Isao’s Porch: Growing Community in California
Interview with Isao Fujimoto on September 20, 1999
The interview with Isao Fujimoto takes place on a grey San Francisco morning in a Tenderloin district hotel. Isao is here from Davis, with students from his Urban Community Resources class who spend several days in one of the poorest parts of San Francisco to learn about the problems here and how local groups are addressing them. At least that’s part of why they are here. “We try to set up situations where people gain insights and they see other people doing good things…I think what’s going on here is incubation. Incubation of how people shape their lives.”
Isao has spent decades studying, developing and contributing to community as a professor, non-profit consultant and individual. In fact Isao is so steeped in his purpose that like the mythical Midas with the golden touch, he seems to create community, and spur activism, wherever he goes. “He doesn’t just develop people, he’s interested in doing what he can to help them grow. He tries to provide conditions in which they will thrive,” says Mark Miller, Isao’s colleague at American Friends Service Committee (AFSC).
The Crux is Community
Kerry: Can you tell me a little about your background? When did you become a professor at UC Davis and why?
Isao: I’ve been there since 1967. And I had finished up field work in the Philippines. I was there from 64-66. At that time I was focused on village development – so part of my stay in the Philippines was teaching at the Philippines College of Agriculture and at the same time carrying out research. I studied pretty much every city in the Philippines and towns in about 3 different provinces plus about 40 villages in this one province where I was located. After that I came back to Cornell where I was studying, and then started in at Davis. This was in 67.
I started teaching in a department called Applied Behavioural Sciences…Eventually I organized the graduate program in Community Development…Some of the interesting features about that program was really to get students involved in having some say about their education. We had people who designed their own majors. It also emphasised a project and also internships. So I started an internship program where people went out and spent a whole quarter away in a different community.
Kerry: You initiated a lot!
Isao: That’s right. I started about 3 different things at Davis. In 1968, they had all these strikes going on. Out of that came the ethnic studies movement. I worked with the Asian American students there and we started the Asian American Studies program also. So, all of these had, I think, for me, certain common themes. I think the crux is really community. You know, what does community mean in our lives? No matter what you choose to do you have to deal with that. And the other thing is, not only what does it mean, but what’s my role in it? No matter where you are you can make a contribution, right.
The courses I teach use that perspective. The courses I teach in Japan every summer also- I’ve done that for the last 10 years…For people who don’t know the language or don’t know about Asia I find that using the focus of getting people in touch with citizens movements, grassroots efforts, neighbourhood improvements, if they do that in Japan, they get to know quite a lot about contemporary Japan.
Kerry: Can you change the world?
Isao: Yeah. I think you can. I mean, I think you can do anything if you take a realistic, step by step approach. You can’t change the whole world, but everybody can do something that will help their family, their neighbourhood, people they work with. They can always make positive, constructive contributions. If other people do that too, it does make a big difference.
Kerry: If somebody came up to you and said, I want to make the world a better place, what would you tell them to do?
Isao: I’d just say, let’s just start from where you are. What do you like to do? What are you good at? What kind of skills do you have? And where do youlive? Just think in terms of what can you do to make your place a better place. Starting with your own home. If people are going to do anything – they really have to start with a good base. You have to really start with yourself. Be in good health, be open, not have a lot of stress: you work on those things.
Kerry: So you would say, become a rounded person first.
Isao: That’s right. Take care of yourself and if you take care of people close to you then that’s how the foundations get built up.
Kerry: And what if somebody said to you “I’m fine. I’m happy and stress free, but I want to go do something, but I don’t know where to go?” What would you say? Let’s say they were a lawyer or…
Isao: For almost every field, I guess you could say this. You know after this class, people say, gee I should change my major. Maybe I should become a policeman or social worker or…and my answer is no, no. Don’t change your major. You want to do what you know best. If you’re a good engineer or good mathematician stick to it. If you’re a lawyer, be that. Because you want to be true to yourself. You want to take advantage of your own energy and your own skills. To make a difference it’s not what you do, it’s how you do it that’s going to make a difference. So you can become a doctor and a good specialist and you can settle in an urban area, and have very high priced clients. Or you can be a doctor and you can answer an ad, I see it in towns in a lot of towns in northern California, saying look, we have no doctor, please telephone us. You can go to a place like that. You’re still a doctor. You could be a lawyer and you could become a lawyer for a big corporate firm or advertising company or a politician and make lots of money, or you could do a lot of pro-bono work for neighbourhood groups. You can take any profession, anything you do. It’s really a matter of how you do something. How and where you do something that makes a difference.
