For this issue ofThe Social Studies Professional, we asked Sarah M. Segal, a middle school teacher at Hood River Middle School in Oregon, to pause and reflect on her involvement in numerous creative and educational projects—including a video letter from her students to the president of the United States. Sarah has authored several articles about student activism and teaching history. She served as president of the Oregon Council for the Social Studies in 2015–16.
HOW IT BEGAN—IN THE CLASSROOM
Question: This is more than just one project during a single school year. How did this whole “mission” begin for you?
Answer: Every community has unsung heroes. It was through work with the Lowell Milken Center for Unsung Heroes (lowellmilkencenter.org), that I began a quest with my students to discover local heroes from the past. Three years ago, while researching their community’s history, my students at Hood River Middle School discovered the story of a remarkable individual who had grown up in their own city. His story compelled us to take a hard look at injustices forced on Americans of Japanese heritage during, and after, World War II. In the students’ investigation, Hood River-born Minoru Yasui emerged as an unsung hero. Bringing their learning and knowledge to activism, students then asked President Obama to posthumously honor Minoru Yasui with the Presidential Medal of Freedom.
I’ll tell our story here, but to read a fuller account of these efforts, see my article, “Minoru Yasui: From Roots to Results,” The Oregon Journal of the Social Studies 4, no. 1 (Winter 2016), 100–115., www.oregonsocialstudies.org/wp-content/uploads/2013/01/OJSS-Journal-0401.pdf
A BRIEF BIO OF MIN
Question: Who was Minoru Yasui, in brief?
Answer: Minoru Yasui (1916–1986), a Hood River native, personally protested the U.S. government’s discriminatory laws against Japanese Americans, which included confiscation of property and eventually lead to the incarceration of more than 110,000 persons of Japanese ancestry in U.S. concentration camps. As the first Asian American to graduate from the University of Oregon School of Law, he knew that it was unconstitutional to be denied his rights because of his ethnicity. In 1942 he deliberately violated military orders (a curfew), was arrested, and sent to an internment camp.
After World War II, Yasui moved to Denver, Colorado, and “selflessly aided any person denied justice because of their race, ethnicity, religious beliefs, sexual preference or socio-economic status,” wrote Maija Yasui, Minoru’s niece and Hood River News columnist (12/5/2015). As Executive Director of the Denver Commission on Community Relations in Colorado (where he lived after the war), he helped to initiate and oversaw a host of programs and organizations serving diverse communities. In the 1970s and 80s, he spearheaded the redress movement. In 1984, Minoru Yasui received the U.S. Department of Justice “Community Service Award” recognizing his tireless fight for equality and justice for all. He died in 1986.
Learn more at the Minoru Yasui Tribute webpage (which also provided the photo above) at https://www.minoruyasuitribute.org/.
Question: You’ve written a 44-page curriculum based on Yasui’s biography and events that have followed F.D.R.’s 1942 Executive Order 9066. How did that come about?
Answer: Yes, as I taught lessons, they began coming together in the form of a curriculum, with primary source documents including maps, photos, and a 1942 Letter from Multnomah County Jail. The curriculum, “Minoru Yasui: From Roots to Results,” is funded by the Multnomah Bar Foundation with support from the Oregon Nikkei Endowment and the Minoru Yasui Tribute Project.
“Minoru Yasui: From Roots to Results” is slated to be posted on the Oregon Nikkei Endowment website in late-spring 2017. In the interim, the curriculum can be obtained by emailing the Endowment's Education Manager at firstname.lastname@example.org.
A “MARCH FOR JUSTICE” AND OREGON’S MINORU YASUI DAY
Question: The C3 Framework talks about “taking informed action,” and your students seem to take this challenge to new heights. What role did they play in creating a state law?
Answer: Yes, first I want to clarify that any political action, like holding signs at a march or advocating the state legislature, was strictly voluntary for students. Their work in the classroom involved learning about activism and advocacy, but involvement in advocacy was optional.
