of the facilities formerly owned and operated by Keiro, Chairman Gary Kawaguchi told the Nichi Bei Weekly.

Keiro’s announcement of the sale drew loud protests from community activists. “A majority of the community understood why we had to sell,” Kawaguchi recalled. “However, others did not accept that.

Their hope was that we would retain the facilities.”

The properties aren’t Nikkei-owned now, but the new owners will continue Keiro’s service to the elderly, Kawaguchi said. “Hopefully, Japanese will continue going there. As long as there are Japanese, we’ll provide the same Japanese foods, programs and everything we’ve been doing for many years.”

Gene Kanamori, interim president & CEO, Keiro photo courtesy of Keiro
Gene Kanamori, interim president & CEO, Keiro
photo courtesy of Keiro

Keiro also changed its leadership. Gene Kanamori became interim president and CEO, replacing long-time director Shawn Miyake, who retired June 30.

“Gene has done a great job for us,” stated chairman Kawaguchi.

“He’s been very active with the community nonprofits … Because they feel comfortable with Gene, we’re able to get our message out to these organizations.”

Kanamori e-mailed Nichi Bei Weekly that he was honored to be selected to lead Keiro on an interim basis. “Keiro is one of the premier Japanese American organizations in the country, so I was excited to help.”

Keiro seeks collaborations with community nonprofits to achieve maximum impact in supporting older adults of Japanese heritage, added Kanamori, a former human resources director at UPS.

Going forward requires a culture shift and changes in the organization from top to bottom, he stated. “In August of this year, we launched our new Grants Program which will distribute up to $500,000 in funding … to nonprofit community-based organizations … whose programs align with Keiro’s mission and goals.”

Anti-Apartheid Activist

Ann Burroughs, interim president & CEO, Japanese American National Museum photo courtesy of JANM
Ann Burroughs, interim president & CEO, Japanese American National Museum photo courtesy of JANM

The Japanese American National Museum announced in a June 2016 news release that Ann Burroughs, chair of Amnesty International USA, was named its interim president and CEO, following the resignation of Greg Kimura in June.

The mission and values of JANM “resonate deeply with my own lifelong commitment to protecting human rights and fundamental freedoms,” stated Burroughs, who as a young anti-apartheid activist, was imprisoned in her native South Africa but released with help from Amnesty International. “It’s an honor to be joining (JANM) … and I look forward to working closely with the board, staff and volunteers in the coming months.”

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