31 Days of Revolutionary Women, #30: Toshiko Grace Hasegawa

In honor of Women’s History Month, we present 31 Days of Revolutionary Women; a series of daily essays by local authors documenting, honoring and celebrating powerful women who inspire us in South Seattle and beyond.

by Cynthia Green

Mesmerizing was the word that came to mind after the first 30 minutes of hearing Toshiko Grace Hasegawa talk about the necessity of police accountability at a panel discussion last February in the Phinney neighborhood. 

Though only slightly taller than my 5 foot frame, her voice soared through the room lifting with it the spirits of most of the attendees as she spoke about the need for our police officers to undergo extensive, routine training in order to diminish their implicit bias, a critical factor in the life and death encounters with pedestrians they regularly face.

As I hung on her every word, I kept thinking that here was an emerging champion for progressive political movements in a moment the liberal leadership cupboard is bare.  Our current president and his party are viewed more favorably than today’s Democratic Party, the same party that seems allergic to new leadership.

Yet in front of me was a woman whose destiny as a leader seemed inked in gold. She could naturally hold a crowd, intertwining charisma with substance – booming out policy prescriptions like civic poetry instead of spewing the type of arcane political rhetoric that immediately results in glazed over gawking from anyone not currently defending a Ph.D. dissertation.

While three other extremely smart people buttressed her, she easily outshined them, appropriately embodying the meaning of her name: superior child.

My curiosity about Toshiko increased once I found she was a “child of South Seattle” and also the daughter of Beacon Hill’s long-time labor activist and state Senator Bob Hasegawa. 

It should have been no surprise that her DNA was embedded with the community organizing and activism gene.  From everything she said on that February evening, it was as if it both were second nature to her.

She spoke without fear, boldly, passionately, and precisely.

To me, she gave a renewed hope, a bright light in this swath of darkness called our current political climate.

It was that light emanating from her in February that helped me ascend from the political depression I had been in since early November of last year. It made me encounter something I had rarely felt since then when our nature’s future is discussed:  hope.

I quickly wanted to learn more about her, hoping that what my gut was saying about this young woman was indeed true. My inquiry was added by my journalist son who was already in the process of writing a profile on her and had interviewed Toshiko several times.

As his volunteer transcriber (and mother who takes pity on her overextended son), I became acquainted with a young girl who had grown up in Beacon Hill a fourth generation Japanese American. She struggled with a sense of “belonging nowhere, but everywhere”- having a white mother and Japanese father- from an early age while attending schools she was a racial minority, and curiosity, in.

At Garfield High, she constantly faced the ridicule of older girls, who teased her mercilessly because of her race, and her name. But Toshiko refused to be broken by the constant cruelty; she developed a steely attitude of resilience and channeled her anger at the situation into high academic achievement. It also propelled her to seek an understanding of cultures different from hers, which is why she is fluent in Spanish and Portuguese.

Her life’s purpose came into focus as a 19-year-old juror serving on a case involving a 15-year-old boy accused of robbery. Along with the rest of the jurors, she was instructed to decide only on his guilt or innocence – though not his sentence. After the guilty verdict came down, the young man received 15 years behind bars.

Appalled at the harshness of the sentence, she decided to major in Criminal Justice at Seattle University. She wanted to transform a callous system and needed to understand its inner mechanisms in order to do so.

Discovering exactly how unjust those mechanisms could be developed a determination in her as crusader for underdogs and those on society’s margins.

The result has been a professional career that has seen her intern as an immigration aide for Washington Senator Patty Murray, work on the campaigns of former state representative and mentors Velma Veloria and Sharon Tomiko Santos, organize for labor rights at SEIU, advocate for the Sikh community after they experienced an upshot in hate crimes directly related to Islamophobia, serve as an aide to King County Councilmember Jeanne Kohl-Welles assisting in the Law Enforcement Oversight and Labor Trafficking Issues.

Her most recent fight, however, came after she was appointed by Washington Governor Jay Inslee to the state’s Joint Legislative Task Force on Deadly Force in Community Policing. Helping to steward the Task Force, which was formed to make recommendations on police reform to the state legislature, was no easy feat.

Over the course of six months, Toshiko worked countless hours organizing community advocates and working alongside the task force comprised of law enforcement, county prosecutors, civil rights organizations, and immigrant’s rights groups in developing a consensus around actions for the state legislature to implement.

She met with concerned community members from South/Central Seattle as well as other parts of the state, hosting several community listening sessions with other task force members representing the State’s ethnic commissions.

Her community-imposed duty then became persuading the task force to agree on recommending that the “malice” clause be stripped from state law. Law experts view the clause with its impetus on proving that a police officer intentionally acted in a malicious manner in a life or death situation, as making it near impossible to prosecute a member of law enforcement for murder in Washington State.

Toshiko recognized from the onset how much of an uphill fight it would be. Various factions within the task force had their own agendas.  This often led to friction, but she met the challenge head on, firing off measured, but blunt emails to the task force calling out time wasting at meetings and lack of structure, along with advocating for her position.

The persistence paid off as, in November, the task force voted to suggest the malice language be struck from state law.

Though it’s anyone’s guess whether or not the legislature will act upon the recommendation,  it showcased Toshiko’s ability to get disparate groups, often at odds with each other, to momentarily come together for the common good.

It also made me look at her as someone I pray continues on her trajectory as a public servant. I remember the day after the election when I made a list of characteristics in a leader I could support after throwing away my hopes behind so many who had so little backbone: strong, graceful under fire, puts the community’s needs above her own, candid, and compassionate, empathetic.

I thought the universe had answered my prayers after seeing Toshiko in action since that night in February.

She often tells her young mentees: “Don’t shy away from her own greatness”

I hope she takes her own advice.  She has my vote.

Miss Cynthia smallCynthia Ann Green is a longtime South Seattle resident, who worked more than 20 years supporting the Skyway community. She was recognized by that community in 2015 when they renamed the West Hill Family Enrichment Center the Cynthia Ann Green Center in her honor .

featured image by Jovelle Tamayo