“Listen to each other’s voices”: Karen Kobayashi

profile-karen_kobayashiDr. Karen Kobayashi is an Associate Professor in the Department of Sociology, University of Victoria. She has been involved in the Japanese Canadian community since her teenage years in Toronto, first as a member of the original NAJC Youth Group and later in her early adult years in Vancouver as a Board member of the National Nikkei Heritage Centre Society, the National Nikkei Museum and Heritage Centre Society, and as Chair of the Board of Tonari Gumi.

In this interview with Kyla, Karen discusses her personal motivations for and vision of accountable scholarship. Their conversation ranges from the role of Karen’s ethno-cultural background in shaping her interests, the influence of her grandmother, and her journey through academia while remaining connected to community organizations. 

You are quite often working on the ground with community members. You’re very much about community engagement. Could you talk about your work with the different organizations, what your role is?

[…] Community engagement. It’s an important question that–I would say it’s an important issue for me. Where my engagement came from, or stems from, is my realization that a lot of Sansei (third generation Japanese Canadians) were not really involved with community and I would say, in Toronto, they were involved through clubs or sortof forced language school participation, like my brother and I starting from elementary school age and onward. And I started to think more and more about continuity of the community when I was probably in my teens. And that’s when I became more engaged. When I say ‘more engaged’, it was a deeper engagement. Prior to that it had been rather superficial, very social, and, as I said, forced in many ways because my parents would take us to Odori practices at the cultural centre, my brother to judo practice. And then of course language school, where I think a lot of Sansei kids enter the community. That sort of marks the passage into community involvement, if you could say that’s involvement.

In terms of engagement, what my early involvement as a youth […] taught me was that it was important to […] retain a sense of my Japanese-Canadian identity that my grandmother had really nurtured from an early age in my brother and I. In order to maintain that, I thought, “Well I need to make, I need to be more active in seeking out connections.” So I continued–so the beginnings were in Toronto with the youth group and the NAJC which had started a youth group early on.

Actually, is it okay to go back historically like this? I’m just thinking, because currently my engagement, of course as I’ve said, is with Tonari Gumi, mainly and [the] National Nikkei Heritage Centre Society. For me, once I moved to Vancouver, the desire to continue to maintain those ties was there. And my husband encouraged that. […]

So it was quite easy for me, and when I first moved out Tonari Gumi was the first organization that really stood out to me as being grass roots, like truly grassroots. And I had met Takeo Yamashiro early on and Takeo-after Jun Hamada–he was the next executive director, but he was involved from the very beginning with Tonari Gumi, back in the early ’70s. We established a very strong friendship bond and he said, “You know, you’re the kind of person who we would like to get involved, particularly with your interest in aging and we serve, our programs and services are really targeting at the aging population within the Japanese community.” So I said okay. This was something that I wanted to do and while I was doing my PhD my supervisor said, “[…] There’s some scholarships available to do some small research projects. It sounds like something you could assist Tonari Gumi in developing programs through a small research grant and it would be part of your coursework here for the PhD program.” So that’s how I ended up working for them–quote unquote “for”–Tonari Gumi, but through funding from the public health Agency of Canada and the Canadian Association of Gerontology etc.

But Tonari Gumi to me really represents–when I think of a community engaged society, that is the one organization that comes to mind. They survive on grants and donations. And I’m not talking large grants and large donations, although most recently the largest donation they’ve ever received came to them and they were able to move locations and into a very nice area, sort of central Vancouver/central-west Vancouver, and start up anew, afresh. Because the previous location of Fraser Street was not ideal. There were issues with property crime etc. and it wasn’t really all that safe for a lot of the older adults who were participating so they made the decision–the board did as well as the staff–to move. […]

I’ve continued to work with them because I truly believe in, first of all their objective, their mandate, really is to help others. And help others to adapt. They’re an immigrant settlement organization as well. But they’re also an organization that seeks to help older adults to maintain their connection to community. Many of these older adults are marginalized because they’re of lower socio-economic status, they’re widowed women, quite a few of them. Some of them have language barriers, actually quite a few of them have language barriers in terms of their inability to speak fluently in English so they feel more comfortable speaking in Japanese. And Tonari Gumi is a place where all the staff are bilingual. […] I guess that gets to the heart of who participates as staff […] they really do live and breathe that mandate. That to me has been very evident in my work with TG. […]

