Dr. Margo Okazawa-Rey, a leading expert on gender and militarism, has returned to Mills College once again to hold a position she drafted the proposal for, the Barbara Lee Distinguished Chair in Women’s Leadership at Mills College. She had occupied the Chair before, from 2010 to 2011.
The Chair is in recognition of Congresswoman Barbara Lee’s leadership and courage in holding firmly to her beliefs and opinions throughout her political career. It is a two-year position held jointly within the Public Policy and Women’s, Gender and Sexuality Studies (WGSS) programs.
“The Barbara Lee Chair offers us a great opportunity to bring a distinguished scholar, activist, or policy maker into our community,” said associate professor of WGSS Priya Kandaswamy in an email. “The chair allows us to expand course offerings and programming in interesting and important directions and it provides leadership for new initiatives on campus.”
From 2002 to 2005, Okazawa-Rey was the director of the now defunct Mills’ Women’s Leadership Institute and a visiting professor who taught about social policy and U.S. women of color.
“One of the ideas I had when I was in that position is wouldn’t it be great to have something that honored Congresswomen Barbara Lee,” said Okazawa-Rey. “She’s a Mills’ alum. Her own history reflects the kinds of experiences of some of our students. She’s a local hero, and so why not do that.”
First elected in 1998 to represent California’s Ninth Congressional District, Lee became the only member of the legislature to vote against the Authorization for Use of Military Force (AUMF), permitting then President George W. Bush the use of force against those believed responsible for the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks and any related forces.
Lee posited that AUMF grants the government unlimited power to engage in warfare without debate. The resolution passed through Congress on Sept. 14, 2001.
“When she stood out like that Mills created a button that said, or slogan that said, ‘Barbara Lee speaks for me,’ and everybody who opposed the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan were so thrilled,” Okazawa-Rey said. “We’re wearing the buttons, using that slogan and so grateful that she did [that]…Her actions reflected our values.”
Lee has been a consistent advocate for peace, rejecting the doctrines of preemptive war and co-sponsoring legislation to create a cabinet level Department of Peace. She is the senior-most female Democrat on the House International Relations Committee.
“I wrote the first proposal, the description and then I left [Mills],” said Okazawa-Rey. “Then I came back and then I heard it had actually materialized. There actually was this Barbara Lee Chair.”
Okazawa-Rey has also strived to build a transnational life of mission and purpose. She is an activist and author, in addition to being an educator, engaging with issues of militarism, armed conflict and violence against women. She is a founding member of more than one network that brings people together around equity, inclusion and social justice, such as the Afro-Asian Relations Council of Washington D.C., the East Asia-US-Puerto Rico Women’s Network Against US Militarism and the International Network for Women Against Militarism. Okazawa-Rey is the co-author of such works as “Women’s Lives, Multicultural Perspectives,” with Gwyn Kirk, and “Beyond Heroes and Holidays: A Practical Guide to Anti-Racist, Multicultural Curriculum and Staff Development.”
“The clearer we are about our life’s purpose the more authentic we can be, the more consistent we can be in acting out our values,” said Okazawa-Rey. “And clearer about what’s the work [needing to be done and] what kind of people we want to surround ourselves with.”
Okazawa-Rey received a B.A. from the Capital University Department of Sociology in 1987, a M.S.S. from the Boston University School of Social Work in 1974 and then her Ed.D. from Harvard University Graduate School of Education in 1973. In the context of historical anti-black sentiments among Asian communities, such as the Los Angeles race riots, she received a Fullbright Senior Research Fellow, in 1994, to go to the Korean Peninsula and research what Korean locals were learning about African Americans residing internationally.
“I chose Korea at the time because there were all these tensions in the U.S. between Korean immigrant merchants and African American community people,” said Okazawa-Rey. “There were killings in Los Angeles, there was a big boycott in New York of these merchants. Every urban area had this phenomenon, this tension…I couldn’t believe that the immigrants came and then ‘poof’ they became anti-black, anti-African American.”
On the Korean Peninsula, Okazawa-Rey noticed a large U.S. military presence of over a hundred bases and installations. From 1910 to 1945, Japan had colonized Korea and had required a generation of locals to speak Japanese. Okazawa-Rey cannot speak Korean, but she can speak Japanese.
“I find myself in this place where Japanese imperialists [and] U.S. imperialists had completely, at different times, kind of taken over and so I got really curious about that,” said Okazawa-Rey. “I found out about the violence against women, and I found out about the mixed-race children and had been abandoned by their fathers so then I started connecting the dots. The Philippines, Okinawa, Japan, they were all part of this militarization of East Asia by the U.S. military.”
The links that Okazawa-Rey made between the U.S. military to race and gender relations aboard and domestically became an interest that has remained a tenant of her career. It is important to make connections between domestic policy and foreign policy she explained further. They are inextricably linked and cannot be separated.
“She is one who has been on the front line in various parts of the globe,” said Judith Bishop, Associate Professor of WGSS and Religious Studies Program Head at Mills. “She’s able to in a much more comprehensive way, she’s able to bring together theory about social change and real-life experience of grass roots organization.”
Bishop expressed that it has been a delight to welcome Okazawa-Rey back.
“One of the great strengths is her ability to tie scholarship and on the ground action together. Another one of her great strengths is the incredible joy and humanity that she brings to everyday interactions,” said Bishop. “I mean anyone who has sat in her class, anyone who has been on a committee with her, anyone who has had the privilege of working with her in a department is aware of just the joy, the laughter, the kind of mischievous sense of fun that she brings to everyday encounters and that’s a gift in and of itself.”
In the Spring 2019 semester, Okazawa-Rey is teaching Militarism, Gender, and Ethnicity and Gender and Public Policy. In the upcoming academic year she plans to teach a course about trans-national feminist movements in the first semester and then, in the second semester, a feminist international relations course.
“International relations is an area that is heavily influential in the way that the United States will interact in the world,” said Bishop. “Given that it is an area where the voices of global women have not always been given adequate coverage or adequate attention, haven’t always been heard. [feminist international relations] raises those voices across the globe.”
She also has plans to form external partnerships that help open up and enrich the Mills community.
For example, “Professor Okazawa-Rey is organizing a global gathering of peace activists for the spring of 2020,” Kandaswamy said in an email. “I think it will be a phenomenal opportunity for Mills to develop solidarity with grassroots feminist movements in other parts of the world.”
Okazawa-Rey intends to support and accompany the mission of Mills, and its students, as the campus further implements the Financial Stabilization Plan (FSP) passed by the College’s Board of Trustees in 2017. She also expressed that she loves the work that she does.
“I guess the thing I think about most is that I’m standing on [Lee’s] shoulders,” said Okazawa-Rey. “I hope that I can do justice to the Chair and the honor that it is. I’m very proud of sitting in this chair right now, and I hope I can do the good work that I’m hoping to.”