Karen K. Narasaki, 50s
Commissioner, U.S. Commission on Civil Rights
Hometown: originally Seattle, but currently living in D.C.
How did you get here?
I was active in Asian American, people of color and women’s groups in collage at Yale and also at UCLA Law School. Social justice has always been important to me. In 1992, I was recruited to head the Japanese American Citizens League’s Washington, D.C. office. I had been working as a corporate securities attorney at Perkins Coie in Seattle and serving on the board of the National Asian Pacific American Bar Association (NAPABA) where I was helping to lead its civil rights and legislative efforts. Our advocacy at the time focused on hate crimes and legislation that had been passed in part to address a Supreme Court decision, Wards Cove Packing Co. v. Atonio, a class action case involving Asian American and Native Alaskan cannery workers who were challenging decades of employment discrimination. In the compromise lawmakers made to enact the legislation, the workers were actually excluded from its application. On the eve of a press conference in Seattle where I was set to represent NAPABA, one of my clients wrote an op-ed defending the company. It was becoming difficult to be a corporate attorney by day and a civil rights advocate in my spare time.
After two years at JACL, I was recruited to head what is now known as Asian Americans Advancing Justice|AAJC. AAJC filled an important missing role – that of a legal organization. In Washington, there are think tanks, public interest law groups, and membership grassroots groups. The reason that Asian American cannery workers were sold out in the compromise on Wards Cove was a direct result of not having a national AAPI legal group at the table with other legal groups who are relied upon to analyze draft legislation and make determinations on such trade-offs. At AAJC, I worked closely in collaboration and in coalition with very diverse groups of stakeholders which gave me broad exposure to the interests and concerns of other marginalized communities. When I left AAJC, it was with the vision of building on the intersectional work so when the White House asked me if I would serve on the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights, I said “yes.”
Who or what has been the greatest influence on your career?
The internment of my parents and their families is at the heart of my commitment to civil and human rights. My father believed that the reason Japanese Americans were interned was because we weren’t strong enough to defend our rights and there weren’t enough other Americans willing to stand up with us. I believe Japanese Americans have a moral obligation to ensure it doesn’t happen to any other group. I also believe that the law alone is not enough to combat prejudice. Some of my first work on anti-Asian violence taught me that while you might catch and try the perpetrator of a hate crime, the law can’t bring back the victim to his family. So I’ve also pursued an effort to increase diversity in both the entertainment and news media because of their power to either tell our stories or further the harmful stereotypes and invisibility.
What do you consider your greatest accomplishment during the Obama administration?
I was appointed less than two years ago to the Commission, but I’m very pleased that I was able to persuade my fellow commissioners to look at the issue of how well federal government agencies are fulfilling our nation’s treaty and other obligations to Native Americans. The kind of discrimination faced by indigenous peoples in modern America is shocking, yet few nonnative peoples have an accurate understanding of the barriers they face.
Can you describe your time working for the Obama administration in 10 words?
I can’t do it in 10 words. The Commission is an independent agency that makes recommendations to Congress and the President on civil rights policies and programs. As a result, I’ve had the opportunity to see a wide array of the President’s initiatives and the work of his appointees at the various agencies. The Obama Administration has focused on getting agencies to work across silos and with communities as equal partners to pursue policies and invest in programs to confront institutional as well as intentional discrimination.
Complete the sentence: “When I’m not working, I…”
consume a lot of popular culture – television, movies and theatre as both an escape from what can be sometimes very depressing and frustrating work and as research for my media diversity advocacy.”