For those colleagues who knew Alan Nishio during his 34 years at CSULB, his busy life as an emeritus may not seem much different, but that suits Nishio just fine.
“Life is good,” Nishio said with a bright smile. “I try to stay healthy as far as food and exercise are concerned, and spend time with family and community activities. I try to use retirement wisely. To me, how you use retirement is probably the only time in life when you can make sure that how you spend your time reflects what your values and priorities are.”
Before Nishio retired as an associate vice president of Student Services in 2006, he planned on starting a charter school.
“I was so frustrated with what was going on in public education in Los Angeles, and I wanted to do something in that area,” he recalled. “That was my main motivation. About a month before my official retirement, I contracted a rare and aggressive cancer, a pelvic leiomyosarcoma, and that put everything on hold because the likelihood of living without recurrences was fairly small.”
Although Nishio was forced to change his plans, he has continued to serve nonprofit organizations that feed his passion for social justice. For the last 10 years, he has served as president of the board of the Little Tokyo Service Center, which engages in community economic development and building affordable housing.
“The affordable housing we do is targeted to the working poor. These people are often neglected,” he explained. “We work with developers and encourage them to provide housing for the people who work in communities with more resources. The working poor who cook and clean, for instance, shouldn’t have to take the bus from two hours away to reach their work places. We believe communities should have more balanced development.”
Nishio, who grew up in a housing project during the 1950s, feels fortunate that the gap between the rich and the poor was not as visible then, as it is now.
“We continue to have the best health, educational and community services for the richest one-third of our society, but we don’t do a good job with the bottom two-thirds,” he said. “I think the people who we try to target are the ones who work, do the right things, pay taxes, but the quality of life is just eroding. I want to be involved in being a part of the solution, not a part of the problem, so I do a lot of work in affordable housing.”
A longtime political activist, Nishio, who was born in the Manzanar internment camp in 1945, is perhaps best known for helping to bring about redress for civil liberties violations against Japanese Americans during World War II and, together with the National Coalition for Redress/ Reparations (known today as Nikkei for Civil Rights & Redress), win passage of the Civil Liberties Act of 1988. Today, he serves as an advisor to the California Civil Liberties Public Education Program, which sponsors public educational activities and development of educational materials to ensure that the Japanese American concentration camp experience during World War II will be remembered.
“We have a program called Building Bridges, which takes Muslim and Japanese American high school students and engages them in activities together,” Nishio said. “They get to learn each other’s backgrounds and experiences and gain some appreciation for Islam as a religion, and the civil liberties and civil rights issues that Japanese Americans and others have faced and that many Muslims are now experiencing.
“I think we need to understand that civil liberties and civil rights are not things that are embedded in our DNA (be born with it). Our rights are not guaranteed,” he stated. “It has to be affirmed and protected, and each generation has a responsibility to teach the lessons of the past, but also, when issues come up, to make sure that we’re addressing them. History has shown us that democratic societies can turn into fascists or dictatorships very quickly in one generation.”
Nishio is appreciative that the CSULB community, including Presidents Robert C. Maxson and Stephen Horn, understood and supported so many of his social justice/ community activities during his tenure, and he continues to help the campus with outreach to and collaboration with underserved Asian groups. As a tribute to Nishio’s years of service, the Alan T. Nishio Educational Equity Excellence Scholarship was established in 2006 to provide higher educational opportunities for students from first-generation, low income and historically underrepresented populations.
But Nishio is humble about the honor.
“Legacies are not based on names,” he said. “A legacy is the impact you have on changing the nature of an institution that people would never recognize. I hope mine is that I have contributed in some way to making CSULB a campus that values diversity, equity and, at the same time, main- tains the standards of excellence that are so important.”