School name change delayed as parents decry erasure of Asian American activist

Yuri Kochiyama speaks at an anti-war demonstration in New York circa 1968. Courtesy Kochiyama family/UCLA Asian American Studies Center

The renaming of Washington Elementary, Berkeley’s last public school named after a slave owner, was delayed until the end of the school year by controversy surrounding one of the luminaries who had been shortlisted to be the school’s new namesake.

Yuri Kochiyama, a Japanese internment camp survivor known for speaking out against US imperialism, was chosen as one of the seven finalists. A supporter of reparations for Japanese Americans, she worked alongside Malcolm X against the oppression of black Americans, cradling his head in her arms after his assassination.

His name was removed from the list after parents informed the school principal that Kochiyama had once expressed admiration for Osama bin Laden. Although his name was reinstated soon after, the removal evoked what some parents say was the all-too-familiar erasure of a figure they called a “revered and respected hero”. She lived the last years of her life in Berkeley, where she died in 2014 at the age of 93.

The process to remove the name of our country’s first president from primary school began in September. The intent, explained Superintendent Brent Stephens, was that “this town, with its progressive ideals and aspirations for social justice, would not have a school named after a person who held human beings in bondage. “.

The name change is the product of a June 2020 Black Lives Matter resolution aimed at addressing both symbols and practices of racial injustice within the school district. (Jefferson was renamed Ruth Acty Elementary, after the school district’s first black teacher, in December 2020.)

Community members came up with 74 different suggestions for Washington’s new name, ranging from Hogwarts Elementary to Greta Thunburg School.

A committee narrowed down the suggestions to seven finalists who spanned the spectrum of national and local fame, all related in some way to civil rights or racial justice: Mable Howard, Herb Wong, Maya Angelou, Yuri Kochiyama, James Baldwin, Frances Albrier and Yoshiko Uchida.

Kochiyama’s naming was spearheaded by the husband and wife duo of Barnali Ghosh and Anirvan Chatterjee, who run Berkeley’s Radical South Asian Walking Tours and are behind the renaming of Kalu Bagai Way, the first and only Berkeley street named after an Asian American.

The nomination was co-submitted by Washington’s mother, Frances Ho, and several city officials, including City Auditor Jenny Wong and council member Terry Taplin. Dozens of Washington parents signed a letter supporting his nomination.

When the nominating committee voted, Yuri Kochiyama and James Baldwin tied for sixth place, according to Laura Valdez, a parent on the nominating committee. The plan had been to include only six names, but the committee voted to make an exception and include both Baldwin and Kochiyama on the list.

Shortly after the shortlist of seven was made public, some concerned parents reached out to their children’s teachers and Washington principal Katia Hazen.

Hazen declined to comment for this story, so it’s unclear exactly what these conversations involved, their tenor, or if there were a few or many. A Berkeley Unified spokesperson told Berkeleyside that the principal was only able to find one brief email for the parents – a missive directing his attention to the “Controversies” section of Kochiyama’s Wikipedia page.

The two-paragraph section includes this quote: “I consider Osama bin Laden to be one of the people I look up to. For me, he is in the category of Malcolm X, Che Guevara, Patrice Lumumba, Fidel Castro… I thank Islam for bin Laden. America’s greed, aggression and self-righteous arrogance must be stopped. War and weapons must be abolished.

You can read the full article from which the quote is taken in The objector: a magazine of conscience and resistance. In it, Kochiyama praises bin Laden for his “strong leadership”, his “severe dislike of the US government and those who held power in the United States”, and his “raising awareness”.

Like Malcolm X, Kochiyama is a radical figure in American history with mainstream fame. It is celebrated by organizations like the National Park Service and the Smithsonian Asian Pacific American Center. The Obama administration issued a statement honoring his legacy in 2014.

Hazen voiced parents’ concerns at a faculty meeting in January. The following day, Kochiyama’s name was removed from the shortlist. “You can read between the lines,” said a parent involved in the Berkeleyside dispute.

Stephens wrote a detailed letter apologizing for the harm the removal of Kochiyama’s name has caused the Asian American and Pacific Islander communities in Berkeley. But the letter begs the question of who took the name off the list.

And it’s unclear if the nominating committee was consulted before Kochiyama’s name was removed. Two members of the nominating committee insist they were “absolutely not” consulted.

Stephens said he’s heard “different reports about the order of operations” and doesn’t “consider this a point requiring investigation.”

The point, for Stephens, is that the district underfunded the renaming process after the person leading it – Natasha Beery – retired, and that resulted in “a rift in the district’s thinking.” on the process”. “This is about a director who tries seriously to respond thoughtfully to the concerns that come to her and finds herself in a bit of a vacuum following the transition of staff to central office,” Stephens said in a statement. interview.

Anyway, members of the community got wind of the kidnapping and it spread like wildfire.

Many parents were hurt by what they felt was the erasure of a widely loved figure. It was one thing if Kochiyama’s name was not chosen, parents told Berkeleyside, but it was another for people not to have the chance to vote for her or find out more about her. his life. Especially in a time of heightened violence toward Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders, they said, this one stung.

“The action [of removing Kochiyama’s name] to me, it was representative of erasing Yuri Kochiyama’s legacy and reducing his contributions to the civil rights movement to a mere set of commentaries,” said Laura Valdez, a parent on the renaming committee of Washington.

“We continue to see our voices and experiences flattened, silenced and ignored. To have someone who was very widely celebrated, disappeared, in a way, it was like a slap in the face,” said an Asian American parent of an elementary school student who said she was not uncomfortable with the publication of his name.

Several members of the nominating committee say they were not consulted before Kochiyama’s name was removed.

The nominating committee met a few days later, voting unanimously to reinstate Kochiyama among the list of seven finalists. His name is now back on the list.

For some parents, the hurt feelings linger, despite Stephens’ public apology. Some want an apology from Hazen, who has so far remained silent on the matter. Some want to see additional curriculum that could be used to teach Kochiyama to elementary school students in Washington so that it reflects all of his heritage.

While others criticize completely renaming schools. Last week, three San Francisco school board members were recalled in a landslide vote after a campaign centered on the board members’ failure to open schools during the pandemic and criticized its plan, which was canceled shortly after its announcement, to change the names of 44 schools while students were still in distance learning.

On Wednesday, the school board approved payment of up to $15,000 to hire two consultants — Dr. Lori Watson of Race-Works and Dr. Courtlandt Butts of Life Guardian — to facilitate the name change process and host restorative conversations. . The aim, according to Stephens’ email, is “to ensure that the portrayals of the seven finalists, including potentially controversial aspects of their lives, are sensitive to their full heritage and presented on an equal footing. “.

Chatterjee, who co-submitted Kochiyama’s name for review, said the dispute has made him pessimistic about whether Berkeley is as progressive as its reputation suggests.

“If Berkeley is afraid to celebrate a leftist, progressive, anti-incarceration reparations activist, and the Smithsonian isn’t afraid of it, that makes me kind of sad,” Chatterjee said.

Gavin Tachibana, who is involved with the district-wide AAPI leadership team, hopes the conflict, while painful for him throughout, will come with a silver lining.

“I hope the next time something like this happens, we take the time to look at the whole story and not try to run away from it,” Tachibana said. “I hope this will encourage a deeper discussion about Yuri’s life, Japanese American concentration camps, and ethnic studies as a whole and how it is taught.”

Washington Elementary students are now learning about the legacy of the seven finalists. Over the next few months, the community will vote, as will the nominating committee. The school board, which was due to vote on a name in March, now plans to approve a new name by the end of the school year.

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