The Berkeley Remix Season 8, Episode 2:”‘A Place Like This’: The Memory of Incarceration”

In this episode, we explore the history, legacy, and contested memory of Japanese American incarceration during World War II. 

This graphic illustration depicts a large wave and guard tower behind barbed wire with text above that reads, "Episode 2: A Place Like This"
The Berkeley Remix Season 8 Podcast Image for “Episode 2: A Place Like This.”

Incarceration represented a loss of livelihoods, property, and freedom, as well as a disruption—cultural and geographic—in the Japanese American community that continued long after World War II. While some descendants heard family stories about incarceration, others encountered only silence about these past traumas. This silence was reinforced by a society and education system which denied that incarceration occurred or used euphemisms to describe what Japanese Americans experienced during World War II. Over the years, Japanese Americans have worked to reclaim the narrative of this past and engage with the nuances of terminology in order to tell their own stories about the personal and community impacts of incarceration. 

In season 8 of The Berkeley Remix, a podcast of the Oral History Center at UC Berkeley, we are highlighting interviews from the Japanese American Intergenerational Narratives Oral History Project. The OHC team interviewed twenty-three survivors and descendants of two World War II-era sites of incarceration: Manzanar in California and Topaz in Utah. This four-part series includes clips from these interviews, which were recorded remotely via Zoom. Using healing as a throughline, these life history interviews explore identity, community, creative expression, and the stories family members passed down about how incarceration shaped their lives. 

This season features interview clips from the Japanese American Intergenerational Narratives Oral History Project. This episode includes clips from: Miko Charbonneau, Bruce Embrey, Hans Goto, Patrick Hayashi, Jean Hibino, Mitchell Higa, Carolyn Iyoya Irving, Susan Kitazawa, Ron Kuramoto, Kimi Maru, Lori Matsumura, Alan Miyatake, Jennifer Mariko Neuwalder, Ruth Sasaki, Masako Takahashi, Peggy Takahashi, Nancy Ukai, and Rev. Michael Yoshii. Additional archival audio from the US Office of War Information and the Internet Archive. To learn more about these interviews, visit the Oral History Center’s website.

Produced by Rose Khor, Roger Eardley-Pryor, Shanna Farrell, and Amanda Tewes. Narration by Devin Katayama. Newsreel audio clip “Japanese Relocation” from the U.S. Office of War Information, ca. 1943, courtesy of Prelinger Archives. Newsreel audio clip “August 14, 1945, Newsreel V-J Day” from the Internet Archive. Original theme music by Paul Burnett. Additional music from Blue Dot Sessions. Album artwork by Emily Ehlen. A special thanks to the National Park Service’s Japanese American Confinement Sites Grant for funding this project.

The views and conclusions contained in this document are those of the authors and should not be interpreted as representing the opinions or policies of the U.S. Government. Mention of trade names or commercial products does not constitute their endorsement by the U.S. Government.

 

LISTEN TO EPISODE 2 ON SOUNDCLOUD

 

PODCAST TRANSCRIPT: “‘A Place Like This’: The Memory of Incarceration”

Newsreel from the 1940s: “When the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor, our West Coast became a potential combat zone. Living in that zone were more than 100,000 persons of Japanese ancestry. Two-thirds of them American citizens, one-third aliens. We knew that some among them were potentially dangerous; most were loyal. But no one knew what would happen among this concentrated population if Japanese forces should try to invade our shores. Military authorities therefore determined that all of them—citizens and aliens alike—would have to move.”

Jean Hibino: What would you carry? If everybody had two things they could carry, what would you put into a duffel bag? And what if you had a baby, and that’s one of the things that you’re carrying? How do you figure out the other thing? What is important to you? And you have no idea where you’re going, what kind of weather it’s going to be.

Theme song fades in.

Devin Katayam: Welcome to The Berkeley Remix, a podcast from the Oral History Center at the University of California, Berkeley. The Center was founded in 1953, and records and preserves the history of California, the nation, and our interconnected world. You’re listening to our eighth season, “‘From Generation to Generation’: The Legacy of Japanese American Incarceration.” I’m your host, Devin Katayama. 

This season on The Berkeley Remix, we’re highlighting interviews from the Japanese American Intergenerational Narratives Oral History Project. The OHC team interviewed twenty-three survivors and descendants of World War II-era sites of incarceration at Manzanar in California and Topaz in Utah. In this four-part series, you’ll hear clips from these interviews, which were recorded remotely via Zoom. These life history interviews explore identity, community, creative expression, and the stories family members have passed down about how incarceration shaped their lives. 

As a heads up, generational names for Japanese Americans are going to be important in this series. Issei refers to the first generation of Japanese immigrants to the United States. Nisei are the second generation, Sansei the third, Yonsei the fourth, and Gosei the fifth. Just think about counting to five in Japanese: ichi, ni, san, shi, go.

This is episode 2, “‘A Place Like This’: The Memory of Incarceration” 

Theme song fades out.

Katayama: Executive Order 9066 changed life for Japanese Americans. President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed the order on February 19, 1942. It authorized the forced removal of Japanese American civilians from their homes on the West Coast. The federal government incarcerated Japanese Americans first in regional assembly centers before sending them to prison camps for the duration of the war. We’re talking about more than 120,000 people—or roughly the population of Topeka, Kansas. 

Hibino: The US government was very careful about choosing how they wanted to describe the unconstitutional [laughs] removal of 120,000 people, uh, by just saying it was for their own safety, of military necessity: “It was a relocation. It was an evacuation for their own safety.” But we know better. 

Katayama: That’s Jean Hibino, a Sansei whose family was incarcerated in Topaz. Nancy Ukai, a Sansei whose family was also imprisoned in Topaz, says she remembers the stories her mother shared about this time. 

Nancy Ukai: The immigrants couldn’t buy land; they couldn’t naturalize; they couldn’t vote, so they didn’t have a political voice. My grandfather used to say, “You know, we’re going to all be sent to camp.” And my mother said, “Oh no. You might be, but I’m a citizen.” And he said, “Yeah well, you’ll see.” And she said later when, of course, everybody was rounded up and sent to the camps, he said, “See?”

Katayama: When the looming threat of incarceration became a reality, it caused significant disruption in people’s lives. Jean talks about the impact it had on her family. 

Hibino: So my mom always tells the story about selling everything they own to the junkman—was it thirty-five bucks or something? Refrigerator, stove, furnishings, store goods, everything was sold. They knew that there was going to be a short amount of time where things had to be done. Businesses, affairs had to be put in order, including the dog, which was so sad! Oh my God, their poor dog, they had to get—ah—get rid of. And I think there was an actual story where the dog came back after they gave it to the junkman, that the dog wandered back home, and we’re all crying when we heard that story. 

Katayama: People had a matter of days to pack up their things and organize their lives before reporting to assembly centers. They could only take what they could carry. And they had to make some pretty heart-wrenching decisions about what to take and what to leave behind. Here’s Nancy again, sharing her mother’s memories of those uncertain days.

Soundbed: instrumental music fades in. Sound of door opening.

Ukai: When they were all packing to go, she said my grandfather packed up this box very carefully, and she thought it was, oh, treats or tools, she didn’t know. And she said when they got to camp, they opened it up and it was filled with eucalyptus leaves. And she said, “You fool, why did you waste this precious space on this?” He told her, “I thought we may never go back to Berkeley,” and he loved the fragrance of the Eucalyptus leaves, and they reminded him of the Berkeley that he loved. And so she said, “I wished I had directed my anger at the US government and not my father…who didn’t know if he’d ever go back to this place that he loved so much.” 

Soundbed: sound of door closing.Instrumental music fades out. 

Katayama: Bruce Embrey, a Sansei whose mother was incarcerated in Manzanar in California, heard stories about the sale of his family’s store in the Los Angeles area. 

Bruce Embrey: I have the receipt, actually, for the sale of the store, and they kept it. They sold it for half of what they paid for it. They got about 50 percent. What was remarkable to me was that there was very little resentment about it. You know, you lose an asset to somebody, you, you generally are kind of upset, right? I mean, I, I know everybody says, “Oh, it’s amazing how they’re not bitter.” Yeah well, close the door and get into a family discussion and see how bitter people really are. 

Soundbed: instrumental music fades in. 

Katayama: Life in Manzanar and Topaz was a difficult adjustment for many. To this day, descendants of the camps have visceral memories of the stories their families told about what it was like to be incarcerated in the desert, far from the lives they once knew. Here’s Bruce Embrey again sharing his grandmother’s first impressions of Manzanar.

Embrey: My grandmother was convinced that this was a desolate area, I mean, it was bulldozed, there was nothing around but barracks. And that while you had these majestic mountains in the back, apple orchard—this is, you know, the quote she said, “It’s a place like this. They brought us to a place like this: beautiful on the one hand, desolate on the other.” And she was convinced they were brought there to be shot. She thought they were being removed to a far-flung area, meaning far from a large metropolitan area like Los Angeles, essentially to be either worked to death or, or, or killed. That was her framework. And so she cried every day until she finally got it together, and came back and said, “No, we’ve got to survive this crap.”

Katayama: For many of the incarcerated Issei and Nisei, survival in camp meant trying to create some semblance of a normal life. They built schools, grew gardens, and honed crafts like woodworking and photography. Susan Kitazawa, a Sansei, recalls that her grandfather did this while incarcerated at Manzanar.  

Soundbed: instrumental music fades out. 

Kitazawa: It’s like my grandfather, who had a nursery, being able to be in charge of the victory garden. It was like, Oh, I get to use my best skills, even though I’m locked up.

Katayama: Ruth Sasaki, a Sansei whose parents were incarcerated at Topaz, remembers learning about her mother’s role in creating an education system while in camp. 

Ruth Sasaki: They called a meeting of all the college graduates, you know, among the internees and organized preschools for the kids. And so my mom was teaching preschool in Tanforan. And then when they were transferred to Topaz, they did the same thing. They organized a preschool system. So from ’43 to ’45, she was the supervisor of Topaz preschools.

Katayama: Alan Miyatake, a Sansei, heard many stories about his grandfather, Toyo Miyatake. Many people know Toyo today as the official camp photographer of Manzanar. But he didn’t start out that way. Toyo originally smuggled a camera into camp with him. In fact, Alan’s father remembers when Toyo first showed him the camera.

Alan Miyatake: The way my father told the story was that one day in camp, he took him aside and opened up his suitcase and said, “Look what I have.” 

Soundbed: instrumental music fades in.   

Miyatake: It terrified my father, because, you know, he thought, Wait a minute, I know that’s not legal. So he explained it to my dad that, you know, “I’m going to make a camera and I’m going to photograph this injustice, in hoping that it would never happen again.”And he started, you know, making a camera. So he mounted a lens onto a drainpipe, onto the male part of the drainpipe, and then the female end of the drainpipe was mounted to the box. So that was the focusing device that made the camera operate.

Katayama: But Toyo’s photography didn’t go completely unnoticed by the camp administration in Manzanar.

Miyatake: As the story goes within our family, that in order to kind of cover himself, Ralph Merritt, the director, he made up this rule. Once he said, “Yeah, go ahead and take pictures, but you can’t snap the shutter.” And I’m, I’m guessing that if he ever got caught, you know, and if it went to higher authorities, at least Ralph Merritt could say, “Well, he wasn’t the one that snapped the shutter.” 

Katayama: Eventually, Ralph Merritt gave Toyo permission to take photographs as the official camp photographer, as long as he had supervision. It was a camp rule that he needed to be accompanied by someone who was not Japanese American, like the wife of a camp worker, when he would take photographs there. This underscored his lack of autonomy, both as a professional photographer and a prisoner with restricted freedoms.  

Soundbed: instrumental music fades out. 

Katayama: Despite the fact that many Japanese Americans were able to create lives for themselves inside the prison camps, the indignities of incarceration were never far from their minds. Even Japanese American service members fighting on behalf of the United States and democracy abroad had families who were incarcerated at home. Here’s Rev. Michael Yoshii, a Sansei whose family was incarcerated at Topaz.

Michael Yoshii: My father’s brother, he was already part of the military when the war broke out. And then he got assigned to the 442nd in the process of it. 

Katayama: That’s the 442nd Infantry Regiment of the United States Army. The 442nd is the most decorated regiment in US military history. Its daring feats, like the rescue of the “Lost Battalion” in Italy, have made the 442nd the stuff of legend. But this unit was also segregated within the US military. 

Yoshii: My father and his parents went to Tanforan initially. His brother was wounded in the war in Europe and had his arm, uh, blown off. And he kind of had to go to a hospital and then do some recovery. He had a prosthetic arm put on. That was like a lifelong injury from the war. You know, my grandparents were really upset about that. I think he was able to come back and visit them in Topaz on one of his return trips. 

Katayama: And it wasn’t just the indignities of losing livelihoods, property, and their freedom that haunted Japanese Americans incarcerated in these camps. There was also the constant threat of harm and death. Here’s Masako Takahashi, a Sansei born in Topaz, reflecting on this tension. 

Masako Takahashi: My family and all those other people lived under the constant threat of murder. I mean, whatever baseball games or arts and crafts they were practicing, there were armed guards pointing guns at them at all times.

Katayama: And she means this literally. All the prison camps featured tall guard towers with  armed guards and searchlights. The guard towers stuck out in otherwise isolated landscapes. 

M. Takahashi: So no wonder they were tense. 

Katayama: This tension permeated Manzanar, too. In December 1942, internal political divisions with the camp’s federal administrators, and within the Japanese American community, culminated in a violent uprising at Manzanar. Hans Goto, a Sansei whose father was a doctor and working in Manzanar’s hospital, remembers hearing about this.

Hans Goto: There was a riot in the camp. I think approximately 2,000 people came out for this riot. They were shouting, they were chanting, they were very angry. The details aren’t really clear. But suddenly the military police opened fire, which they weren’t supposed to do. 

Soundbed: instrumental music fades in. 

Goto: So two people were instantly killed and nine people were wounded, and that sort of dispersed the crowd. They brought the people into the infirmary, where my father was, and the whole staff was, was on duty at that time.The people who were killed and the people who rioted, were they shot from the front, or were they shot from the side and back? And the controversy was: if they were shot from the front, that means they were charging the guards. And if they’re shot from the side and back, that meant they weren’t charging the guards. The military held an inquiry within a few days of the actual event. They highly encouraged my dad, according to him, to report that they were all shot from the front. Because he was also the physician coroner. He said, “No, I’m not going to do that.” And they said, “Well, you have to do this.” And he goes, “Uh, no, they, they were shot from the side.”

Soundbed: instrumental music fades out. 

Katayama: The Manzanar Uprising had far-reaching consequences. Within two months, the US government required all incarcerees at all ten federal prison camps to complete a “loyalty questionnaire.” This questionnaire was administered in part to identify and remove so-called “troublemakers” from the camps. Beyond the irony of a loyalty survey for people unjustly imprisoned by their own government, the questionnaire language was confusing and led to further problems. For example, Question 27 asked Nisei incarcerees if they would be willing to serve on combat duty wherever they were assigned. Question 28 asked individuals if they would swear unqualified allegiance to the US and forswear any form of allegiance to the Emperor of Japan. Many incarcerees answered “no” and “no” to those two questions. And as a result, they were labeled “no-no boys” and ultimately confined at the high security Tule Lake Segregation Center, deep into rugged Northern California. The Manzanar Uprising also had consequences for Dr. Goto.

Goto: The next day he was relieved of all his duties. He was the head physician.

Katayama: After refusing to sign the death records of the young Japanese Americans who were shot and killed at Manzanar, Dr. Goto and his family were sent to Topaz. But they also witnessed deadly violence in the Utah desert. 

Soundbed: instrumental music fades in. 

Ukai: Wakasa was murdered on April 11, 1943, at 7:30 at night. He was shot through the heart. He fell on his knees. He fell on his back. He died instantly. The bullet went through his heart and also pierced his spine.

Katayama: James Hatsuaki Wakasa, a 63-year-old Issei man, was days away from leaving Topaz for another camp, when he was killed by a camp sentry. He was shot from a guard tower, 300 yards away. The military took his body and then spun a false narrative about Wakasa’s death. Masako Takahashi recalls Wakasa’s tragic murder.

M. Takahashi: He was four days away—he already had a pass to leave camp, four days away. And of course he wasn’t trying to flee. That adds to the sorrow.

Katayama: The story of James Wakasa’s murder has been told many times over the years by survivors and descendants of Topaz. Everyone knew about it. Everyone had some kind of connection to it. 

Soundbed: instrumental music fades out. 

Katayama: But not everyone tells the same version of the tragedy. Patrick Hayashi, a Nisei who was born at Topaz, and Nancy Ukai, remember hearing this story many times as children. This incident profoundly shaped their families’ incarceration experiences. 

Ukai: That is just burned into my childhood memory. 

Patrick Hayashi: My mom told me an old deaf man, Mr. Wakasa, was walking his adopted, stray dog around the perimeter of the camp—and he would do that every afternoon. His dog got caught in the barbed wire fence, and Mr. Wakasa went to save him and release him. 

Ukai: And I just remember to this day my mother’s emotion and anger, and saying, “They didn’t have to kill him. He was deaf.” Well, he wasn’t deaf. That was one of the rumors, which I think the government probably created to, you know, rationalize his murder.

Hayashi: The sentry ordered him to back away from the fence, but because he was deaf, he couldn’t do it, and so the sentry shot and killed him. 

Ukai: He was accused of escaping through the fence, and it was in the national papers, and that never got corrected.

Soundbed: instrumental music fades in. 

Katayama: Remember Dr. Goto, Hans’s Father? When he and his family were sent to Topaz after the uprising at Manzanar, he became the physician and coroner at Topaz. In a twist of fate, it was Dr. Goto who signed the death certificate for James Wakasa.

Soundbed: instrumental music fades out. 

Newsreel from the 1940s with instrumental music: “America waited out World War II’s last tense hours. At the White House, President Truman, State Secretary Byrnes, and Cordell Hull stood by for the momentous surrender message from the Japanese. Radiomen, sound and camera crews, and worldwide newsreels kept vigil with Washington reporters. Then, after tantalizing hours of rumors and guesses, came the President’s historic announcement, August 14, 1945.”

Katayama: After several years of incarceration, on December 18, 1944, Americans learned that the US government approved the closure of all the camps by the end of 1945. However, the last camp didn’t actually shutter until March 1946—nine months after the war against Japan in Asia ended. This sudden change left Japanese Americans struggling to plan for the future. Remember, many of them had either sold or lost their homes and businesses before being forcibly removed from their communities, so they didn’t have much to return to.

Mitchell Higa: A big part of it was my dad’s parents’ business taken away when they went to camp, and then coming out of camp penniless. And then having to go through the humiliation of going on government assistance, coming out of camp broke. No prospects, no money, no father.

Kitazawa: My father’s parents were, um, working their very, very small family flower nursery in San José at the time. And my father told us that for his father, even though he wasn’t happy about being taken away from his home and his nursery, that he was able to sell the family nursery and business to people at the Quaker Meeting House in San José, where he was a weekend custodian. 

Soundbed: instrumental music fades in. 

Kitazawa: So they bought the place on paper for a dollar and they held it for them until they came back home again, which was really fortunate that they had that connection to people in the white community, and didn’t lose their land or have to sell it super cheap.

Katayama: That was Mitchell Higa, a Sansei whose family was incarcerated at Manzanar, and Susan Kitazawa. Here’s Alan Miyatake again. 

Miyatake: I always pictured that they just came back to Boyle Heights and moved into their house. But later on, I found out that because of a, a lease that was set up, that Bobby, my uncle, told me, “Oh no, no, we, we had to live across the street for a while, because there were still people living in our house.”

Katayama: But not everyone was able to return to their homes and communities. Some felt pressured to stay away from the West Coast, and others saw opportunities to begin anew in other parts of the United States. Here’s Ron Kuramoto, a Sansei whose mother was incarcerated at Manzanar.

Ron Kuramoto: What they were given when they were released was a bus ticket and $25 in cash per person.

Soundbed: instrumental music fades out. 

Kuramoto: Those were the federal guidelines for releasing prisoners from, [laughs] you know, from federal prison, was to give them a bus ticket and $25 to wherever they went. They said, “So, many of the people, they were glad to be released, but they had nowhere to go.” Interestingly enough, that’s what led to a lot of the diaspora of Japanese Americans. 

Hibino: So we [laughs] ended up in this extremely small, white town in Connecticut, and I always thought I was white until I was about ten. When you left the camp, the War Relocation Authority had put out pamphlets that said to the Japanese, “It is advisable that you move as far away from California as you can. Stay away from other Japanese. Try to become even more American than, than [laughs] you think you are, than you already are.” They were just trying to say, “Try to assimilate, be white, and don’t rock the boat. Don’t make waves. Don’t stick out. Just quietly go about your business, even though this horribly unconstitutional thing has just happened to you and you’ve suffered all this trauma.” I think that is part of the reason why only half of the Japanese moved back to the West Coast after the war. 

Soundbed: instrumental music fades in. 

Hibino: My dad really took that to heart. And so he always told us he chose to never go back to California because of the racism and the horrible experiences his family suffered. And so we’re going to go up here, and we’re going to try to live the American dream and not so much talk about what happened to us in 1942. 

Katayama: That was Jean Hibino again. Some Japanese American students were able to leave camp during the war to attend college in the Midwest or on the East Coast. Carolyn Iyoya Irving, a Sansei whose family was incarcerated at Topaz, recounts her mother’s experience moving to New York State during the war while her parents remained in camp. 

Carolyn Iyoya Irving: The Quakers, the American Friends Service Committee, really made a concerted effort to help kids in camp to go to college. And so I think they helped with the brokering of the government paperwork to find out which colleges would accept Japanese Americans from the camps. And so I think, by and large, most of them were East, because you were away from the West Coast. She ended up leaving for Vassar in, um, August of 1943 by herself, you know, on a train, saying goodbye to her parents behind barbed wire and heading out to Poughkeepsie.

Katayama: Moving away from their homes and centers of Japanese American culture led some to become isolated from the community. These moves have had a profound impact on intergenerational identity and belonging. Both survivors of incarceration and their descendants have had to live with the consequences of lives uprooted, torn apart during and after World War II. Here’s Masako Takahashi again.

M. Takahashi: My parents were super American. When I was young, they took my brother and me to Washington, D.C., to see the Lincoln Memorial; we went to Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, to see the Liberty Bell; we went to Manhattan, New York City, to see the Statue of Liberty. These were like really iconic American institutions and parts of history. Those touchstones, they wanted to go see them for themselves, because that’s how they felt through the war and continued after the war. My Uncle Will went in the 442nd. These people wanted to prove their Americanness, even die for America.

Soundbed: instrumental music fades out. 

Katayama: Here’s Kimi Maru, a Sansei, whose family was incarcerated at Topaz.

Kimi Maru: You know, even my kids had friends growing up—they’re Yonsei, fourth generation—who didn’t know how to use chopsticks, because their families didn’t eat Japanese or Asian food. [laughs] And largely, I think that’s because of the camps, because they didn’t want to really relate to being Japanese. They wanted to prove their Americanness, how they thought about themselves, you know, and what it meant to be American, but not really understanding what it meant to be Japanese American. 

Soundbed: instrumental music fades in. 

Hayashi: I think trauma can be transmitted nonverbally. And because the silence among Japanese Americans, among everyone, is textured, different types of silence mean different things and convey different emotions, and I think that’s how I learned about the emotional tone of the camps and the devastation it had.

Soundbed: instrumental music fades out. 

Vox pop:

Matsumura: My dad doesn’t talk about camp life, he’s very quiet about it.

M. Takahashi: Just generally speaking, it was horrible and shocking, but they, like many others, did not speak that much about camp experience.

Hayashi: I’m typical of third-generation Japanese Americans. We grew up hearing next to nothing about the camps.

Margret Mukai: You know, we were Japanese Americans. We were supposed to be quiet. 

Sasaki: She didn’t talk that much about the war or those experiences. 

Jennifer Mariko Neuwalder: “The nail that sticks up gets hammered down.”

Katayama: Incarceration was an agonizing experience for most Japanese Americans. It was difficult for many to talk about. The silence was about shame, it was about trauma, and it was about cultural influences that encouraged people not to dwell on the past. This meant that children of survivors rarely learned about incarceration firsthand. Here’s Lori Matsumura, a Sansei descendant of Manzanar. 

Lori Matsumura: My dad was so quiet, and so he didn’t discuss camp life unless we asked him or hounded him, he didn’t discuss it, which is unfortunate, because he’s gone now. Now I have so many questions I wish I would have brought up. Almost everyone’s gone now.

Katayama: Masako Takahashi remembers growing up with shame about incarceration.

