Toshiko Hasegawa Announces Candidacy for Port Commission, Vows to Prioritize Economic and Environmental Justice

by M. Anthony Davis 

Toshiko Hasegawa, executive director of the Washington State Commission on Asian Pacific American Affairs and lifelong Beacon Hill resident, announced her candidacy for Seattle Port Commission, Position 4. As a fourth-generation Seattle resident, Hasegawa says she has a deep commitment to supporting and uplifting her city. 

Hasegawa, who has a long career of community activism and advocacy, believes that joining the Port Commission is a way to influence the economics of South Seattle residents and take a stand for both environmental and economic justice that can improve the lives of residents in the region as a whole. 

The Emerald caught up with Hasegawa to speak about her upcoming candidacy and learn about the changes she hopes to implement. The conversation was highlighted by Hasegawa’s acknowledgement that many residents don’t fully understand what Port Commissioners do or how much impact they have on our communities. 

One big takeaway was Hasegawa’s excitement heading into her campaign. Port Commissioner may not sound like a glamorous job, but Hasegawa is genuinely enthusiastic to potentially have the opportunity to serve her community in this role, and pointed out how important it is to have community focused representation on this Commission. 

The following transcription is edited for clarity and length.

Can we start with a little about your history and connection to community in Seattle?

I am a fourth generation Japanese American, and also a fourth generation South Seattleite. This is the city where my great grandparents first arrived  in search for a better future for their families and posterity. They were actually incarcerated in World War II due to fear and racism. They had all of their assets seized, their bank accounts frozen, and they were released from those camps with nothing but enough money to take a train to wherever they saw fit. And they decided to come back to Seattle, and due to the exclusionary laws, the only place where they were allowed to be able to buy property was in the Central District and in the South End. And so they settled in the CD. And it was actually the Black community and the Native community that helped fundraise so that Japanese Americans could find their footing again. And then when my father was small, they bought a house on Beacon Hill. And that’s where he raised me. And now I have the privilege of being able to raise my daughter, who was born during the pandemic, in the same neighborhood where I grew up. 

So, there’s a lot of cultural and regional identity tied up in this place for me and for my family. I grew up buying fish from the natives on the docks of the Duwamish River. I grew up fishing in Lake Washington, if you can believe it. I grew up watching resident whale pods from the shores. And I wonder, is my daughter going to be able to enjoy the same riches of the region the way I did, and my grandparents before me?

The Emerald has covered you before, and you shared your story of being a juror when you were 19 years old in a case that involved a youth who was 15 years old. That youth was ultimately sentenced to 15 years in adult prison. This event led you to pursue a career in law. How did you get from that point to this current point in your career where you are running for Port Commissioner, and how are these things connected?

Well, I’m called to a life of service. Because in my community, we have a phrase “Hai, Okagesama de” and it literally translates to “the honor of the shadow.” But it is the notion that we are just a product of what other people who have arrived before us have done for us, and I have been born into it being indebted to the next generation to make it the best that we can. And the way I do that, is by bringing a lens of civil rights and racial equity specifically. And it’s been through that lens that I’m proud of my work in community building, particularly with the Japanese American Citizens League of Seattle, which is the flagship chapter of the nation’s oldest and largest Asian American civil rights organization. I leverage the experience I have in community building into public service. You see, so many folks from our communities have an inherent skepticism or mistrust in government. And I think that that’s really deepened, particularly in the wake of the Trump administration. 

So, currently, I serve as the executive director of Washington State’s Commission on Asian Pacific American affairs. And that community member that I talked about in that previous South Seattle Emerald spot is a member of what we call the COFA community. They’re a particularly marginalized and underserved set of the Pacific Islander community, which is unjustly lumped in with all Asians, as Asian Pacific Islander, and cultural community members come from a place where they were routinely bombed by the United States with nuclear testing, and they have residual intergenerational impacts on their health and livability outcomes due to that, that history. And so now they live here in Washington State and I’m so proud to collaborate with folks like the COFA community in my newest capacity to be able to bring justice to them. 

If you’re looking for a direct connection, you would also be interested to know that in terms of criminal justice reform, and specifically the work that I’ve done in police accountability, is that when there are travesties against our community members, they’re disproportionately against Pacific Islander and Cofa community members. So there were a couple of high profile cases, that one that took place in eastern Washington, there was one that took place in Vancouver, Washington, but the thing that’s the same is that there’s a miscarriage of justice and the lack of a system of structural accountability. Part of my job at the Commission on Asian Pacific American affairs, which is a cabinet level agency in the state of Washington, is to serve as a member of the governor’s sub cabinet on business diversity. And when COVID-19 hit, we saw steepened racism against Asian Pacific Islanders and a deepening in the equity gap in the divide and access to services. In particular, I saw how it impacted our business community members, earliest, even before the statewide shutdowns, just simply due to racism and stigma, and an unfair perception that Asian businesses are for some reason unclean, and those loss and revenues and the impact that it has on your livability, because that’s your very lifeline.

So, here I am, and I’m running for the Seattle Port Commission. And people ask why. And I think just like so many other things in government, people don’t know what the Port does. And they don’t know when they’re from communities like ours, because it hasn’t been made to feel relevant to them. And I do think that it’s noteworthy that in 100 years at the Port Commission, there have only been four white women ever to serve, and never a woman of color. So, when we look at disproportionate outcomes, disproportionate impacts upon our community members, when we look at a lack of information or lack of interest, because it doesn’t seem relevant, that’s not a failure of the people. And it’s not a question unto folks pursuing it to enhance justice, it is actually a necessity that we step up and transform these institutions in order to carve a better future. And in this context for the Port, it is about economic empowerment that will lead to social justice for our community members, because it has long been dysfunctional. 