Kerry: Can you describe your work. What activities are you involved in? How do you spend your time?
Isao: A lot of my work is with community based organizations. I work with the AFSC [American Friends Service Committee]. I’m on their national Affirmative Action Committee. I’ve been working with various committees at AFSC for 40 years. A lot of it in the peace and social justice field. I work with CIRS (California Institute of Rural Studies)….Central Valley Partnership For Citizenship (groups involved with immigrants, new citizens)…Global Exchange, Data Center…. All the groups that I work with have a lot of common concerns and focus….
[There are] also many groups at Davis I work with. That goes back to what I was saying earlier about trying to work with your own community. Since I taught courses in community development and community research for many years at Davis, people who took these classes have gone to many different parts of California, and many of these people really have made good contributions, but a good number of them also stayed in Davis. And the Davis community has gone through many changes during the time that I’ve been there. There’s a lot of people that I’ve had in my classes that did really good things in town. I don’t take credit for them, but I knew them…Some of these people have become leaders in the community, a couple of them have become mayors of the town. They started the farmers market. Many of these groups originally had their office in my own house. At one point I had five organizations in my back porch.
In the seventies I was involved in appropriate technology on a national level. I took a leave of absence and was the Associate Director for the National Center for Appropriate Technology. When I came back I found there were more organizations in the house. The Davis farmers market, which is a big entity now, we had the office there, and there was an alternative paper, and there was one organic farm co-op. In a way the house itself became a place where you could put into practice all these ideas. How do you getpeople to work together? In fact we tried lots of experiments in the house too. How can you take a regular house in a suburban town and try to save energy and be a network? We even created jobs. One organization in the house got a grant, something about employment. So that, I think, demonstrates what a household can do.You can work on a local level and see results and see very good things happen.
Today Davis has a national reputation as a community that a lot of people come to visit because there’s a lot of different examples, from bicycle paths to different neighbourhoods that have gone solar. There’s a big nucleus of people who are doing organic farming. The farmers market is always cited as one of the better examples in California. So all these things have happened. So this is an example of putting your energy into helping out other people in your own home town. And then you can work with other people.
A lot of my work has been in California. Now what’s happened though is, this was all in the eighties and in the early eighties I started getting visitors from other countries. And in 82, there was a group of about a dozen people representing different movements: the women’s movement, environmental movement, the nuclear freeze movement, all this in Japan. And they ended up in my house and we put them in touch with a lot of other groups. And about 10 years later a lot of people that came [earlier], became leaders of their movement in Japan.
So I got an invitation to come to Japan and talk. And the first one was a conference on food self-sufficiency for Asian countries. There was a real concern that the family farmers, especially rice farmers in Japan, Thailand, Taiwan, Korea, would really be affected if California rice exports opened a market there. So what can farmers in Asia, especially small scale farmers which is what the majority are, do? They had a conference on that. And the invitation came about because some of the people who came originally about a decade earlier, had been hearing about all the work that we had been doing in California, and Davis in particular.
And then a year after that there was another conference organized by a whole group of people called PP21. That means People’s Plan for the 21st century. And they organized 15 simultaneous conferences. One would be for women, another would be for indigenous people, another would be for farming, another environment, another critiquing the Japanese overseas aid program. So there were all these conferences going on and then at the very end they invited people from all these conferences to meet in one place.
And we ended up in a place called Minamata. Minamata has this kind of reputation as an environmental disaster site. That’s where mercury poisoning took place because of the contamination of a chemical company into the bay the mercury got collected in the food chain. And so when people ate the fish they became mentally and physically crippled. So you had all these people who are suffering from this Minamata Disease. And so, the conference met there more or less as a statement of support. But also it highlighted the problems of the 20th century in terms of the push for industrial growth and economic change but all at the price of the environment and the people. So it really, at that conference, at those conferences we brought 200 different organizers from every Asian country, plus people from Central America, and a few from North America. There’s kind of an international focus. So here, I was learning about the world, just by staying at home. Because I was getting all these visitors. And then eventually I started going to Japan in ‘88, ‘89. And then in ‘91 we started this program where I teach this course in Japan through the UC Davis summer session. Now, every summer I teach this course on citizens movements in Japan, it’s called Community and Everyday Life in Japan.
