My involvement in the Asian Pacific American (APA) community started in high school. I had attended public school through junior high, and then by chance, received a scholarship to a small private school. It was a shock to go from a diverse school that was one-third Asian, one-third black and one-third white, to an affluent, majority white school. I didn’t connect with the curriculum or the environment. I didn’t have the same interests or values as my classmates. I felt tension, resentment and isolation, and I needed to feel a part of something.
My mother, an elementary school teacher, invited me to a taiko drum performance at her school. I watched the performance and was struck by the strength, beauty and deep sound which resonated in my heart. As a Yonsei (fourth-generation Japanese American), it was empowering to see Japanese American women playing these large, loud drums. I felt an overwhelming sense of pride and connection. I started taking lessons with the group, and eventually got to perform.
I continued taiko through high school. I met artists and activists who helped me learn about the history of the APA community and the incarceration of Japanese Americans during World War II. My family didn’t talk much about camp, though both of my parents were born while their parents were held in an incarceration camp in Idaho.
At the end of my senior year, there was a call for performances at our baccalaureate. I signed up to have our taiko group perform. I was a quiet and introverted student and didn’t share with anyone at school that I played drums. We performed and the response was shock and enthusiasm. Taiko breaks a lot of Japanese stereotypes — it’s loud, expressive and unapologetic. A number of students and staff came up and said, “Wow — I never knew you did this!” I felt validation and acceptance, but also regret that I had not been able to express myself earlier.
For the last 10 years, I’ve been working at the Wing Luke Museum of the Asian Pacific American Experience (The Wing). We are dedicated to connecting everyone to the rich history, dynamic cultures and art of Asian Pacific Americans through vivid storytelling and inspiring experiences.
We develop our exhibitions using a community-based model . For each exhibition we recruit a Community Advisory Committee (CAC), made up of folks who have a connection to the exhibition topic. The CAC is a voluntary committee that meets over the course of six to 18 months. The CAC is truly the heart of the process, contributing in all aspects of exhibition development. They generate and direct content, contribute oral histories, photos, documents and artifacts. They advise on public programs, fundraising and marketing. They connect us to other community members and resources. Our staff serve as facilitators, coordinating and planning meetings, managing budgets, working with contractors, overseeing design, production and installation. This process gives voice to communities and empowers them to share their stories in the way they choose.
Each project is a journey, working with a new group of people, getting to know each other and developing trust. CAC members help us understand the nuances and sensitivities of their community and advise us on internal politics and tensions. People share their personal stories at meetings and in oral history interviews, often revealing their most painful experiences, prompting tears all around. The process is humbling.
The process is also labor-intensive. It requires checks and balances and takes time. We gather information from the CAC, then confirm with them, “Is this what I hear you saying?” “Do we need to edit or adjust?” “What do you want to prioritize?”
There are often stressful times: plans fall through, deadlines get pushed, and we scramble to stay on budget. We as staff have to remain nimble, resourceful and optimistic problem solvers. The work is taxing, but we know the exhibitions will materialize because there are so many people involved and invested, and together, our dedication, care and belief will make it happen.
There are wonderful, magical moments – seeing a group of people who may have different perspectives working together with passion and determination, collaborating through decisions and challenges, and then watching their ownership and commitment to the project and the museum develop over time: months, years, decades.
Empowering community members to share their own stories on their own terms gives them visibility, validation and pride. Visitors of different backgrounds find empathy and relevancy in these authentic stories that address contemporary issues of race, identity, culture and community. These are Asian Pacific American stories, these are American stories, and these are human stories, and they have the power to inform, engage, inspire and connect.
Michelle Kumata is a Seattle native with a BFA in Illustration from The School of Visual Arts in New York, NY. She worked as a graphic artist at The Seattle Times for over a decade. Her work has been shown at Frye Art Museum, Center on Contemporary Art, Bumbershoot, Nordstrom and The Society of Illustrators Museum, New York, NY. She is currently Exhibit Director at Wing Luke Museum of the Asian Pacific American Experience, where she works with community members to develop exhibitions.