M. Takahashi: As a child, I felt ashamed, because it seemed bad to be the children of people who the government wanted to lock up and called an enemy. I wasn’t proud to be Japanese or proud to have been born in a concentration camp or, you know—so I guess they were just trying to spare us feeling bad, so they just didn’t talk about it and looked forward.

Katayama: Peggy Takahashi is a Sansei whose parents were incarcerated at Manzanar.

Peggy Takahashi: There’s a whole generation of Japanese people, probably my age and a little younger, whose parents made a conscious decision not to make the Japanese culture   prominent in their lives, um, because of what happened during the war.

Katayama: Peggy talks about how many people never learned about Japanese American culture or the history of incarceration in school. 

M. Takahashi: It wasn’t talked about at all. In our US history books in the 1970s, there was one—literally one paragraph—about the incarceration. Literally one paragraph. 

Goto: No. Not at all. Never heard about it. What’s ironic is—just, just for a little tidbit—is that one of my high school history teachers was a little kid in one of the camps. And he never mentioned it, ever, in history. And he taught US history. It was just a sign of the times. 

Katayama: That was Hans Goto again. Here’s Miko Charbonneau, a Yonsei whose family was incarcerated at Manzanar.

Miko Charbonneau: Sometime in middle school, we were learning about the Holocaust, and our teacher, he was telling the whole class like, “Well, Jewish people were put in camps.”

Soundbed: instrumental music fades in.  

Charbonneau: And I was like, Wait, my grandmother was put in a camp. So I raised my hand and said, “My, my grandparents were put in a camp, but they were put in camp by America.” And there was like this awkward silence, because all the kids were confused and had never heard about it, and he clearly did not know what to say. And after this silence, all he said was, “Well, we didn’t kill people.” And so I really remember that, and it’s sort of maybe the first time I feel like my experience was disparaged or, or put down.

Katayama: If descendants learned about this history at all in school, it was often brushed off as something insignificant. Some teachers outright denied Japanese American incarceration ever happened. Here’s Susan Kitazawa.

Kitazawa: One time when I was in elementary school, we had to talk about our families or how our parents met, and so I said, “My parents met when they were locked up in the prison camp.” And the teacher got really mad at me and said, “You’re supposed to tell the truth. Don’t make things up.” And I said, “That really happened. And my parents told me that.” And the teacher said, “Nothing like that ever happened in the United States.” And she got really angry at me. And I felt really bad, because she thought not only that I was lying, but that my parents were lying to me. And so my mother said I could take the book to school and show her the book. And I showed her the book and she just brushed it off like, “Yeah, whatever. Things like that don’t happen in America.” And so from that experience, I learned to just kind of shut up about it.

Soundbed: instrumental music fades out. 

Katayama: This pushback reinforced silence within the community. The language used to describe what happened to Japanese Americans during World War II is equally important in acknowledging this past. It impacts how people remember events, and even how they continue to teach this history in school. It’s become a sensitive topic for many descendants of incarceration. 

Here’s Jennifer Mariko Neuwalder, a Sansei whose family was incarcerated at Topaz, and Ron Kuramoto again. 

Neuwalder: Yeah, I mean, I certainly grew up with “relocation,” not even “forced relocation,” “relocation” and “internment camps.” 

Kuramoto: There would be references that we could overhear about somebody they knew from “camp.” And that was kind of the euphemistic talk about that. 

Neuwalder: And of course, as a little kid I was like, “Camp,” summer camp! You know, like [laughs] it was confusing, um, because it was a camp, but you couldn’t leave. And it was a camp in the middle of the desert with your whole family and all these other families.

Kuramoto: And as kids, we thought this was maybe something like summer camp. And we thought, Wow, this is really cool, everybody went to the same summer camp. But they were there for four years, so [laughs] it was a long summer camp. 

Katayama: But it was far from a summer camp. People have referred to the camps by different names over the years. Even the US government has changed its terminology. Here’s Hanako Wakatsuki-Chong, a Gosei descendant of Manzanar and National Park Service Superintendent of the Hono’uli’uli National Historic Site, discussing this.

Hanako Wakatsuki-Chong: And the US government, you know, also used “concentration camp” during World War II, and eventually the terminology kind of transitioned.

M. Takahashi: It was first called a “concentration camp.” Later, after the discovery of Auschwitz and Dachau and so on, the words “concentration camp” had meanings that the government preferred not to be associated with, so they started calling it “internment camps” and “relocation.”

Katayama: That was Masako Takahashi again. The euphemistic language about incarceration that Ron referred to has long weighed on the minds of survivors and their descendants. Densho is a nonprofit organization founded in 1996, whose mission is to preserve and share history of the World War II incarceration of Japanese Americans in order to promote equity and justice today. 

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Katayama: In its guide to terminology, Densho explains that “internment” refers to “the legally permissible, though morally questionable, detention of, quote, ‘enemy aliens’ in time of war.” In other words, Issei immigrants. Therefore, this terminology glosses over the fact that the federal government actually incarcerated American citizens of Japanese ancestry—Nisei children and young adults—without due process. More recently, in 2022, the Associated Press changed its style guide to embrace this distinction. This is why we’ve been using the word “incarceration” throughout this series. But others have advocated for even more changes in terminology. Here’s interviewer Roger Eardley-Pryor asking Masako Takahashi about her birth. You can hear how integral terminology is to her and her family’s incarceration experience.

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Roger Eardley-Pryor: Can you tell me the date of your birth and the location, please?

M. Takahashi: January 29, 1944, in Topaz Concentration Camp in Utah. My mother said it was a concentration camp.

Katayama: Here’s Jennifer Mariko Neuwalder again. 

Neuwalder: Linguistically they were concentration camps. They were places where people were concentrated, because of some ethnic cultural characteristics that were deemed to be abhorrent, and they were locked up as families. Um, I know there’s a lot of controversy, but I think, you know, there are lots of concentration camps around the world. To my mind, it’s about the removal of human rights and liberties of movement, and the literal concentration and segregation of one cultural group against their will.

Katayama: Jennifer is speaking about this from the perspective of her two identities. She is a descendant of a Japanese American mother incarcerated at Topaz, and of a family of ethnically German Jews who survived the Holocaust. 

Neuwalder: I think the term “concentration camp” has acquired very specific meanings to specific people. Um, but you know, maybe it will be reclaimed by the Japanese American community over time. 

Katayama: But not everyone agrees. 

Kuramoto: I don’t really hear many people refer to the incarceration camps, which is now the preferred terminology, as “concentration camps” anymore, other than maybe to describe some of the things that went on that are similar to that. But, uh, no, they were not mass extermination type of facilities, such as in the European experience. 

Katayama: That was Ron Kuramoto again. Indeed, language—and reclaiming language—is an important discussion, particularly in the Japanese American community. Here’s Patrick Hayashi again, recalling the conversations he had about this with Topaz survivors during a meeting with the Class of ’45. It’s a group of Japanese American students who attended high school behind barbed wire. 

Hayashi: The question was: what do you call Topaz? Some people wanted to call it a “concentration camp.” Everyone was in agreement that “internment camp” was just not proper, but you could call it a “confinement site,” something like that. They asked me what I thought, but I didn’t say anything. I thought it was up to them.

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Hayashi: In the end, they decided to call it a “concentration camp.” And I could see a complete transformation occur once they settled that issue. They became proud of their lives and proud at how they conducted themselves in the camps.

Katayama: Clearly, language matters. It’s not just words, it’s also about agency. Since the end of World War II, Japanese Americans have worked to reclaim the narrative of their incarceration experiences. This reclamation includes not only pushing for acknowledgment of this past, but also intergenerational conversations about the nuance of language and its implications. Without a doubt, each generation of descendants will need to begin this process for themselves. 

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Katayama: Thanks for listening to “‘From Generation to Generation’: The Legacy of Japanese American Incarceration” and The Berkeley Remix. Join us next time for more on identity and belonging in the Japanese American community.

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Katayama: This episode features interviews from the Oral History Center’s Japanese American Intergenerational Narratives Oral History Project, and includes clips from: Miko Charbonneau, Bruce Embrey, Hans Goto, Patrick Hayashi, Jean Hibino, Mitchell Higa, Carolyn Iyoya Irving, Susan Kitazawa, Ron Kuramoto, Kimi Maru, Lori Matsumura, Alan Miyatake, Jennifer Mariko Neuwalder, Ruth Sasaki, Masako Takahashi, Peggy Takahashi, Nancy Ukai, and Rev. Michael Yoshii. Music from Blue Dot Sessions. Additional archival audio from the US Office of War Information and the Internet Archive. This episode was produced by Rose Khor, Roger Eardley-Pryor, Shanna Farrell, and Amanda Tewes. Thank you to the National Park Service’s Japanese American Confinement Sites Grant for funding this project. To learn more about these interviews, visit the Oral History Center’s website listed in the show notes. I’m your host, Devin Katayama. Thanks for listening, and I will talk to you next time!

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END OF EPISODE




The Berkeley Remix Season 8, Episode 3: “‘Between Worlds’: Japanese American Identity and Belonging”

In this episode, we explore identity and belonging in the Japanese American community. 

This graphic illustration depicts a large wave and guard tower behind barbed wire with text above that reads, "Episode 3: Between Worlds"
The Berkeley Remix Season 8 Podcast Image for “Episode 3: Between Worlds”

For many Japanese Americans, identity is not only personal, it’s a reclamation of a community that was damaged during World War II. The scars of the past have left many descendants of incarceration feeling like they don’t wholly belong in one world. Descendants have navigated identity and belonging by participating in Japanese American community events and supporting community spaces, traveling to Japan to connect with their heritage, as well as cooking and sharing Japanese food. However, embracing Japanese and Japanese American culture can highlight for descendants their mixed identities, leaving them feeling even more like they have a foot in multiple worlds. 

In season 8 of The Berkeley Remix, a podcast of the Oral History Center at UC Berkeley, we are highlighting interviews from the Japanese American Intergenerational Narratives Oral History Project. The OHC team interviewed twenty-three survivors and descendants of two World War II-era sites of incarceration: Manzanar in California and Topaz in Utah. This four-part series includes clips from these interviews, which were recorded remotely via Zoom. Using healing as a throughline, these life history interviews explore identity, community, creative expression, and the stories family members passed down about how incarceration shaped their lives. 

This season features interview clips from the Japanese American Intergenerational Narratives Oral History Project. This episode includes clips from: Miko Charbonneau, Hans Goto, Jean Hibino, Roy Hirabayashi, Carolyn Iyoya Irving, Susan Kitazawa, Kimi Maru, Lori Matsumura, Alan Miyatake, Jennifer Mariko Neuwalder, Ruth Sasaki, Steven Shigeto Sindlinger, Masako Takahashi, Peggy Takahashi, Nancy Ukai, Hanako Wakatsuki-Chong, and Rev. Michael Yoshii. To learn more about these interviews, visit the Oral History Center’s website.

Produced by Rose Khor, Roger Eardley-Pryor, Shanna Farrell, and Amanda Tewes. Narration by Devin Katayama. Original theme music by Paul Burnett. Additional music from Blue Dot Sessions. Album artwork by Emily Ehlen. A special thanks to the National Park Service’s Japanese American Confinement Sites Grant for funding this project.

The views and conclusions contained in this document are those of the authors and should not be interpreted as representing the opinions or policies of the U.S. Government. Mention of trade names or commercial products does not constitute their endorsement by the U.S. Government.

 

LISTEN TO EPISODE 3 ON SOUNDCLOUD

 

PODCAST TRANSCRIPT: “‘Between Worlds’: Japanese American Identity and Belonging”

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Ruth Sasaki: In some respects, I guess my whole life I felt sort of a duality, like I have one foot in two different worlds: Japan and America. I didn’t know who I was, and it felt like I couldn’t speak up for myself. When I understood that my values that I had been raised with were majority culture values in Japan and were valued, it just changes the whole way you feel about yourself. 

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Devin Katayama: Welcome to The Berkeley Remix, a podcast from the Oral History Center at the University of California, Berkeley. The Center was founded in 1953, and records and preserves the history of California, the nation, and our interconnected world. You’re listening to our eighth season, “‘From Generation to Generation’: The Legacy of Japanese American Incarceration.” I’m your host, Devin Katayama. 

This season on The Berkeley Remix, we’re highlighting interviews from the Japanese American Intergenerational Narratives Oral History Project. The OHC team interviewed twenty-three survivors and descendants of World War II-era sites of incarceration at Manzanar in California and Topaz in Utah. In this four-part series, you’ll hear clips from these interviews, which were recorded remotely via Zoom. These life history interviews explore identity, community, creative expression, and stories family members passed down about how incarceration shaped their lives. 

As a heads up, generational names for Japanese Americans are going to be important in this series. Issei refers to the first generation of Japanese immigrants to the United States. Nisei are the second generation, Sansei the third, Yonsei the fourth, and Gosei the fifth. Just think about counting to five in Japanese: ichi, ni, san, shi, go.

This is episode 3, “‘Between Worlds’: Japanese American Identity and Belonging.” 

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Katayama: What does it feel like to have a foot in multiple worlds? How does this affect the search for personal identity? For many Japanese Americans, identity is not just personal, it’s a reclamation of a community that was damaged during World War II. The scars of the past have left many descendants of incarceration feeling like they don’t wholly belong in one world. 

Miko Charbonneau: I think that I’ve always felt like stuck between worlds and never really belonging to any place entirely. 

Katayama: That was Miko Charbonneau, a Yonsei. Here’s Hanako Wakatsuki-Chong, a Gosei, talking about the role that incarceration plays in her search for identity. Both women’s families were incarcerated at Manzanar, and they have multiple ethnic heritages. 

Hanako Wakatsuki-Chong: The biggest thing that I feel is the loss of identity. Because it’s like I’m still trying to find my identity, [laughs] um, and it’s because I feel like you couldn’t be proud of your heritage during camp, and afterwards it was basically like Americanization. 

Katayama: Here’s Susan Kitazawa, a Sansei and descendant of Manzanar.

Susan Kitazawa: And then also when I was in later elementary school, we were the only family in our town who wasn’t a white family. Church, Girl Scouts, unless it was a multi-age thing and my sister happened to be in the group with me, I was always the only person of color. 

Katayama: Many other Japanese Americans can relate to Susan’s experience. Steven Shigeto Sindlinger is a Yonsei whose birth mother was incarcerated at Topaz. He grew up in Michigan with his adoptive mother, who was from Japan, and his white, American father.  

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Steven Shigeto Sindlinger: There just weren’t any other individuals of Asian descent. There were only a couple, and none that we knew. So it was a little, I don’t want to say disappointing, that there weren’t more Japanese or Asian representation in the school system.

Katayama: Jennifer Mariko Neuwalder, a Sansei whose mother’s family was incarcerated at Topaz, had a similar experience as Susan and Steven. Additionally, her father was Jewish and his family survived the Holocaust. 

Jennifer Mariko Neuwalder: My parents integrated the town’s country club single-handedly. First mixed couple, first Asian, first Jewish. I had no awareness of that, except one time when I was probably eight or nine years old, this very blonde woman passing by me said, “You’re so dark you could be a little Black child.” And there were no African Americans in this club. At the time it was like very, very white. Um, and it stuck with me. At the time I thought it was like a great compliment, I was like, Yeah! But over the years, I was like, That was not meant to be a compliment. [laughs]

Katayama: Feeling like an outsider can take many forms. For some, it manifests in something as intrinsic as a name. Names are not just words, they carry a lot of meaning. 

Michael Yoshii: My name is Michael Arthur Yoshii. A lot of my friends had Japanese middle names. Uh, my parents kind of didn’t give us Japanese middle names on purpose, and I think that was to not make us stand out and not draw attention to being Japanese, per se. I think that kind of was the explanation. 

Katayama: Rev. Michael Yoshii is a Sansei whose family was incarcerated at Topaz. Another way Japanese Americans can feel like outsiders is through language—or not learning to speak Japanese at all. 

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Katayama: After World War II, many survivors of incarceration didn’t teach their children how to speak Japanese. Here’s Lori Matsumura, a Sansei descendant of Manzanar. 

Lori Matsumura: I know that the Issei—my grandmother’s generation, Issei—did she not want the Nisei, which is my dad’s generation, to speak Japanese because of being sent to Manzanar and having to show that you are an American? Is that why they didn’t speak Japanese at home? I’ve always wondered that, but I never did find out the reason why. 

M. Takahashi: We only spoke English at home. I’m sorry I don’t speak Japanese. I’ve learned that a language is not just a dictionary, it’s a way of thinking, it’s a cultural reality.

Katayama: That was Masako Takahashi, a Sansei and a child survivor of Topaz. Here’s Hanako again. 

Wakatsuki-Chong: I remember my dad used to joke, saying he knows enough Japanese to read a menu, you know, and that’s about it.

Katayama: Nancy Ukai, a Sansei descendant of Topaz, wasn’t able to speak to her grandparents when she was a child. 

Nancy Ukai: When I was in elementary school, because I didn’t speak Japanese, and they didn’t really speak English, we didn’t communicate, and there would always be these [laughs] older people sitting on the sofa, or, you know, as a kid you just couldn’t joke with them, talk with them. 

Katayama: When you can’t speak with your elders, it’s hard for them to pass down stories from generation to generation. Family stories can help you understand who you are or where you come from. When you lose this ability to communicate, it’s hard to recover. You might feel like you have a foot in multiple worlds. 

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Katayama: As a result of World War II incarceration, Japanese Americans had their lives uprooted and saw their community centers dissolved. Ruth Sasaki is a Sansei whose family was incarcerated at Topaz. Her family lived in San Francisco’s Japantown prior to forced removal. There were about 5,000 Japanese Americans living in the area, which was about 6 city blocks, with around 200 Japanese- and Japanese American-owned businesses. When Ruth’s family returned to San Francisco, they saw that Japantown had disintegrated. 

Ruth Sasaki: The others remember Japantown and they remember living in a situation where they were surrounded by the Japanese community. Because we moved out of Japantown to the Richmond District when I was so little, I’ve always felt sort of like I missed out on something, you know?

Katayama: After this fracturing of community, having a place to gather became sacred for survivors and their families. Many wanted to reclaim a space for themselves. They made an effort to form new cultural centers where they could come together as a Japanese American community. Not only were these centers meaningful places to convene, but they also became places where younger generations could learn about their heritage.

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Matsumura: Nikkei Kai was a Japanese community center. And it started postwar in my grandmother’s house, because they wanted a meeting place where they can get together and talk about things and learn from each other, like a support community for themselves, for the Japanese and Japanese Americans. 

Katayama: That was Lori Matsumura. Here’s Rev. Michael Yoshii again.

Yoshii: A big portion of time was spent in that Japanese American community, an invisible community, is the way I would call it.

Katayama: These community spaces weren’t just informal and invisible—they were physical places, too. One of the places where people came together was at church. Here’s Hans Goto, a Sansei whose family was incarcerated at both Manzanar and Topaz, talking about growing up in Watsonville, California, where he had ties to two different churches.

Hans Goto: The Japanese American community was actually split into two groups based on religion. 

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Goto: And my mother, because her mother, uh, was either a Methodist or Presbyterian, went with the Christian church. We were associated with them, even though a lot of my friends were Buddhist. And so we crossed the lines a lot, you know, we got together a lot. But that was the social as well as religious thing. There was a lot of interchange between the two. And that was where the culture was. 

Katayama: But this split between churches wasn’t always as seamless as Hans’s experience. It also sometimes reflected larger religious and cultural divides within the Japanese American community. Carolyn Iyoya Irving is a Sansei descendant of Topaz. 

Carolyn Iyoya Irving: One thing that always stuck out in my head as a kid is remembering the differentiation between the Christian Japanese Americans and the Buddhists. So for instance, we were sort of told we couldn’t dance in the Obon Festival, which is the big Buddhist festival in August. And I just remember my dad saying, “Yeah, it just really doesn’t look good if the daughters of the, you know, Presbyterian minister are off dancing in Obon.”

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Irving: And so there was this kind of artificial division, in a way, between the Christian churches and the Buddhist churches. Not that we couldn’t be friends or go to the Obon Festivals, but there were two distinct communities, I think, of Japanese Americans.

Katayama: Japanese American children didn’t just go to church to worship. Church also served as a community space where they could attend Japanese language school. Roy Hirabayashi, a Nisei whose family was incarcerated at Topaz, attended language school at his local church, upon the urging of his mother. 

Roy Hirabayashi: She felt it was important for us to learn Japanese, so she required that we go to language school on Saturdays. It ended up also where we were going to this one Japanese community center; after the language school, they would have church services. 

Katayama: In addition to language school, some churches hosted special events. These events provided space for the community to gather and celebrate their Japanese American heritage. Here’s Rev. Michael Yoshii talking about his church’s spring bazaar.

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Yoshii: We had something called the Spring Festival Bazaar. It’s like a festival event where the whole community comes together to work on a particular thing together. It was a coming together of community after the war. They started it in the late fifties. 

Katayama: Japanese American churchgoers had a tradition of going to each other’s bazaars. 

Yoshii: They were supporting each other economically and financially by having that kind of network of, of support with one another, as well as the larger community that would come to particular events. I think there was this other element of it where we were revisiting our Japanese American history, our identity. 

Katayama: Another celebration that brings the community together is Nisei Week. This is an annual festival in the Little Tokyo neighborhood of Los Angeles. Kimi Maru, a Sansei whose family was incarcerated at Topaz, enjoys participating in this event. 

Kimi Maru: It’s a tradition that’s been going on like every summer in early August, and it’s two weekends in a row. There’s a Nisei Week parade, where all these different community groups, as well as different schools, dance schools, they do this parade through Little Tokyo.

Katayama: Even though there are many opportunities to connect with the Japanese American community, not everyone has always felt welcome. Here’s Susan Kitazawa again.

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Kitazawa: My initial experience of my attempts to enter the Japanese American community in San Francisco were horribly painful and disappointing.

Katayama: Susan had a hard time finding community when she was in her mid-twenties. 

Kitazawa: I had heard about this organization and I had heard that they wanted volunteers. And so when I first moved to San Francisco, I went over there one day, called ahead and made an appointment. And at the entrance I remember there were two women and a man, and they were sort of about my age. I said, “Oh, I’m here to talk with you about volunteering.” And he said, “Who are you? I’ve never seen you at any community events.” And I said, “Well, no, because I just moved out here. I grew up on the East Coast.” He said, “Oh, you grew up with white people then on the East Coast? Oh, you’re a banana. We don’t need people like you.” And I was just crushed. And I said, “So I can’t volunteer here?” And he goes, “We don’t need people like you.” I left and I was walking down the street crying.

Katayama: So Susan found belonging elsewhere.

Kitazawa: And so I tended that my allies were from a broad range of other people—you know, Latinos, Blacks, poor white people, Filipinos—and I wasn’t that connected with the Japanese American community.

Kitazawa: Kimi Maru had disheartening experiences in her youth, too—only these were outside of the Japanese American community. This led her to connect with her heritage in a different way. 

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Maru: And the reason I started taking aikido, actually, was because of an incident that happened to me when I was going to high school.

Katayama: Aikido is a traditional Japanese martial art with a focus on defense and sparing attackers from injury. 

Maru: One of my classmates, this white guy who was much larger than me, grabbed me on the wrist and wouldn’t let go. He was, you know, insulting me, saying I don’t even remember what, but it was just a really humiliating experience. And the fact that I couldn’t break free from him, after that I decided I wanted to take self-defense, because I didn’t want anything like that to happen to me again. 

Katayama: Aikido wasn’t the only sport that allowed descendants to carve out a space for themselves. 

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Katayama: Some turned to activities like baseball or basketball to connect with other Japanese American kids. Kimi’s children played in these basketball leagues competitively.  

Maru: When they were young, like five or six, they both got involved in the Japanese American basketball organizations down here. JA basketball is a really big thing down here. I mean, it’s a huge thing. That was a way that they were able to meet a lot of Japanese American friends, because their teammates were primarily Japanese. I think that helped them learn more about not just JA basketball, but just being part of a community of people. 

Katayama: Here’s Rev. Michael Yoshii again, who also found community through church sports leagues. 

Yoshii: We had a team at our church, and then we played against teams from other churches and Buddhist temples in the East Bay Area. So then I was starting to meet kids from other places in the East Bay and other churches, and then experiencing this whole dynamic of the whole community of Japanese Americans.

Katayama: It was actually through basketball that Alan Miyatake, a Sansei whose family was incarcerated at Manzanar, was able to create an identity separate from his famous family. This fame stemmed from Miyatake Studios, a photography studio founded by Alan’s grandfather, Toyo, prior to World War II. 