Organizing at Home
Kerry: When you first said, they all came to your house, did you mean literally like a group of 12 people crashed, or stayed at your house? How did that happen?
Isao: There’s a snowball effect. My household was run as a kind of cooperative venture. So I had a bunch of different people living there, including a couple of people who were teaching people how to do organic gardening to Peace Corps volunteers in Central America. So they were living in the house. Some guy from England had come to study agriculture. And one of these people had a friend who was teaching in Japan and he wanted to organize a trip. He asked if they could come to Davis to help him out. So that’s how I met this whole group. Initially I was helping him out, to make the contacts and all, and as they found out more and more about what I was doing, they kept in touch.
The other thing I should mention is that I’m a member of SEARVAS. SERVAS is an international network of hosts for travellers…We were members of SERVAS for 30 years so I used to get lots of different requests from people asking can I stay overnight with you. So this is another part of kind ofpersonal, international bridge-building….The irony is when I went to do graduate work in Cornell…I was going to do international work. But then I came to Davis and I found that I wasn’t going anywhere at all. I just stayed in California for the first 20 years. Even though I was in California, I was learning a lot about international situations, because instead of me going out, people were coming to Davis for all kinds of reasons…So I was learning about the world just by staying at home. That’s another lesson to apply too. You don’t have to go all over the place to get involved…You take care of where you are. If you take care of where you are all these other people may show up too. That’s what happened in the case for me at Davis.
Kerry: Right now you’re involved in all these different nonprofits. Are you also a full time professor?
Isao: I took a voluntary retirement 5 years ago. But for me it seemed more like a technicality because I was spending more time at the university. It didn’t free me up. Because I don’t teach so much it allows me to do all these other…I used to do that, but it was a real drain on energy. And now I can be much more focused, so that helps a lot.
The other thing I haven’t mentioned at all is the ethnic part. Kind a driving interest is my own background. I grew up on an Indian reservation in the state of Washington. The reason for being on that reservation was the Alien Land Law which was directed against immigrants from Japan. They said people who have not qualified for citizenship cannot lease their own land. And was targeted against immigrants from Japan who were family farmers and Japanese. Asians could not become citizens. The Yakima Indians really came through for us. As a result there were 125 immigrant families on the Yakima Indian reservation, farming. This was in the thirties. I saw a very important lesson there, growing up on the Indian reservation. And one was watching how people help each other out. And the best example I could tell you is – see my father was a carpenter, he was farming too, but because of his skill he was asked to really take leadership in constructing a big annex to the Buddhist temple that was built on the reservation. He organized all the farmers who’d come in on weekends and volunteer their time and he’d get all the materials and then go around supervising people. He spent so much time doing this that our farm was going to weed, just going to pot! Then one day, 50 farmers showed up, and they just cleaned the whole field out. To me that was a good example – my father’s helping out the community and in turn the community came to help us out. And I think that’s the crux of what it means to build community.
Activism, Appreciation, Incubation
Kerry: Do you call yourself an activist?
Isao: Yeah, I think so.
Kerry: Do you think of your work in those terms?
Isao: Yeah. What would be the opposite of activist, anyway? In a way I guess we all are. I think so.
Isao: I’m thinking about the way to describe. Activists can take many forms. And most of us get this picture of person who might be on a picket line or protesting but activists do all kinds of things. I think one of the key things about an activist is one, to be focused on certain kinds of issues and secondly to be thinking in terms of how to bring forces and energy to bear on them and thirdly is to do something about it. And do to something about it really meansconnecting people up, bringing people together, finding resources, plugging in. If you do all those you are an activist.
Kerry: I always try to get at this moment when someone becomes an activist. Can you identify when that happened?
