Episode 7: Making the Impossible Possible with Miya Yoshitani
Miya Yoshitani has been organizing for 25 years, winning tangible change within the world as it is, while having an eye toward winning the world as it should be.
Miya is the Executive Director of the Asian Pacific Environmental Network.
Since the 1990s, Miya has been at the forefront of the environmental justice movement. Through her organizing in Asian-American communities, she builds power that fights for healthy communities — and a healthier planet.
At age 21, George Goehl walked into a soup kitchen to eat. Over time, he became an employee – first washing dishes and eventually helping run the place. Three years later, he was struck by seeing the same people in line as when he first arrived. He began to organize.
Today, George is the director of People’s Action, a multiracial poor and working class people’s organization. He leads one of the largest race-conscious rural progressive organizing efforts in the United States.
Following the financial crisis, George and National People’s Action mobilized more people into the streets than any other organization to demand accountability, help win Financial Reform, the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, and secure mortgage relief.
The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Guardian, CNN, MSNBC and others have covered George’s organizing work.
George Goehl: Hi, I’m George Goehl, and this is The Next Move, where we’re talking with organizers about the craft of organizing. Today my guest is Miya Yoshitani.
You know, a lot’s changed in organizing over the last dozen years, but one thing hasn’t, the importance of winning. The fact that we know how to win, it’s a secret sauce of our craft. Take it off the table, and I believe our ranks grow even smaller.
Miya Yoshitani has been organizing for 25 years winning tangible change within the world as it is while also having an eye toward winning the world as it should be. She is the executive director of the Asian Pacific Environmental Network. And since the 1990s, Miya has been at the forefront of the environmental justice movement. Through her organizing in Asian-American community, she builds power that fights for healthy communities and a healthier planet. Let’s get into it. When did you first become an organizer?
Miya Yoshitani: Right. That great question. I think back to what I was like as a kid as being really important. One of the things was that I think I felt pretty powerless as a kid because I was bullied a lot. But especially when my family moved to this very white suburb of Detroit in the early 1980, and my dad was an immigrant from Japan. There was at this time a really bad recession, the auto industry in Michigan had these really massive job losses. And this was at the same time that people were also taking sledgehammers to Japanese cars because they were being told Japanese people were taking their jobs. And at the same time, there was also the murder of Vincent Chin who was this Chinese-American who was basically beaten to death a few towns over from where we lived specifically because they thought he was Japanese.
And my family never really talked about it, but it was really scary. And it also added to this anxiety about being singled out and being bullied in a real othering way. Some people can react to that situation and I think be trained to put their head down and try to be unnoticed. And I think I went a little bit the opposite way where that just made me really, really angry as a kid. And when I was in high school, this was also during the late stages of apartheid, there were these incredible pro-democracy protests in Tiananmen Square. And I took that feeling inside of me, and I wanted to be in the streets. I thought that what I wanted to do was be an activist.
I had no idea what that meant or how, I just knew I wanted to be part of something bigger than myself. I wanted some way to express this rage I had about how unfair the world was. And I thought being an activist was what that meant. But I think the first time that I knew what I really wanted was to become this thing that we now call being an organizer was when I was in college and I went to my first organizing training. It was a Midwest Academy training. And this was the first time I heard the real story, the organizing story about Rosa Parks. And I learned about organizing strategy for the first time, kind of named that there is such a thing as strategy. That it can be purposeful, it can be intentional, that there’s actual skill to it, that it can be learned and shared and replicated and that they’re actually tools and technologies that can help us with it.
And this was just a huge revelation to me. And it also made me pretty angry that the real story about Rosa Parks wasn’t about this random act of courage by one person like we’re all taught at school, but it’s a story of organizing, it’s a story of collective action of diversity of tactics. It was the deep preparation and work and relationship building and strategic thinking that went into that moment, and all the tests and innovations on that organizing moment that went into it. I was angry because I couldn’t understand why that was removed from history. And it seems really intentional that this myth of the individual is so powerful and so pervasive. And I think we still really struggle with it today, that it made us as a country invisibilize the real story about Rosa Parks, which is a story about the power of organizing.
And I think when I went to that training, that was the first time that something clicked in me that, “Oh, this is actually something that is a science and an art that I can learn that we can put intention into this. And I’m not on my own, I’m part of this legacy, this long history of social change and strategy in building power in our communities.” And it made me realize that this is not about just these moments of individual, “I’m fed up and I’m just going to do something about it.” This is about building real deep connections and power that go on for years and years. And when I learned that, that tapped into something in me. It was so amazing. And I still feel it today that this is something that I was always meant to do. It put a real name on the feelings that I’d had about not just why the world is unfair but what we can actually do about it.
