Uplifting Generations of Youth: JCYC looks back at five decades

Celebrating 53 years serving the youth of San Francisco and beyond, the Japanese Community Youth Council recognized its roots and impact over the years, as its services have made a lasting impact on thousands of youth each year, including those who came back to the organization to take on leadership roles. The organization celebrated its history during its “5 Decade Celebration” Nov. 12 at San Francisco’s War Memorial Building.

Emceed by JCYC’s executive director Jon Osaki, with its planned emcee Wendy Tokuda, a former KPIX-TV anchor, calling in sick that morning, the evening celebrated the organization’s program members through performances and reflected on the nonprofit’s history through Osaki’s documentary film on JCYC. The evening program also paid tribute to Julie Matsueda, a long-time deputy director, who will retire at the end of the year.

Founding a Youth Organization
Osaki, who is also a filmmaker, premiered his latest film, “Empowered: The JCYC Story,” during the program. The film describes how the organization was founded, how its programs were first organized, and how they have impacted the people they serve.

CELEBRATING FIVE DECADES ­— (From L to R): JCYC College Access Programs Program Director Gina Gutierrez; JCYC co-founder and founding executive director the Rev. Ronald Kobata; JCYC summer day camp program founder Kitty Kitagawa Mah; JCYC co-founder and former executive director Jeff Mori; and JCYC Executive Director Jon Osaki celebrated the organization’s 53rd anniversary Nov. 12 at San Francisco’s War Memorial Building. photo by Mark Shigenaga

The Rev. Ron Kobata was the organization’s founding executive director. He and fellow co-founder Kaz Maniwa were products of the ethnic studies movement and student strikes at University of California, Berkeley and San Francisco State University in 1968.

“We were trying to see how we can try to maintain some kind of physical sense of community when we were trying to challenge the redevelopment agency about how they’re impacting the community,” Kobata said in the film.

While attending a meeting with San Francisco’s Redevelopment Agency, they asked Kobata what segment of the Japantown community he was representing.

Aiming to organize the young people in the community, Kobata said he went through the Hokubei Mainichi’s local directory and called various youth groups listed within to suggest creating a council of youth organizations in San Francisco’s Japantown neighborhood.

“Most of them were like scouting programs, or youth groups at different churches in J-Town and so forth, and that pretty much became the basis of who we reached out to, to discuss the idea of creating a so-called council of youth organizations,” he said.

Once formed, Kobata, along with teenage activists such as Jeff Mori and Kitty Kitagawa Mah, started developing programming and learned how to organize from Yori Wada, Rev. Lloyd Wake and other Nisei elders in their community. They also learned from Black community leaders and organizers such as Thomatra Scott and Rev. Cecil Williams. Starting with a youth drop-in center operating out of a disused Victorian house in Japantown, early organizers recalled hanging out by the pool table and learning how to develop photos and do silkscreen printing.

“People were taking classes … but people came because they were also drawn to looking at our community from a different point of view, and looking at community service from a different point of view,” Mori said in Osaki’s film.

While local parents expressed concerns with JCYC’s organizers at first, they found wider acceptance in the community when a 16-year-old Mah organized the first six-week day camp program in 1970. While JCYC did minimal advertising and registered 20 children prior to the start of the camp, 115 kids showed up at the Japanese YWCA the first day of camp.

“It was cold, it was damp, and it was foggy. The kids looked like deer in the headlights. I’ll tell you what this was, it was ‘Kiddie Survivor.’” Mah said during a panel discussion after the film screening. “Those kids didn’t know what to expect.”

Still, Mah succeeded in leading the children on field trips to Golden Gate Park, the zoo and other places. Mori said the day camp put the organization “on the map,” and the program continues today as the Tomodachi Summer and Teen Program under program director Erika Tamura.

Mori took over the organization in 1973 after Kobata left for Japan to become a Buddhist minister and grew JCYC from an annual budget of $30,000 to $6 million. Under Mori’s leadership, JCYC began developing new programs, including college access, the Chibi Chan Preschool and youth workforce programs through the Mayor’s Youth Employment Education Program, which expanded the organization’s reach beyond the Japanese American community and into the wider city.

The Sansei high school activist-turned politically savvy executive director led the organization until 1996, when then-Mayor Willie Brown hired him to lead the Mayor’s Office of Children, Youth and Their Families. With less than three months to transition, he suggested Jon Osaki take on the reigns.

Nurturing Leaders
“The board of directors was looking to make a recommendation. And at that time, Jon was actually one of the youngest of all our executive staff, but he also worked on one of the projects that dealt with a whole range of different funding, private fundraising, government funded grants, and he got it. And I recommended him to the board of directors and they hired him,” Mori said. “But before I left, I spoke to all the executive staff running programs, which were basically older than Jon. Said, ‘If I leave, … will you be OK working with Jon?’ And they all said, ‘Fine, we’re good. So he had the full support of everybody in the transition.”