Isao: For me it seems more gradual in retrospect. For example, going back to my connection with AFSC. When I was in the Heart Mountain Concentration camp, this was in the winter of 1942. A young person came to our barracks and said, there’s a present for you. There’s presents for everybody in this camp. And we were completely astounded you know cause we were in prison. And we didn’t think people outside were thinking about us. But there were presents that came from anonymous groups of people in very small towns in Nebraska, Iowa, the Dakotas. You know I was really surprised to see this. And one of them said “AFSC”. I had no idea who these people were. And then later on, many yearslater, after the war was over, I found out who they were. I came out of service in Korea in 1950.
One of the first things I did after being discharged, I went to the AFSC office that was located on Sutter street at the time, in the middle of Japan Town and the reason it was there was the AFSC office in Northern California became very active during the war with a focus on helping people get relocated from the camps. They are the only group I know about that went to the camps to help out in all kinds of ways. And one of the most amazing things they did was help out the college aged students get out of the camps and find them a place to continue their education. So they had to scout around and find all these really small schools, [in Minnesota and Iowa], and they had to contact the college, contact the people in the community, and assure their safety that these people won’t do anything wrong…They were able to relocate, I think 5000 students. They got them out of camp, and they were able to continue their education. And the result is, instead of losing four years, all these people were able to finish up and they were able then to become, after the war, supportive of their families, to contribute to the community, provide leadership. This is what AFSC did. It was a tremendous thing.
And so, when I went to AFSC, I said look you know I really appreciate what you’ve done during the war time and I’m willing to put in my time for you. That was in 58. Ever since that time I’ve been on these committees. I would say – at that time I didn’t realize it – but all this time I had this sense of appreciation, and how do you pay people back who come through for you?
So, I gave this example of my father and the building of the Buddhist temple. Again, I may not have thought about it at that time, but now I look back on that and that’s a tremendous example of what it means to work as a community. For me it’s not so much an aha thing, but all these things are gestating. They’re in your mind and these experiences I think build up in you. This is what created insights. I think it says a lot about what kind of experiences do you give to young people? The more you expose people to constructive possibilities, good examples, put them in situations where they learn. And so I think that’s been, maybe not even consciously but intuitively I think that relates to the courses I teach. All these courses that I mentioned to you are ones where we try to set up situations or structure experiences where people do gain insights. And they see other people doing good things. Even [people] with tremendous handicaps and odds. And I think this sets into motion in people’s…it’s not just in the mind, it’s spiritual and in the heart and all. And this is being harnessed. I think what’s going on here is incubation. Incubation of how people shape their lives. I wonder what is it that accounts for the fact that despite all these very negative things that are going on, there seem to be a lot of good people around? And in fact I think people are incubating these examples in the families they live in, maybe the kind of spiritual guidance they’re getting, examples they learn in schools, friends who help out, so these all accumulate. You can say the same thing for other things; negative experiences, and you get bitter about it and things don’t work out. But if the other part is strong, it can even turn bitter, negative experiences into something very positive too. So, I think there’s kind of an awareness. Things don’t happen all of a sudden; it’s very cumulative. And there’s this thing about building up and incubating and gestating – it’s all, I think it’s all part of this. I think for me it’s this constant kind of reflection and realization.
Kerry: What do you think about America? How do you feel about America and being American?
Isao: I think there’s a lot of ways to summarize the situation. People say, what’s one word to describe America? I think one good word is “possibility.” Lots of things are possible here. It’s not going to happen automatically. People really have to contribute, to work, to be able to call things the way they are. Rather than just say criticize or let things alone, you really have to respond to that. I think that’s a good thing. Another thing – I heard somebody else say if they chose one word to describe America it would be “access.” Because that word describes very well what people can attain or reach, which is not possible in many other societies. Whereas here there are resources, there are opportunities, and there are ways to access them. So I think those two words describe this country pretty well. Which means that it’s not all glory but it says something about the potential but it also says something about the responsibility in each person to act from those truths. You have to do something.
Kerry: How do you feel about being American?