George Goehl: I think it is amazing, probably everybody has their story of that moment where there is a methodology around all of this versus stuff’s horrible and we got to figure how to change it, there’s actually stuff that works. What happens next?
Miya Yoshitani: Well, actually one of the first insights into organizing I had was when I was in high school. One of my first jobs was being a canvasser for Greenpeace in the Chicago area, I would think I was 16. I was driven out to a lot of working class suburbs in Chicago, like Calumet or Cicero or Niles and Palatine, places where you would think that there’d be a lot of resistance to some tree-hugger coming in from Greenpeace to tell people about whales or something. But that was a really formative experience for me. I ended up being really successful on the doors. I spent so much time, sometimes I would get critiqued for spending too much time at the doors basically because I would really listen to people. And I found that people were really willing to hear about what you think when you’re actually interested in what they think.
I mean, there’s fundamentals to this. I would say that was one of my first experiences of an actual methodological approach to organizing. It’s like first rule, be curious. Don’t make assumptions about people, always start out by asking people to tell their stories no matter what it is. You want to hear from people about what they think and about what they care about. And I think that has been one of those inherently built in things into my understanding of what works in organizing since then. I didn’t even know that I was doing anything related to organizing, it was really just my summer job. But I feel like that was actually some of the hardest work I ever had to do, and it was actually some of the most important learning for me.
George Goehl: I feel like you just described some early deep canvasing. Listening, curiosity, non-judgemental, and then the fact that you were going longer than your supervisors thought you were. Something you said around it is like a formative organizing experience. There is something about asking people to part with their money. And in this case, it sounds like more working class folks. How do you think that prepares an organizer for later asking people to do other things and build an organization?
Miya Yoshitani: I think that one of the biggest lessons about organizing that I have is that sometimes organizers get in the way of where communities and members actually are or want to be. We want to protect them, so we don’t ask. We say, “Oh, this is a poor neighborhood, people don’t have any money.” So we make these assumptions that they’re not able to or shouldn’t. And it’s not just about money, it’s also about people’s time and asking people to show up for public testimony, for a rally, for a phone bank, all kinds of things. And I think it goes all the way to, as organizers, what goes into our thinking about when we’re crafting demands too. Many times our members are like, “No, no, no, we don’t want to settle for that. We want the big thing, and we’re not going to settle for the compromise. We want Chevron to shut down or whatever it is, they’re always asking for the big thing.
And I think as organizers, we have to learn how to get out of the way of our communities and our members own ambitions. And if we don’t actually really listen to what our members are asking for and what their dreams are, then we can actually become a roadblock to those.
George Goehl: What do you think is underneath that tendency to become a roadblock with the human impulse that organizers sometimes will pick up that will block space for leaders?
Miya Yoshitani: I think that some of that has to do with even some of the old organizer teachings, this idea that an organizer is not really part of the community but is some unbiased outsider. We have this idea that we’re unrelated to it or that all we’re doing is listening. Listening deeply is important, that’s fundamental, but that’s not all you’re there to do. And I think there’s some idea that we are not actually part of making the change, we’re just facilitating change. That’s just not how it works. Organizers have to think of themselves as leaders too. And it’s harder, it’s more complicated to actually be deeply engaged in a way that recognizes not just the authenticity of our leaders and our members but our own as well and our own authentic voice in that.
George Goehl: I hear you saying as organizers, we are weather veins. We need to listen to our people, know what they care about, want. And we’re more than that, we actually have to have an opinion. We’re not just facilitators.
Miya Yoshitani: Yeah. It’s so important for us not just to have an opinion, but to be transparent about it. Because we always have opinions, and you’re always going to have an influence. But if you’re acting like you don’t, that’s disingenuous. I think we should be as transparent as possible about what we think as well. And knowing that our engagement with our members has an impact.
George Goehl: What is the Student Environmental Action Coalition, and how did you become so involved, and any searing takeaways from that time as an organizer?
Miya Yoshitani: Oh, so many searing takeaways. I was on the University of Illinois campus, and I was really compelled to find a home, a political home for some of the things that I really cared about. And at that time I cared about environmental justice and this intersection of environment, of poverty, of racism, and pollution. And I just didn’t find anything on my campus that was speaking to that. There was an environmental group, it was mostly engaged in recycling and other forms of more conservation stuff. And then this national group appeared on the scene called the Student Environmental Action Coalition. They had a huge conference on my campus, it was called Catalyst. And it was the first time that I actually saw people who were not just excited about environmental issues from the perspective of social justice and from the perspective of really addressing inequality.
