[Name]: John Yuasa
[Areas of Expertise]: Nonprofit management, Government, Economic Development, Health, Housing, Diversity, Fundraising, Consulting, Food Justice, Transit
[Hub Berkeley Memory Lane]:
“My Spanish was pretty good, and because I didn’t look like a typical American, the people there thought I was Dominican. While other Peace Corps volunteers were getting yelled at– (“Go home Yanqui!”)– I could walk down the street un-harassed. They would all wave at me and say ‘Heyyy, Chino!” They thought I was the son of a local Chinese restaurant owner!”
But John’s story stretches farther back than Berkeley, law, and consulting. His saga actually begins at the Tanforan racetrack, where his father and pregnant mother were amongst 8,000 Japanese-Americans being held in horse stables en route to an internment camp in Topaz, Utah.
The year was 1942, and Japanese Americans were being sent away from the Bay Area in mass, as a result of racism and American governmental fear of spying and intelligence leaks. John was born within the temporary racetrack camp, and as soon as he was old enough to travel, the entire family was sent to Utah to live for three years in squalid conditions.
“I was too young to remember it, and maybe that’s a good thing,” John speculates, “My parents never talked about it but the one time I asked them they started crying. I never brought it up again.”
Though John’s parents didn’t discuss painful memories of internment, politics was a popular topic of discussion while John was growing up in Berkeley. His father, who had a Masters in Architecture from Cal, worked closely with a lot of prominent Quakers in the Berkeley Friends. With parents who were “typical liberal protesters,” John grew up being exposed to politics from an early age.
“My roots are in Civil rights and social justice,” John explains, “When I was in school at Berkeley, I was really involved with the Free Speech movement, protesting Vietnam– guys like John F Kennedy and Martin Luther King were my inspiration,” he explains.
It’s no surprise that when Kennedy announced the Peace Corps, John decided to drop out of school and head to the Dominican Republic. Having studied electrical engineering at Cal, the Peace Corps assigned John to the Engineering Department of the Dominican Republic’s governmental Office of Community Development.
“My Spanish was pretty good, and because I didn’t look like a typical American, the people there thought I was Dominican. While other Peace Corps volunteers were getting yelled at– (“Go home Yanqui!”)– I could walk down the street un-harassed. They would all wave at me and say ‘Heyyy, Chino!’ They thought I was the son of a local Chinese restaurant owner!”
John returned to the Bay Area and got involved with the War on Poverty and politics in South Alameda County, and eventually ended up working with the Oakland Economic Development Corporation. John’s boss and mentor Percy convinced John that Oakland needed more minority voices in politics, and encouraged him to run for public office. In order to prepare for such a career, Percy told John he’d need to go to law school.
John decided to follow this advice and went back to Cal to finish his degree in Political science. At the UC Hastings School of Law, he worked on Fair Housing Investigations in San Francisco. Upon graduation, he was selected for a fellowship with HEW (Health Education and Welfare) in Washington D.C. As a HEW fellow, John worked in urban issues such as poverty and teen pregnancy.
Soon after, John was offered an appointment with the Carter administration in the Office of Federal Contract Compliance, a civil rights enforcement arm within the Department of Labor that enforced affirmative action programs for government contractors. John was only in his 30’s.
When Reagan was elected president, John lost his job. It wasn’t the first time. Years before, John had lost a job as program manager at OEDCI (Oakland Economic Development Corporation Inc), Oakland’s primary poverty alleviation program, as Reagan (then Governor of California) cut funding to social services citing what proved to be a faulty model of supply side economics. “That’s why I have no love for Reagan,” John laughs.
After a stint with the NYC Transit Authority, John opened his own manufacturing company in Connecticut that sold replacement parts for subway transit systems. He ran the company for 13 years before returning to Oakland, where he worked as a lobbyist for the Friends Committee on legislature in Sacramento before being offered a position at the Greenlining Institute, where he served as the Health Policy Director for almost eight years.
Civil rights have remained a common thread throughout John’s career. He has also served as the Executive Director of several non-profits, including the Tiburcio Vasquez Health Center and the East Bay Asian Local Development Corporation. He directed Claiming Our Democracy, the Health Career Connection , and chaired the Board of Directors for People’s Grocery.
The story with People’s Grocery is a small world coincidence. John’s parents had been friends with a prominent Quaker couple back in the day, “when our parents were always getting arrested for protests.” John was friends with all of the kids, except one who was much younger. Upon returning to California, he ran into the Quaker couple, who invited him to come to dinner. There, he was reacquainted with the son who he had only known as a little boy. John was asked if he would help his daughter who was starting a nonprofit in Oakland.
That young woman turned out to be Malaika Edwards, Co-founder of People’s Grocery. John reached out to her, but she was slow to respond. Not one to give up easily, John began attending events, just to see what they were up to.
“At first, they probably thought who is this old guy? But eventually, they must have realized I had a lot of experience in fundraising, strategic planning, nonprofit management, etc and I was invited to join the first Board of Directors.”
John thought these well-wishers must be crazy. But several of these people were folks that John deeply respected, and he decided to pitch the idea to several of his executive director friends over lunch. Within two weeks, John had four clients. He left his job at HCC, and started building his business.
At first, John tried working at home. But with four animals and his domestic partner, Gabrielle Lessard, working across the table from him, John articulates that “it was just ridiculous.” There was constant interruption, so Gabrielle suggested he look into the Hub.
John called Hub Berkeley and met with the Hub host who asked him about his goals and expertise.
“On the first day, Meredith started introducing me to people in the space– she would say ‘let me introduce you to some people you might like to know based on your interests…’ and I’d say ‘Oh, I dunno,’ but then she was really good about connecting me to people who were working on the same stuff I was thinking about.”
One of the first people John was introduced to at the Hub was Ned Schaub (of MissionWise). The two had lunch, and hit it off. Turns out Ned had leased space at the Insight Center, the organization of which Gabrielle was the Legal Director. John went home that evening, and asked Gabrielle, “Hey, do you know Ned Schaub?”
“Of course!” she said, “He’s the one who told me about the Hub!”
Shortly thereafter, John was interviewed at UC Berkeley by a team of Boalt Law students for a class on nonprofit and business law. Janelle Orsi was on the panel of students, John remembers.
“When I mentioned I was Head of the Board of Directors at People’s Grocery, Janelle totally freaked out. She wanted to know everything about it, and eventually started visiting and volunteering at some of the events.”
Turns out Janelle was a Hub member too. Later that year, Janelle co-founded SELC with Jenny Kassan of Katovich Law Group, who coincidentally had worked on the same project as Gabrielle years back. Gabrielle now works closely with Jenny at Katovich and recently posted on the Katovich Law Group blog.
Since joining the Hub, John and Gabrielle have also started a student co-op for undocumented students to get paid for doing research, Manny Garcia Services. John has also found time to raise three children, each of whom seem to be carving a path as unique as John’s own. John’s daughter, in particular, is carrying on the family flag for social justice within her role as the VP of Finance of the San Jose Giants. Cami Yuasa started the Giants Sports Foundation, which allows underprivileged youth to play baseball.
One could write a book on John Yuasa (maybe I just did?) But John is modest as to the uniqueness of his exploits and accomplishments. “When people tell me, wow you’ve been everywhere and done so much, I just tell them– yeah that’s just because I’m so old!” Maybe there is a little John in all of us– it’s the voice telling us to move in the direction of opportunities and justice, no matter how unrelated they initially may seem. Look for John at Hub Berkeley, or check out his consulting at http://johnyuasa.com/.
This Two Part Story brought to you (in great length) by:
Samantha, your Hub Stories Correspondent