Isao: I think it’s a positive…I’ve seen a lot of changes. There’s a kind of a sense of responsibility going back to those two words, access and possibility. These are really advantages. If you have these kind of advantages you really have to think in terms of how to share that. You just can’t say, oh it’s good for me. It’s a privilege. So being an American means recognizing the good fortune that you have but also being able to go beyond that. Part of being American is excessive generosity…despite all of the negativities that are around. I think the negativities force a lot of us to be much more thoughtful and analytical – to say hey why’s this happening, what are we going to do about it? I think this is what motivates a lot of people who are activists. People who take part. It’s not a matter of just doing something unjust to keep busy. You want to do something because you see a situation and want to make sense of it.
Kerry: Do you feel any sense of nationalism? Do you feel like you’re responsible for what the government does?
Isao: …It’s very important for people to recognize where they themselves stand and also what the national government does. This is very important in the whole world because in most situations where we make the biggest mistake is when we give aid or assistance, most people assume it’s going to go to the people. But most of the stuff goes right to the top, goes to the government; it goes from government to government and may not trickle down at all…So it’s the distinction between what the government stands for and what the people themselves portray are very distinct. When I hear people say “we’re the best country in the world”, “we’re number one” I think they’re mistaken, they’re perpetuating this image that they are representing national government and they don’t need to do that. People could be very good citizens of a country but be honest, be themselves. When they do that I think they also represent what this country stands for.
Kerry: Do you have an ideology?
Isao: I think all of us operate with a world view. And the world view may not have a label at all. Some people use the world view that comes from a pretty organized perspective – a religious perspective., or government or economic perspective. So we have all these names – democratic, Christian, Marxist whatever it is. I think that’s a short cut. And I think it really helps much more that people reflect on where do their values and ideas come from. And it turns out to be an amalgamation. And for me a lot of my actions and the reason why I do certain things comes from a variety of sources. One is, I’m beginning to realize more and more that what I do is really grounded in very ancient wisdom. Mainly it comes from the eastern Buddhist traditions. I grew up in a Buddhist community. I go to the village where my father comes from – a very small village – but the temple is a Zen temple. The other one is thewhole notion about ethnic identity. Especially the ethnic group that’s been in an area which may provide a hostile environment. So you have that kind of situation when there are certain kinds of strategies you can work out in terms of being supportive, being very very alert, being aware of obstacles that you have to overcome. You build up these kinds of insights. And the other one is growing up in America you come up with a lot of imprinted perspectives. I think there are certain very key values that you learn growing up in this country. One is the whole notion that you could do whatever you want to do; you can do whatever you put your mind to. That’s very important value. The other one, much more egalitarian value, is anybody has a right to get started. That’s why some many people come to this country, right? There’s another value that kind of separates people out which is called “anybody can get as big as they want.” I think we get in trouble on that…My ideology or world view is a blending of these kinds of very strong experiences; I tend to have more of an integrated approach knowing that we’re not alone; knowing that we are where we are because of so many other sacrifices made by so many people; and that we have a role to play – everybody has something to contribute. You know, we’re not going to be around very long so you know, you give what you can.
Kerry: If you could change anything about the way this country or the world is run, if you could pull out one thing you could fix, is there anything in particular that stands out for you that needs fixing?
Isao: What surprises me is the School for the Americas. It’s a real contradiction. Because here you’re talking about a country that professes these values that have been important to me – access, fairness and all that. And yet we have something called the School for the Americas that trains people to really do bad things to others. And we keep on doing it. Despite a whole lot of protest and the question is, why does it exist? Why are we doing this? Why do we keep on as a nation, why do we support bad people and bad situations? So to me, that’s one of the questions. How do you stop that? How do you turn it around? How do you make things much more consistent? Namely this whole thing about countries saying one thing and doing another? It’s a contradiction. How do we deal with these contradictions? Especially when it affects the lives of so many people. It’s one thing for a person to live with their own personal demons and contradictions; you’d better work it out. But when you have contradictions that bring so much damage to other people, then it’s something quite different. Very serious. So, that’s on my mind right now. How do we stop this kind of thing? How do we live out our principles? How does everybody who lives in the country also live these out? Because we seem to have a lot of divergence here. People who profess believing things like this is a great country and protect the constitution, and all that and yet they do all these things! Like the NRA is a very good example. They think that what they’re doing is right in the Bill of Rights, and yet it’s not. But you know, they perpetuate this myth. So, that’s a big question. That occupies me in terms of its priority as an issue. It’s very serious kinds of evil acts: how do you deal with that?