And I got involved through this new part of the network that was the People of Color Caucus. And it was small but mighty. And there was just a group of us that were really trying to challenge this mostly white student organization to address issues of environmental justice on their campuses. I started getting involved with that group and then very quickly got sucked into all kinds of leadership positions and ended up leaving campus before I actually finished my undergrad and moved to North Carolina to be essentially the executive director of this national student organization. I had absolutely no business doing this. I had never run an organization nor had I ever been responsible for raising a budget at the time. I think it was like maybe a million dollar budget, which feels crazy to me that they hired me to do that. So it was a really fast and pretty deep dive into national organizing.
It was out of this desire to take a position where I could bring a perspective of the people of color who were in the organization. And in that moment, just like there is today, there’s this intense need to build power around these issues. And I was lucky enough because of my role and seek to be able to attend the first National People of Color Environmental Leadership Summit. Because I was also a young person Asian-American and also from the Midwest, I fit some demographic categories that they were looking for to participate in the really seminal document, The Principles of Environmental Justice.
So there had been a draft that was brought to the summit. And then over several days of the summit, there were, I don’t know, maybe 20 of us or so locked in a room for half the time where we were actually just talking through and trying to edit and add to and argue over what the principles should be that were coming out of the summit. And there’s still 17 principles of environmental justice out there today that came from that room and from the experiences of all the very diverse people in that room. And that was a real seminal experience for me also as a young organizer. I had no idea how important that was going to be as an origin moment for me as an organizer and for my personal trajectory in organizing around environmental justice.
George Goehl: Any big lessons from how a summit like that and putting the time into principles impacted your organizing later?
Miya Yoshitani: Yeah. The Principles of Environmental Justice, they say so much about the world that we want. And I think that that was such a huge contribution to this growing nascent movement at the time. That there was something to build off of but something to also compare and contrast and say, “These are the principles that we want to live up to. This is the bar that we are expecting us to all fight for and to rise above.” It’s such a huge contribution I think to actually put into words what those are even if the words aren’t perfect. I might go back and shift around some of the wording or maybe add some things now, but it’s a huge, huge foundation of the environmental justice movement to have those principles put into words and say this is what we’re fighting for.
It’s not just about the rage that we feel because of the inequity, this is not just describing injustice. This is describing what we want, this is what we’re fighting for. And I think in any of our movements having something that articulates what we are fighting for, what we’re building collective power for, what we want to see and then making meaning out of that, I think is such a huge contribution. And the fact that I got to be a part of that in the early days of the environmental justice movement, it was really a fluke and a coincidence, but it’s something that has been such a fundamental part of what I then chose to do every day after. I never would have predicted that.
George Goehl: I love that as a compass. I grew up in a very different part of the organizing world where we would spend a little bit of time on some North stars and the world we want to live in, but not enough. We were better at, what is the immediate fight where we can win and then get to the next level? And so it’s just inspiring to hear about something, especially something that’s had such staying power and informed so many people way more than we’ll ever know what. Share what APEN is and then if you could like walk us through a defining environmental justice fight in the APEN history.
Miya Yoshitani: Sure. APEN, the Asian Pacific Environmental Network, we are a grassroots environmental justice organization based in the Bay Area. We really started as an idea that in part was born out of the first National People of Color Environmental Leadership Summit. There were Asian-Americans and Pacific Islanders who were at the summit. There were only a handful of us, there was just so few of us. That was actually one of the striking stories for me was, oh, I know that there are Asian-American immigrant communities that are dealing with the same set of issues, the same intersection of living near big polluters, whether that is living next to a refinery like our first organizing project in Richmond in Laotian community or it’s workers being exposed on a job or sweatshop workers or home care workers who are being exploited.
I know that our communities are facing a lot of these same issues. Why are we not here? Where are our folks? So APEN was really born out of the recognition that we needed more organizations that were building power around environmental justice in Asian-American immigrant refugee communities. Our first campaign, we had gone along doing some early just community education around environmental issues, just trying to gauge where the interest was and what people were thinking and what were the most important issues to them, and also build a community awareness around environmental justice issues that are facing people in that community. And then all of a sudden the Chevron refinery exploded, which it tends to do from time to time pretty regularly. And at that time, I believe it was 1998, and the refinery had a huge explosion and fire and sent tens of thousands of people essentially, maybe it was 15,000 people to area hospitals because of the toxic exposure in the air.