There have long been challenges for workers, and for business owners, and for community members who surround the poor, who now have the opportunity to rebuild it to be better than it was before. And it is a daunting task. But I believe that it is exactly somebody from South Seattle, exactly a woman of color who is going to step up to be able to make sure that the next rising tide lifts all of our ships. So I’m running in the context of economic devastation. And I’m running because I bring the values and the experience that are going to help us to meet the needs of this moment and rebuild the economy to be better than it was before. And what our communities deserve is somebody who’s going to bring a sense of urgency to the dais, I’ve been sharpening my skills, and I’m ready to bring that to that position.

If you become a Port Commissioner, what specifically will you do to help our communities? If you are a South Seattle resident, how can your life be affected by a Port Commissioner? 

One thing that folks should know is that the Port is the economic engine for the entire state. It is literally the point of entry into the Pacific Northwest. And most issues at the Port have both an economic and environmental lens. So first and foremost, priority one is going to be about rebuilding the economy. I think that some of the steps that have been taken thus far in the wake of COVID-19 were appropriate by the current Port commissioners. For example, they establish a South King County fund of $10 million into community based organizations. But, we all know my core tenant of my life in public service has been improving structures of accountability. And it’s going to take more than a one-time investment of $10 million to address a nation’s history of exclusion and injustice. I’m talking about creating access to information and creating access to opportunities. And access to information can look like, for example, having a one stop shop on the web page, where it has lists of grant opportunities for folks and translating those into top spoken languages in King County, because we know that we are the most ethnically culturally and idiomatically diverse County, in the entire state, as well as in the nation. So, when we talk about rebuilding avenues in to make it more accessible to communities of color, we’re talking about setting a model, not just for here at home, but for the entire nation of how we can get it right. There’s so much potential, and it’s actually really exciting to be able to be able to champion that. You know, it’s not just about making sure that the surrounding community based organizations have access to opportunities, but let’s take a look at people who are actually doing business at and around the Port. I mean, small business owners for whom that is their lifeline and their sustenance. And those minority owned businesses are also a part of our culture and our community, they should have access to be able to apply for relief opportunities. And we need to be able to usher them towards some of those things for technical support, so that they are able to revolutionize the way they’re actually operating, not just cash on hand to be able to build them out in a crunch moment, but actually build them up with walls for sustainability so they have the skills to be able to revolutionize and mechanize some of their operations, so that they can emerge stronger than they were before.

I’m talking about opportunities for the workers at the ports themselves, standing up to make sure that folks have the opportunity to contend for contracts at the ports. That’s a huge issue that minority women and disadvantaged business enterprises have time and time again. Diversifying contract opportunities, and just really equalizing the playing field for some of these businesses. And then we’re also talking about for the workers at the Port, ensuring that they’re supported in their quest to be able to take medical leave, to be able to take sick leave, to have access to child care, because we know about them working from home and kids being at home. 

So, in a nutshell, what I bring is that 10,000 foot view that understands the industry of maritime and airports. We have everything on sea and everything with aviation, that those industries sustain businesses, because they create foot traffic from the cruises to the tourists coming through, they create foot traffic to our businesses, and our businesses create jobs and those jobs go to the workers who are our community members, and they bring home the bacon to their families who deserve a sense of stability right now. So when I’m stepping to the Port commission — and I’m talking about rebuilding our economy to be better than it was before — I come with one question, and that is, “What is this impact going to be on jobs?” Because as we work to revolutionize our industries to be electric, as we work to step up to meet some of our goals and becoming a greener economy and becoming a bluer maritime economy, that can’t happen at the expense of somebody making rent. It can’t happen at the expense of somebody going hungry. We can’t have a healthy forest if we don’t have healthy trees. 

We have a lot of youth in South King County who will need access to these jobs so that they can afford to live in the neighborhoods that they grew up in. What is your plan to ensure the youth are included in these potential jobs?

Internships and apprenticeships, field trips to cool places around the port. Let’s start that young. I remember field trips to walk the wetlands, and I remember a field trip to the garbage dump one year, and we went to see the logging industry. Bring kids down to the Port! Get them interested in things like in STEM, aviation, and maritime early. We’ll walk them through Pike Place and take them down to the piers so that they can see the different operations behind the scenes. When it’s older kids, and we’re talking about getting them college ready, let’s talk about apprenticeships. Going straight into college isn’t for everybody. It wasn’t for me, I needed to take some time off. I needed to work in the restaurant industry, and figure out who I was and what I wanted to do and there are industries there for you in those times and some people want to go straight into the trades. Let’s connect them with good paying union jobs as apprentices that can turn into livable wages for families, if that’s what you so choose. For college age students, let’s talk about internships and what they can do. And some of these different projects that we’ve got going down at the Port, like maritime blue. Let’s get some proximity to operations at the Port, and get college credit for it. I do believe that where there’s a will, there’s a way and a lot of these things that we’re talking about, it’s bare minimum, it’s Ground Zero of what we can do to empower our communities. 

But we haven’t had somebody there who brings the passion or the excitement or the sense of urgency to be able to create greater access to the things that are going on there. Again, the Port is the economic driver for the entire state and it’s an important player, one of the busiest Ports in the nation. It manages a multi-billion dollar project, from budget, to sea, to air, to international relations. There’s a lot that goes on there that just goes unbeknownst to the public. We need somebody there who’s going to know the right questions to ask. And that’s why representation matters.

M. Anthony Davis (Mike Davis) is a local journalist covering arts, culture, and sports.

Featured image: Toshiko Hasegawa addresses the crowd at a 2020 Elizabeth Warren campaign rally held in Seattle. (Photo: Susan Fried)

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