Kerry: Do you have any mentors?
Isao: There are many many people. Our lives are full of people who have had a big impact on us. It doesn’t have to be famous people…I find a lot of the statements my mother and father made to me also had deep roots. You know I thought I just came from them. But I realized that what they were saying to me really had deep roots in this kind of ancient wisdom I talked about. Like my mom was telling me – here we are, living in this sparse area on an Indian reservation and people are really struggling – but she was saying… people really don’t understand life unless they know what suffering is. But it turns out, as I learn more about Buddhism, that’s one of the basic tenets of Buddhism. They believe the truth is that there’s suffering in life and its everywhere, but then there’s a way to solve it, a way to deal with it too. So here’s a mother passing on things that she’s learned. And for me as a kid I felt this as very ordinary. But ordinary things are really rooted in this very ancient wisdom. So I mean that’s an example of a mentor.
There are many other people I can think about the people who I knew many years later how great there were. On the Indian reservation there was a Japanese teacher…he was a real bridge between the reservation and the town at large, which happened to be very racist. I didn’t realize that the KKK was active there. This was in Yakima valley in eastern Washington. I learned about these things many years afterwards…This man had coached this [basketball] team that became a powerhouse in this local area. The Caucasian population found it hard to deal with this Japanese Americana team….There was another Buddhist minister on the reservation. Last time I saw him was 1942 in the camps…He was a very young guy. He and my father worked together…When I went to these conferences 10 years ago…I went to a professor and said, can you help me trace this man? He made two phone calls and found him. Turns out he was famous….I said, what do you do? He said “I travel all over Japan and I meet these people and I give these talks on how do you apply ideas of Buddhism in everyday life.” [he was 82]….again, I flash back on people like him. They’re very important mentors. You know they’re doing something important.
Kerry: When were you born?
Isao: I was born in 33 in the town ofWappapo which is in the Yakima Indian reservation. I was there until about 8 and then the war started and then we got moved to the camps – concentration camp. Iwent to 3 places: went to Portland assembly center, ** Wyoming, then Toulon, California. I got out in December of 45. That’s about 3 and a half years. That was my introduction to California – in a concentration camp. Then we settled in Pleasanton. See, it’s just like leaving jail. The relocation authorities try to help you find a job. My father became a section hand for the Southern Pacific Railroad, fixing railroad ties and all that. So I lived in this section house in Pleasanton. Pleasanton was a very small town – about 3000 people – and had3 navy bases around it…We lived in a small railroad section house, 8 of us at that time. Went to a local garment school for a year. Then my father realized, we need to get out of here, and reading the ethnic papers, there were all these ads for people to sharecrop strawberries and that’s where we ended up . I ended up in Santa Clara valley and we share cropped for 4 years for Crisco and we just saved money so we could rent our own land. And we rented land for another 4 years and then with what we saved we were able to buy 20 acres of land. And at that time we could buy land for 1000 dollars an acre…That enabled our family to get away from share-farming, leasing.
“The body will tell you to stop”
Kerry: You were talking about how people need to take care of themselves first. Do you ever experience burn out? Do you ever want to just take a vacation?
Isao: Here’s what’s happens. When you don’t pay attention, your body will tell you to stop. It’s happened to me several times. It’s happened for me in very dramatic ways. One was I lost my hearing. This was in the 80s. I’ve always had bad hearing, ever since I was six years old…But then about 20 years ago I was having difficulty hearing anything at all and it turned out to be nerve damage. And the surgery done didn’t work at all. As a result I lost hearing in my one good ear, and in my bad ear I had very little hearing. I got an aid for it. So I really had to really struggle to learn to read lips and all. But I think one factor probably was the stress, doing all kinds of things while carrying a heavy teaching load and being involved with all kinds of people, family. I think it was a message saying, you have too much information, too much overload, you really have to stop. That was a pretty major one.