And one of the things that happened immediately was we were hearing from our members that they were getting phone calls from the county with instructions, emergency instructions about what to do, and they couldn’t understand it. They were hearing the sirens, they were seeing the smoke in the air. And because they wanted to know what was going on, they were basically doing the opposite of what the instructions were telling them. So there’s this whole emergency warning system run by the county that was telling them to go inside, close their doors, put a towel to cover the crack in the door and close all your windows. It’s basically instructions to shelter in place. And the Laotian refugee community was doing the opposite. They were going outside, they were trying to talk to their neighbors to find out what was going on. Instead of sheltering in place, they were exposing themselves more.
And when we were hearing from people the aftereffects of that and how many people got sick and how many people immediately felt the impact and then were also really upset by the fact that they were completely left out of this vital information. Our first campaign was around a multi-lingual warning system. It was not transformative, it’s not like we were shutting the refinery down or something. But we were saying, “This is fundamentally unfair and unsafe, and it’s not just the Laotian refugee community, it’s all of the communities in Richmond who don’t speak English as their first language. And what we need is a county government that’s going to be accountable to all people and that care about the safety and the wellbeing and the health of all of the residents.” And we fought for and won the first multi-lingual warning system in the country. That was our first campaign that really started the organizing in Richmond in what was originally called the Laotian Organizing Project.
George Goehl: I didn’t know that part. But it’s like the people needed a multi-lingual warning system. Like you said, it’s not the transformative demand. But if you can’t win when people need, it’s hard to pull a lot of folks into the bigger longer-term fight. It reminds me of my first organizing in Southern Indiana. And we’d started to build on a big affordable housing campaign to get a bunch of units built and be affordable in the perpetuity. But as we talked, what was the emerging base? The homeless folks were like, “Really what we need to be able to do is sleep on the bench at the bus stop and not get ticketed.” Let’s win that first, and then we’ll talk about this housing trust fund campaign.
Miya Yoshitani: As long as we’re talking fundamentals of organizing, winning is important, winning is good, we need to win things. I think that’s one of those super obvious but oftentimes disregarded fact of nature in organizing and just how important it is. And not just to win anything, but win things that bring a better quality of life, they actually address real problems that people are experiencing on a day-to-day level, but probably most importantly that help us build power and help set us up for more transformative demands and campaigns and wins in the future. We’re not talking about just going from stop sign to stop sign to stop sign, we’re talking about campaign wins that set us up for the bigger wins and not just incrementally but exponentially build our power.
George Goehl: I’m curious, how has winning made it possible for APEN to have conversations and build a base that’s aligned around a very transformative agenda for the energy sector? What role has winning played in allowing you guys to build that base?
Miya Yoshitani: Well, I think that something that came out of that early campaign which is fundamental to organizing in my mind is understanding power, being able to engage members in this collective process of building their own power, recognizing their own power, winning something because of that power, and then proving something that a lot of people don’t believe is that they do have power when they take collective action. And that fundamental foundation of organizing, I think there’s just no shortcuts to that. And what that enabled us to do was to have tangible results that then actually create a new story in the community that we are not powerless, that we actually are powerful and that we can win things that are meaningful to us, and we can actually then dream about bigger and bolder and more transformative things that are not just what our communities need now to survive but are part of what we need to thrive and to build something that is not just better but beautiful.
And I think that those simple truths about organizing are so essential, and there’s definitely ways that you can do organizing that don’t do that. There’s nothing magical about organizing itself, but it’s the way that you do it. And I think in this moment where we’re just called upon, I’m hearing people call it the power and the peril of the moment. That there is so much at stake, but if we don’t have a massive number of people who actually believe that something transformational is possible, then we will never get there, we won’t win that. But that’s part of organizing, it makes the impossible seem possible. It makes people actually believe that change is possible, and I think that you cannot underestimate the power of that.
George Goehl: It’s interesting, an organizer recently said to me who was talking about how their organization has grown to some extent through the movement energy of the last 10 years the challenge they’ve run into is a lot of people that came in maybe a little through very piqued movement moments thought that change was going to come faster. And actually in many ways didn’t get the experience of winning, they got the experience of getting big but actually skipped the experience of winning the thing in the neighborhood or winning the new city ordinance or all of that. And then a lot of those folks went away. Their faith wasn’t built or they didn’t come in ready for that fight. And I hadn’t heard it said like that, but I thought it was interesting.