Students discussed Yasui’s motives for intentionally violating, on March 28, 1942, a law establishing a nighttime curfew for people of Japanese heritage. They engaged in numerous conversations about deliberate actions (both ancient and modern) taken by individuals against injustices. (Photo by Keiko Nakata)
As students became more cognizant of what occurred during this period on the West Coast generally and in Hood River specifically, a recognition grew among the students that they themselves could be advocates for honoring Minoru Yasui by sharing his story and relating how he his life inspired them. One year after creating the video letter, some of my students testified before the Oregon Legislature (on February 1 and 16, 2016) advocating for the permanent designation of March 28 as Minoru Yasui Day in Oregon. Governor Kate Brown signed this bill into law on March 28, 2016, exactly 74 years to the day Minoru Yasui broke curfew to begin a legal test case that ultimately came before the U.S. Supreme Court (http://www.aclu-or.org/content/remember-our-history-create-minoru-yasui-day-oregon).
Question: How were you and the students involved in the effort to get further recognition for Minoru Yasui?
Answer: In the spring of 2015, thirteen of my students created a brief “video letter” (see video below) (vimeo.com/145897987) supporting U.S. Senator Mazie K. Hirono’s nomination of Minoru Yasui for the Medal of Freedom, the nation’s highest honor. On November 24, 2015, then President Barack Obama presented the Presidential Medal of Freedom to the family of the late Yasui. Later, some of my students and I posed with the Medal for a Hood River News photo (courtesy Kirby Neumann-Rea, Hood River News). See the full photo at www.hoodrivernews.com/news/2015/dec/09/today-we-are-part-making-things-right.
A DOCUMENTARY FILM
Question: In fall 2017, another resource is slated to be published: the documentary film Never Give Up: Minoru Yasui and the Fight or Justice. Do you have any news about that?
Answer: Will Doolittle, who helped my students produce their video, is co-producer of documentary that’s slated to be released this fall.
Never Give Up: Minoru Yasui and the Fight or Justice was produced and co-directed by Holly Yasui, the youngest daughter of Minoru and his wife, True. In a 3-minute online video, great for the classroom, she provides a fine overview of her father’s life work. Also available at www.minoruyasuifilm.org is a brief video interview with George Takei (Mr. Sulu on Star Trek), the documentary’s narrator. As a boy, in 1942, Takai and his family were forcibly removed from their Los Angeles, California home and were incarcerated for eight months at the Rohwer War Relocation Center, Arkansas, followed by three years at Tule Lake War Relocation Center, California.
Question: At the 93rd NCSS Annual Conference, you received the 2013 Robert H. Jackson National Teaching Justice Award. In 2015, you received the Gilder Lehrman Oregon History Teacher of the Year award. We see you in various photos, always shoulder-to-shoulder with students. Why is it so often a group photo? (See story and snapshots at www.hoodrivernews.com/news/2015/dec/09/today-we-are-part-making-things-right).
Answer: From the beginning of these students and I collaborated as equal peers on the Minoru Yasui endeavors. We researched, discussed, and came to understand the Minoru Yasui story together. Although I have taught for many years about the U.S. incarceration of people of Japanese heritage during World War II, I first learned about the story of Minoru Yasui through the class project on local history. That’s how 11 students came to spend a cold February day in 2015 (when school was in recess) working with producer Will Doolittle to create the video-letter to send to President Obama. (Photo by Principal Brent Emmons, Hood River Middle School)
Nearly nine months later, and eleven days after President Obama honored Minoru Yasui with the Presidential Medal of Freedom, I was scheduled to receive the Gilder Lehrman Oregon History Teacher of the Year award for my student’s learning and involvement in the endeavor. The Minoru Yasui Tribute Project invited me to bring the Presidential Medal of Freedom to Hood River Middle School, and present it to our student body on the same stage where Minoru Yasui received his high school diploma. It was only fitting to have these 11 students at the same time stand with me as I accepted the History Teacher of the Year award.