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Katayama: Toyo was beloved in the Japanese American community in the Los Angeles area, and eventually became the official Manzanar photographer while he was incarcerated there. Toyo reestablished his studio after Manzanar closed, and kept it running for years. Alan now runs things, and the studio has become a multigenerational legacy business. But before Alan took it over, he worked to find his own place. 

Alan Miyatake: During my teen years, being around Little Tokyo, I would always hear, “Oh, you’re Archie’s son,” or, “You’re Toyo’s grandson.” And after a while, it was a little irritating. But it hit me enough to say, “Hey, wait a minute, I’m Alan, I have my own identity.” I started around the third grade in some of these Japanese American leagues. I realized that I felt very confident playing basketball. All of a sudden, my goal was to have my own identity. And I think that’s the role basketball played, was that I want to be known as Alan, a good basketball player. I was able to accomplish that after a few years…

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Miyatake: …like hearing people, “Oh yeah, that’s Alan, he’s a basketball nut.” Once I heard that, I thought, Okay, good. Now, now I feel good. 

Katayama: The meaning of community space varies across generations. And a few years ago it came full circle for Carolyn Iyoya Irving. At the time, her son was attending the East Bay School for Boys, which resides in part of the First Congregational Church in Berkeley.

Irving: He went there for sixth to eighth grade, and it wasn’t until he was in eighth grade that I learned from my cousin that there’s sort of an outside courtyard where the boys would skateboard.

Katayama: Carolyn found out that there was also historical significance to this place. During World War II, when the US government forcibly removed Japanese Americans from the West Coast, that church served as an assembly point for those local families before being sent to the prison camps. 

Irving: And that was evidently where all of the Japanese Americans in Berkeley had to assemble to get on the buses to, to Tanforan. And I didn’t learn that until my son was in eighth grade. And so I remember being like, “Ben, [laughs] you have to talk to your history teacher about this incredible, you know, confluence where you’re here and this is where your own grandmother was, you know, kind of herded into buses and sent off to camps.” And eventually, he actually did incorporate it into what they called their Hero Project, where he had to give a presentation. Which was very touching to me, actually, the fact that, you know, this all happened on the same place.

Katayama: This location, which represented a splintering of the Japanese American community during World War II, has now become a place where Carolyn’s family has been able to make new memories and connections. In effect, her family has been able to reclaim the meaning of this space. 

For many descendents, the desire to connect with their Japanese heritage is part of their ongoing search for belonging. And so travel to Japan can be an important rite of passage. It’s also a way of understanding who their parents and ancestors were, as well as where they came from. 

Ukai: When I went to Santa Cruz and started studying Japanese, I just found, Oh, this brings in the art, and it makes me understand more things about my grandparents and my parents and myself. 

Katayama: Nancy Ukai began to form a deep and lasting relationship with Japan while she was in college at UC Santa Cruz. It felt right for her to explore her heritage through travel.

Ukai: And I ended up going to Japan as an undergraduate. 

Katayama: Nancy also ended up returning to Japan after she graduated from college. She stayed for fourteen years. Here’s Kimi Maru talking about her experience traveling to Japan.

Maru: We had a great time. I mean, it was just like so different being in Japan, being in a country where you feel like you’re the majority, right? Yeah, it was just a completely different type of feeling, like going on the trains and buses and bullet train and things. Just being in a situation where everyone around you is Asian [laughs] or Japanese was just a big culture shock.

Katayama: Kimi wasn’t the only person to experience some form of culture shock. 

Charbonneau: Being an American girl, you know, I talk a lot. And I was an only child, and so I did have a lot of like energy, and that’s not really how the girls I met were. They had a very like calm energy.

Katayama: That’s Miko Charbonneau. 

Charbonneau: It also was the first time I realized that no Japanese person was ever going to think I was Japanese, which is totally different from my experience in America, where essentially no one would think I am Caucasian. [laughs] I was often asked, “Where are you from?” And like, “Are you from Alaska?” And in Japan, you know, we would go somewhere and very politely in English someone would say, “Do you have an ancestor that is maybe Japanese?” And I didn’t know how to explain the whole hierarchy, so I would just say, “My grandmother is Japanese.” And they would say, “Ah, because you look like you are a little bit, like you could be from Japan.” And I was just like, “Mm-hmm.” I did—definitely did not know how to explain like what it meant to be Yonsei and what it meant to be hapa [laughs] and everything.

Katayama: Lori Matsumura first visited Japan when she was thirteen years old. She also felt like she stood out. 

Matsumura: When we went to visit some of the shrines in Kyoto, school was in session, and when the kids from Japan would see me, I’m sure they had an idea I was Japanese, but I wasn’t Japanese from Japan. I know some of them would point and laugh, because I realized I had nail polish. Things like that aren’t done with the kids at school, they’re not allowed to have that or have their hair done a certain way or wear certain things. I think someone came up to me and started speaking Japanese. I don’t know Japanese, so I just stood there. The way they looked at me was so shameful, I thought, Oh gosh, this is just not good. [laughs]

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Katayama: People like Carolyn Iyoya Irving found that in Japan, there was still a disconnect between being Japanese and being Japanese American.

Irving: When I went back to teach English there after college, almost like having a feeling of disappointment among these little elementary school kids, because they were getting this American teacher, and I think they really expected somebody white. And so it was almost like I was the budget version [laughs] or something or the discount, you know, because like, Wait, where is our American? Eventually they all warmed to me. So that was a double education for them that, you know, there are these people in America that actually look like you, but who are American. But it’s hard for people to get their brains around. 

Katayama: When Ruth Sasaki lived in Japan, she felt like she had a foot in two worlds.  

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Sasaki: I always kind of kid that when I’m in America I feel more Japanese than American, and when I’m in Japan I feel more American than Japanese.

Katayama: Nancy Ukai reflects on the reason for this disconnection.

Ukai: Well, I think all foreigners in Japan are outsiders. That’s why they’re called gaijin: “gai” is outside and “jin” is person. You’re an outside person. In Japan, you racially belong even though culturally you don’t. 

Charbonneau: I think it just further made me feel like there’s not really going to be anyone I can meet or any one place where I’m like completely belonging. 

Katayama: That was Miko Charbonneau again. Despite these cultural differences—or maybe even because of them—it remains important for many descendants to share this experience in an ancestral homeland with younger generations. Here’s Peggy Takahashi, a Sansei whose family was incarcerated at Manzanar, talking about moving to Japan when her daughter was young.

Peggy Takahashi: Sami was nine at the time. Nine and ten is a crucial age for language acquisition. I grew up, my first language was Japanese, so I can speak Japanese without an accent. She still has a slight accent, but her Japanese is pretty darn good, and that’s a big reason why I decided I wanted to go then.

Katayama: Indeed, Kimi Maru remembers how much her teenage son enjoyed traveling to Japan.

Maru: He actually picked up quite a bit of Japanese. When we were traveling around, he was much more able to ask questions, order food…

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Maru: …speak and converse with people much more comfortably than myself or my daughter. For him, it was really a good experience.

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Vox pop:

M. Takahashi: Food plays a very central role in my life.

Maru: My grandmother used to make a lot of tempura at New Year’s, tempura and sushi. 

Matsumura: On New Year’s Day, my grandmother would prepare a very nice Japanese meal.

Miyatake: I will always remember eating hot noodles at my grandmother’s house.

Sasaki: We would drink ozoni, the New Year’s soup, with mochi.

Mukai: My mother made makizushi, a type of sushi where the seasoned rice contains little pieces of vegetables and egg, a Japanese gourd.

Matsumura: She’d make me drink sake for luck, and we’d have the long noodles.

Maru: There are specific foods, like these black beans, and daikon and carrot salad called namasu. 

Miyatake: It was always kind of a mixture of American and Japanese dishes.

Wakatsuki-Chong: I didn’t grow up eating any Japanese food. 

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Katayama: Food isn’t just about food. It’s also about identity, belonging, and heritage. For Japanese Americans still working to rebuild community spaces and organizations in the aftermath of World War II incarceration, food—particularly during the holidays—remained an important way to pass on traditions to younger generations. New Year’s is a holiday that is especially important for many Japanese Americans. Here’s Roy Hirabayashi talking about cooking with his mother in preparation for the day.

Hirabayashi: The New Year’s, naturally, was a big event for family gathering. There were different foods that were made during that time. You know, she would spend days laboring over making them. Those were all traditions that she really valued and felt was really important for us all to do.

Katayama: Preparing this food was a way for Roy’s mother to connect with her own family. 

Hirabayashi: Between my mom and my aunt, they would be making all the different foods for the dinner. And it was all the more traditional things, the sushi and whatever, but there was also the different specialty Japanese foods that’s really more for good luck and longevity and wealth and whatever else. 

Katayama: While Roy once watched his mom and aunt cook during the holidays, he and his sisters later learned to make traditional foods themselves once the older generation slowed down. 

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Hirabayashi: My sisters and I actually started to try to learn some of that as best as possible. And when my mother and my auntie were getting older, they were saying, well, it’s just really hard for them to kind of do that. It was decided that within the cousins that we would rotate every year to host the New Year’s dinner, basically, so my aunt and my mom wouldn’t have to do that. And in that rotation every year, we would be responsible for one special Japanese dish that we had to prepare, so we would learn how to do that and be part of it. That was for us to really try to keep the, uh, sense of family and tradition going.

Maru: Well, New Year’s was always the big one, my favorite, because of all the food. [laughs] 

Katayama: That was Kimi Maru. She learned to cook Japanese food from her elders, because her mother didn’t cook those dishes.

Maru: My grandmothers on both sides of the family were really good cooks. My grandmother on my dad’s side used to do a huge New Year’s spread, and so I used to go over to help her prepare the food like a couple days in advance, help her cook. And actually, she’s the one that taught me a lot of Japanese cooking, I learned from her. But I’m glad that I learned from my grandmother, because otherwise I wouldn’t have learned it from my mom. [laughs] She taught me how to do a lot of other things, like baking and cooking, but not so much Japanese food.

Katayama: Peggy Takahashi grew up eating traditional Japanese food. Her mom went to culinary school in Japan, and used those techniques all her life. 

M. Takahashi: My mom made dashi the old-fashioned way, you know, big hunk of dried bonito. Relatives from Japan would send her dried kelp, the kombu, and she would make dashi.

Katayama: Jean Hibino, a Sansei whose family was incarcerated at Topaz, reflects on how her mother made a cultural connection to Japan through food when she lived there for a few years as a child. 

Jean Hibino: That helped her more ground herself in who she was as a Japanese and an American. She was very conscious about Japanese foods and telling us what they were, what you were eating. 

Katayama: Hans Goto learned to make a traditional dish when he lived in a rural Japanese village while studying aikido. Hans’s aikido teacher taught him and the other students to make a regionally-specific recipe that Hans still makes today. 

Goto: The one dish I feel relatively comfortable doing is gyoza. So Japanese gyoza is like pot stickers. And so my teacher and his family had a very specific way of making it. There’s a lot more garlic, a lot more white pepper in it, a lot of garlic chives in it. You know, we’d make hundreds, hundreds at a time. And then all the students would come in, which would be like, Where did everybody come from? And so we’d make this stuff, and my teacher would put it on an open fire. So he had this big, large, steel plate, and then we’d pour oil on it and then put the gyoza on it. And everybody, when it’s done, picked it up and eat it. It’s a treat. 

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Katayama: But sharing food doesn’t have to be about one thing. It can blend flavors, traditions, and ethnic backgrounds. That mix can reveal multiple cultural identities. For Jennifer Mariko Neuwalder, holiday meals were about celebrating these identities.

Neuwalder: Christmas was the best, because we’d have this big party. We’d have like all the Jews and the couple of Japanese people we knew and just agnostics. My parents had an Italian American housekeeper who worked for them. Christmas we’d have a big antipasto, we’d have a fabulous lasagna, turkey and ham and a big plate of sushi. And [laughs] we’d have Mozartkugeln, which are these chocolates from Vienna. Meals in my family, we might have Wienerschnitzel one night, a very Italian green bean salad with olive oil and vinegar, and minestrone soup, and then the next night we might have chicken teriyaki with, you know, rice. Various members of my family went through periods of only using chopsticks. 

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Katayama: Like Jennifer, Hanako Wakatsuki-Chong explores her multiple ethnic identities through food.   

Wakatsuki-Chong: I didn’t grow up eating any Japanese food. My dad wanted more Mexican food. A lot of the food my grandmother made when I was younger was either like Mexican food, I guess I’ll just call it generic white American food, was like, you know, eggs and stuff like that. I feel more culturally Korean. Like when I’m sick, I want Korean food. When I think about home cooked meals, it’s Korean food. And it was only recently, in the last fifteen years or so, I’ve been exploring my Japanese American identity.

Katayama: Though Peggy Takahashi did grow up eating traditional Japanese meals, her mother also prepared dishes from different cultures.  

M. Takahashi: When I was growing up, she cooked Japanese food. My dad liked more Western food, so she cooked that. She learned how to cook Mexican food from a lady nearby, carne asada.

Katayama: Ruth Sasaki’s family meals also weren’t limited to Japanese food. Over the years, her parents adopted more contemporary American fare.

Sasaki: I think in the old days there were more traditional Japanese dishes, things like the black beans. Over the years we would incorporate things like Chinese chicken salad and tabouli and lemon meringue pie, chicken nuggets, you know, [laughs] whatever.

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Katayama: Though eating dishes from a variety of cultures is common for many Americans—not just descendants—it meant something different for Hanako. For her, it’s reminiscent of the aftermath of World War II incarceration and signifies a disconnection from her Japanese American heritage. 

Wakatsuki-Chong: I think that loss of identity and culture, like on the food aspects and the language aspects and then just in the general self-identity, is part of the generational trauma that I experience.

Katayama: But for others, like Nancy Ukai, sharing Japanese American traditions through food was a source of pride. 

Ukai: I remember once going to a church picnic, which was traditional for that time in the sixties, when it mimicked a Japanese tradition of having an athletic day. And families would all come, bring a blanket, and bring out this amazing spread of Japanese American food. And I remember bringing my fourth grade friend, and her saying, “This is the best food I’ve ever had in my life.” And I was so proud.

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Katayama: Thanks for listening to “‘From Generation to Generation’: The Legacy of Japanese American Incarceration” and The Berkeley Remix

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Katayama: Join us next time for more on creative expression, healing, and memorialization of Japanese American incarceration.

This episode features interviews from the Oral History Center’s Japanese American Intergenerational Narratives Oral History Project, and includes clips from: Miko Charbonneau, Hans Goto, Jean Hibino, Roy Hirabayashi, Carolyn Iyoya Irving, Susan Kitazawa, Kimi Maru, Lori Matsumura, Alan Miyatake, Jennifer Mariko Neuwalder, Ruth Sasaki, Steven Shigeto Sindlinger, Masako Takahashi, Peggy Takahashi, Nancy Ukai, Hanako Wakatsuki-Chong, and Rev. Michael Yoshii. Music from Blue Dot Sessions. This episode was produced by Rose Khor, Roger Eardley-Pryor, Shanna Farrell, and Amanda Tewes. Thank you to the National Park Service’s Japanese American Confinement Sites Grant for funding this project. To learn more about these interviews, visit the Oral History Center’s website listed in the show notes. I’m your host, Devin Katayama. Thanks for listening, and I’ll talk to you next time!

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END OF EPISODE




The Berkeley Remix Season 8, Episode 4: “‘Origami as Metaphor’: Creative Expression, Memorialization, and Healing” 

In this episode, we explore creative expression, healing,
and the memorialization of Japanese American incarceration. 

This graphic illustration depicts a large wave and guard tower behind barbed wire with text above that reads, "Episode 4: Origami as Metaphor"
The Berkeley Remix Season 8 Podcast Image for “Episode 4: Origami as Metaphor.”

It is clear that stories about World War II incarceration matter. Some descendants embrace art and public memorialization about incarceration history as not only means of personal creative expression and honoring the experiences of their ancestors, but also as avenues to work through the intergenerational impact of this incarceration. Stories shared through art and public memorialization help people both inside and outside of the Japanese American community learn about the past so they have the tools to confront the present. Others seek healing from this collective trauma by going on pilgrimage to the sites of incarceration themselves, reclaiming the narrative of these places. 

In season 8 of The Berkeley Remix, a podcast of the Oral History Center at UC Berkeley, we are highlighting interviews from the Japanese American Intergenerational Narratives Oral History Project. The OHC team interviewed twenty-three survivors and descendants of two World War II-era sites of incarceration: Manzanar in California and Topaz in Utah. This four-part series includes clips from these interviews, which were recorded remotely via Zoom. Using healing as a throughline, these life history interviews explore identity, community, creative expression, and the stories family members passed down about how incarceration shaped their lives. 

This season features interview clips from the Japanese American Intergenerational Narratives Oral History Project. This episode includes clips from: Miko Charbonneau, Bruce Embrey, Hans Goto, Patrick Hayashi, Jean Hibino, Mitchell Higa, Roy Hirabayashi, Carolyn Iyoya Irving, Susan Kitazawa, Ron Kuramoto, Kimi Maru, Lori Matsumura, Jennifer Mariko Neuwalder, Ruth Sasaki, Masako Takahashi, Nancy Ukai, Hanako Wakatsuki-Chong, and Rev. Michael Yoshii. Additional audio of taiko drums from Roy Hirabayashi. To learn more about these interviews, visit the Oral History Center’s website.

Produced by Rose Khor, Roger Eardley-Pryor, Shanna Farrell, and Amanda Tewes. Narration by Devin Katayama. The taiko and shinobue songs “Taiko Fue Intro” and “Celebration” were composed and performed by PJ and Roy Hirabayashi. Original theme music by Paul Burnett. Additional music from Blue Dot Sessions. Album artwork by Emily Ehlen. A special thanks to the National Park Service’s Japanese American Confinement Sites Grant for funding this project.

The views and conclusions contained in this document are those of the authors and should not be interpreted as representing the opinions or policies of the U.S. Government. Mention of trade names or commercial products does not constitute their endorsement by the U.S. Government.

 

LISTEN TO EPISODE 4 ON SOUNDCLOUD

 

PODCAST TRANSCRIPT: “‘Origami as Metaphor’: Creative Expression, Memorialization, and Healing”

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Ruth Sasaki: Well, the first story I ever tried writing based on Japanese American experience was in 1974, and I had no success getting that published. [laughs] Um, and I guess I just really wanted to, you know, try to bring that experience into the fabric of American literature, because it was missing, really. Anytime I saw a Japanese American character in fiction, which was not at all often, I felt really sensitive about how that character was portrayed, and so I was tired of feeling like a ghost [laughs] in my own country and I thought, you know, It’s time that I opened up—and we, artists and writers, opened up our world and invited other people in.

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Devin Katayama: Welcome to The Berkeley Remix, a podcast from the Oral History Center at the University of California, Berkeley. The Center was founded in 1953, and records and preserves the history of California, the nation, and our interconnected world. You’re listening to our eighth season, “‘From Generation to Generation’: The Legacy of Japanese American Incarceration.” I’m your host, Devin Katayama. 

This season on The Berkeley Remix, we’re highlighting interviews from the Japanese American Intergenerational Narratives Oral History Project. The OHC team interviewed twenty-three survivors and descendants of World War II-era sites of incarceration at Manzanar in California and Topaz in Utah. In this four-part series, you’ll hear clips from these interviews, which were recorded remotely via Zoom. These life history interviews explore identity, community, creative expression, and the stories family members have passed down about how incarceration shaped their lives. 

As a heads up, generational names for Japanese Americans are going to be important in this  series. Issei refers to the first generation of Japanese immigrants to the United States. Nisei are the second generation, Sansei the third, Yonsei the fourth, and Gosei the fifth. Just think about counting to five in Japanese: ichi, ni, san, shi, go.

This is episode 4, “‘Origami as Metaphor’: Creative Expression, Memorialization, and Healing.”

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Katayama: Art is many things. It can be a form of creative expression, a reflection on culture, and an avenue to invite people into your innermost self. For some Japanese Americans, art has also been a way to work through the intergenerational impact of World War II incarceration and Asian American identity. In recent years, this has been true for multimedia artist Masako Takahashi.

Masako Takahashi: I realize all these things that I’ve been looking at, expressing myself through as mediums to use, have been Japanese. I’m looking at Japanese traditions. 

Katayama: Masako is a Sansei born in Topaz, and through this work, she discovered she was more affected by Japanese culture and art than she suspected.

M. Takahashi: I have realized that I’m more Japanese than I thought. [laughs] See, before, I would’ve just said I’m American. But now I realize I’m much more Japanese than I realized. Why deny it? Why fight it? [laughs]

Katayama: For Susan Kitazawa, a Sansei whose family was incarcerated at Manzanar, the act of making art is therapeutic in and of itself. 

Susan Kitazawa: My creative stuff, my writing and my visual, tactile art, I have absolutely no need to market it, sell it. I do a lot of it for just the process of self-discovery and self-healing. 

Katayama: Ruth Sasaki, a Sansei descendant of Topaz, found that writing was her way of processing personal experience. 

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Sasaki: It’s very cathartic. When I came back from Japan in 1984, I felt very isolated, because people weren’t really interested in what I’d been doing for seven years. I didn’t feel there was anyone I could really share it with, and so being able to write about some of that was very good for me. It was like therapy, really, and kind of exploring it to see what it meant to me. I sometimes joke that something hasn’t happened until I’ve written about it.

Katayama: Though creative expression is often deeply personal, some artists want to share their work with the world. 

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Katayama: But this can bring complications, too. 

Sasaki: After The Loom was published, my mom—she’s amazing, you know, because I know that that story really was hard for her to take, you know? [laughs] And I tried to explain it’s a tribute to Nisei women of that generation, but I also understood that the little details along the way sometimes, you know, [laughs] can be very painful. She really came around to being very supportive, to the extent that she would carry flyers from my book around in her purse in case she ran into, you know, somebody, and then she would like give out flyers. So It turned out okay. There’s still a question, I think, with my sisters.

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Roy Hirabayashi: Taiko is basically the word for the Japanese drum. Uh, it’s a generic word for all the Japanese drums.

Katayama: That’s Roy Hirabayashi, a Nisei whose family was incarcerated at Topaz. 

Hirabayashi: If you would go to most temples, you would see a drum sitting in the altar area, and it was used to accompany the chanting and the services and the celebration. During Obon, the summer festival, the taiko is accompanying the dancing and the singing that was going on.

Katayama: Performance art, like taiko, can be a way to bring a community together. Traditionally a very Japanese artform with only a handful of drumming groups in California, Roy founded the San José chapter. The sound the group created was different from a lot of other groups.

Hirabayashi: Most of the friends had some kind of musical experience, you know, uh, they were coming from more of the jazz, Latin, Afro-Cuban background. They were coming in with, you know, polyrhythms, different time signatures. 

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Hirabayashi: We didn’t realize at the time, but very different from what taiko sounded like in Japan. That, to me, was what created the San José taiko sound, because we were creating what we felt, without knowing, but just creating our own sound using what we called the Japanese drum. And so we felt we were establishing pretty much early on that we’re an Asian American sound, using what we’ve called our version of the Japanese drum, the taiko.

Katayama: Roy and his friends drew inspiration from listening to the music that they grew up with in the San Francisco Bay Area in order to form their own style of taiko. 

Hirabayashi: Growing up musically, I didn’t listen to Japanese music. My influence in growing up was, you know, naturally what we heard in the Bay Area. The Bay Area just has every opportunity of music you could ever want to hear, it’s just all here, and so that was just a big advantage for us. When taiko started and people started to get interested and wanting to actually listen to it and follow it, to me it really became that voice for the community and knowing that we could use the instrument to really help bring people together.

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Katayama: Origami is the traditional Japanese artform of folding paper. Descendants like Jennifer Mariko Neuwalder, a Sansei whose family was incarcerated at Topaz, found creative release through origami. 

Jennifer Mariko Neuwalder: I did a ton of origami as a kid, a ton. I’ve been thinking about how important of an experience that was for me, because it was a connection with the Japanese side of things.

Katayama: Jennifer used origami in her professional life, too. 

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Neuwalder: When I was first starting to work as a child and adolescent psychiatrist, I thought about writing a paper about origami as metaphor, because the kids I would see would have a lot of trauma, because I was working with children who had been hospitalized. And I liked the idea of a piece of paper, let’s say you crumple a piece of paper, you can still flatten it out, you can use it to make something beautiful, but you can’t undo those folds, you’ll still see evidence of them. But you can still make something beautiful. 

Katayama: For many descendants who turn to art to process their heritage, it’s a meditation on intergenerational legacy. Masako Takahashi’s 2004 installation Generaciones/Generations explores these themes. Imagine silk kimonos of various sizes interwoven with the artist’s hair and hanging side by side, the sleeves delicately touching—almost like a family holding hands.

