Berkeley ethnic studies teacher Joemy Ito-Gates works to make the school system more equitable

Joemy Ito-Gates. photo by Summer Blues Collective

Joemy Ito-Gates was 3,000 miles from home in Northampton, Mass. the first time she learned about the mass incarceration of persons of Japanese descent in U.S. concentration camps. Her arrival at Smith College in the late ‘90s was the first time she had any in-depth exposure to Asian American history.

“I felt catharsis, and a great sense of sadness,” she says of realizing the knowledge that was so key to her own story had been inaccessible to her until then. “Even though I’m Shin-Nisei (a post-World War II second generation immigrant of Japanese descent) because my mother immigrated here in the 1960s, learning that history snapped so much of my family’s trauma into perspective. Why there was so much tension and even hatred between the two sides of my family; why my mother and I were treated differently by my white side; why I experienced so much anti-Asian racism growing up.”

Ito-Gates was raised in the East Bay by a white family — friends of her parents — after her Japanese mother passed away when she was 8, and her white American father when she was 10, both of AIDS. The histories of different ethnic groups in the U.S. had largely eluded her in K-12 education. “Everyone’s experience is extremely unique and different,” she says of being mixed race and raised transracially. “For me, it was difficult and isolating.”

Her revelation in college kindled an interest in work tied to identity and affinity spaces. After becoming an elementary school teacher, she founded FUSION Summer Camp in the early 2000s, a camp for mixed heritage and transracially adopted kids to explore their identities. It ran for about five years before she converted it into an after-school club that she ran with a friend until she had her daughter. This year she celebrates her 19th year working for the Berkeley Unified School District.

Last year, Ito-Gates started a new job as Ethnic Studies Teacher on Special Assignment for the district. She’s in charge of rolling out ethnic studies programming to students district-wide. Her eye-opening time in college is still her motivation. “I don’t want to have students wait until they’re in their late teens, early 20s to have the same experience,” she says.

Ito-Gates’ new job comes at a time when America only continues to grow more diverse. In 2020 census data saw a 276 percent increase in people identifying as multiracial compared to 2010. All minority groups saw slight increases in their shares of the U.S. population. California last year became the first state to pass a law requiring high school students to take a course in ethnic studies starting with the class of 2030 — the fruit of decades of advocacy work in a state where 65 percent of the population identified as non-white in 2020.

So far, Ito-Gates’ new role has widely consisted of three efforts: creating pilot curriculum for second and third grade teachers, planning what ethnic studies will look like for other grades, and mapping the rollout of a peer mentor program in which older students are paired with younger ones, set to launch next spring. So far, Ito-Gates’ new role has widely consisted of three efforts: creating pilot curriculum for second and third grade teachers, planning what ethnic studies will look like for other grades, and mapping the rollout of a peer mentor program in which older students are paired with younger ones, set to launch next spring.

The Berkeley Unified School District has a history of taking bold steps to address racial inequities, however imperfectly. In 1968, Berkeley became one of the first sizable cities in the country to voluntarily implement a busing program to integrate racially segregated schools, though not before intense public debate and efforts to recall school board members who favored desegregation. In 1990, Berkeley High School became one of the first in the nation to require students to take an ethnic studies course. But Ito-Gates points out it wasn’t taught consistently to all freshmen until the last several years.

Still, Ito-Gates has several things to look forward to. She’s hopeful for the ways she can contribute to making the school system more equitable, for one. She has also been writing a memoir about her experiences as a multiracial Japanese American AIDS orphan.

Her proudest achievement is perhaps her most personal. “What I’m most proud of is being a mother to my child and raising her to love all of her identities as a multiracial Japanese, Filipino, Black and white person, and to freely explore and express who she is becoming.”

She speaks with six-year-old Yoko Felicidad in Japanese as much as she can, has enrolled her in taiko, and attends events with her at a Buddhist temple in the East Bay, where Ito-Gates teaches Dharma school. They have attended protests, gone hiking and camping together. They talk about race and identity. “Even our youngest children deserve and are ready to discuss who they are as humans in this complex world,” Ito-Gates says.

Her daughter, at least, will not have to wait for college to know her history.

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