Community engagement to me is really about giving back to a community that […] really helped my grandparent’s generation, my parents’ generation to […] regain that sense of national identity after Redress. A community that really helped them to do that, and I don’t think it ever fully happened for my grandmother, and the Issei really did lose everything. […]

For me, it’s a way of giving back, again, in memory of or in honor of my grandmother. So even if her transition to what we would call ‘full citizenship’ took longer and it wasn’t maybe fully realized, I think that she got to a point before she passed away in Toronto of recognizing and appreciating her Japanese Canadian heritage or that particular identity, and that to me was really important. I would say that what drives me to work with organizations that help with older adults is really that, the very close relationship that I had with my grandmother and her circle of friends. Who were all mostly aging women, because we know that they were widowed women, a lot of them lost their husbands early on and in Toronto there was a large, large group in the Danforth area where my grandmother owned a grocery store, where my mother’s family owned a grocery store. They used to congregate at the store and then later at her house, just for afternoon socials. So I would be dropped off there and I would be sortof amid all of these lovely women and I didn’t have the facility and the language, but you know, it sort of transcends, being able to communicate when you’re young like that. The language really didn’t matter.

Would you self-identify as an activist, both in your personal life and as a scholar? From what you just described there, there’s clearly a relationship between your own personal history as well as your academic pursuits. 

I mean absolutely, yeah. When I’m asked the question, [why] the social scientific study of aging, I would say it does go back to the relationship I had with my grandmother. I only had one grandmother, because my father’s mother passed away in Japan during the period of “repatriation” and both of my grandfather’s had passed away when I was very young, actually one before I was born and one when I was just one and a half so I never got to know them. But, as I said, in terms of activism and how this can relate to activism and my scholarship–that bridge between scholarship and activism–the research that I do on vulnerable populations, the focus on precarity in later life, looking at vulnerable and/or marginalized populations, is largely due to my disciplinary background or focus as a sociologist. Of course as sociologists we study the nature of social injustice, or inequality, we endeavor to research this in many different ways to bring it forward as a policy agenda item, which I think is really important. The reason why I work with immigrants in large part is because […] I do want to effect some sort of change, whether it be provincial level, […] or at the federal level.

[…] I think a lot of what we would term ‘public sociology’–which, in my eyes, there’s an equals sign there, which equals activism–It’s about working with community groups on the ground, recognizing voice, negotiating research questions from the beginning, not imposing a research agenda. And for me what I’ve learned the most, growing up, that we need to listen to others’ voices. My grandmother and her friends taught me that. They did it in very quiet, sort of subtle ways, but they were very powerful women within the community so their voices really did matter. And I recognize early on, and as I moved into taking a more active role in the community, that I brought that to the groups that I worked with. […] I would say that my interest in immigration, health, family, aging really stems from my ethno-cultural background or it’s grounded and rooted in my family’s history. And I don’t often acknowledge that. […]

I wouldn’t say that I’m an activist who is ‘out there.’ I’m a quiet activist who works to uncover or […] explore, you know, what is the etiology of inequality and how can we address the salient factors that impact the construction of inequality in Canada.

Would you say that sociology is inherently activist?

Yes, absolutely. I’m a believer and I think in this department, I don’t know one colleague who would say that our goal is not public sociology. In other words, to explore and present the research that we do to the public and what that entails is to make it accessible to the public. How do we increase “accessibility”? It’s not only by changing the language and saying, “Well it has to be in a layperson’s terms or words.” It must be grounded […] in the experience of the people, the participants, the respondents who are taking part in our studies, that we are privileged enough to be able to be working with. When we say “working with” it’s not that they’re coming in to do an interview with us, but that they’re actually helping us to understand what they’re saying and validating the ways in which we’re interpreting this data. That’s very necessary. It’s not only important, it’s necessary. 

The other piece on that was when I talked about taking it back and grounding the findings and the interpretation of those findings in the participants’ experiences and their perspectives themselves. It’s also that those research questions […], Knowledge Mobilization, public sociology, activism, and all these sorts of things have to start with partnership. A collaboration, a truly collaborative exercise which brings parties together to develop research questions that are relevant and important to the participants. 