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M. Takahashi: And that is to imply the passing along of something from generation to generation. Something Japanese is being passed along, because I guess that’s how I felt with my father’s death. It’s hard to put in words, but I have some of that legacy.

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Katayama: Having space to process grief can be a vital tool for healing. For some survivors and descendants, incarceration only represents one moment in time of Japanese American history. Some Japanese Americans feel like their stories have been reduced to a single narrative, fixed in time. Here’s Ruth Sasaki describing how difficult it can be to escape from this history. 

Sasaki: I felt that anytime anybody wanted me to speak, they always wanted me to speak about the incarceration. After the war stories got zero interest. Anytime it’s a Japanese American story, you expect the incarceration to figure into it somehow. And to me, that was so limiting. I mean, I thought it was important, but I personally never wanted to tell that story because I didn’t think it was my story to tell. I wasn’t there, you know? And I was so cautious, I guess, about misrepresenting something I didn’t fully understand. 

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Katayama: For people like Patrick Hayashi, a Sansei who was born in Topaz, public memorialization was a way for him to engage with this deeply personal past. 

Patrick Hayashi: In the late eighties, there was an art exhibit called The View From Within of art that was produced in the camps. I had zero interest in art, but I went there. I felt really uncomfortable in museums, because I hadn’t grown up going to museums. But as soon as I went in there and I started looking at the paintings, I started to choke up. It was astonishing, because I’d never responded to any art, and, and something was happening internally.

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Katayama: One of the pieces in the show featured James Hatsuaki Wakasa, the Issei man who was murdered by a camp sentry at Topaz in 1943. 

Hayashi: The fourth painting I saw was Chiura Obata’s sumi-e sketch of James Wakasa falling over after he was shot, and I started to sob. And then it was terribly embarrassing, but everyone around me, who was mainly Nisei, they were crying, too. That’s when I started revisiting the camps.

Katayama: Susan Kitazawa’s father, who was incarcerated at Manzanar, also had an emotional experience while visiting a show about incarceration at the Smithsonian.

Kitazawa: And my father walked through, and he, he said it was really quiet, and all you could hear was a lot of people crying quietly. He said, “As I walked through, I became more and more enraged. Like, How could they do this to these people? This is so unjust, this is so wrong, this is just absolutely stupid. I just found myself being enraged and furious, that: how could the government do this to these people?” All of a sudden he thought, Oh, I was one of the people. Um, he said, “It just hit me like, Oh, this was done to me and Mom and my parents.” He didn’t use this language, but basically he just said he had disassociated himself from the experience. He later told me that instead of the rage he felt that evening walking through the exhibit or that afternoon, he said, “I always felt ashamed. I was like an ex-convict. I had been incarcerated. And partly why I didn’t talk about it was because I didn’t want you kids to think of me as an ex-convict.” Which just blew my mind. 

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Kitazawa: And I said, “Yeah, you did something really wrong, Papa. You were born into a Japanese American body. That was your crime.”

Katayama: These public memorializations can be emotional for descendants, too. Carolyn Iyoya Irving, a Sansei whose family was incarcerated at Topaz, remembers visiting the Oakland Museum of California. They had just renovated their exhibition on state history to include World War II incarceration.  

Carolyn Iyoya Irving: My husband had gone off to another section and just kind of let me go through this exhibit by myself. I always end up getting so affected, you know, and emotionally quite moved. I think a lot of it is, frankly, anger. And so I was kind of moving out of the exhibit and just kind of being there, [laughs] and then I noticed this person next to me, and it was this very well-meaning, older, white woman. I don’t know how she automatically assumed that I was necessarily a Japanese American person, but she just kind of came up to me, and I think she even put her hand on me and said something like, “Oh, you know, we all hurt about this,” or, “We all feel the pain around this.” I was aghast, like I just, I didn’t even know really how to respond. I mean, obviously, you know, I wanted to be kind of civil, but I think I, I was first a little bit shocked, and secondly, you know, felt like my space had sort of been invaded. It stuck with me. Kind of just shut all that off [laughs] and didn’t engage at all.

Katayama: For other descendants, public memorialization is a way to reclaim the narrative about incarceration. 

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Katayama: Nancy Ukai, a Sansei descendant of Topaz, has taken this to heart. She created the online 50 Objects Project as a vehicle to share stories based on heirlooms from incarceration. 

Nancy Ukai: Going through their belongings—this is true of many people of my age—we Sansei find all of these things about World War II that our parents kept, but we didn’t ask about them. Letters, photo albums. We didn’t know they existed. And so that’s excavated a whole lot of memories, questions, and regret that you didn’t talk to them more, because now you can’t ask people. So material things are sometimes the only thing we have left, and they’re silent, and so with our project what we’re trying to do is coax out those voices the best we can.

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Katayama: But the public display of material culture related to incarceration can also be a source of deep pain, rather than healing. It can bring up all kinds of questions like: who owns art? Whose story is it to tell? Nancy confronted these questions in 2015. 

Ukai: It was the New York Times arts blog newspaper. The headline was something like “Japanese internment art goes to auction,” and there was a watercolor shown. Basically the narrative was: there’s going to be an auction next month in New Jersey by the Rago Arts Company, and material like this rarely comes on the market. And they explained there were going to be barracks signs and paintings and so on and so forth. 

Katayama: This didn’t sit well with Nancy. 

Ukai: Anyhow, I didn’t know all that at the time, but was just thinking, An auction? This is going to be really a historic effort. And now look at all the things that are online, and look at the prices that they’ve assigned to them, because they have an estimate, a starting bid. So maybe the start is like $300, but they expect it to sell for $1,000. And that just, to me, was obscene. It was gross.

Katayama: In the spring of 2021, Nancy discovered that something similar was happening to Lori Matsumura, a Sansei whose family was incarcerated at Manzanar. Nancy found a listing on eBay and contacted Lori.   

Lori Matsumura: So out of the blue, she contacts me and says, “Are these your dad’s drawings?” She directed me to the eBay website, and I was looking through these items, and it was signed by Matsumura. I’m like, “Well yeah, but why is it on eBay?” 

Katayama: Lori and Nancy met with the representatives from eBay to try to get these items removed from auction. They were also concerned about this happening again, and wanted assurance that items like this wouldn’t come up for sale in the future. 

Matsumura: And I introduce myself and I tell them, “You know, I believe those are my dad’s artwork. I don’t think they should be sold on eBay without the consent of his family.” And they took ’em down. 

Katayama: While Lori was relieved that eBay removed the items for sale, it really got her thinking.

Matsumura: How did this happen? It just made me angry to have our family’s things in the hands of someone else. 

Katayama: Lori felt that it should be up to her family, that it should be their choice about whether or not to sell her father’s artwork from when he was incarcerated. 

Matsumura: If you have these things that your family made while they were being a prisoner, these things are a part of their life at a time when it was hard. 

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Matsumura: So this is, you know, family artifacts that you’re not going to find anywhere, and to know that your ancestors, who did all this during that time, I just can’t imagine selling it. I think it’s worth more than money.

Katayama: For Nancy, it wasn’t just about the price tags, it was the fact of the auction itself. 

Ukai: These are things borne of tragedy, the loss of humanity, freedom, civil rights. Family members died. People were so traumatized, many people never talked about it. Um, and so to see these belongings, which managed to survive, be priced and sold in this coldblooded, capitalistic auction platform just felt extremely dehumanizing and a great, big insult. 

Katayama: Remember that Rago auction back in 2015? Unlike the conversations with eBay representatives, this time Nancy took her case to the court of public opinion. She and her daughter created a Facebook page a week before the auction to inform people about the sale. 

Ukai: We called it “Japanese American History: NOT For Sale.” That took off immediately, because the idea was that you would, first of all, let people know that there’s an auction. Then you have to kind of educate people: why is this wrong? What are these things? Let’s humanize these things. These represent human lives. Why is it wrong, you know, to put a price on that, and to have this happen without our input? Let’s pause this. Let’s stop this.

Soundbed: instrumental music fades out. 

Katayama: The response to “Japanese American History: NOT for Sale” was overwhelming.

Ukai: So I have, actually, a binder with all of those comments, and it’s powerful. There were a lot of people who were saying, “You know, I’m a Holocaust survivor. I oppose this,” or from an Indigenous person, “We understand completely. Stop the desecration of our property.” So it just was, um, really a very moving thing. At any rate, two days before the auction, they had one of these promotional events. Rago stood up and basically said, “We’ve decided to suspend the auction.” That was two days before.

Katayama: Nancy still thinks about why this auction was so important, and the larger implications of commodifying artifacts related to incarceration.

Ukai: World War II camp artifacts carry these memories. Selling them for a price, it just feels really painful and offensive to see people bidding on something and then bidding it up. Um, but we live in a, you know, capitalist culture, and everybody thinks everything’s for sale and everything has a price. 

Katayama: Memorialization is not just about descendants honoring the struggles of their ancestors, but also about teaching younger generations about this history. 

Soundbed: instrumental music fades in. 

Katayama: Hanako Wakatsuki-Chong is a Gosei whose family was incarcerated at Manzanar. Her great aunt, Jeanne Wakatsuki Houston, wrote Farewell to Manzanar. The book—and then later the film—became important ways for the American public to engage with incarceration history. 

Hanako Wakatsuki-Chong: The book was a healing process for her. She never said it in these terms, but this is how I view it, is that: I think she sees it as her responsibility to kind of take on this burden of emotional baggage to help educate people about it.

Katayama: Bruce Embrey, a Sansei whose family was also incarcerated at Manzanar, agrees.

Bruce Embrey: You cannot ignore Farewell to Manzanar, which had a huge impact. I mean, it was a big deal. 

Soundbed: instrumental music fades out. 

Katayama: This dedication to educating future generations about incarceration history is just one reason why many descendants watch conversations about book banning so closely.

Ron Kuramoto: Muskego is a small school district that has one high school. There were a couple of school board members that were recently elected, uh, who were much more conservative than in the past. One of them that was elected last April, uh, ran on the slogan of, “Critical thinking, not critical race theory.” So you can imagine what their perspective on the world was. 

Katayama: That’s Ron Kuramoto, a Sansei whose mother was incarcerated at Manzanar. He lives in Wisconsin. 

Kuramoto: There were about thirty books that were up for review. The majority of them were like science books, math books, third-grade reading, things like that. All of them passed almost without question. But this one novel, which focused in on the Japanese American incarceration experience, caught their attention—of those board members. These board members felt that it was unbalanced because they were only told from the perspective of Japanese Americans, not from the US government, whatever that means.   

Katayama: The book that Ron’s talking about is When the Emperor Was Divine by Julie Otsuka. 

The school board decided to delay the decision for another year so that the book wasn’t banned entirely—at least for now. Ron’s story indicates how controversial the history of Japanese American incarceration remains—even today.

Soundbed: instrumental music fades in. 

Katayama: Another way of educating the public about incarceration involves the sites themselves—either preserving or reconstructing the cultural landscape there. This is how Mitchell Higa, a Sansei, found himself part of the National Park Service’s public archaeology project at Manzanar.

Mitchell Higa: My father was contacted by NPS, because his barrack was within the demonstration block at Manzanar. NPS was surveying survivors from camp, and it came up that my father had excavated his own personal basement under the barrack. So my father drew a plan view with dimensions. The archaeologists were able to scale off and figure out, measure out the approximate location of my dad’s basement. So when I got there, excavation had already begun. It was a great experience. I had a lot of time to think about, try to put myself into the mindset of my fourteen-, fifteen-year-old and dad digging his basement and hanging out with his friends in that basement, and kind of what everyday life was like at camp.

Katayama: Education and memorialization can also mean reclaiming the narrative about incarceration. This was at the core of activism around establishing Manzanar as a historic site. A group of dedicated individuals answered this call in 1970. Together, they formed the Manzanar Committee in order to preserve the site and its history. Bruce Embrey’s mother was one of those founding members. 

Soundbed: instrumental music fades out. 

Katayama: Here’s Bruce again, who is the current co-chair of the Manzanar Committee.

Embrey: Its key objectives are twofold: one is to educate the broader American public about what happened at Manzanar and camp in general; and the second was to make sure it becomes a state historic landmark, because it’s hallowed ground. All of that would not have happened without bringing in every stakeholder and without conceiving Manzanar as a site of conscience and as a site of resilience. But I think it’s important to locate this as a struggle over narrative, because this is how you both remember and act. My perspective is there’s a narrative out there that’s really important to get right.

Katayama: Bruce’s mother, Sue Kunitomi Embrey, who was herself incarcerated at Manzanar, also advocated for this narrative.

Embrey: She says, “I want to prepare the next generation and equip them with some skillset or understanding to deal with the inherent racism of the United States.”

Katayama: Stories matter. They help people both inside and outside of the Japanese American community learn about the past so they have the right tools to confront the present. And it’s more than that for some descendants. Here’s Lori Matsumura again. 

Matsumura: I think talking about it and sharing the stories has a lot to do with healing. 

Soundbed: instrumental music fades in. 

Vox pop:

Roger Eardley-Pryor: I want to ask if you think healing is possible.

M. Takahashi: You know, I think the real truth is that there’s such a thing as scars. You could say the wound has healed but left a scar.

Ukai: And so I guess my answer to you would be: truth, accountability, participation in our own history is, I think, a step to healing. 

Neuwalder: And so to me, I think the healing is like trying to help the next generation not experience trauma. 

Jean Hibino: I don’t know if I’m, I’m sure “healing” is a word that I like.

Miko Charbonneau: It’s really hard to heal if you don’t acknowledge it and move on. 

Hibino: I would not say “healing,” but “dealing with.” 

Matsumura: I would love to ask my dad, “Do you forgive? Have you moved on?”

Katayama: Japanese American descendants attempt to heal the scars of incarceration in many ways. Some feel the pull to visit the prison camps themselves, wanting to see where the US government detained their families more than eighty years ago. This act of returning to the sites is a pilgrimage. 

Soundbed: instrumental music fades out. 

Katayama: Even the name implies the deep, almost spiritual connection to place. The journey brings up a variety of emotions. Hanako Wakatsuki-Chong is not only a descendant of Manzanar, but also works to memorialize the history of World War II incarceration. She serves as the National Park Service superintendent of the Hono’uli’uli National Historic Site, an incarceration camp in Hawai’i. She has participated in many pilgrimages over the years, but the journey to Topaz stands out to her.

Wakatsuki-Chong: I don’t know if it was officially a pilgrimage or not, but it’s like, you know, we’re in, um, Salt Lake and then you take a bus out there, you go see the site, go to the museum. And the site is just incredible. I’m not a religious person, but this is the only way I feel like I could actually describe it: it’s like the rapture happened. Things just disappeared, but like you could walk on the paths, because you could kind of still see it delineated, but then like there’s stuff on the ground like pottery or like pennies and stuff like that, like as if people just disappeared. It’s a very eerie sense. It just makes you feel really small, but it’s also haunting at the same time, but then it’s also you’re able to connect with the site. It’s just incredible like being out at that site. [laughs]

Katayama: But not everyone feels this deep connection to the land. Patrick Hayashi was actually born in Topaz.

Hayashi: I thought I would have an epiphany of going home, uh, but none of that happened. Maybe it’s because I was thinking of it in sentimental terms and romanticized terms and political terms, so it didn’t affect me deeply at all.

Katayama: In Ruth Sasaki’s family, there was a divide about whether or not to return to Topaz on pilgrimage. 

Soundbed: instrumental music fades in. 

Sasaki: Well, my sister and I heard of this opportunity to go with a group of, I don’t know, maybe thirty to fifty other Japanese Americans. And so we asked my mom if she wanted to go. She was, I guess, in her eighties then. And her response was, “No.” [laughs] You know, “I have no desire to go back.” Which is fine, you know, that was fine. I understood. 

Katayama: Kimi Maru reflects on why survivors, and even descendants, may not wish to go on pilgrimage. 

Maru: For people who were in camp, who were there, it’s very, um—you know, it’s emotional for them to be back there to see, you know, where they lived for three, four years. You feel sadness, sorrow, but you also feel a lot of anger and kind of like you want to express your opposition to what happened, how wrong it was. 

Katayama: And yet, for others, these heightened emotions are really important, because they lead to a kind of catharsis. Here’s Hans Goto, a Sansei whose family was incarcerated first at Manzanar and later at Topaz. In visiting Manzanar, he explains:

Goto: I think that revelation part was like, Oh, there was actually a physical place. This is where my parents were. This is where my family was.

Soundbed: instrumental music fades out. 

Katayama: Mitchell Higa also finds it important to retrace his family’s footsteps by going on pilgrimage.

Higa: Everything becomes meaningful and not abstract. This helps me develop my gratitude and appreciation for the suffering, sacrifices, bravery, the courage to get through camp. So, uh, there’s a lot to pilgrimages of, of why it’s meaningful and important to me.

Ukai: Interestingly, my husband and I went to one Tule Lake pilgrimage, where we took our daughter, who must have been thirty, and she said, “Thank you for inviting me. That was life-changing.” I was quite surprised. Um, she’s biracial, she’s aware of this history, she’s written a little bit about it in high school. But I said, “Why?” She said, “Because everyone was so nice.” I think it was the feeling of being in a community where all the faces are Japanese American, and people were genuinely interested in you, and interested in you as a Yonsei, as going to be the person to pass on the future stories, and there’s just this kind of warmth and safeness to pilgrimages.

Katayama: That was Nancy Ukai. Here’s Hanako Wakatsuki-Chong again, discussing different pilgrimage experiences.

Wakatsuki-Chong: All of them have a different feel. Sometimes people need to just connect with the land, you know, and, and understand: why were these places chosen, or, what is happening on these lands now?

Soundbed: instrumental music fades in. 

Katayama: For some, the land itself holds the memory of what happened there. Susan Kitazawa wanted her father to go on pilgrimage to Manzanar with her. Despite initially being hesitant, he eventually agreed.

Kitazawa: When we got there, my father got out of the car and he was looking over the barbed wire fence into the area where the internment camp was, and he looked really confused. My father was not at this time the tiniest bit demented or Alzheimer’s or anything, his brain was totally sharp until the day he died. And he was standing there looking really confused, when he just said, “Where are all the people?” I thought he meant the tour group that was going to go through the site. And I said, “Oh, Papa, they’re probably over by the main entrance. They’re probably gathering there.” And then that was when he said, “No, but where are all the people that live in the barracks? Where are the barracks?” That was when I realized he was expecting to get out and see the scene he had left when he was in his twenties still going on. I said, “Papa, you and Mom, everybody left a long time ago. They tore the barracks down. Nobody lives here anymore.” And then he was embarrassed and he kind of goes, “Oh, oh, oh. Yeah, right. Of course, of course.” I realized in that moment how traumatized he was, that, you know, in his mind, it was still real, it was still happening. And for him to go back and visit there was just going back to the scene of a terrible, terrible thing.

Katayama: But revisiting a place with such troubled memories also opened the door for Susan’s father to heal.

Soundbed: instrumental music fades out. 

Kitazawa: We joined the tour. We were walking around and the guide would say, “Now, here was such and such.” And then my father would say, “Actually, I think the dining hall was a little bit further that way.” And then he would say something else, like, “There was such and such here.” My father would say, “No, actually, that was da, da, da.” And so after he did that a few times, the young man leading the tour, he goes, “You lived this, sir. Why don’t you lead the tour? Because you know what it was.” My father somewhat hesitantly took the mic and he led the rest of the tour. It was just this incredibly healing experience for him. It was, it was amazing. It was just wonderful for him. I was just so grateful that the Manzanar Pilgrimages exist. 

Katayama: Here’s Hanako again. 

Wakatsuki-Chong: I know we still need to work within the Japanese American communities to talk about it.

Soundbed: instrumental music fades in. 

Wakatsuki-Chong: But it’s finding that balance where you’re not appropriating the history, but you’re providing space for people to connect and process the history within their own families.

Katayama: Processing this past is never a smooth road. So what does healing mean for descendants of incarceration? Is it even possible?

Kitazawa: That’s a good question for a nurse. Um, [laughs] healing, healthcare. I think for us to heal, whether it’s physically or emotionally, it’s like you have to let go and undo the damage and the painful stuff in our bodies. You know, grow new, fresh tissue. Grow new, stronger, more useful ways to think about things. 

Katayama: That was Susan again. Here’s Lori Matsumura.

Matsumura: They say time heals all wounds. But if that wound is deep, there’s going to be a scar. And if you look at that scar, it’s going to bring back those emotions and those feelings. A person has to find a way to deal with it on their own in their own way. 

Katayama: Rev. Michael Yoshii is a Sansei whose family was incarcerated at Topaz. Helping the Japanese American community is part of his spiritual calling.

Michael Yoshii: And for me, what clearly became evident as, as a pastor, as a clergy person, the congregational life is the base of where my healing work would happen. I could do healing work in the community, but the congregational space would be the place where the healing would be effectuated most dynamically for me as a clergy.

Soundbed: instrumental music fades out. 

Katayama: For some, healing means not just honoring their ancestors, but also reclaiming the legacy of incarceration. Here’s Kimi Maru and Bruce Embrey again. 

Maru: I think being involved in a lot of these different issues, not just around the camps itself, but around immigration, around electoral work and all the different things that we’re involved with, trying to right the wrongs or fight for justice and equality, it’s all part of healing. It’s part of preventing it from happening again. And so I think that’s part of being able to heal and to overcome a lot of the, you know, injustices that all people in this country who have faced discrimination, racism, all kinds of inequities. So that’s my message to people, is: get involved. That’s the best way of healing. 

Embrey: My mother always talked about the creation of the site and the role of the pilgrimages as a source of healing a trauma. She talked about healing and she talked about righting injustice and she talked about social change as healing. You heal by righting wrongs and by fighting oppression and gaining your voice. 

Theme song fades in.

Katayama: Thanks for listening to the final episode of “‘From Generation to Generation’: The Legacy of Japanese American Incarceration” and The Berkeley Remix.

This episode features interviews from the Oral History Center’s Japanese American Intergenerational Narratives Oral History Project, and includes interviews from: Miko Charbonneau, Bruce Embrey, Hans Goto, Patrick Hayashi, Jean Hibino, Mitchell Higa, Roy Hirabayashi, Carolyn Iyoya Irving, Susan Kitazawa, Ron Kuramoto, Kimi Maru, Lori Matsumura, Jennifer Mariko Neuwalder, Ruth Sasaki, Masako Takahashi, Nancy Ukai, Hanako Wakatsuki-Chong, and Rev. Michael Yoshii. Music from Blue Dot Sessions. Taiko and shinobue songs were composed and performed by PJ and Roy Hirabayashi. This episode was produced by Rose Khor, Roger Eardley-Pryor, Shanna Farrell, and Amanda Tewes. Thank you to the National Park Service’s Japanese American Confinement Sites Grant for funding this project. To learn more about these interviews, visit the Oral History Center’s website listed in the show notes. I’m your host, Devin Katayama. Thanks for listening!

Theme song fades out.

END OF EPISODE

 


Graphic Narrative Art by Emily Ehlen from OHC’s Japanese American Intergenerational Narratives Oral History Project

Below are ten graphic narrative illustrations created by artist Emily Ehlen that she drew from stories and themes in the Japanese American Intergenerational Narratives Oral History Project, or JAIN project, recorded by the Oral History Center, or OHC.

The OHC’s JAIN project documents and disseminates the ways in which intergenerational trauma and healing occurred after the United States government’s mass incarceration of Japanese Americans during World War II. The OHC team interviewed twenty-three Japanese American survivors and descendants of the World War II incarceration to investigate the impacts of healing and trauma, how this informs collective memory, and how these narratives change across generations. Initial interviews in the JAIN project focused on the Manzanar and Topaz prison camps in California and Utah, respectively. The JAIN project began at the OHC in 2021 with funding from the National Park Service’s Japanese American Confinement Sites Grant. The grant provided for 100 hours of new oral history interviews, as well as funding for a new season of The Berkeley Remix podcast and for Emily Ehlen’s unique artwork below, all based on the JAIN project oral histories.

We encourage you to use and share Emily Ehlen’s artwork, along with the JAIN project oral history interviews, especially in classrooms when teaching the history and legacy of the World War II incarceration of Japanese Americans. When using these images, please credit Emily Ehlen as the artist (for example, Fig. 1, Ehlen, Emily, WAVE, digital art, 2023, Oral History Center, The Bancroft Library, University of California, Berkeley), and see the OHC website for more on permissions when using our oral histories. To save a digital copy of any illustration below for fair use, right click on the image and select “Save Image As…” The text description that accompanies each illustration below aims to provide accessibility for the visually impaired in lieu of Alt-Text limitations, which does not easily accommodate graphic narrative images. In a separate blog post, you can learn more about the artist Emily Ehlen and her processes while creating these dynamic illustrations drawn from the memories and reflections of JAIN oral history narrators.

