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  • Writer's pictureEmily

And now for something...completely different!

And not in the Monty Python way (or maybe, yes in the Monty Python way?)

I've been working away at a scarf for the last month (finally finished...yay!) but that's been the extent of my thinking about design and knitting. For the last few weeks, much of my time has been taken up with getting ready to take one of my absolute favorite organizations ever on a field trip to Little Tokyo in LA. That field trip was last Saturday. It was fabulous. And so much of what I've been doing with this group has to do with identity, being open-minded, exploring creativity, and seeking inspiration, that I wanted to share this group's work and my role with them with all of you.

In another and previous life, I worked at a museum in Los Angeles called the Japanese American National Museum. This is the place where I was first schooled in community history, learning from artifacts, the messiness of living history (you haven't lived until an 80-something grandma leaves a note on your office chair telling you why you're really wrong about something), and how amazing it is when lots of volunteers love to bring food from their gardens and kitchens. This was also a place where I confronted many issues of identity, history, collective trauma (not mine but how to listen and learn), etc. I eventually left to go on to graduate school and everything after, and yet I never left. Every time Luis the janitor sees me, he says "you're back!" And I say, "no! I'm just passing through!" This is a game we've played for over 10 years. Yeah, it's the Hotel California. You can never leave.

Here's the thing: while not a perfect place in any sense, the core mission of the institution still resonates with me, and is more important now than ever before. Through sharing the history and experiences of the Japanese American community--from immigration to wartime incarceration to rebuilding after that injustice--this institution contributes towards the claim that diversity and inclusion, in all of its complexity and messiness, leads to a better place for all of us.

As someone who can't claim just one identity in any context, this idea is not just a nice one, but a necessity. If this can't be true, how can there be a place for me, and the many others like me? For all of us who inhabit the in-betweenness and impossible to define-ness of obvious mixed identities (not to mention no one is not these things...just for some of us, that messiness is marked in our faces), we have to demand this is true, will be true, can be true. And so I appreciate every opportunity I have to work with this place that helped form me in my early 20s.

So last week I shared this place, and lovely Little Tokyo, with my favorite people in San Diego. The AjA Project, located in City Heights, uses photography as a tool of empowerment for a group of amazing young people from a range of backgrounds. Some are young Somali Muslim women who resettled with their families in San Diego as refugees. Others are Dreamers. Others are other people of color finding their way in this world and trying to figure out who they are, in all the ways that happens. Ethnicity, religion, sexuality, politics, beliefs, ideas--these young people are negotiating all of these. And I get to work with them from time to time. It's the most rewarding group of "students" I've ever had (sorry, my other students, I love you too...)

One group at the AjA Project is learning about Japanese American history to help them think about their own challenges with politics, oppressive policies, racism, and prejudice. It has allowed me to take all the random knowledge swimming in my head and make use of it, and I get to hang out with some cool and talented people in the process.

On Saturday, we hung out with some of the awesome JANM volunteers (thank you, Yae, Richard, and Bill!), who very generously shared their stories with a group of people who can relate in some of the most intimate and heart wrenching ways. (Nothing like young people who've experienced refugee camps to really get what being in a wartime camp might be like.)

Museum volunteers Yae Aihara, Richard Murakami, and Bill Shishima, share with the group what it was like for them to be forced from their homes and spend years of their childhoods behind barbed wire.

We wandered down First Street, where a public art project on the sidewalk shows the place's history through text that inform pedestrians what businesses once stood there, before the community was forcibly removed. (To find out more about this, read this book by the architect behind this great project.) We were even able to attend Allegiance, the musical that is actor George Takei's passion project and legacy. And we got to spend a few precious minutes with him afterwards.

AjA Project participants, staff, Clement from JANM, and me, with the incredible George Takei. He had another performance after this. He's 80!!! Truly such a generous person. As is his husband, Brad. Thank you!

As I write this, JANM's latest exhibit, "hapa .me: 15 years of the hapa project" is opening to the public. 15 years ago, just as I was starting grad school (holy crap, I'm old!) artist Kip Fulbeck brought his series of photos of "hapas" (slang that has come to mean mixed race, or asian mixed race...for a more in-depth explanation of this term's very complicated history, this is a good place to start) and their self-descriptions to the museum as the exhibit, Part Asian, 100% Hapa. This new exhibit features those 15-year old photos with photos of those same people now.

I snuck this while the exhibit was still being installed. Go check it out in its full glory!

It's a great exhibit, beautiful in its simplicity, profound in its multiplicity. Each person was asked that annoying yet ubiquitous question, "what are you?" and each portrait is paired with that person's hand-written answer, both then and now. Just go check out the exhibit (if you're in the on Thurs evenings and all day every 3rd Thurs!) I took my group in for a sneak peek. It was hard dragging them out, even though dinner was next and this group loves to eat. But there was something about these photos that kept them there, and really resonates with some of the work they've already done in past projects. One of these projects will be on view at JANM starting next month! (It will appear adjacent to this profound exhibit organized by the Arab American National Museum.)

"Collective Voices" piece getting installed (Josemar, AjA staff, putting things in place...once he FINALLY got there, 3 hours late!) I got to work with this group on part of this project as well. So much attitude and spunk in these images!

So instead of lots of thoughts on knitting and design, I've been thinking constantly about identity, who we are, what that means, and why it matters. But I think my own take on creating is informed by all of this, and so it relates, somehow.

I also just love this group so much, and I am sure you will too. So I wanted to share about them. Soon, they will be creating their own artistic work that reflects their thoughts on all of these issues. When that happens, this proud auntie will be sharing about it until you're sick of it. So stay tuned! Soon, I will be back to usual programming. But until then, how can you not just love this group?

Hamming it up outside of JANM. Photo by Alondra Rios.

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