That’s what guides the work that I do. Sure, it takes longer. People say, “What do you need three years of funding to do work with immigrant women who are dealing with elder abuse,” or something like that. “Why can’t the study be done? You’re only collecting data from ten women.” What I say is, “The first year of the study is going to be spent in consultation with these women and organizations that are helping women to actually come forward to talk about their stories.” That doesn’t happen in a month or two months. It takes often-times more than a year. And the question itself has not yet been fully developed; social research is a very iterative process so we keep going back to a revision of our question if we have to. I think funders […] really have to understand that true critical research that involves participatory action, participatory based methods, really requires more funding and more time than a RCT, randomized control trial, which oftentimes gets funded in health research. 

Activists and scholars that you admire. Who would they be?

Three people come to mind. First is in the community: Takeo Yamashiro. Who, again, [was a] founding member of Tonari Gumi. Who lived and breathed the organization goals, the mandate, the everyday. This is a man who in the eighties gave his telephone number to everyone who came in the door so that if they ever had a crisis at any time of day they could call him. This was at a time when there were no cell phones so his phone at home would be ringing […] so if anything happened, Takeo could run to the office. He was executive director for over two decades. When I said he lived and breathed it, he absolutely did. He was the […] champion of the organization, he was the face of the organization, but he was the face for a reason. He truly was available and accessible to the people who needed him all the time. 

[Takeo] actively campaigned with myself and others on the board in the 1990s to keep Tonari Gumi out of the Nikkei project in Burnaby. Because we didn’t believe that [was where] the centre–when we talk about the geographic centre of the community–really was. The community that Tonari Gumi, at the time when it was down on Powell Street, served were those who were vulnerable and living in the Downtown East Side or in East Vancouver, so that it was accessible to them via public transportation. And he believed that so strongly, in not moving or relocating. Because it would mean a disruption to the everyday life, the routine that so many of the regulars at Tonari Gumi had lived for many years, had grown accustomed to. So yes, Takeo Yamashiro. 

The other person in the community in Toronto who was my mentor and somebody who worked tirelessly for older adults: Hideko Yamashita, Heidi Yamashita. Who was a nurse, an RN by training, who rose to very high ranks in the professional work in Toronto, as an RN in long-term care but who–at a certain point in her life, when she decided to devote her life to Momiji–she wanted to counter [the status quo]. Momiji’s [board]–just as I think Nikkei Place or Nikkei Home’s was–was largely, in the beginning, Nissei men. That’s what I think Momiji was like, with very strong opinions about–and a vision, a very structured vision about what Momiji should look like. Heidi brought the human, day to day lived reality of older adults who are actually living in these long-term care facilities, where there’s not culturally sensitive or relevant or appropriate care. She saw this throughout the system in Toronto: pockets of Japanese-Canadian older adults who were sitting and declining because they weren’t in an environment that encouraged them to participate in a culturally appropriate way, etc., that recognized their life histories, that took that into account when trying to design an activity program for them. Her vision then, for Momiji, was to bring that. And she brought that, and she hired me and I will always be grateful to her for that. She died far too young but she was a visionary to me. And she pushed that group of men to adapt that programming and the service provision and the ways that the rooms were set up to accommodate for this. And I thought, “Wow.” She was an amazing woman. So she’s the second. 

The last one is my scholar; in terms of activist and mentor, would be my PhD supervisor Ellen Gee. Whose work had far reaching influence in bettering the lives of women in Canada writ large. She’s a demographer. She was a population level researcher but somebody who also had the sensibility to bring in her own experiences–at the micro-level her own family, at the miso-level with her own community–to construct questions that made sense to people. When we talked about a focus on marginalized or vulnerable communities, she’s the one that introduced me to the importance of recognizing that immigration status in intersection with visible minority status is a powerful determinant of health. It’s not only one or the other, it’s the intersection. Then add and intersect that with gender and age and you have cumulative disadvantage. I would say that those would be my three mentors. 


Find out more about Dr. Kobayashi’s work here and here.

– Kyla Fitzgerald, spring 2016

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