Artist’s statement

Emily Ehlen’s illustrations for the Japanese American Intergenerational Narratives Oral History Project convey compelling narratives and imagery, with impactful shapes and color, by crafting traditionally and translating images into digital pieces. She uses text and imagery to balance the composition and support storytelling elements. Her work encompasses themes of identity and belonging, intergenerational connections, and healing. The collection navigates the impact and experiences of Japanese American incarceration during World War II and its effects on future generations.

WAVE by Emily Ehlen

Please read the text below this image, which describes this graphic narrative illustration with more detail than Alternative Text allows.

This image titled WAVE consists of two panels. The top panel depicts text that relates to the number of generations of Japanese descents surrounding a family portrait using barbed wires as arrows. The text is in romanized Japanese and kanji. It reads: “Issei,” meaning first generation; “Nisei,” meaning second generation; “Sansei,” meaning third generation; “Yonsei,” meaning fourth generation; and “Gosei,” meaning fifth generation. The bottom panel depicts a large wave and guard tower behind barbed wire with text above that reads, “Your generation is just one part of the wave, and you do your best to build what you can for the next generation in your family.”

 

MANZANAR by Emily Ehlen

Please read the text below this image, which describes this graphic narrative illustration with more detail than Alternative Text allows.

This image titled MANZANAR consists of four different panels. Each panel depicts a part of an incarceration camp and features barbed wire, the American flag, and the buildings in the camp. Above the top panel there is text that reads, “There’s like a sense of yearning and wanting to know more.” In the middle right panel, a woman in a red top layered over a white T-shirt and green pants runs towards the left of the image. The bottom panel depicts the cemetery monument at Manzanar National Historic Site, with Japanese kanji written on top, which reads, “I REI TO,” or “soul consoling tower.” Below the bottom panel there is text that reads, “I feel like my journey goes ever onward.”

 

STORIES by Emily Ehlen

Please read the text below this image, which describes this graphic narrative illustration with more detail than Alternative Text allows.

This image titled STORIES consists of four panels. The top panel depicts a growing boy talking to his mother. An incarceration camp appears behind the mother. Above this top panel, the text reads, “My mom would not speak of things in camp. Maybe she didn’t want to or couldn’t at the time. It wasn’t ’til I was older did she begin telling me stories of camp.” Under this top panel, the text reads, “I got to know more about my mom, about a part of her life when I wasn’t there.” Two middle panels follow, depicting a green puzzle piece and crying eyes behind barbed wire. The text between these panels reads, “The missing piece she kept. The sadness she concealed.” In the bottom panel, tears from the eyes above fall into a plant on the ground that is growing. The text on this panel reads, “Talking about it didn’t make the pain disappear, but letting her experiences come to light brought a place for healing.”

 

TEACHER by Emily Ehlen

Please read the text below this image, which describes this graphic narrative illustration with more detail than Alternative Text allows.

This image titled TEACHER consists of four panels. The top left panel shows a male teacher next to a chalkboard. The text on the chalkboard reads, “In middle school, we were learning about the Holocaust, and our teacher was telling the whole class like, ‘Well, Jewish people were put in camps…'” The top right panel depicts a raised hand with text that reads,  “And I was like, ‘Wait, my grandmother was put in a camp.’ So I raised my hand.” The middle panel depicts a girl sitting at a desk, a male teacher standing, and a large crack between them. On the left of the panel, the girl says, “My grandparents were put in a camp, but they were put in a camp by America.” The text in the large crack reads, “And there was this awkward silence.” The teacher responds, “Well, we didn’t kill people.” The word “kill” has a red strikethrough on it. The bottom panel depicts the girl at the desk alone in the dark. The text reads, “I remember that as the first time I felt like my experience was disparaged or put down, but I was too young to really understand that.” Text on the bottom left indicates these quotations are from Miko Charbonneau’s oral history for the Japanese American Intergenerational Narratives Oral History Project.

 

EUCALYPTUS by Emily Ehlen

Please read the text below this image, which describes this graphic narrative illustration with more detail than Alternative Text allows.

This image titled EUCALYPTUS consists of three panels. The top panel depicts suitcases and boxes of various sizes, and includes text which reads, “When they were all packing to go, my grandfather packed up this box, very carefully, and my mother thought it was, oh, treats or tools, or something—she didn’t know. And she said when they got to camp and opened it up and it was filled with Eucalyptus Leaves.” The words “eucalyptus leaves” are larger than the other words. In the center, the grandfather stands in front of all of the panels with a box of eucalyptus leaves. He is looking down with a sad expression. The bottom panel depicts some eucalyptus leaves as well as barbed wire that mimics the red, white, and blue of an American flag. This panel includes text which reads, “She said, ‘You fool, why did you waste this precious space on this?’ He told her, ‘I thought we may never go back to Berkeley,’ and he loved the fragrance of the Eucalyptus leaves, and they reminded him of the Berkeley he loved. My mother said, ‘I wished I had directed my anger at the U.S. government and not my father, who didn’t know if he’d ever go back to this place that he loved so much.'” Text on the bottom left indicates these quotations are from Nancy Ukai’s oral history for the Japanese American Intergenerational Narratives Oral History Project.

 

SPLASH by Emily Ehlen

Please read the text below this image, which describes this graphic narrative illustration with more detail than Alternative Text allows.

This image titled SPLASH consists of two panels on the top and two on the bottom. The top left panel depicts a younger woman and an older woman in a boat.  Text above the top two panels reads, “The U.S. Government told my mother, ‘It is advisable that you move as far away from California as you can. Stay away from other Japanese. Try to become even more American than you think you are, than you already are.'” The top right panel depicts the two women holding hands and standing in the boat. The text below these panels reads,”‘Just quietly go about your business even though this horribly unconstitutional thing has just happened to you and you’ve suffered all this trauma. But try to be American. Try to fit in.'” The bottom left panel depicts a close-up of the women holding hands above the boat and a ripple in the water. Beneath the hands, the text reads, “We were told, ‘Don’t rock the boat, do not make waves.” Beneath the boat, the text reads, “Nonsense. Let’s go make a Big Splash!” The bottom right panel depicts the two women holding hands and jumping into a sea of waves. Text on the bottom left indicates these quotations are from Jean Hibino’s oral history for the Japanese American Intergenerational Narratives Oral History Project.

 

TOPAZ by Emily Ehlen

Please read the text below this image, which describes this graphic narrative illustration with more detail than Alternative Text allows.

This image titled TOPAZ consists of four panels. The top panel depicts white stars behind barbed wire in red and blue that mimics the American flag, as well as a guard tower. The next panel depicts footsteps with plants sprouting from the final four steps. To the right of the footsteps, a white paper crane rests on soil. Red and blue barbed wire appears in the background. Text at the bottom of this panel reads, “The path we make will help us and others heal.” The bottom two panels depict barbed wire at the top and bottom, which frame a group of people all holding hands walking to the right. The group of people, which includes a range of ages, spans both panels. The individuals have glowing lights over their hearts. Plants sprout from the bottom of this panel.

 

SILENCES by Emily Ehlen

Please read the text below this image, which describes this graphic narrative illustration with more detail than Alternative Text allows.

This image titled SILENCES consists of two panels. In the top panel, a woman cries while framed by red barbed wire. The bottom panel depicts wire cutters snipping the red barbed wire. Text reads, “SNIP!” Beneath the barbed wire is text that reads, “We must find the strength to create change. Gather all of our courage so that their silences can be transformed.” Beneath this text is a scene depicting a man with a child on his shoulders moving toward a woman with open arms. To the right of them are an elderly woman and man. Behind the group of people, there is a large, red circular ensō formed from the barbed wire. Glowing lights also appear in the background.

 

TREE by Emily Ehlen

Please read the text below this image, which describes this graphic narrative illustration with more detail than Alternative Text allows.

This image titled TREE consists of one panel, depicting three women of different generations holding hands in front of a large tree wrapped in red barbed wire and filled with white paper cranes. This image includes text which reads, “‘I liked the idea of a piece of paper, let’s say you crumpled a piece of paper, you can still flatten it out, but you can’t undo those folds, you’ll still see evidence, but you can still make something beautiful.” Text on the bottom left indicates these quotations are from Jennifer Mariko Neuwalder’s oral history for the Japanese American Intergenerational Narratives Oral History Project.

 

FEAST by Emily Ehlen

Please read the text below this image, which describes this graphic narrative illustration with more detail than Alternative Text allows.

This image titled FEAST consists of one panel that depicts a long table that stretches from the left side to the bottom right which loops before reaching four people of different generations eating. The food on the table includes a variety of foods like sushi, lasagna, salad, turkey, and dumplings. Text at the top of the image reads, “‘Well, New Year’s was always the big one, my favorite, because of all the food. And my grandmother on my dad’s side used to do a huge New Year’s spread, and so I used to go over to help her prepare the food a couple days in advance, help her cook. And actually, she’s the one that taught me a lot of Japanese cooking, I learned from her.'” Text on the bottom left of the image reads,, “‘So each of these foods has a certain significance, like one is for good luck, one is for good health, different things like that. And so every year we’d all have to eat at least one bite of each of these things. But I always look forward to New Year’s, because it was a day that you would just basically eat all day.'” Text on the bottom left indicates these quotations are from Kimi Maru’s oral history for the Japanese American Intergenerational Narratives Oral History Project.

Explore the oral history interviews in the Japanese American Intergenerational Narratives Oral History Project, listen to The Berkeley Remix podcast season “’From Generation to Generation’: The Legacy of Japanese American Incarceration,” and discover related resources on the Oral History Center website.

Acknowledgments for the Japanese American Intergenerational Narratives Oral History Project

This project was funded, in part, by a grant from the U.S. Department of the Interior, National Park Service, Japanese American Confinement Sites Grant Program. The views and conclusions contained in this document are those of the authors and should not be interpreted as representing the opinions or policies of the U.S. government. Mention of trade names or commercial products does not constitute their endorsement by the U.S. Government.

This material received federal financial assistance for the preservation and interpretation of U.S. confinement sites where Japanese Americans were detained during World War II. Under Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, and the Age Discrimination Act of 1975, as amended, the U.S. Department of the Interior prohibits discrimination on the basis of race, color, national origin, disability or age in its federally funded assisted projects. If you believe you have been discriminated against in any program, activity, or facility as described above, or if you desire further information, please write to:

Office of Equal Opportunity
National Park Service
1201 Eye Street, NW (2740)
Washington, DC 20005

ABOUT THE ORAL HISTORY CENTER

The Oral History Center of The Bancroft Library preserves voices of people from all walks of life, with varying political perspectives, national origins, and ethnic backgrounds. We are committed to open access and our oral histories and interpretive materials are available online at no cost to scholars and the public. You can find our oral histories from the search feature on our home page. Search by name, keyword, and several other criteria. Sign up for our monthly newsletter  featuring think pieces, new releases, podcasts, Q&As, and everything oral history. Access the most recent articles from our home page or go straight to our blog home.

Please consider making a tax-deductible donation to the Oral History Center if you’d like to see more work like this conducted and made freely available online. The Oral History Center is a predominantly self-funded research unit of The Bancroft Library. As such, we must raise the funds to cover the cost of all the work we do, including each oral history. You can give online, or contact us at ohc@berkeley.edu for more information about our funding needs for present and future projects.


Q&A with Artist Emily Ehlen on Illustrating the OHC’s Japanese American Intergenerational Narratives Oral History Project

Color photograph of Emily Ehlen smiling in the sunshine with her long dark hair covering one shoulder while wearing a floral-printed top
Emily Ehlen graduated from Ringling College of Art and Design and lives in Florida.

For the first time, the Oral History Center, or OHC, partnered with an artist named Emily Ehlen, who created ten graphic narrative illustrations based upon stories and themes recorded in the OHC’s Japanese American Intergenerational Narratives Oral History Project, or JAIN project. The JAIN project documents and disseminates the ways in which intergenerational trauma and healing occurred after the United States government’s mass incarceration of Japanese Americans during World War II.

Colorful graphic art in two panels depicting multiple generations of Japanese Americans and a giant wave behind barbed wire
WAVE by Emily Ehlen

The OHC’s JAIN project documents and disseminates the ways in which intergenerational trauma and healing occurred after the United States government’s mass incarceration of Japanese Americans during World War II. The OHC team interviewed twenty-three Japanese American survivors and descendants of the World War II incarceration to investigate the impacts of healing and trauma, how this informs collective memory, and how these narratives change across generations. Initial interviews in the JAIN project focused on the Manzanar and Topaz prison camps in California and Utah, respectively. The JAIN project began at the OHC in 2021 with funding from the National Park Service’s Japanese American Confinement Sites Grant. The grant provided for 100 hours of new oral history interviews, as well as funding for a new season of The Berkeley Remix podcast and Emily Ehlen’s unique artwork, all based on the JAIN project oral histories.

Below is an interview with Emily Ehlen about her processes in creating such dynamic illustrations drawn from the memories and reflections of JAIN oral history narrators.  You can see and save copies of larger images of Emily’s artwork for the JAIN project in a separate blog post.

Artist Bio:

Emily Ehlen is best known for her colorful and whimsical illustrations using mixed media. Watercolor, ink, spray paint, and gouache are the primary mediums she uses for her traditional works, and she also integrates them in her digital pieces. She loves being positive and expressing her interests while using her surroundings as inspiration. To invoke curiosity and imagination, her drawings reflect an open view of the subject and are framed with pieces of expression and reality. Change and adaptability are a constant as she goes through various experimentations and approaches to her art.

Q&A with artist Emily Ehlen:

Q: What was your process for creating the Japanese American Intergenerational Narratives artwork?

Black and white sketch of a graphic narrative in three panels
Draft version of SILENCES by Emily Ehlen

Emily Ehlen: My process started with selecting powerful imagery and phrases in relation to connecting themes found throughout the oral history transcripts. I composed thumbnails with the intent to represent the information clearly and use symbolism to convey the narrative. I wanted to use as much text from the source as I could, but I wanted to avoid it being too word heavy. It was a balancing act of editing the text and imagery to support each other in the composition and narrative. After developing and consolidating the initial drafts I moved on to tighter linework and color concepts. Once the colors were established, I inlaid patterns and handmade textures to add contrast between objects, panels, and the background. The handmade textures were made with ink washes and spray paint. The final step was applying shading and details to enhance the focus of each element while also keeping the flow throughout the entire composition.

Q: How was your work on this project similar or different to your prior art projects?

Colorful illustration in three panels includes cut-out paper dolls, a WWII prison camp for Japanese Americans, a woman carrying a suitcase
A section from Emily Ehlen’s comic “Weaver’s Weaver,” about Kay Sekimachi

Emily Ehlen: This Japanese American Intergenerational Narratives art project was similar to the comic series Drawn to Art: Tales of Inspiring Women Artists that I worked on in 2021 for the Smithsonian American Art Museum. For that Smithsonian project, I drew a three page comic called “Weaver’s Weaver,” featuring Kay Sekimachi, a Japanese American artist. My process for both projects were pretty identical. Although, I think I had a little more freedom with expanding the storytelling elements working on the JAIN project comics. Overall, they were mutually great experiences that I am so grateful to have been a part of.

Q: How did engaging with the Japanese American Intergenerational Narratives oral history transcripts shape the stories you chose to tell and some of the imagery you used in your graphic art?

A color illustration of a long table of plates with different foods, the table forms a loop, and a multi-generational family sits at the table ready to eat
FEAST by Emily Ehlen

Emily Ehlen: When drafting the concepts of the illustrations, I wanted to use imagery that would convey the message the stories presented. Reading the oral history transcripts, I found lots of interesting details to include, like with the different types of food to include in the FEAST composition. It was inspiring to hear everyone’s unique voice sharing aspects about their and their family’s lives.   

Q: How did you choose the various scenes and stories that you eventually depicted? What stories in the transcripts most stood out to you? Why?

A graphic narrative illustration with three panels depicting a man who is holding a box of eucalyptus leaves and is surrounded by more leaves
EUCALYPTUS by Emily Ehlen

Emily Ehlen: I illustrate with the goal to portray a story the audience can connect and respond to. I wanted to choose stories with lots of emotions that I could highlight in each drawing. The piece I got the most emotional while drawing was Nancy Ukai’s grandfather in EUCALYPTUS. I sympathized with the longing and sadness of missing Berkeley that her grandfather felt. I understood the rationality behind using the box for something else, but that emphasized just how important Berkeley was to him. It was heartbreaking to read, so I knew I had to draw it.

Q: What are some of the story themes that you worked to express throughout your art for this project?

A graphic narrative illustration with four panels depicting an negative interaction between a teacher and a young student
TEACHER by Emily Ehlen

Emily Ehlen: The focus was how the Japanese American incarceration during World War II impacted themselves, their families, and how they responded to it. The themes were identity and belonging, intergenerational connections, and healing. I wanted the weight of the words to be carried through to the art accompanied with them.

Q: Can you describe some of the visual themes or repeated imagery that you incorporated throughout the various pieces you created? How and why did you develop these visual themes? 

An illustration depicting three women of different generations holding hands in front of a large tree wrapped in red barbed wire and filled with white paper cranes
TREE by Emily Ehlen

Emily Ehlen: The color palette I used helped create the tone and atmosphere of each piece separately while also keeping the collection cohesive. The red was used with duality: the bright saturated hue represented youth, rebelliousness, and intensity; while the dark maroon represented authority and repressed quietness. The soft green color was used to depict change and positivity that connects to the healing theme. The navy blue signifies unity and freedom, but it is used with a sense of serenity and heaviness. For example, the blue in TEACHER extrudes an overbearing presence in contrast to when it’s used in TREE. The ochre yellow has different meanings for its surroundings, like in TEACHER it signifies uncertainty, and in STORIES it’s used to display hope.

A graphic narrative with four panels that depicts a growing boy talking to his mother and with tears that fall from the eyes into a growing plant on the ground
STORIES by Emily Ehlen

The water pattern, waves, and watercolor texture are used with family elements, and it contrasts the dry gritty spray paint texture that references the environment of Topaz and Manzanar. Waves are symbols of growth, renewal, and transformation. They also represent the unpredictability of life, to which people learn to navigate its ups and downs. The plants and paper cranes also relate to family connections, development, and healing, going through many stages and flourishing together.

For darker imagery, I wanted the red barbed wire to be synonymous with the red stripes we see on the American flag. To show the lack of freedom and injustice that the Japanese Americans faced, those stripes became wire that entrapped and left scars on following generations. The guard towers were a beacon of looming authority and danger at the incarceration camps. They became a mental block for some that were confined in their silences.

Q: While creating the JAIN art, what did you learn that was new to you?

Four panels depicting a guard tower and US flag made of barbed wire, and a multi-aged group of people walking with lights over their hearts and plants sprouting
TOPAZ by Emily Ehlen

Emily Ehlen: I really enjoyed learning about everyone’s perspectives and experiences with being Japanese American. I am Chinese American, so I empathize with the stories about identity and the sense of belonging. This project lit up my desire to discover more about my culture. My motivation for drawing is to see how my art mirrors my development as a person. I think art is a record of growth and change. Like time, it never stops moving forward.

Q: Can you describe one or two of your favorite pieces that you created for this project? Why does this one stand out for you? 

A graphic narrative with four panels depicting a mother and daughter holding hands in a row boat and then jumping into water together
SPLASH by Emily Ehlen

Emily Ehlen: This is like asking the question, “Who’s your favorite child?” It’s super difficult because I love each piece for different reasons. I had the most fun drawing the piece SPLASH, about Jean Hibino and her mother. I think it has the most dynamic composition with how the imagery flows together with the text. I like the sequence of stillness to movement, and how a ripple can start a wave.

Q: What are your hopes for how people engage with your art for this project? Who do you hope sees it? What do you hope people take away from your art for this project? 

Four panels depicting Manzanar with barbed wire, US flag, barracks, and cemetery monument, with a woman running in the center of the illustration
MANZANAR by Emily Ehlen

Emily Ehlen: My hope for how people engage with the comic is to have open conversations about them or topics related to it. It would be nice to see what sticks out to people the most and what connections they make through their perspectives. I hope people are able to feel the sentiments in each piece and learn new aspects of its history. I can’t think of anyone specific I’d want to see it, but I strive to be someone who inspires others by taking creative approaches to new ideas. So, I hope other artists who are interested in drawing and story-telling see it

You can see and save copies of larger images of the graphic art that Emily Ehlen created for the Japanese American Intergenerational Narratives Oral History Project in a separate blog post. We encourage you to use and share Emily Ehlen’s artwork, along with the JAIN project oral history interviews, especially in classrooms when teaching the history and legacy of the World War II incarceration of Japanese Americans. When using these images, please credit Emily Ehlen as the artist (for example, Fig. 1, Ehlen, Emily, WAVE, digital art, 2023, Oral History Center, The Bancroft Library, University of California, Berkeley), and see the OHC website for more on permissions when using our oral histories.

Acknowledgments for the Japanese American Intergenerational Narratives Oral History Project

Two panels depicting a crying woman framed by barbed wire that is cut and transforms into a large, red ensō, before that stands a multi-generational family
SILENCES by Emily Ehlen

This project was funded, in part, by a grant from the U.S. Department of the Interior, National Park Service, Japanese American Confinement Sites Grant Program. The views and conclusions contained in this document are those of the authors and should not be interpreted as representing the opinions or policies of the U.S. government. Mention of trade names or commercial products does not constitute their endorsement by the U.S. Government.

This material received federal financial assistance for the preservation and interpretation of U.S. confinement sites where Japanese Americans were detained during World War II. Under Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, and the Age Discrimination Act of 1975, as amended, the U.S. Department of the Interior prohibits discrimination on the basis of race, color, national origin, disability or age in its federally funded assisted projects. If you believe you have been discriminated against in any program, activity, or facility as described above, or if you desire further information, please write to:

Office of Equal Opportunity
National Park Service
1201 Eye Street, NW (2740)
Washington, DC 20005

ABOUT THE ORAL HISTORY CENTER

The Oral History Center of The Bancroft Library preserves voices of people from all walks of life, with varying political perspectives, national origins, and ethnic backgrounds. We are committed to open access and our oral histories and interpretive materials are available online at no cost to scholars and the public. You can find our oral histories from the search feature on our home page. Search by name, keyword, and several other criteria. Sign up for our monthly newsletter  featuring think pieces, new releases, podcasts, Q&As, and everything oral history. Access the most recent articles from our home page or go straight to our blog home.

Please consider making a tax-deductible donation to the Oral History Center if you’d like to see more work like this conducted and made freely available online. The Oral History Center is a predominantly self-funded research unit of The Bancroft Library. As such, we must raise the funds to cover the cost of all the work we do, including each oral history. You can give online, or contact us at ohc@berkeley.edu for more information about our funding needs for present and future projects.


OHC Exhibit “Voices for the Environment” Curator Q&A

The Oral History Center is excited to announce the opening of Voices for the Environment: A Century of Bay Area Activism, a Bancroft Library Gallery exhibition that was curated by Todd Holmes, Roger Eardley-Pryor, and Paul Burnett. Voices for the Environment traces the evolution of environmentalism in the San Francisco Bay Area across the twentieth century. In three sections, it highlights how Bay Area activists have long been on the front lines of environmental change—from efforts to preserve natural spaces in the wake of the 1906 San Francisco earthquake and fire, to the midcentury fight for state regulations to protect San Francisco Bay shoreline, to more recent demands for environmental justice to address the disproportionate burden of pollution that sickened communities of color around the Bay.

We sat down with Eardley-Pryor and Holmes to ask them about their experience curating the exhibit, bringing the OHC’s interviews to life in The Bancroft Library’s gallery, and what they learned along the way.

Roger Eardley-Pryor
OHC Historian/Interviewer Roger Eardley-Pryor
Todd Holmes
OHC Historian/Interviewer Todd Holmes

Q: When you were originally thinking about this exhibit, which spans a century of Bay Area environmental activism, what topics, themes, or events were important for you to include?

 TH: As historians, both Roger and I approached the exhibit through the lens of change over time, essentially asking the question, “How did what we’ve come to recognize as environmentalism evolve and change in the Bay Area over the twentieth century?” Combining our knowledge of both the oral history collection – which was to stand at the heart of the exhibit – and the environmental history of California, we selected the three stories we wanted to highlight fairly quickly.

