Yuri Kochiyama's sweet face and gentle presence belies the powerhouse that resides within her.
Kochiyama, 84, is a pioneer who has been committed to social justice for over forty years. She has worked to build alliances between diverse cultural groups and has championed civil rights, protesting racial inequality and supporting political prisoners in the United States and throughout the world. Kochiyama's efforts inspired many students who learned about her in Professor Damita Brown's Women of Color in Social Movements class this semester. Senior Bonniebrooke Bullock was one of them.
"I had never heard of [Kochiyama] before and I read all this stuff on her and did more research. I was amazed at just how dedicated of a person she's been her entire life to the cause and the love of people," Bullock said. "So, when we talked about her in class and I found out she lived in Oakland, I asked if we could bring her here." Bullock says Professor Brown told her to "go for it."
Consequently, it was Bullock's letter that brought Kochiyama to the Student Union last Tuesday. In her letter, Bullock writes, "Thank you for your action. Your actions that speak loudly, advising my thoughts, advising my spirit…Yuri, your actions move me into action. Move me, a white girl, privileged by the safety of my whiteness. Me, a white girl, horrified by all the violence, angered by all of the things they never told me in high school."
Bullock, senior Lori Chinn and junior Jamilah Bradshaw were on the student panel that honored Kochiyama-each giving their perspective on how she impacted their lives.
Chinn gave a detailed history of Kochiyama's early years and her imprisonment in the Japanese American internment camps. At 20 years old, Kochiyama, along with her mother, brothers and 10,000 other Japanese Americans, were unconstitutionally imprisoned following the signing of Executive Order 9066 by Franklin D. Roosevelt in Feb. 1942. Prior to this experience, Kochiyama admits to being "very provincial, religious and apolitical."
In her recent biography, Heartbeat of Struggle: the Revolutionary Life of Yuri Kochiyama, author Diane C. Fujino suggests that Kochiyama's experiences transformed her from "apolitical to aware to activist." Kochiyama says she agrees.
"I'll never forget what my teacher taught me [about teaching children], 'It's more important to teach kids what to love than what to know,'" Kochiyama said.
Bradshaw spoke about Kochiyama's commitment to the Black Power Movement of the '60s and early '70s. In 1960, Kochiyama and her husband Bill, moved with their six children to the Manhattanville Housing Projects in Harlem to become active members in the movement.
"It was very exciting living in Harlem in the '60s," said Kochiyama. "There was a lot of political energy and activity that changed my life.
Kochiyama says one of the most impactful moments in her life was meeting Malcolm X at Audobon Hall in Harlem. The two became fast friends and X would later send postcards to Kochiyama as he traveled the world. It was Kochiyama, in fact, who cradled his head in her lap after X was shot on February 21, 1965 while speaking at the Audobon Ballroom. As he lay there, she says she begged him, "Please, Malcolm, please Malcolm, stay alive," according to a recent interview with Amy Goodman of Democracy Now.
"I feel honored to have been in the presence of a person who has spent her life engaging in the struggle and giving herself to social change and social justice," Bradshaw said. "I think it is important for her name to be known and as familiar as Angela Davis, Malcom X, and Che Guevara."
At the close of the event, the student panel presented Kochiyama with a Mills teddy bear to add to her collection. Kochiyama hugged the bear close to her, thanked the group profusely and told the bear. "Wait until you get home and meet the others."
Kochiyama encouraged students to continue fighting for social justice and change and said, "oppression is occurring globally and we need to work toward a better world, not just our own communities."