And then another thing happened about 10 years later when I was diagnosed as having all my arteries blocked,which really shocked me because I don’t fit the description of anybody that is pegged with heart disease – namely, overweight, smoking, all these other kind of physical factors, I don’t fit any of them. Yet I couldn’t figure out why that was. I had to get bypass surgery, this was 10 years ago. And again I reflect back on it and you know I have a hunch that it was probably stress that contributed to that too so I got another big message. So that’s why five years later I took this chance the UC offered to take early retirement. And since I had already put in about 27 years there anyway, I thought, wow maybe this is another important opportunity. So, leaving 5 years before I would probably retire, I could probably be on kind of permanent fellowship. So that’s what I’ve been doing.
The last five years have been very much devoted to all these community groups I would normally work with but now it’s with more focus, see.
Kerry: Immediately after your hearing surgery did you slow down?
Isao: You had no choice. Because when I lost my hearing I did go back to teaching very shortly. And it turned out to be not a good thing. First of all, most people don’t take into account that other people may have a certain kind of disability or handicap. They expect you to be treated like normally. So if I can’t hear people, people complained they’d say, hey we’re not learning anything. So it was a real struggle to get back up to normal. And I had to figure out all kinds of strategies so I could communicate with people. It’s the same thing with any kind of debilitating illness. If you have heart surgery, you also have to think in terms of changing your pace. So these are wake up calls in a way. I wasn’t doing it myself. The body had to tell me to stop.
Kerry: Do you listen to your body now?
Isao: Yeah, I don’t have much choice. It’s easy to slip out, but I think part of being able to do good work is to have a lot of good energy around you. And the good energy comes from, mostly pretty qualitative sources: other friends, people who are also doing other good things – good inspiration; and then really not wasting too much time on negative feelings – you can’t spend your time just feeling angry, or trying to do things that you can’t do anything about. You have to choose. So it’s a matter I think of maintaining a kind of positive outlook on things. And kind of choosing where you want to spend your energy, spend your time.
Drawing on the Wisdom of the Past
Kerry: Do you call yourself spiritual?
Isao: Yeah. I think – that’s a pretty important element. I think a lot of people involved in doing things, the focus seems to be on intellectual ability and on physical energy. And I think those are very important. But I think areal underlying dimension, that really provides meaning and direction to the work is the spiritual dimension. And the spiritual dimension is something that – not necessarily has to do with organized religion as such – it’s something that you really can not quantify or even describe. It’s one thing to measure physical things, and people now even measure emotional things – you know like happiness – but the spiritual thing is something I think beyond it all . And it has to do with drawing on the wisdom of the past and about the wisdom also of people that you see all around you and there’s something that you know is much bigger than any of us put together. That’s the spiritual part. That’s really a very critical part of all our lives. And I think the more we recognize it the better I think we’ll all be.
And it’s no surprise that…people who have lasted the longest have been the most spiritual. I’m referring to the indigenous populations all over the world. They’ve been around 5,000 years. Yes, they seem to be knocked out because of technological advances. But the reason why they’ve been able to last so long, I think, like the Aborigines, native tribes, the most important thing in life is really the spiritual practices.
I notice this in Japan too. …Probably the most important day in Japan, or the one that’s really kind of honoured is Obon. It’s a day in Japan when everybody has to go back to their home village and they pay respect to everybody who has gone before them. Because they figure that’s the day when the spirits are coming together. It’s a day of everybody getting together again. And people think nothing of it. It’s part of their life. Whenever I go to the village one of the first questions people ask me is, well have you gone to the cemetery? And you go there and you get a dipper and a bucket of water and you pour it over the stone markers – it’s to kind of cool down the souls of the dead. It’s very automatic. People do it. So if you kind of probe into this you find that people may in words deny, but yet in their actions, it’s very spiritual. There are spirits everywhere. Every village has a god. And this is different. Buddhism doesn’t have any kind of god. But the native religion, this is a form of Shintoism now, this is very much a nature oriented type of spiritual reverence and so as a result, there’s all of these gods everywhere. And again, these are the most rational people I know, I mean PhDs and all. They say, oh yes, there’s a village god…
Kerry: Do you have a practice yourself?
Isao: It’s not regular, deliberate. Only when I visit places. But again, it’s like many other things; it’s not something you do in a set time or day, it’s kind of automatic every day. You have to ask yourself, who are we in the state of the universe? What are we doing here? What can we do to add meaning to the lives of people all around us? That’s a very spiritual type of question.