First, we wanted to tell the story of Hetch Hetchy, the valley in Yosemite National Park that was dammed for San Francisco’s water system. This is a seminal event used in history classes across the nation to highlight the battle between two schools of environmentalism, preservationists like the Sierra Club’s John Muir, and conservationists like Gifford Pinchot of the U.S. Forest Service in the first part of the twentieth century. For the exhibit, we sought to use the Hetch Hetchy story to introduce visitors to preservation as the first form of environmentalism that took root in the Bay Area.

Second, we wanted to tell the story of Save The Bay, the movement initiated by three women from Berkeley to halt bay fill. Ultimately, that movement led to the creation of the San Francisco Bay Conservation and Development Commission (BCDC), a state government agency to regulate development on the bay. Here we wanted to highlight how environmental concerns became embedded within the fold of government by the mid-century. BCDC stands as the first environmental agency in the United States, providing a precedent for other regulatory agencies on the state and federal level in the years that followed, such as the California Coastal Commission. Moreover, BCDC also operated within a framework that sought to balance environmental protection with economic development.  

Third, we wanted to tell the story of environmental justice, a movement in the last part of the twentieth century that sought to put the health of people – particularly communities of color – within the environmental agenda. While environmental justice is fairly common today in discussions of environmental policy, the story of how it developed is not well known, and the Bay Area was one of the central places in the nation from which the movement took root. 

REP: Todd and I worked to ensure that, in this exhibit, environmental activists could speak for themselves, and that visitors to the exhibit could actually hear the voices of activists recorded in their oral history interviews. The Audio Spotlight technology that allow people to hear interview clips in the gallery, the three videos Todd created with rare film footage and photographs, and the three podcast episodes we made with Sasha Khokha of KQED all make this exhibit something special that has never been done before in The Bancroft Library Gallery. For me, the people-power of communities of color demanding environmental justice, and the longtime leadership of women working for environmental protection were really important themes to include. Often, environmental history is told through the actions of men like John Muir, who does deserve credit for his early advocacy to protect nature through its preservation. The legacy of Muir and the ongoing work of the Sierra Club are important, and they remain so today. But Todd and I wanted to tell a deeper and broader history of Bay Area environmentalism, which shows how women and people of color have been central to the expansion and the evolution of environmental action over the course of the 20th century. I hope the stories shared in this exhibit help contextualize and make current environmental issues more meaningful—be it present-day preservation issues in 30 x ’30 campaigns, or conflicts over coastal regulations amid sea-level rise, or ongoing challenges to empower people of color in mainstream environmental movements.

 

Q: Did the themes you wanted to highlight change during the course of your research?

 REP: We worked hard for over a year to bring this exhibit to life and to my memory, we agreed fairly early on about the three main narratives featured in the exhibit—the preservation of nature, reconciling environment and development, and environmental justice for communities of color. Over the course of our research, we changed the details of which particular oral history segment we might include here or there, or which image or document would best compliment the oral histories featured in each section of the exhibit. But as I recall, the exhibit’s main story arc remained steady from early in our curation process.

TH: Surprisingly, there was no change in the main topics / stories we wanted to highlight in the three sections of the exhibit. What our research did do was help expand on the themes within each to add more depth and nuance around community activism. For instance, in the first section we not only focused on the story of Hetch Hetchy, but connected it to activism around Save the Redwoods, which in turn highlighted the vital – yet often overlooked – role of women in the early preservation movement. Men like John Muir may have become the figureheads of environmentalism, and voted for such policies in government, but it was women who provided the grassroots momentum that put environmental concerns on the table. The same could be said for the third section on environmental justice. Our research uncovered a lot of different groups and experiences in the Bay Area grappling with environmental racism, from toxic sites in Richmond and what became known as the Silicon Valley, to debates with white environmental groups about even using the term “racism.” So in all, our research gave us a number of themes to spotlight and weave together throughout the exhibit

 

Q: The exhibit begins with the 1906 earthquake. Why did you decide to start there?

TH: This is another example of how research expanded the themes and stories of the three main topics we sought to feature in the exhibit. We wanted to highlight the story of Hetch Hetchy in the first section. Our research of the Hetch Hetchy battle forced us to upstream to the root cause – the 1906 earthquake and fire that destroyed 80 percent of San Francisco. At the time, San Francisco stood as the largest and richest city west of Chicago. In the wake of the disaster, the rebuilding effort posed a tremendous threat to the natural resources of the state. Ancient redwood forests throughout the Bay Area and along California’s north and central coast were targeted for timber, just as the Hetch Hetchy Valley was eyed for water and hydro-electric power. Thus, these rebuilding efforts proved the impetus of the early activism to preserve California’s environment.

REP: The drowning of Hetch Hetchy Valley—despite it being located within Yosemite National Park—is such a powerful and classic story in environmental history, and it occurred because the 1906 earthquake and fire destroyed San Francisco. Amazingly, Todd found several oral histories in our collection with survivors of the earthquake and fire who recall their experiences of it when they were children. In The Bancroft Library, Todd also found historic film footage, recently digitized, that shows San Francisco still aflame just after the earthquake. Putting those oral histories together with this footage make for a captivating start to the exhibit. 

But what I didn’t realize until working on the exhibit was how the preservation of redwoods was also connected to how the earthquake and fire destroyed San Francisco. After the fire, lumber companies promoted California’s fire-resistant coastal redwoods as a means to rebuild the devastated city. In turn, environmentalists redoubled their efforts to preserve special groves of those ancient redwood trees. It suddenly made sense to me how Muir Woods National Monument was established in Marin County just a few years after the 1906 earthquake. Additionally, we wanted our exhibit on Bay Area environmentalism to highlight the Sierra Club, which was founded in San Francisco in 1892 and has since become one of the most influential environmental organizations in the nation. The Oral History Center has conducted oral histories with Sierra Club leaders since the early 1970s, and several activists, like William Colby, Ansel Adams, and David Brower, discussed in their oral histories how the fate of Hetch Hetchy continues to inform ongoing preservation efforts. So, in many ways, the 1906 San Francisco earthquake and fire helped ignite the spirit of preservation that still informs environmental activism, both in the Bay Area and across much of North America.

 

Q: What role does oral history play in the exhibit?

 REP: Oral history is the beating heart that gives life to this exhibit! We scoured several scores of Oral History Center transcripts for captivating stories about Bay Area environmental activism. David Dunham helped us obtain digitized versions of those oral history recordings. We then used The Bancroft’s traditional paper, photograph, and film collections to complement the oral history narratives that we featured in the exhibit. Christine Hult-Lewis and Lorna Kirwan helped us explore several of those archival collections, and Theresa Salazar pointed us to the excellent Urban Habitat Program Records, 1970-2001, which are displayed in our exhibit. Ultimately, the exhibit offers a multi-sensory experience where visitors can engage audio recordings, film footage, oil paintings, photographs, pamphlets, posters, descriptive text, and they can even hold the hardbound oral history transcripts featured in the exhibit. But certainly, oral history is the centerpiece of the exhibit.

TH: In short, everything! This is the first exhibit curated by the Oral History Center, and the first in-depth effort to showcase both the oral history and other archival collections of The Bancroft Library. Each section features oral histories about the main topic in three ways. Edited oral history segments are played in each section through an Audio Spotlight speaker, and accompanied with a video that shows captions as well as related photographs and archival footage. The oral histories are also available through a three-episode podcast, narrated by Sasha Khokha from KQED San Francisco. The podcast episodes, available online and in the gallery by scanning a QR Code, offer a deeper dive into the stories of each section. Lastly, we used oral histories quotes in the labels of the exhibit material to add further detail and context.

 

Q: The 1960s and ’70s were two very productive decades in terms of environmental activism. Did the oral histories that you encountered from the OHC’s collection make you think differently about this period, or illuminate something new?

 TH: In my view, the oral histories we used in the exhibit helped place the activism of the 1960s and 1970s in better context. For instance, we often think of the “environmental movement” as arising around the late 1960s / early 1970s. Yet, this view completely overlooks the activism of men and women around preservation in the first couple decades of the twentieth century. It also overlooks the vital work of Sierra Club executive director David Brower, whose activism throughout the 1950s and 1960s staved off numerous developments and led to the establishment of ten new national parks. In many respects, I think the oral histories featured in this exhibit pushed me to think about a “long environmental movement” that gained traction in the halls of government during the 1960s and 1970s. I think the exhibit also highlights how the Civil Rights Movement and environmental movement came to intertwine by the end of the decade to form environmental justice, which was an area I felt fortunate to learn more about through this project.

REP: Actually, rather than the 1960s and 1970s, the oral histories we included in the exhibit helped me realize the importance of the 1980s and 90s to the expansion and evolution of environmentalism. Without a doubt, activity surrounding Earth Day in 1970 was a key inflection point in environmental history, inspiring new environmental laws and a new generation of environmental activists. But the oral histories in our exhibit tell how Bay Area activists laid the early groundwork at least since the early 20th century for later environmental regulations, and how activists in the final decades of the 20th century worked to include all people in environmental protections, especially communities of color who suffered the most from industrial pollution.

 

Q: You put together additional material, like a podcast and class workbook, to accompany the exhibit. How do you hope people will use these materials?

 TH: For the past couple years, the Oral History Center has been working on ways to get our collection into the K-12 education space. We developed additional materials, such as the class workbook and podcast, to serve as educational resources for K-12 classrooms, as well as undergraduate courses.

REP: The podcasts and educational workbook can be used anywhere—while visiting and experiencing the exhibit in person, or at home or in classrooms. We hope people use those additional materials long after the exhibit closes in November 2024!

 

Q: What do you hope that people take away from the exhibit?

 REP: I hope exhibit visitors sense the importance, power, and potential of oral history. I hope they see how the Oral History Center’s work to record the lived experiences and reflections of people through oral history creates invaluable records that helps us better understand where we’ve come from and helps us make sense of our experiences today. I also hope visitors realize the importance of Bay Area activists in shaping the evolution of environmentalism over time. And I hope visitors hear how the actions of Bay Area people in the past, as told in their own words, helped define our experiences in the Bay Area today. Given today’s grave threats to our environment and to our democracy, I hope visitors appreciate how environmental activism remains an ongoing process that is shaped and renewed by average people like them who engage in civic activism. I also hope the oral histories featured in this exhibit—and the many, many more that are preserved in the Oral History Center collection—help inspire people to shape and renew environmentalism today and in the future. 

TH: I hope visitors come away from the exhibit with a better understanding of how environmentalism evolved and changed over the century, and that it has a long history in the Bay Area. Moreover, I hope the oral histories featured in the exhibit highlight the change brought on by everyday people. It was the activism of men and women that led to protected redwood forests and the creation of state and national parks. It was the unwavering dedication of three women from Berkeley that stopped fill projects in San Francisco Bay and led to the nation’s first government-run environmental agency. And it was the collective action of communities of color that put justice within the environmental agenda, and on the dockets of policymakers. Ultimately, I hope visitors, young and old, walk away with the idea that change comes about through everyday people.

Photo of Voices from the Environment exhibit.
A group of people watch historic footage and listen to clips from oral history interviews in the Voices from the Environment exhibit in The Bancroft Library.

“Voices for the Environment: A Century of Bay Area Activism,” an Oral History Center exhibit in The Bancroft Library Gallery

A green, brown, and blue banner that reads "Voices of the Environment: A Century of Bay Area Activism" hangs on a light post outside The Bancroft Library on UC Berkeley's campus
Banner for “Voices for the Environment” exhibit outside The Bancroft Library

We’re excited to announce the opening of Voices for the Environment: A Century of Bay Area Activism, a Bancroft Library Gallery exhibition that was curated by Todd Holmes, Roger Eardley-Pryor, and Paul Burnett of the Oral History Center. Voices for the Environment traces the evolution of environmentalism in the San Francisco Bay Area across the twentieth century. In three sections, it highlights how Bay Area activists have long been on the front lines of environmental change—from efforts to preserve natural spaces in the wake of the 1906 San Francisco earthquake and fire, to the midcentury fight for state regulations to protect San Francisco Bay shoreline, to more recent demands for environmental justice to address the disproportionate burden of pollution that sickened communities of color around the Bay.

Several people sit and stand in the exhibit space, with some sitting in front of a video display while others stand and look at photographs on the wall of the exhibit
Visitors experience the “Voices for the Environment” exhibit, curated by the Oral History Center, in The Bancroft Library Gallery

Our Voices for the Environment exhibit is the first major effort in The Bancroft Library Gallery to showcase oral history alongside the traditional archival collections of The Bancroft Library, with the oral history collections leading the way. The exhibit still features historic photographs, pamphlets, post cards, and posters selected from several collections of The Bancroft’s physical archives. But for the first time in this gallery, our Voices for the Environment exhibit also includes three installations of special Audio Spotlight technology where you can listen to never-before-heard oral history recordings with Bay Area environmentalists, while simultaneously watching three videos edited by Todd Holmes that feature historic photographs and rare film footage from The Bancroft’s digital collections. Additionally, as a complement to the exhibit, curators Todd Holmes and Roger Eardley-Pryor created an educational workbook, so students of all ages can learn about the environmental movement by engaging with the themes and primary sources on display. Through these efforts, the Oral History Center hopes Voices for the Environment will have a life beyond its yearlong run.

On a blue, brown, and green background is white text that reads "Voices for the Environment A Century of Bay Area Activism, Podcasts for The Bancroft Library Gallery Exhibition, University of California Berkeley, Oral History Center, October 6, 2023–November 15, 2024."
Podcasts for “Voices for the Environment” were produced by Todd Holmes and Roger Eardley-Pryor of the Oral History Center, with help from Sasha Khokha of KQED. The podcast images, and the exhibit space, were designed by Gordon Chun.

For an even deeper dive, you can also scan a QR code in the gallery, or click the following link, to hear three Voices for the Environment podcast episodes produced in partnership with Sasha Khokha of KQED Public Radio and The California Report Magazine. The podcast episode for section 1 of the exhibit, titled “A Preservationist Spirit,” traces the environmental activism that arose amid the rebuilding efforts of San Francisco after the 1906 earthquake and fire, efforts that came to target the state’s ancient redwood forests and the beloved Hetch Hetchy Valley in Yosemite National Park. The episode features historic interviews from the Oral History Center archives including segments from the “Growing Up in the Cities” collection recorded in the late 1970s by Frederick M. Wirt, as well as oral history interviews with Carolyn Merchant recorded in 2022, with Ansel Adams recorded in the mid-1970s, and with David Brower recorded in the mid-1970s. The oral history of William E. Colby from 1953 was voiced by Anders Hauge, and the oral history of Francis Farquhar from 1958 was voiced by Ross Bradford. This first episode also features audio from the film Two Yosemites, directed and narrated by David Brower in 1955. The podcast episode for section 2 of the exhibit, titled “Tides of Conservation,” tells the story of the Save San Francisco Bay movement and the creation of the San Francisco Bay Conservation and Development Commission (BCDC), one the nation’s first environmental regulatory agencies. The episode features segments from oral history interviews with Save The Bay founders Esther Gulick, Catherine “Kay” Kerr, and Sylvia McLaughlin recorded in 1985; as well as interviews with BCDC executive director Joseph Bodovitz and chairman Melvin B. Lane, both recorded in 1984. And the podcast episode for section 3 of the exhibit, titled “Environmental Justice for All,” spotlights efforts by communities of color to place the health of people within the environmental agenda, including creation of new environmental organizations like the West County Toxics Coalition, the Urban Habitat Program, and APEN (Asian Pacific Environmental Network), all founded in the Bay Area. The episode features segments from oral history interviews with Carl Anthony, Pamela Tau Lee, Henry Clark, and Ahmadia Thomas, all recorded in 1999 and 2000.

The Voices for the Environment exhibition space was designed by Gordon Chun and is free and open to the public Monday through Friday between 10am to 4pm from Oct. 6, 2023 to Nov. 15, 2024, in The Bancroft Library Gallery, located just inside the east entrance of The Bancroft Library.

We hope you come to campus and experience it!

ABOUT THE ORAL HISTORY CENTER

The Oral History Center of The Bancroft Library preserves voices of people from all walks of life, with varying political perspectives, national origins, and ethnic backgrounds. We are committed to open access and our oral histories and interpretive materials are available online at no cost to scholars and the public. You can find our oral histories from the search feature on our home page. Search by name, keyword, and several other criteria. Sign up for our monthly newsletter  featuring think pieces, new releases, podcasts, Q&As, and everything oral history. Access the most recent articles from our home page or go straight to our blog home.

Please consider making a tax-deductible donation to the Oral History Center if you’d like to see more work like this conducted and made freely available online. While we receive modest institutional support, we are a predominantly self-funded research unit of The Bancroft Library. We must raise the funds to cover the cost of all the work we do, including each oral history. You can give online, or contact us at ohc@berkeley.edu for more information about our funding needs for present and future projects.


“Robert Cox: Sierra Club President 1994-96, 2000-01, and 2007-08, on Environmental Communications and Strategy,” oral history release

New oral history: “Robert Cox: Sierra Club President 1994-96, 2000-01, and 2007-08, on Environmental Communications and Strategy”

Video clip from Robert Cox’s oral history on the Sierra Club’s environmental justice work with Jesus People Against Pollution (JPAP) in 1994

Black and white photograph of Robert Cox wearing a polo-style shirt while standing in front of a wall of leafy bushes
UNC Professor Robert Cox in 1994 upon his first time being elected as president of the national Sierra Club

Robert Cox is a scholar and a gentleman. He also has a fire burning in his belly for protecting nature, confronting injustice, and empowering people, which fueled his long-time leadership in environmental politics, strategy, and influential communication. Robbie Cox served three times as president of the national Sierra Club in 1994-96, 2000-01, and 2007-08. He is Professor Emeritus at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill (UNC-CH), and as a scholar of activist rhetoric, Cox helped found the academic field of environmental communication.

Robbie and I recorded nearly eleven hours of his life history over Zoom during five interview sessions in September 2020, during the early months of the COVID-19 pandemic. Robbie’s inspiring stories of environmental activism produced a 253-page transcript, which includes an appendix with several photographs. The stories that Robbie shared in his oral history also emphasized the incredibly high stakes for our present moment of environmental politics, rhetoric, and civic engagement.

Cox was born in September 1945, in Hinton, West Virginia, where his early influences included roaming Appalachian forests and rivers as well as his family’s history of union organizing and work toward social justice. He was recruited to the debate team at the University of Richmond where, from 1963 to 1967, he studied communication, philosophy, history, and religion while also participating in civil rights protests. In 1970, Cox earned his Ph.D. in classical rhetoric studies from the University of Pittsburgh with a dissertation on the rhetorical structures of the Vietnam antiwar movement in which he actively participated. From 1971 to 2010, Cox was a Professor in the Department of Communication at UNC-CH where he helped establish the field of environmental communication and focused his research and teaching on argumentation, rhetorical theory, and social movements. Cox married Professor Julia Wood in 1975 when she also joined the UNC-CH faculty in the Department of Communication.

Video clip from Robert Cox’s oral history on first joining the Sierra Club in 1979

Black and white photograph of Joe Grimsley wearing a flannel shirt and trucker-style baseball hat while talking to a Robbie Cox who is wearing a dark button-up shirt
Robert Cox (right) with North Carolina Secretary of Natural Resources Joe Grimsley (left) discussing what would become the North Carolina Wilderness Act of 1984.

Upon Dr. Wood’s suggestion, Cox joined the Sierra Club in 1979 and, over time, he earned leadership positions at every level in the Club: as chair of the Research Triangle Group, as chair of the North Carolina Chapter, and as an elected member to the national board of directors for most years between 1993 and 2013, including three times as president of the national Sierra Club. Cox made significant contributions to passage in the US Congress of the North Carolina Wilderness Bill, to the Sierra Club’s early engagements in the environmental justice movement, to restructuring both the Club’s internal governance and its volunteer structure, as well as helping lead Sierra Club engagements in national politics, particularly during his times as Club president. In this oral history, Cox discusses all of the above, with a focus on leveraging influential communication and strategy, while also sharing his experiences hiking and trekking in the Himalayas, in the mountains of Europe, and in the Appalachian Mountains.

Robbie Cox’s oral history is significant for detailing the environmental activism and political strategies of one of the most influential volunteers in recent Sierra Club history. Some of the themes throughout Robbie’s oral history include the profoundly democratic nature of the Sierra Club, details on the Club’s geographically diverse grassroots activism, as well as numerous ways that volunteer environmentalists work together to shape state and national legislation. Robbie also reconstructed the ways he balanced his double life as UNC professor with his life as an environmental activist, especially through his work in Sierra Club media campaigns. He recounted his decades as a nationally elected volunteer leader in the Sierra Club, as told through the perspective of an academic scholar of rhetoric and communications. And throughout, Robbie shared stories of direct action for environmental causes at all levels of Sierra Club engagement, from local to national.

Video clip from Robert Cox’s oral history on passing the North Carolina Wilderness Act in 1984

The in-depth, life-history approach used in this oral history reveals ways that Robbie’s personal influences and his engagements in the Sierra Club evolved over time. For instance, Robbie’s family history of labor activism instilled in him the power of people and the importance of social justice. Similarly, his participation on debate teams shaped substantially his education and academic work, while also playing a central role throughout his life as a political and environmental activist. Robbie’s interview also explored the Sierra Club’s and his own personal engagements with environmental justice, including his attendance at the First National People of Color Environmental Justice Leadership Summit in 1991, his leveraging of media in the national Sierra Club’s partnership with “Jesus People Against Pollution” in Mississippi, as well as his experiences on toxic tours of colonias in Matamoro, Mexico, along with other actions against the negative results of neoliberal free trade agreements.

Black and white photograph of Robert Cox wearing a coat and tie and speaking into a microphone while surrounded by environmentalists who hold Sierra Club signs
Robert Cox (center) speaking in November 1995 as Sierra Club president at the US Capitol Building while delivering to House Speaker Newt Gingrich several green bags containing copies of the Environmental Bill of Rights petition signed by more than a million Americans.

Robbie also shared insider details on several significant moments in the Sierra Club’s recent history. He recounted the Club’s severe financial crises in the 1990s that resulted in his work to reorganize the Club’s internal governance through Project Renewal as well as the Club’s volunteer structures via Project ACT. Robbie recounted his central role in the Sierra Club’s efforts to combat the de-regulatory and anti-environmental Congressional agenda in wake of Newt Gingrich’s Republican take-over of Congress in the 1990s, as well as Robbie’s personal role in securing the Sierra Club’s endorsement of Al Gore, for whom Robbie campaigned in 2000. Robbie also detailed the central role he played in the Groundswell Sierra campaign in the early 2000s to resist a take-over of the Sierra Club by anti-immigration and white supremacist forces. And as the world warms and the seas rise, Robbie discussed ways that the Sierra Club has confronted the compounding crises of climate change in the twenty-first century. Robbie’s decades of environmental activism provides a lens on ways the environmental movement has evolved over time from its early focus on wild lands, to concerns about human health, to engagement on issues of environmental justice, to the modern complexities of climate change. Robbie also reflects on the contemporary Sierra Club’s internal and external challenges in its ongoing work for equity, inclusion, and justice.

Video clip from Robert Cox’s oral history on delivering to Congress the Environmental Bill of Rights with 1.2 million signatures in 1995

Color photograph of Robert Cox talking with Albert Gore, with both men wearing a collared Polo-style shirt and pleated khaki pants
Robert Cox (left) and US Vice President Al Gore (right) in July 2000 in Grand Rapids, Michigan, delivering the Sierra Club’s public endorsement of Mr. Gore for US President during the 2000 election.

Back in the summer of 2020, when I spoke with Carl Pope, former Sierra Club executive director, to prepare for Robbie’s oral history, Pope recalled Robbie’s exceptional leadership and effectiveness.  When “Professor Cox” first won election to the national Sierra Club board of directors in the 1990s, Pope described Robbie’s presence as “immediately noticeable.” Pope told me how Robbie used his expertise in rhetoric to unify people and advance proposals for environmental action. “You could see Robbie work at a board meeting,” Pope remembered. “When he wanted to get the board to agree, he would offer some initial proposal tentatively, then let folks respond to it and let the room talk. Then he’d come back in and make the same proposal, but he changed two words to see if that worked. He’d keep playing with the proposal and make changes rhetorically, until he got something that would work for everyone.” The Sierra Club’s board of directors come increasingly from a variety of backgrounds across the United States. All directors are volunteers, not employed staff, but like much of the Sierra Club staff, many Club directors consider themselves to be full-time environmental activists. As Carl Pope noted, however, most Sierra Club directors “are not professional communicators. People would talk past each other. Robbie’s skill on the board lubricated that process, which was phenomenally helpful. If anyone wanted to get something done, you asked Robbie.” Indeed, Robbie Cox got things done.