While Osaki became head of the organization in his 20s, he had been a part of JCYC since the 1970s, when he first attended one of its first day camp programs. As he grew older, he became a summer camp counselor and eventually began working within the organization’s administration before being tapped by Mori. Under his leadership, the organization has grown to serve more than 7,000 youth annually. Osaki’s trajectory within JCYC is somewhat common among its program leaders.

Gina Gutierrez, the organization’s College Access Program director, said she was on track to “go down a path of destruction” as a teenager. Born to first generation immigrant parents, neither of whom graduated high school, Gutierrez lost both of her parents due to substance abuse. Both of her brothers never finished high school and were in and out of jail.

“I believe I was in 10th or 11th grade when the San Francisco College Access Center provided presentations,” she said. “And I believe I made a comment, like, ‘Oh, no, I can’t afford that, that’s not gonna work. And they were like

‘Oh yes you can, and I’m going to break it down for you.’”

Gutierrez said JCYC supported her as she graduated from John O’Connell High School in 2007. She went to college with scholarships she earned through the nonprofit. In her senior year of college, the organization told her about a job opening as a part time adviser for the College Access Center. From there she was hired for a full-time position and eventually promoted to program director.

“I am who I am today because of JCYC, I am a servant to my community because of JCYC, and I’m so fortunate that they helped someone like me see my potential, so now, today, I can help our staff who are current college students, and also recent graduates to see their potential in the students and give back to the community,” she said in the post-screening interview.

The Heart of JCYC
One invaluable leader, who did not join as a former participant of a program, however, is Julie Matsueda, the organization’s deputy director. Matsueda told the Nichi Bei Weekly she walked into the organization’s office after graduating with a child development degree in 1985 and asked, “What’s going on?” Mori hired her and she later founded the Chibi Chan Preschool, according to Osaki’s film.

“Jeff called me into his office one day, and he said, ‘It’s time for you to start your own program.’ And I said, ‘OK, great. What should that be?’ And he said, ‘You go figure out what that should be. Go ahead and do a community needs assessment,’” she said in the film.

Her assessment revealed a lack of affordable childcare and Matsueda went back to school and pursued JCYC’s accreditation to open a preschool at the Pine United Methodist Church in 1989. Her program continues today with a second preschool now operating out of the Booker T. Washington Community Service Center.

Matsueda, who is retiring at the end of the year, was showered with praise by staff, board and alumni alike at the end of the evening’s program.

“During her 37 years working at JCYC, she has been an enthusiastic leader, a compassionate role model and a caring friend to so many that she’s come upon. Significantly, she’s been an influential person in my life. She sought me right after I graduated college, and hired me as a substitute preschool teacher at Chibi Chan Preschool.

Since then, she’s inspired me and taught me how to be a passionate leader … and has guided me to where I’m at today,” Shana Kanzaki, JCYC’s child development director, said.

A video tribute featuring an entourage of current and former JCYC staff and program members congratulated Matsueda on her retirement and Angus MacDonald, president of the JCYC board of directors, presented her with an all-expense–paid trip to France, Italy and Greece as a retirement gift.

Matsueda said she was glad she had written her statements beforehand, since the community’s gesture made her cry. While many of the staff, including Osaki, who is her husband, said she was the heart of the organization, Matsueda said the staff are the “true heart and soul of JCYC.”

Matsueda looked to the future as she steps down, and said JCYC’s staff have intentionally started looking at the agency through an equity lens and prioritizing diversity and inclusion within.

“I’m doing it because I love JCYC, and it’s time for new leadership,” Matsueda told the Nichi Bei Weekly. “I feel, especially when you’re talking about programming, I wanted somebody who could take it to another level.”

Matsueda mentioned that Ryan Kimura, JCYC’s newly appointed programs director, will take on the bulk of her work. Kimura, who also had participated in JCYC’s summer camps in the early 1990s and then served as a Nikkei Community Internship intern in the early 2000s, is another former program participant turned leader within the organization.

“I’m like, ‘Oh my God, how am I — what am I going to do? How can I even be like 1/10th of what she is,’ and I’m just so thankful that she has poured 37 years into this organization and really set a foundation of gratitude, love and empathy within the staff,” Kimura told the Nichi Bei Weekly. “That’s something that I look forward to hopefully trying my best to continue and just honor the legacy.”

As Matsueda steps down to allow new leaders to take her place, however, she said she is not going anywhere.

“I’ll always support, I’ll be out there at 5 a.m. at the S.F. Aloha Run, helping out, but I’ll be a volunteer now,” she said.

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