Kerry: Have you ever found yourself in a situation of intense conflict because of your progressive work?
Isao: Many times.
Kerry: Does anything stand out?
Isao: There have been many instances. Even when I first came into DavisI came into a situation where the whole position of the Davis College of Agriculture was pretty much geared towards major clientele, which would mean the production part of agriculture. I guess it’s a statement about how things change. Because originally a lot of these universities called land grant universities, and there’s one in every state in the country, was organized during Abraham Lincoln’s time. The idea was you set aside land and the government will contribute to build a university that will serve everybody – not just the farmers – but everybody. And yet many land grant colleges, because of the way business has grown too, started shifting their emphasis more to just helping out, responding to the needs of the major producers. They start serving different commodity groups and all that. Which meant that groups like say farm workers were very much neglected.
But when I got to Davis, the department I went to was very happy to start doing work on labour, which was very unusual, and farm labour from the point of view of the worker and not from the point of view of the employer. So I got into this and very shortly I found out that taking that view, farm labour, was not aresearch question; it became a political issue. And so, I found that I was really getting marginalized very quickly. And so I went to see some old experienced hands, who know this area very well, for their advice. And I went to see Paul Kaylor. He worked at UCB, was a former professor at Clark Kerr he was married to Dorothea Lang, photographer, she did all this great photography work in the 30s and I think he and her were involved with really trying to help the rural people…So when I went to see these people I said, look, what’s your advice on how to approach this whole issue of farm labour? And they gave me the same answer. Two words, that’s all they said: get tenure. That’s the only way you do this kind of work. Otherwise they fire you. That’s how political that question was. That gives you an example of what you’re up against. And it took a long time. I was pretty marginalized. I had a research position. I lost that. And I could only stay on as a lecturer and not as a professor.
So you know, many many other kinds of examples….I decided to stay on because I felt that even as a lecturer, there’s a lot of things you can do. I was able to start these kinds of courses on community research, community development, train a lot of young people and get them out. It’s more important that you get many other people doing things than you try doing them yourself. So maybe accounts for my choices about putting energy into these kinds of classes, this kind of work with community groups, working with people in different parts of the country, rural development leadership network, part of the work with groups like the AFSC, building up the Asia Pacific Program, the issue there of peace and justice in the Asia Pacific….
Kerry: This goes back to the America them. What’s your view of the future?
Isao: You know, things have gone very fast. Seems like there are a lot of possibilities now. I’m encouraged by several things. One is the democratisation of technology. I think what’s happened with the whole electronic field, especially with the advent of computers and email, is it’s enabled communication to flow in ways in which you cannot get a centralised system. That’s very important in terms of democratic possibilities. And I think there’s a lot more communication.
The whole idea of travel. People getting new experiences and really seeing what a situation is like instead of just reading about it has increased dramatically. The concern here is that all these opportunities are not equal only a small proportion of people will enjoy the privileges now so the challenge is how do you equalise this? How can you distribute this everywhere? Education is kind of a catch all word. There is this real challenge of getting everybody in the world up to snuff so they can at least read and write and that way people can communicate, enter into all this transfer of ideas and possibilities. That’s pretty hopeful.
The other side is the effort of those who already have a lot of advantages to consolidate the resources. This is also going very fast and it’s very difficult to stop this. I see this happening particularly in agriculture where you get fewer and fewer entities controlling more and more, and it’s happened in the entire meat industry. People who eat hamburgers or pork sausage, may not realize that all this meat is controlled by only 3 or 4 companies. That’s it. Grain will be pretty much controlled by 3 or 4 and grain is not going to go away. Everybody depends on it. So, these kinds of trends towards consolidation on the one hand, sound very good because of efficiency and all that, but on the other hand in terms of democracy and people having a chance to do anything, is very contrary I think. So you have pros and cons here. Possibilities again, and again the tendency or trend towards concentration of power and resources. And there are a lot of consequences. If the groups in power also act in a socially conscious way – by that I mean if all these meat packing companies in the meat industry could also be working on ways to deal with all that waste so it doesn’t pollute the water system, or they’re able to build communities where all these workers live, then its one thing. But if they’re only interested in profits, if they’re only interested in personal gain and controlling more, then the future doesn’t look too good.