Pope also described Robbie as a kind of environmental philosopher. “He wasn’t ideological,” Pope explained, “but surely, he had his own vision of where the Club should go.” Now, with this publication of Robbie Cox’s oral history, you too can have him tell you in his own words about his visions for the Sierra Club and the ways he mobilized constituencies to make a reality of his visions for environmental protection, political power, and justice.

ABOUT THE ORAL HISTORY CENTER

The Oral History Center of The Bancroft Library preserves voices of people from all walks of life, with varying political perspectives, national origins, and ethnic backgrounds. We are committed to open access and our oral histories and interpretive materials are available online at no cost to scholars and the public. You can find our oral histories from the search feature on our home page. Search by name, keyword, and several other criteria. Sign up for our monthly newsletter  featuring think pieces, new releases, podcasts, Q&As, and everything oral history. Access the most recent articles from our home page or go straight to our blog home.

Please consider making a tax-deductible donation to the Oral History Center if you’d like to see more work like this conducted and made freely available online. While we receive modest institutional support, we are a predominantly self-funded research unit of The Bancroft Library. We must raise the funds to cover the cost of all the work we do, including each oral history. You can give online, or contact us at ohc@berkeley.edu for more information about our funding needs for present and future projects.


Podcast episode 3: “Environmental Justice for All” in The Bancroft Gallery exhibit VOICES FOR THE ENVIRONMENT: A CENTURY OF BAY AREA ACTIVISM

Listen to podcast episode 3, “Environmental Justice for All,” or read a written version of this podcast episode below.

Over a blue, brown, and green background there is white text in a stenciled style that reads Voices for the Environment A Century of Bay Area Activism, Episode 3: Environmental Justice for All
Podcast Episode 3: “Environmental Justice for All” is part of the Voices for the Environment exhibition in The Bancroft Library Gallery

Voices for the Environment: A Century of Bay Area Activism is a gallery exhibition in The Bancroft Library that charts the evolution of environmentalism in the San Francisco Bay Area through the voices of activists who advanced their causes throughout the twentieth century—from wilderness preservation, to economic regulation, to environmental justice. The exhibition is free and open to the public Monday through Friday between 10am to 4pm from Oct. 6, 2023 to Nov. 15, 2024, in The Bancroft Library Gallery, located just inside the east entrance of The Bancroft Library. Curated by UC Berkeley’s Oral History Center, this interactive exhibit is the first in-depth effort to showcase oral history along with other archival collections of The Bancroft Library.

This exhibition includes three podcast episodes that offer deeper narratives to supplement the archival posters, pamphlets, postcards, photographs, oral history recordings, and film footage that are also presented in the gallery. Please use headphones when listening to podcasts in The Bancroft Library Gallery.

A written version of podcast episode 3 is included below.

Listen to episode 3: “Environmental Justice for All” on SoundCloud.

PODCAST EPISODE SHOW NOTES:

Episode 3: “Environmental Justice for All.” This podcast episode accompanies a section of the Voices for the Environment exhibition that explores how, in the 1980s and 90s, communities of color in the Bay Area fought against environmental racism by creating new organizations, such as the Urban Habitat Program, to demand environmental justice—the equal treatment and meaningful involvement of all people in environmental decision-making. In the city of Richmond, activists in the West County Toxics Coalition and the Asian Pacific Environmental Network, or APEN, organized against toxic threats from the area’s petrochemical and hazardous waste facilities. Environmental justice activists helped transform the American environmental movement from one focused mostly on landscapes to one that increasingly includes the health and wellbeing of historically disenfranchised people.

This podcast episode features historic interviews from the Oral History Center archives in The Bancroft Library at UC Berkeley, including segments from oral history interviews with Carl Anthony, Pamela Tau Lee, Henry Clark, and Ahmadia Thomas, all recorded in 1999 and 2000. This episode was narrated by Sasha Khokha, with thanks to KQED Public Radio and The California Report Magazine.

This podcast was produced by Todd Holmes and Roger Eardley-Pryor of the Oral History Center of The Bancroft Library at UC Berkeley, with help from Sasha Khokha of KQED. The album and episode images were designed by Gordon Chun.

WRITTEN VERSION OF PODCAST EPISODE 3: “Environmental Justice for All”

Pamela Tau Lee: We cannot be afraid to talk about environmental racism. We cannot be afraid to discuss that, talk about what it means: the discrimination of communities in environmental policy and being left out of the process.

Sasha Khokha: What does justice look like? Whose lives matter? And how does that relate to the environment? In the 1980s and 90s, concerns about toxic industrial waste led communities of color in the Bay Area, and across the nation, to create new organizations and demand environmental justice—the equal treatment and meaningful involvement of all people in environmental decision-making.

Pamela Tau Lee: What we need to deal with is the racism that is the root cause of why industry was targeting communities of color: because communities of color would not have any power; that it’s much more acceptable to dump this stuff in communities of color. So if we shied away from talking about racism, we would then not be able to articulate the realities, and we felt it was racism.

[music]

Sasha Khokha: Welcome to Voices for the Environment: A Century of Bay Area Activism. This podcast accompanies an exhibition in The Bancroft Gallery at UC Berkeley that’s the first major effort to bring together both the oral history and archival collections of The Bancroft Library. The voices you’ll hear were recorded by UC Berkeley’s Oral History Center, founded in 1953 to record and preserve the history of California, the nation, and our interconnected world.

Voices for the Environment traces the evolution of environmentalism in the San Francisco Bay Area across the twentieth century, and highlights ways that Bay Area activists have been on the front lines of environmental change.

This is our third and final episode, called “Environmental Justice for All.” I’m your host, Sasha Khokha, from KQED.

[harmonica blues music]

Sasha Khokha: Communities of color have long confronted environmental racism—the disproportionate burden of toxic waste and industrial pollution in neighborhoods that are mostly low income and home to BIPOC folks. But up until the 1980s, the big players in the environmental movement focused on other issues, like preserving redwood groves or protecting bay shoreline from new construction.

Pamela Tau Lee: I think many of the mainstream organizations, you know, they don’t focus on people. They focus on the ecology and other natural resources.

Sasha Khokha: That’s Pamela Tau Lee, a environmental and labor activist from San Francisco whose oral history you’re hearing.

Pamela Tau Lee: These predominantly white organizations did not want to really acknowledge that there was a different experience felt by communities of color.

Sasha Khokha: Take the city of Richmond, where more than 75% of residents identified as people of color in the 2022 census. Located along the bay above Berkeley and Oakland, Richmond has been home to the Chevron oil refinery since 1902. A host of other polluting industries were established there, too. As a result, people in Richmond experience higher levels of pollution and toxins, and have less access to healthy environments to live and play. In the mid-1980s, Richmond residents formed the West County Toxics Coalition. It’s a multi-racial organization aimed at empowering the community to have a greater voice in the environmental issues impacting their neighborhoods.

Henry Clark: You know, like anyone born and raised in North Richmond, we know that there was environmental problems there, you know, over your whole lifetime. So it was quite only logical when the West County Toxics Coalition was formed and they began to organize in North Richmond.

Sasha Khokha: That’s Henry Clark, who grew up in North Richmond. In 1986, after earning his Ph.D. in religious studies, Clark became executive director of the West County Toxics Coalition, and he led it for more than three decades. As a kid in North Richmond, Henry Clark’s home was directly next door to the Chevron oil refinery.

Henry Clark: I can remember clearly waking up many mornings and finding the leaves on the tree burnt crisp overnight from chemical exposure, or you know, going outside and the air would be so foul that you would literally have to grab your nose and try to not breathe the air and go back in the house and wait until it was cleared up. Those type of situations, you know, were a common experience.

Sasha Khokha: Ahmadia Thomas also knows about the foul air in Richmond. She moved there in the mid-1970s and was active in community organizing. 

Ahmadia Thomas: Well, then I first came here, I didn’t know, but I used to smell these terrible odors. And I’d say, “What’s that?” And my husband said, “We all smelled it all the time, and we ain’t never made no kick about it.” But they didn’t know what they were smelling. And they were terrible odors: you know ones that smell like sulfur once in a while. Terrible odors out here, after I got out here. When I first came, I didn’t remember smelling all this stuff, but boy, after I was out here a while, I really got environmentally conscious.

Sasha Khokha: Thomas joined the West County Toxics Coalition, too, in part because she was concerned about how Richmond’s industrial pollution was affecting her health—and her neighbors’ health.

Ahmadia Thomas: Like a lot of people had long-term illnesses. Like, these illnesses we don’t know whether they’re short-term or long-term. But if you’ve been affected, say, five years ago and you’re still affected, well now that’s a long term. But, see, a lot of them has been affected. Children, too.

Sasha Khokha: Regular chemical exposures contributed to those illnesses, and so did the periodic accidents, fires, and explosions at the Chevron refinery.

Ahmadia Thomas: And then when they started having the accidents—whoo! There was always a fire or accident. It would be on the TV or in the paper: “There was an accident, but it wasn’t no harm to your health.” And that ain’t true! [laughs] Got to hearing that.

Sasha Khokha: Here’s Henry Clark again.

Henry Clark: You know, these chemical disasters, they do affect people’s lives and people do die from them. You usually don’t hear about the deaths that do occur. You now, they just end up being faceless people whose families may be aware of it, but most of the time you don’t hear about that. Nor do you really even get a good sense of the health impacts, because usually there’s no type of comprehensive health studies that are done or conducted after these disasters.

Sasha Khokha: But the health studies that have been conducted are clear.

Henry Clark: I do know that there’s a 33 percent higher than state average lung cancer rate throughout the Richmond area stretching actually throughout the county, stretching through the industrial corridor.

Sasha Khokha: Here’s Carl Anthony. He’s an architect, a city planner, and a former professor at UC Berkeley.

Carl Anthony: The communities get it. You don’t have to have a Ph.D. to figure out if you have asthma rates five or six times the regional average, it’s clearly symbolic of racism. It is an environmental racism.

Sasha Khokha: With so many other Bay Area groups focused on land, trees, and wildlife, Carl Anthony saw the need for a new organization to deal with the complex urban issues confronting communities of color.

[blues music]

In 1989, Anthony co-founded the Urban Habitat Program to focus on people who lived in cities. He envisioned it would be as multi-racial and multicultural as the Bay Area where he lived. And to better understand the connections between social injustice, economic inequality, and environmental racism, Anthony also helped create a groundbreaking journal, first published on Earth Day in 1990, called Race, Poverty, and the Environment.

Carl Anthony: When we began the Race, Poverty, and the Environment journal, we started looking at these. What is the energy cycle? We began to see that the whole system of extracting energy, distributing it, consuming it, and waste, at every step were huge social issues.

Sasha Khokha: Like the chemical pollution near oil refineries, or the health and safety issues for workers there, or the high cost of energy for low income people: all intertwined social and environmental issues. As executive director of the Urban Habitat Program, Carl Anthony built upon the Bay Area’s progressive and environmental traditions, with a focus on community-led decision making and public investment in historically disenfranchised neighborhoods. But, the more Anthony engaged with issues of environmental justice, the more problems he saw in the ways that mainstream, mostly white American environmental activists understood their own history.

Carl Anthony: There was a deep problem in the myth of the environmental movement, the story of the environmental movement, as having grown out of a certain understanding about the settlement of North America. Put really briefly, the settlement began in New England when the Puritans arrived, and then they found an empty wilderness, and they cleared the forests and built the dams and the towns, and came all the way across the country, and then they looked back and saw how much devastation they had made.

Sasha Khokha: By the start of the 20th century, that environmental devastation inspired the early conservation movement, led by preservationists like John Muir. But for Carl Anthony, this narrative focused too much on wilderness and the conservation of public lands, and not enough on the history of race and American expansion.

Carl Anthony: You know, if you look back a little bit, you say, “Wait a minute, hold it, what’s wrong with this model?” First of all, the North American continent wasn’t empty. There were ten million people here. So where do they fit in this story? And then, millions of people were brought from Africa who worked the land—now it has been eighteen generations—where do they fit in this story? And in particular, from the point of view of the racial issues, the things that were missing in the John Muir model was that this was the end of manifest destiny. It was the end of the frontier wars with the Indians. These were the years when there was rampant racism against Chinese people and against Japanese people in California; the years when Jim Crow was established, and the national parks were set up that were white only.

Sasha Khokha: If the old land-focused narrative of American environmentalism ignored social and racial issues, it also overlooked the urban issues that Carl Anthony was so passionate about.

Carl Anthony: So, the point I’m making about cities is that the environmental movement took off in many ways by saying, “We’re not connected with that whole thing, that mess around the cities. We’re not going to deal with that.” So there was this big hole. But in many ways, the issues that people are complaining about—whether it’s global warming, or whether it’s the squandering of, you know, chopping down the trees, whatever it is—are rooted in the way that we’re living in cities. So I felt that by setting up the Urban Habitat Program, we would then be in the position to be able to say, “This is how we need to think and act in relationship to restoring our cities. Here’s how we’re going to address the environmental issues; here’s how we’re going to address the social justice issues; here’s how we are going to address the economic issues. And because you care so much about biodiversity and energy efficiency and all these things, we would like to invite you to participate with us in doing that.”

[music]

Sasha Khokha: Bay Area activists soon discovered they weren’t alone in the fight for environmental justice. Shortly after starting the Urban Habitat Program, Anthony learned about the Toxic Wastes and Race report published in New York by the United Church of Christ’s Commission on Racial Justice. That analysis showed how government agencies across the nation consistently located toxic waste facilities in communities of color. And when the Church and other groups began to organize a national summit on environmental justice, the Bay Area sent a huge contingent.

Pamela Tau Lee: . . . 1991, in Washington DC, was so powerful to see people of color in this room talking about their struggles for justice in this country. I had not heard anything as dynamic and comprehensive since the Civil Rights [Movement] when I was young.

Sasha Khokha: Pamela Tau Lee, then a labor activist in San Francisco, attended that First National People of Color Environmental Leadership Summit.

Pamela Tau Lee: When you came into that room, you saw native people from Alaska, the deserts of Nevada, the Shoshone tribe. You saw African Americans who lived in small towns in the middle of Alabama, from the South, New Orleans, with African Americans from Harlem, and Detroit, and South Central Los Angeles. You saw brown people from Puerto Rico, from the border, together with Chicanos from New Mexico and California and farmworkers.

Sasha Khokha: At the summit, leaders of color shared examples of environmental racism from across the country, and they discussed what to do about it.

Pamela Tau Lee: People were there to articulate, what is it that we are experiencing? And what is it that we want? And what it is that we stand for? One is we cannot be afraid to talk about environmental racism. In many of the discussions when we start to talk with the traditional environmentalists, who are mainly white, or the government, they were very afraid of that term. And we said we cannot be afraid to discuss that, talk about what it means: the discrimination of communities in environmental policy and being left out of the process. The mainstream environmentalists, they didn’t want us to say anything about racism. They wanted us to use the word “equity.” And what we need to deal with is the racism that is the root cause of why industry was targeting communities of color: because communities of color would not have any power, that it’s much more acceptable to dump this stuff in communities of color. So if we shied away from talking about racism, we would then not be able to articulate the realities, and we felt it was racism.

Sasha Khokha: As Pamela Tau Lee recalled, activists at the summit also discussed a way forward: demanding justice and taking action.

Pamela Tau Lee: What we wanted industry and the government to use as the criteria for action was the facts: that there is a Superfund site there, that the soil is contaminated, that children are sick, that people have cancer, that the air quality here is bad. And therefore, do something! And what we were coming up against was, you know, “Prove it. Prove that the people are sick. Prove it.” And these communities don’t have the resources to do that. The government and industry knows these people are sick, knows the air quality is bad, knows the soil is contaminated, and should take action. So that was another key component, illustrated very wonderfully in the Principles of Environmental Justice.

Sasha Khokha: The First National People of Color Environmental Leadership Summit, and the Principles of Environmental Justice created there, reshaped the trajectory of American environmentalism. It inspired a new generation of activists who put people—not just landscapes—within the environmental agenda. For Pamela Tau Lee, attending that 1991 summit motivated her and others to form a new Asian American organization for environmental justice that would work with people here, in the Bay Area.

Pamela Tau Lee: We came back, Asians came back, we talked together, networked together, and after three years, I think, we formed the Asian Pacific Environmental Network [APEN], which has done very powerful work . . . [with] the ability to begin to articulate what environmental justice looks like for the Asian communities in this country.

Sasha Khokha: The Asian Pacific Environmental Network, or APEN, formed in 1993, and its initial work began in Richmond. APEN helped the Laotian immigrant community from Southeast Asia gain a voice in the larger efforts to address the toxic pollution caused by the Chevron refinery and other industrial sites in the city. Today, APEN continues organizing communities for environmental justice throughout the Bay Area.

[music]

By the mid-1990s, the demands of the environmental justice movement reached the White House. On February 11, 1994, President Bill Clinton signed an Executive Order directing federal agencies to “identify and address the disproportionately high and adverse human health or environmental effects of their actions on minority and low-income populations.” Here’s Carl Anthony reflecting on that moment.

Carl Anthony: Well, I think it was, first of all, an incredible achievement. And I can tell you, the ones that did it in the environmental justice movement were virtually uncompromising that the grassroots people have to be at the table. I mean, [they said], “To hell with all these experts and all these consultants and all these people.” They brought the people in who were suffering from the asthma, and respiratory conditions, and from the cancer.

Sasha Khokha: While the executive order didn’t mandate specific actions by law, Pamela Tau Lee thought it was an important benchmark.

Pamela Tau Lee: I think that President Clinton’s order had a very big impact. Many people want to have more, but there is no way that it was going to become law. But that executive order, I think, gave the movement opportunity to advocate the formation of a national environmental justice advisory committee within the EPA. That enabled the White House to call an interagency body to regularly discuss this. And I think that, you know, it’s not like spectacular changes, but I think that it has made a difference.

[music]

Sasha Khokha: By the late 1990s, when most of the oral histories you’ve heard here were recorded, several environmental justice groups had formed in the Bay Area. Like PODER, a Latinx-led group in San Francisco whose name stood for People Organizing to Demand Environmental and Economic Rights. And PUEBLO, which stood for People United for a Better Life in Oakland. And the Silicon Valley Toxics Coalition in the south bay. These activists often supported each other’s efforts. Here’s Henry Clark.

Henry Clark: Here in the Bay Area, there’s different groups in Oakland or San Francisco that do similar type of work. And so when they have public hearings, or protests, demonstrations, or activities, we go and support their works, send people there to support their work. And when we would have activities here in the Richmond area, they send people over to support our work, so building relationships to mutual support.

Sasha Khokha: Working to integrate environmental, social, and economic change for justice is difficult. So activists celebrate their victories, large and small. Like in the year 2000, when APEN’s Asian Youth Advocates and its Laotian Organizing Project in Richmond were able to create community warning systems in multiple languages for when industrial accidents occur. Or in 1997, when the West County Toxics Coalition shut down the Chevron Ortho Chemical Company’s toxic waste incinerator, which had been belching out pollution for decades.

Henry Clark: That campaign was linked to the Chevron Ortho Chemical Company incinerator that had been operating since 19—I believe—67, on a temporary permit. And Chevron was in the process of getting a permit to expand the hazardous waste that was being burned in that incinerator. The West County Toxics Coalition felt that the company should not get a permit to expand their waste burning. In fact, they should actually decrease the waste that was being incinerated. So we organized a campaign to do public education. We received word that Chevron was withdrawing their permit application to expand the incinerator, and that the incinerator was going to be closing down. And so the incinerator has been closed and dismantled as of June of 1997.

[music]

Sasha Khokha: But creating change doesn’t happen quickly. Most of the big, mainstream and mostly white environmental organizations have been slow to expand their activism, their funding, their membership, and their leadership to include BIPOC folks. Even so, since the 1980s and 90s, activists for environmental justice have unequivocally transformed the U.S. Environmental movement from one focused on trees, and landscapes, and sensitive habitats, to one that increasingly includes the health and wellbeing of historically disenfranchised people.

Carl Anthony: What I consider the most important work that I’m involved in is reframing the environmental story.

Sasha Khokha: Here’s Carl Anthony again.

Carl Anthony: There will have to be a much more systematic acknowledgement that environmental and social issues are connected; they are not separate. In my view, that means the environmental justice movement in some fundamental way must become the mainstream of the environmental movement. And I think the environmental movement has had the enormous luxury of being a white movement. But if we’re really serious about changing the dynamics at a global scale, there’s no way that it can keep going as a white movement.

Sasha Khokha: Bay Area environmental justice organizations, like the Urban Habitat Program, have shown a way for activists to build upon their past while still moving forward, together.

Carl Anthony: We kind of represented that model. That yes, you could in fact be advocates of social justice, you could in fact be militant about social justice, and still be an advocate of environmental preservation.

Sasha Khokha: And Bay Area leaders like Henry Clark and Pamela Tau Lee were on the cutting edge of helping the public understand that environmental justice means justice for all.

Henry Clark: When you’re looking at it from an environmental justice perspective, or justice period, the bottom line is that you work out a situation where it will be just for everyone involved, and that’s really what you have to keep the major focus on, especially when you’re trying to deal with situations that have been historically unjust.

Pamela Tau Lee: Many wealthy whites were content for this to be in the back yards of poor communities of color. Well, we were not going to say, “No, we don’t want it. We’re going to put it in rich, white people’s backyards.” That’s not something that we were going to stand for. We were going to always fight for the protection of all, public health of all, the ecology for all.

Sasha Khokha: After all, as our shared world becomes more interconnected, these are issues that affect all of us. Here’s Carl Anthony again.

Carl Anthony: But ultimately, as we get into the twenty-first century, this is the story of how the whole human race is going to address the shadow side of the industrial revolution. It’s not just a Black story. The fact of the matter is that all of us who benefited from the way the industrial revolution had functioned, the gifts that it has given us, are participants in this problem of the shadow side of consumption and waste and all this. Black people just happen to have, you know, kind of an angle or an insight on a piece of this.

[music]

Sasha Khokha: Our relationships with the world around us define who we are. So do the relationships we have with each other. Over the last century, Bay Area activists helped advance our understanding of both of these kinds of relationships—from preserving California’s ancient forests, to regulating economic development, to pushing for the health of communities of color as an environmental issue. Today, the social and environmental challenges we face appear even more daunting than the ones earlier generations had to face. Only by working together and building on lessons from the past can we work toward the solutions we need to thrive in the twenty-first century and become the newest Voices for the Environment.

[music]

You’ve been listening to “Environmental Justice for All,” the third and final episode in the podcast accompanying Voices for the Environment: A Century of Bay Area Activism. It’s an exhibition in The Bancroft Gallery at UC Berkeley that runs from October 2023 through November 2024. This episode featured historic interviews from the Oral History Center archives in The Bancroft Library at UC Berkeley. It included segments from oral history interviews with: Carl Anthony, Pamela Tau Lee, Henry Clark, and Ahmadia Thomas. To learn more about these interviews and the Oral History Center, visit the website listed in the show notes. This podcast was produced by Todd Holmes and Roger Eardley-Pryor, with help from me, Sasha Khokha. Thanks to KQED Public Radio and The California Report Magazine. I’m your host, Sasha Khokha. Thanks so much for listening!

End of Podcast Episode 3: “Environmental Justice for All”

ABOUT THE ORAL HISTORY CENTER

The Oral History Center of The Bancroft Library preserves voices of people from all walks of life, with varying political perspectives, national origins, and ethnic backgrounds. We are committed to open access and our oral histories and interpretive materials are available online at no cost to scholars and the public. You can find our oral histories from the search feature on our home page. Search by name, keyword, and several other criteria. Sign up for our monthly newsletter  featuring think pieces, new releases, podcasts, Q&As, and everything oral history. Access the most recent articles from our home page or go straight to our blog home.

Please consider making a tax-deductible donation to the Oral History Center if you’d like to see more work like this conducted and made freely available online. While we receive modest institutional support, we are a predominantly self-funded research unit of The Bancroft Library. We must raise the funds to cover the cost of all the work we do, including each oral history. You can give online, or contact us at ohc@berkeley.edu for more information about our funding needs for present and future projects.


Podcast episode 2: “Tides of Conservation” in The Bancroft Gallery exhibit VOICES FOR THE ENVIRONMENT: A CENTURY OF BAY AREA ACTIVISM

Listen to podcast episode 2, “Tides of Conservation,” or read a written version of this podcast episode below.