Miya Yoshitani: I think that is really insightful, and that is part of this whole idea that there are no shortcuts, there’s no shortcuts. That organizing is just a essential pathway to winning what we need. I mean, there are lots of ways to get people’s attention and to agitate people and to get people angry about stuff, even to get people to do something that they wouldn’t have thought of themselves as doing before, whether that’s voting for the first time or signing a petition. But organizing is the process of taking people through multiple channels of that experience and experiencing a win. When we shoot for things that are really big and we don’t win them, that is not what I’m talking about, saying everything that we choose to do. And I think that’s part of this moment too. So much of what we’re choosing is way more ambitious, is way more visionary and way more innovative.
And we’re swinging for the rooftops here. We’re really I think going for it. And I think that being a part of that is important too. But I also think that as organizers we do have to be creative about how we engage people in the things that are immediate as well. That’s part of what the art and science of organizing is. We can’t just do one or the other, we can’t just choose to only focus on the things that are winnable but that aren’t impactful. I think to leave people with the one experience being that they were part of something big that never went anywhere is really disempowering.
George Goehl: Yeah. If that’s the only experience, yeah. I want to go back to something you said earlier, you talked about people who’ve been made to feel and maybe even be invisible in our society. What organizing fundamentals are key to organizing folks who are made to be invisible?
Miya Yoshitani: I always think of myself as an organizer as really my job is to knock down barriers and to clear the path for frontline communities and leaders to have their voices heard. In communities like the Laotian refugee community that we’ve been organizing in for years or the Chinese immigrant community in Oakland, Chinatown where we’ve also built up an organizing base, there are some literal parts of organizing so that people feel heard. And that is like some of the technical things of having interpretation, making sure that people can actually speak for themselves, talk to the media and not have to always have the English speaking spokesperson but actually having our members represent their own views and tell their own stories. That I think is some of the expertise that we’ve built up around our organizing in making sure that people who normally don’t have a voice literally have the capacity to communicate what they want and what their demands are.
George Goehl: I love that. Last question, do you have a favorite organizing axiom?
Miya Yoshitani: Oh my gosh, it’s been in my mind so long that I don’t actually even remember where it came from. But it says that organizing is not so much about lighting a fire under as it is about lighting a fire within. And it’s probably been co-opted into some management training for executives or something, but it always really spoke to me especially as a younger organizer to understand the difference between agitating people and building off of that rage. That, yes, that is important, but what you’re really trying to do is light a fire of possibility, optimism, and love inside of people. And that’s what organizing actually does, it connects people to a bigger dream and a collective shared dream. And I think it’s so important for us as organizers to remember that we’re not just here to make people outraged and mad, we’re also here to inspire people to be their best selves and to be a part of something bigger than themselves.
George Goehl: So good, Miya. So glad you were up for doing this.
Miya Yoshitani: Oh, it was such a huge pleasure.
George Goehl: We joke about when organizers used to work on stop sign issues, and there is a reason we did it. It provided quick evidence that coming together actually works. We don’t need to go back to stop signs, but we do need organizers who know how to win. Winning is essential because people need relief in the here and now, and it gives people a taste of what organizing makes possible. But as Miya points out, there’s even more to it than that. We actually build power through winning. We recruit new members, and those members develop into leaders. We learn what it takes to win, to develop a power analysis, to do strategy and how to execute on that strategy. All of which means we fight the next battle on stronger footing. I experience today’s organizing field to be much stronger at crafting truly structural and even transformative demands but to be at a bit of a loss in constructing the stepping stone fights that get us there.
Win is winning something that’s imperfect settling, and win is at a stepping stone in policy and in power that makes the more structural wins more achievable. We need to get clear on which is which. Miya also has me thinking about this balance that an organizer needs to strike in our relationship with members. Being someone who truly listens and trusts the instinct of members and is also active in shaping what we do and how we get there and open and honest about that role. We also discuss this tendency in some organizers to ‘protect people’. When does our act of protecting people cross a line? When we decide for a community that they cannot afford dues, we rob people of an opportunity to make those decisions for themselves. And when is this really about protecting ourselves? Because ultimately we’re uncomfortable asking people for their time and money. It’s complicated.
The bottom line is this, we have to trust people’s ability to lead, to take on work, to grow. And we have to trust that they need and want our opinion and are capable of pushing back or proposing alternatives if they’re not feeling it. It’s a delicate balance. But if we’re mindful of this, mindful of where we’re taking up too much space, when we’re receding too far into the background, when we’re protecting people from opportunities for growth, we’ll find our way.
You can learn more about the work that Miya is doing at APEC at peoplesaction.org/nextmove.
This podcast was produced by People’s Action and The Mash-Up Americans. It is executive produced by Amy S. Choi and Rebecca Lehrer. Our senior producer is Sara Pellegrini. Our development producer is Melissa Lo, production manager, Shelby Sandlin.