Image credit: Leslie A. Ito

Image credit: Leslie A. Ito

by Leslie A. Ito

In January 2017, I was awarded a Stanton Fellowship from the Durfee Foundation to "investigate how community-based, ethnic specific organizations reinvent themselves for a new generation in a changing social context and evolving cultural ecology."  

I realized relatively quickly through interviews with arts leaders and cultural practioners and a literature review that my original research inquiry was deeply flawed and when I wrote the inquiry in summer of 2016, the world as we knew it was much different than it is today.

What I mean by deeply flawed is, we didn’t need to reinvent ourselves, instead perhaps we needed to return to a founding spirit.

The phrase founding spirit is not meant to be religious.  It refers to the essence.  The philosophy.  The feeling that is evoked through a certain action, a specific interaction or a conscious arrangement.

In Fall 2016, I took a journey through Kyoto and met with artisans and craftsmen: papermakers, textile artists, ceramic artists, tea kettle master, and visited many teahouses to experience Chado (the art of tea).  Each one of these artists were 11th-16th generation carrying on their family traditions.  Each one of them expressed a similar approach.  I think the landscape designer, Katsuaki Ogawa said it best. 

Ogawa Sensei is a 12th generation landscape designer. We met at one of his ancestors garden. It was spectacular. His approach to maintaining his ancestors' work is to insure that the essence continued to be captured in the gardens rather than the exactness of preservation. 

Similarly, I met with Mr. Takeshi Niinami, President of Suntory Holdings and I asked him what it was like to be the very first non-family member to lead Suntory, the multi-national corporation after several generations.  He said nothing has changed – it all goes back to the founding spirit.

As I think about the founding spirit, of this institution, JACCC, of my family, of my community – it has made me realize that each of us has our own journey.  It seems like a simple concept, at least I think for communities of color – even as a 4th generation Japanese American.  But carving out the time and the headspace to explore is the hard part.  I believe strongly that if we can identify, articulate and explore that founding spirit, as artists, arts and cultural practioners and as living culture bearers – that we can recenter the dialogue, and more importantly, move our rich cultures to the center – dissipating the current dominant culture.

This journey has led me to understand that each person, organization and community will have a different answer to this original inquiry.  Where I might be helpful in lending what I have learned through this process is by contributing a set of questions to the field to consider in their own journey.

What does it mean to be rooted?

How is time perceived?

Who came before us and what have we learned from them that needs to be passed on? How do these lessons apply to contemporary life?

How has scarcity or abundance affected us?

What role does food play?

How and where do multi-generations of people interact?

How does physical space and scale impact culture?

What is the role of ritual?

What is enduring?

How do we celebrate?

How do we mourn?

By exploring these questions, perhaps there are answers to how we reconnect to tradition in contemporary ways, and how to create relevant, culturally rooted programming. 

My hope with this blog is to share my thoughts, as well as curate guests to add to the dialogue.