Over a blue, brown, and green background there is white text in a stenciled style that reads Voices for the Environment A Century of Bay Area Activism, Episode 2: Tides of Conservation
Podcast Episode 2: “Tides of Conservation” is part of the Voices for the Environment exhibition in The Bancroft Library Gallery

Voices for the Environment: A Century of Bay Area Activism is a gallery exhibition in The Bancroft Library that charts the evolution of environmentalism in the San Francisco Bay Area through the voices of activists who advanced their causes throughout the twentieth century—from wilderness preservation, to economic regulation, to environmental justice. The exhibition is free and open to the public Monday through Friday between 10am to 4pm from Oct. 6, 2023 to Nov. 15, 2024, in The Bancroft Library Gallery, located just inside the east entrance of The Bancroft Library. Curated by UC Berkeley’s Oral History Center, this interactive exhibit is the first in-depth effort to showcase oral history along with other archival collections of The Bancroft Library.

This exhibition includes three podcast episodes that offer deeper narratives to supplement the archival posters, pamphlets, postcards, photographs, oral history recordings, and film footage that are also presented in the gallery. Please use headphones when listening to podcasts in The Bancroft Library Gallery.

A written version of podcast episode 2 is included below.

Listen to episode 2: “Tides of Conservation” on SoundCloud.

PODCAST EPISODE SHOW NOTES:

Episode 2: “Tides of Conservation.” This podcast episode accompanies a section of the Voices for the Environment exhibition that explores how three women in Berkeley formed the Save San Francisco Bay Association in the early 1960s to resist numerous land-fill projects that would have turned the waters of the San Francisco Bay into land. By 1965, advocacy from this association, later called Save The Bay, led to the creation of the San Francisco Bay Conservation and Development Commission, or BCDC, a new California state agency tasked with balancing the conflicting interests between economic development and environmental conservation. BCDC’s work helped bolster a rising tide of conservation that led eventually to similar state regulatory agencies, including the equally historic California Coastal Commission.

This podcast episode features historic interviews from the Oral History Center archives in The Bancroft Library at UC Berkeley, including segments from oral history interviews with Esther Gulick, Catherine “Kay” Kerr, and Sylvia McLaughlin recorded in 1985; with Joseph Bodovitz and with Melvin B. Lane, both recorded in 1984. This episode was narrated by Sasha Khokha, with thanks to KQED Public Radio and The California Report Magazine.

This podcast was produced by Todd Holmes and Roger Eardley-Pryor of the Oral History Center of The Bancroft Library at UC Berkeley, with help from Sasha Khokha of KQED. The album and episode images were designed by Gordon Chun.

WRITTEN VERSION OF PODCAST EPISODE 2: “Tides of Conservation”

Sylvia McLaughlin: And I was totally appalled, reading the [Berkeley] Gazette, of the city manager’s dream to fill over 2,000 acres in front of Berkeley. And this was one of the things that galvanized us into action.

Sasha Khokha: The San Francisco Bay Area is no stranger to development booms. From the Gold Rush to the rise of Silicon Valley, the region ‘s history has been marked by a steady stream of growth and development. In the decades after World War II, new industries and a roaring postwar economy brought millions of people to the Golden State. By 1962, California ranked as the most populated state in the union. State agencies built dams, universities, and a network of freeways matched only in its intricacy by a statewide aqueduct system stretching over 700 miles, north to south. In the Bay Area, this combined boom in both population and development meant space was at a premium, pushing developers to target building on the 1,600 square miles of the bay itself. By the late 1950s, city councils throughout the region considered a host of fill projects that would turn bay waters into habitable land. And that sparked environmentalists to push back.

Melvin B. Lane: Environmentalists should be extremists. They represent an extreme, and the people who are going to make a buck represent the other one. And the decision-maker should sweat it out in the middle.

[music]

Sasha Khokha: Welcome to Voices for the Environment: A Century of Bay Area Activism. This podcast accompanies an exhibition in The Bancroft Library at UC Berkeley that’s the first major effort to bring together both the oral history and archival collections of The Bancroft Library. The voices you’re going to hear were recorded by UC Berkeley’s Oral History Center,  founded in 1953 to record and preserve the history of California, the nation, and our interconnected world.

Voices for the Environment traces the evolution of environmentalism in the San Francisco Bay Area across the twentieth century. It highlights how Bay Area activists have long been on the front lines of environmental change—from efforts to preserve natural spaces in the wake of the 1906 San Francisco earthquake and fire, to the midcentury fight for state environmental protections, to demands to address the disproportionate burden of pollution that sickened communities of color around the bay.

You’re listening to the second episode of Voices for the Environment. We’re calling it “Tides of Conservation.” I’m your host, Sasha Khokha, from KQED.

[mid-century jazz music]

In 1961, Oakland Tribune reporter Ed Salzman published an article detailing the number of proposed projects to fill in parts of the San Francisco Bay. What sparked Salzman’s interest was not any one project in particular. But it was a 1959 Army Corp of Engineers map he had stumbled upon while working on another story in Sausalito. On the surface, the government map was a projection of the San Francisco Bay in the year 2000. To Salzman, it was a horrifying glimpse of the reality that awaited Bay Area residents if developers were allowed to keep filling in the Bay. What he saw took his breath away. On the map, the open bay had been reduced to a river. The article, published along with a graphic of the government map, sent shockwaves around the Bay Area, alarming three Berkeley residents: Catherine “Kay” Kerr, Esther Gulick, Sylvia McLaughlin, who talked about seeing that map in an oral history that all three women recorded together in 1985.

Catherine Kerr: There was no denying the fact that the visible destruction of the Bay had been, maybe, of unconscious concern, so that when the Army Corps map appeared in the Oakland Tribune showing that the Bay would end up being a river by 2020 because of all the fill, it was clear to me that this was certainly a possible train of events, and it needed to be stopped.

Sylvia McLaughlin: And I was totally appalled, reading in the [Berkeley] Gazette, of the city manager’s dream to fill over 2,000 acres in front of Berkeley. And this was one of the things that galvanized us into action.

Catherine Kerr: What happened was that the map that came out in the Tribune was brought to my attention. I went to a tea at the Town and Gown Club, and I said to Sylvia, “Did you see that terrible future of the Bay? And Sylvia said, “I certainly did. I think we should do something about it.” About two weeks later, Esther came over. We were sitting in the living room, and it was a beautiful day, and the Bay was very blue. I said to Esther, “I don’t know what’s going to happen to the bay. Did you see the map in the Tribune?” She said, “Yes. Wasn’t it awful?” I said, “Well,  do you think you would have time to do something about it?” Esther said, “Well, yes, I think I would.” So I said, “All right, good. There’s three.” I called Sylvia, and we got together, set a date for coffee, and decided how we would start. We decided to start with Berkeley.

Sasha Khokha: The three Berkeley women who started meeting in the spring of 1961 fit squarely within a well-established Bay Area tradition of women environmental activists. They were white, highly educated, and well-connected in local and state political circles. Kay Kerr, the initial organizer of the group, was a Stanford graduate who was regularly active on the Berkeley campus and in city affairs. Her husband, Clark Kerr, was a Berkeley professor and president of the UC system, a position that put Kay in regular contact with the UC Board of Regents, which included the Governor, Lieutenant Governor, and Speaker of the Assembly. Esther Gulick was a Berkeley graduate and wife of Berkeley economics professor, Charles Gulick. She, too, was active in campus and city affairs. Sylvia McLaughlin had graduated from Vassar College and later married Donald McLaughlin, president of a California gold mining company.

These three Berkeley residents bonded over a desire to save the Bay. They read city council plans, consulted with a host of academics on the Berkeley campus, and then called a meeting of the leading environmental organizations in the Bay Area. They were hoping that after they presented their information, the professional conservationists would take charge and spearhead the effort to save the Bay.

Esther Gulick: We had most of the leaders who were very influential in their own organizations.

Catherine Kerr: All of the conservationists that we could think of. The three of us had decided that we were not conservationists and this was a really terrible problem. We were going to tell them about the problem, and then we expected they would carry the ball.

Esther Gulick: We weren’t going to form an organization at all.

Catherine Kerr: We didn’t have any of the expertise. We explained about the Army Corps map. And everything that we could find out was that there were maybe eighty square miles of fill already proposed by various cities around the Bay. And so we said, “This is the problem.” And so, I remember Dave Brower saying. “Well, it’s just exceedingly important, but the Sierra Club is interested in wilderness and in trails.” Then the next guy, Newton Drury, said, “Well, this is very important, but we’re saving the redwoods, and we can’t save the Bay.” And then it went around the room to the point where there was dead silence. So we said, “Well, the Bay is going to go down the drain.” Dave Brower said, “Now there’s only one thing to do: start a new organization, and we’ll give you all our mailing lists.” And they all wished us a great deal of luck when they went out the door. Yes.

Sylvia McLaughlin: They said, “Someone should really do something about this.”

Esther Gulick: It turned out that we were the somebodies.

Sasha Khokha: When the meeting ended, the mission of saving San Francisco Bay stayed in the hands of these three Berkeley women. The new organization they formed that evening in the Berkeley Hills would be known as the Save San Francisco Bay Association. And the environmental groups who felt they couldn’t take on the Bay campaign? They did follow through on the promise to share their mailing lists with Kerr, Gulick, and McLaughlin. Out of the first 700 mailers the three women sent out, they received some 600 pledges of support. Within a month, Save San Francisco Bay had secured a solid membership base. And those members were starting to get vocal in their opposition to Berkeley’s plan to to fill in more than 2,000 acres of Bay shoreline. The expansion would have doubled the size of the university town.

Sylvia McLaughlin: Berkeley had gotten—their plan was at the stage of the planning commission. They were holding hearings, almost the last stage before it got to the city council itself.

Esther Gulick: I think that’s what made the people of Berkeley, when we once got organized and sent letters to about a thousand people in Berkeley to ask them if they were interested in joining Save The Bay and told them some of the things that were going to happen if this went through—like Berkeley being almost twice the size as it now is, with the other half out in the Bay, and there were things like maybe an airport going to be out there, there were going to be storage buildings and that kind of thing—they just couldn’t believe it. You know? They, like us, thought the Bay belonged to us, the Bay belonged to everybody.

Sasha Khokha: Thanks to the new Save San Francisco Bay Association, Berkeley city council meetings were soon inundated with objections to the plan. So were the mailboxes of elected officials.

Sylvia McLaughlin: We felt that numbers were very important. As an example, at the city council meetings we noticed that the people who stood up to represent themselves had no audience. The city council in those days was very polite. But if someone stood up and said they represented an organization of thus-and-so-many members, the city council was more inclined to lean forward and sit on the edge of their chairs and be a bit more responsive. So from those observations, we felt that it was important to get as many members as possible.

Catherine Kerr: I would say that was one of our very first lessons, that if you were going to save the Bay, you had to have the support, and you had to educate the politicians. And the second thing was that you couldn’t educate them or get their support without facts. So we spent a great deal of time on collecting facts and then educating everybody that would listen.

Esther Gulick: Also, the fact that we were getting members was very important. Because they listened to how many members we had and how many letters they got.

Sylvia McLaughlin: Our members were very responsive. We would suggest that they attend critical city council meetings and they would. Sometimes the following city council meeting would be wall to wall with chamber of commerce people. It went back and forth like that.

[music]

Sasha Khokha: Ultimately, the will of Bay Area residents trumped the aspirations of developers. In 1963, the Berkeley city council rescinded the plan to fill in the Bay from the city’s waterfront master plan. It was a big victory for city residents. And it would change Berkeley and the larger Bay forever. But with dozens of fill plans still pending on the dockets of other cities, the three Berkeley activists knew something had to be done in Sacramento to really save the Bay across the region. That opportunity came the following year when Kay Kerr was able to secure a meeting with state Senator Eugene McAteer.

[music]

A San Francisco native, McAteer was a powerhouse in Bay Area politics. He had served on the San Francisco board of supervisors throughout most of the 1950s before heading to the state senate in 1958. He quickly established himself in the legislature. He was close friends with fellow San Franciscan, Governor Edmund “Pat” Brown, and fostered good working relationships with the leadership of both houses. Like most California politicians of that era, McAteer was a builder and supported a range of development and state infrastructure projects, from freeways and universities to dams and other water projects. He also had a calculating eye when it came to climbing the political ladder. And he could tell that the Bay issue was a significant one for the state. He’d seen the legislature stall over the issue before. So, following his meeting with Kay Kerr, he proposed a different tact: a study commission on regulating bay development.

Joseph Bodovitz became one of the planners to lead that study. After an early career as a reporter  for the San Francisco Examiner, Bodovitz worked for many years with the San Francisco Bay Area Planning and Urban Research Association, also called  SPUR. In his oral history, he explained how Eugene McAteer’s involvement in the issue of bay regulation was both novel and key to why the plan succeeded

Joseph Bodovitz: I think what people tend to forget now is how unusual it was to have anybody of McAteer’s stature interested in an environmental issue in the sixties. It would be common now, but part of what was intriguing about it at the time was, here was a person who had not been identified with environmental causes at all, part of the establishment in the state senate, suddenly taking up a brand-new and obviously glamorous, important kind of issue. But, here was a big issue brought by conservationists for a couple of years, and here was the legislature not wanting to legislate. There was no consensus that would have let a bill pass. Yet, here was somebody with the power of McAteer able to say, “Well let’s have a study commission.” And McAteer obviously had enough clout with the governor and with both houses to get a relatively simple thing like that through. But as I say, the kind of political novelty of a McAteer being involved in a “do-gooder”, “posy-plucker” issue just made it a different kind of issue. I don’t know what would be a good example, like Ronald Reagan really being serious about protecting redwoods or something.

Sasha Khokha: The study bill that the legislature passed in 1964 gave McAteer’s team four years to develop a plan and show it could work. Their plan focused on three areas. First, a permit process for all proposed development and land use changes on the Bay. Second, a set of standards and criteria to judge the permit applications. Third, the development of an appointment commission that would hold monthly public hearings and decide on the applications. In the end, McAteer’s study group created what became known as the San Francisco Bay Conservation and Development Commission, or BCDC.

These were uncharted waters. There was no precedent for this kind of environmental regulation back in 1965. In fact, BCDC was the first regulatory agency of its kind in the nation. For Joe Bodovitz, the chief architect of the Bay commission plan, this meant that the pressure was on and the clock was ticking.

Joseph Bodovitz: And here was the hand we were dealt in 1965: a temporary commission. Which means if you don’t score a touchdown, then the ballgame is over. Right? You don’t go on forever, so you don’t have the luxury of permanence. The goal was, “Let’s do something that will be the basis for successful legislation in 1969, that will both protect the Bay and encourage the kind of shoreline development you want to have. If you’ve shown, over the four years, that people were fairly treated; and that rational, necessary development was encouraged, not discouraged; and that the valuable bay-fill-in parts of the Bay were protected or whatever, you make a case for continuing. And finally, because the people that oppose you are going to be very strong, very well-financed and all, you have to maintain the public support that got the whole thing started. If you lose that, you’ve got nothing. You’ve got a plan and nobody who cares.

[music]

Sasha Khokha: While Bodovitz crafted the Bay plan and served as executive director of the commission’s staff, the operation of BCDC rested in the hands of founding chairman, Melvin B. Lane. Lane was the publisher of Sunset magazine. He fit the balanced approach McAteer and others envisioned for the new regulatory agency. He was a Republican and a successful businessman who could speak with authority to developers and real estate interests. At the same time, he was an environmentalist whose magazine had long celebrated the beauty of California and the West, and the importance of preserving natural lands. As Lane recalls in his oral history, he approached regulating bay development with a handful of basic policy concepts.

Melvin B. Lane: One of them was that, you don’t put something in the Bay that can just as well go on land. The next one was, you don’t put something next to the Bay that can just as well go inland. And that covered an awful lot of things. A house doesn’t have to be in the Bay, a yacht harbor does. [laughs] You know? So, if there’s a choice, okay, the things that are water-related get a priority over these others. Things that the general public can enjoy will get preference over things that just a limited group can enjoy. The things that a limited group of people can enjoy will get a preference over the something that only is for a single person, or a single owner. There are a lot of industries that need to be in the Bay, but if you fill it up with houses and warehouses, you don’t leave room for those things that really have to be there. 

Sasha Khokha: Lane talked about how BCDC took a perspective very different from the view of a  city council or a developer. 

Melvin B. Lane: I think looking at the resource, and what we thought it should be one hundred years from now, took priority over what somebody could do to make a short-term profit. One of the big theories I came out of it with is called “salami logic.” It’s very true, in my opinion, that if you look at a slice, you see something very different than if you look at the whole loaf. If somebody owns a piece of shoreline and some mud flats, and they go to the city council and they say, “Now I just want to fill in a little bit out here to help my building, but I’m going to put a little path around here, and there’s a picnic table. And I’ve got this architect that’s going to put ivy on my building, and I’m going to create fifty jobs, and I’m going to pay you twenty thousand a year in taxes, and on and on. And, I’ve only taken .0007 per cent of the bay.” A city council can’t turn that down. But if you looked at all of the privately-owned shallow parts of San Francisco Bay and said, “Now if this happens to even a large part of it, was that a good idea?” We’d say, “No.” If you looked at that one slice, you’d say, “Yes.” So as planners, we should be looking at the total, but a developer looks at only his thing. 

Sasha Khokha: Operating a commission that actually rejected permits for multi-million-dollar developments wasn’t easy. Almost immediately, BCDC found itself squaring off against all kinds of Bay Area business interests.

Melvin B. Lane: At the time BCDC was created there were some firms who were fighting it extremely hard, and they’d fought McAteer all the way through on the legislation. One of those certainly was Leslie Salt.

Sasha Khokha: Leslie Salt Company was the largest landowner on the San Francisco Bay, operating 26,000 acres of salt ponds at the southern tip of the Bay. By the time BCDC was created, however, this company was looking to develop large portions of their property as commercial and residential real estate. BCDC rejected the proposal. And that was a decision that impacted Mel Lane both personally and professionally, since he knew the family that owned Leslie Salt.

Melvin B. Lane: Aug Schilling, the president, was a friend of my family and my wife’s family. And they were a customer of my company. No, how do I say that? They bought things from us [laughs]. Or at least we were trying to sell them both advertising in our magazine, and one of the companies they owned was Spice Islands, and we published a book for Spice Islands. They were our biggest single customer in book publishing for a period of years right in the middle of all this fighting. So anyway, I knew them. They had decided a couple of years before BCDC came into being, that they were going to start making money on their real estate, because they were never going to do it in the salt business. So, they were off on these grandiose plans for filling in all the salt ponds, and therefore were scared to death of BCDC, as they should have been. And so, we did fight and scratch with them, and anything we ever had in Sacramento they were right there.

Sasha Khokha: We don’t know if Aug Schilling thought his company’s permit would get  preferential treatment because he knew Mel Lane. But he didn’t hide his disdain for the new agency regulating development in the Bay. After the decision, he referred to BCDC as “a bunch of Fabian socialists.”

BCDC also battled corporate giants, including US Steel and Castle & Cooke, better known by its two subsidiaries, C&H Sugar and Dole. The two companies proposed large fill projects on either side of the historic Ferry Building in downtown San Francisco. US Steel wanted to build an office complex in the harbor that would have included a 550-foot skyscraper, a structure more than  twice the size of the Ferry Building’s clock tower. Castle & Cooke’s project was even more ambitious. They had an idea for something called Ferry Port Plaza, a 42-acre fill that would house a hotel and an assortment of restaurants and shops. The footprint of the proposed plaza would have been 30% larger than Alcatraz Island. BCDC rejected both projects. And that sparked a bitter fight not just with the companies, but also their allies in City Hall, including Mayor Joseph Alioto.

Melvin B. Lane: Well, they wanted to put some big office buildings out in the Bay. And we did fight them on that, and everybody else took credit for it. But that U.S. Steel and Castle & Cook big building, we were the ones that stopped those. And they would have had those, because they had the city politics of San Francisco under control, and Alioto was right in the middle of it. We had awful fights with Joe Alioto over them.

Sasha Khokha: One of the more audacious proposals BCDC faced in its early years, was called the West Bay Project. It was backed by a real estate consortium that included David Rockefeller, Crocker Land company, and Ideal Cement. They wanted to fill in part of the Eastside of the Peninsula running from San Bruno to the San Mateo Bridge. Mel Lane recalls how the plan sought to remove 250 million cubic yards of dirt from San Bruno Mountain to fill in 27 square miles of the Bay.

Melvin B. Lane: They would cut down the mountain, push it in the Bay, and go right over Bayshore [Freeway] onto barges and take it down and fill in down there. And then, Rockefeller would put up the money and all the professional skills of planning the land and marketing it. Well, it’s like Candlestick Park, pushing land into the Bay. Developers just love that, God, they think that is so wonderful. Anyway, we finally wore them down, but they were tough and very able.

[music]

Sasha Khokha: In 1969, the California Legislature made BCDC, or San Francisco Bay Conservation and Development Commission, permanent. Sadly, Senator Eugene McAteer did not live to see the final vote. He suffered a fatal heart attack two years earlier. His vision, however—and the bold activism of people like Kay Kerr, Esther Gulick, and Sylvia McLaughlin—became enshrined in a regulatory agency that was the first of its kind in the country.

BCDC becoming an official state agency marked two milestones in the evolution of Bay Area environmentalism. First, it gave environmental considerations a permanent place in state government. Second, the agency aimed to strike a balance between economic development and environmental conservation. Here’s Joe Bodovitz:

Joseph Bodovitz: But see, it worked both ways, because the more development-minded people had to take a look at marshlands, but similarly, the dyed—absolute, if that’s the right term, conservationists, had to understand there was an economy in the Bay Area, and that shipping, after all, did depend on ports, and ports did depend on dredging and deep water access. People sort of had to confront the legitimate interests of both conservation and development. The idea, again, that Mel felt very strongly about is that reasonable, fair-minded people, confronted with facts in a reasonably unemotional way, are going to come out largely agreeing to the same kinds of things. They may disagree on a particular permit or a particular issue, but no fair-minded person can say marshlands aren’t important. Similarly, no fair-minded person can say ports aren’t important to the Bay Area economy.

Sasha Khokha: In fact, in his oral history, Mel Lane talked about exactly this: how what made BCDC historic was its role as government mediator. It created and enforced rules across the Bay; and it occupied a middle ground between activists and developers. Mel Lane said that was core to its mission.

Melvin B. Lane: I have a theory I inherited from Dave Brower actually. And that is, that environmentalists should be extremists. They represent an extreme, and the people who are going to make a buck represent the other one, and the decision-maker should sweat it out in the middle. These battles are ones that you don’t solve them ever, with the coast or bay or air or water or whatever it is, because tomorrow there is another group of citizens and voters and government leaders, so those battles just go on forever.

[music]

Sasha Khokha: What began with the activism of three women in Berkeley, and a brave proposal from a state senator, flourished into an environmental agency whose impact would be felt for decades to come. The work of BCDC certainly saved San Francisco Bay. It also helped bolster a rising tide of conservation that, in time, led to the creation of similar state regulatory agencies, like the Tahoe Regional Planning Agency, the Delta Stewardship Council, and the equally historic California Coastal Commission, which both Joe Bodovitz and Mel Lane would also help steer in its formative years.

Yet, as the 20th century continued, the Bay Area once again found itself at a crossroads. Yes, environmental concerns now had a permanent place in government, but not everyone received equal treatment. Our next episode of Voices for the Environment explores how the disproportionate impact of pollution on communities of color led to calls for environmental justice.

You’ve been listening to “Tides of Conservation,” the second episode in the podcast for Voices for the Environment: A Century of Bay Area Activism. It’s an exhibition in The Bancroft Gallery at UC Berkeley that runs from October 2023 through November 2024. This segment featured historic interviews from the Oral History Center archives in The Bancroft Library at UC Berkeley. Interviews include Esther Gulick, Catherine “Kay’ Kerr, Sylvia McLaughlin, Joseph Bodovitz and Melvin B. Lane. To learn more about these interviews and the Oral History Center, visit the website listed in the show notes. This podcast was produced by Todd Holmes and Roger Eardley-Pryor, with help from me, Sasha Khokha. Thanks to KQED Public Radio and The California Report Magazine. I’m your host, Sasha Khokha. Thanks for listening!

End of Podcast Episode 2: “Tides of Conservation.”

ABOUT THE ORAL HISTORY CENTER

The Oral History Center of The Bancroft Library preserves voices of people from all walks of life, with varying political perspectives, national origins, and ethnic backgrounds. We are committed to open access and our oral histories and interpretive materials are available online at no cost to scholars and the public. You can find our oral histories from the search feature on our home page. Search by name, keyword, and several other criteria. Sign up for our monthly newsletter  featuring think pieces, new releases, podcasts, Q&As, and everything oral history. Access the most recent articles from our home page or go straight to our blog home.

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