Asian American Studies Pioneer Don Nakanishi Speaks to UCLA Ed Students

The UCLA education professor emeritus took part in a speaker series on Asian American and Pacific Islander leadership in education.

Dr. Don T. Nakanishi, director emeritus of the UCLA Asian American Studies Center and professor emeritus, UCLA Departments of Asian American Studies and Education, addressed over 100 students, faculty, and staff at the UCLA Fowler Museum on May 20.  The lecture and reception were jointly organized by the Institute for Immigration, Globalization, and Education and students from UCLA’s Graduate School of Education & Information Studies.

The event was a culmination of the “Asian American and Pacific Islander Leadership in Education” speaker series which included the Honorable Robert Underwood, President, University of Guam and Dina Maramba, professor of higher education, SUNY Binghamton. Students enrolled in Professor Teranishi’s course “Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders in Education” organized the events.

“The speaker series on Asian American and Pacific Islander leadership in education has been overwhelmingly successful, drawing a broad audience of students, faculty members, administrators, and community leaders,” says Teranishi. “I attribute the success of these events to the great work of students in my class who work collaboratively to host our speakers and organize these events.”

Edward R. Curammeng, a SSCE doctoral student, whose research specializes in race and ethnic studies commented, “It has been a wonderful opportunity to hear from a wide range of Asian American and Pacific Islander thought leaders and change agents. “I appreciated the honesty of our speakers in sharing the challenges and successes they’ve encountered as well as learning of the purpose driving their work.”

All of the speakers provided insightful perspectives for Edward’s work, which uses critical race theory to examine the experiences of Asian American students and teachers, particularly Filipina/o Americans. Nakanishi focused his remarks on the life experiences that informed his commitment to social justice.

Prior to his retirement in 2009 from a 35-year professorial career at UCLA, which included 20 years as director of the UCLA Asian American Studies Center, Dr. Nakanishi provided leadership and vision for the national development of the fields of Asian American Studies and race and ethnic relations scholarship for four decades. A prolific writer, he has authored more than 100 books, articles, and reports on the political participation of Asian Pacific Americans and other ethnic and racial groups in American politics; educational research on issues of access and representation; and the international political dimensions of minority experiences. Dr. Nakanishi is widely recognized for developing the fields of Asian American political and educational research. He was the first to demonstrate that Asian Americans, despite their high group levels of education and income that are usually associated with active political participation, had very low levels of voter registration and voting.

“Don gave a moving speech about key moments in his life that helped shape his development as a scholar, community leader, and educator,” says Professor Teranishi, who holds a joint appointment as the inaugural Morgan and Helen Chu Chair in Asian American Studies at UCLA. “His personal narrative provides insightful context for his many accomplishments, locally and globally.”

Born and raised in the multi-ethnic, working class community of East Los Angeles, California, Dr. Nakanishi attended Theodore Roosevelt High School, where he served as Student Body President. He was also selected as Boy Mayor of the City of Los Angeles.. A political scientist, Dr. Nakanishi received his B.A. in intensive political science from Yale University in 1971, and his Ph.D., also in political science, from Harvard University in 1978.

Nakanishi’s numerous awards include the National Community Leadership Award from the Asian Pacific Institute for Congressional Studies (2007), the Yale Medal (2008), the inaugural Distinguished Educator Award from the Asian and Pacific Islander American Scholarship Foundation (2009), and the George Kiriyama Educational Excellence Award (2010). Upon his retirement from UCLA, an endowment, The Don T. Nakanishi Engaged Research Prize, was established in his honor, annually recognizing UCLA faculty and graduate students in Asian American Studies, who pursue outstanding community-based engaged research.

A former national president of the Association of Asian American Studies, Nakanishi co-founded and served as publisher of Amerasia Journal, the premier academic journal in the field of Asian American Studies. President Bill Clinton appointed him to the Civil Liberties Public Education Fund Board of Directors, which administered the nation- wide public education and research program established under the 1988 Civil Liberties Act. This act provided a national apology and reparations for 120,000 Japanese Americans who were incarcerated in World War II concentration camps. Nakanishi’s parents and older brother were among those who were imprisoned.

Curammeng says he “hopes that the speaker series continues as part of UCLA Ed, as a way for students, faculty, and community members to engage with issues faced by the growing Asian American and Pacific Islander population, and with the work being done to serve those communities.”

“Nakanishi’s talk, in particular, was deeply personal and connected multiple moments from his life that shaped his activism and the intentionality behind his work,” says Curammeng. “Hearing about his early years as a college student and how ethnic studies shaped his politicization was especially pertinent as this year’s final speaker in the series because he connected for us ways students can use their access to higher education to enact change in the communities we work with.”

Staff support for this event was provided by the Institute for Immigration, Globalization, and Education and the UCLA Asian American Studies Center. The Morgan and Helen Chu Endowment sponsored the entire speaker series.


Photo  above: Doctoral and master’s degree students from UCLA’s divisions of Higher Education Organizational Change (HEOC) and Social Science and Comparative Education (SSCE) met with Asian American studies pioneer Dr. Don Nakanishi (fifth from left, back row) on May 20.

Front row, L-R: Elaine Tamargo, MSA student; Xue Hie, SSCE; Jenny Jong-Hwa Lee, MSA student; Bach Mai Dolly Nguyen, SSCE; Michael Ishimoto, SSCE; Jason Chan, HEOC; Mike Hoa Nguyen, HEOC; and Edward Curammeng, SSCE.

Back row L-R: Keali’i Troy Lau, HEOC; M. Kalehua Mueller, HEOC; Joe Ramirez, HEOC; Marcia Fuentes, HEOC; Dr. Nakanishi, Dr. Robert Teranishi, professor of education and co-director, Institute for Immigration, Globalization, and Education; Erin Manalo, MPH student; Reuben De Leon, HEOC; and Nestor Espinoza, HEOC.


Courtesy of Robert Teranishi and Edward Curammeng