Liane Hirabayashi, November 13, 2021


Cooperstown Graduate Program
Oral History Project Fall 2021

LH = Liane Hirabayashi

KN = Katherine Novko

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This is Katherine Novko interviewing Liane Hirabayashi on November 13, 2021 in the Cooperstown Graduate Program building Media Lab. So, please say your full name.

My name is Liane Hirabayashi.

And where and when were you born?

I was born in Poughkeepsie, New York, on September 17, 1965.

Could you tell me a little about your family?

I am one of five kids. My mother is French, she has her American citizenship but she's French, and my father is Japanese American. His parents came from Japan to the States and then he was born in the U.S.

When we spoke at the pre-interview you mentioned some family experiences during World War II, would you mind talking about that a little bit?

Sure, my father and his family – my father was also one of five children – and his parents were farmers in Washington State, just a little bit south of Seattle in a town called Auburn. There were a number of other Japanese families who had moved there. They had a kind of cooperative, actually – a farming cooperative. My father is the second of the five kids; they were all born in the States, he has three brothers and a sister. When the U.S. entered World War II, due to Pearl Harbor in 1941, in 1942 anyone of Japanese ancestry who was living on the West Coast and didn't want to move had to go into internment camps. They called them concentration camps, actually. He and his family, with the exception of one brother – his oldest brother – ended up in Tule Lake which is in the northern part of California. And I think Pinedale Assembly Center was the name of the assembly center. A number of the camps weren't ready by the time this order went through; they were still building barracks and things like that, so they went to assembly centers first which are often makeshift – like horseracing venues or fairgrounds, things like that which were converted very quickly for people to live in until the camps were ready. They were there first, in Pinedale, and then they went to Tule Lake.

I don't think he [my father] stayed there very long, I think less than a year. The call came out – because a lot of men were enlisting and being drafted into the Army, they didn't have enough workers. It was probably just a few months because it was the Fall and the harvest and there weren't enough workers to handle the harvest; so they see all these young people in the camps who aren't doing anything because they're behind bars and they said "well, they can come out and do the harvest." So that's what he did. A number of people did that, just to get out of the camps. So, that's what he did and then his other brothers and his sister stayed in the camp with their parents until – I think one brother Jim, actually, got out and did the same thing as my dad. And then the other two, who are quite a bit younger, you know 13, 14, they stayed with their parents. Ultimately, they [their parents] were asked, kind of as the camps started to close, to start a nursing home for first-generation elderly, called Issei, who didn't have anywhere else to go. They went from becoming farmers to running a nursing home. Yeah, that was very interesting, and I think Jim who had been working in the farms, rejoined his parents there.

Then my Uncle Gordon, the oldest, he had refused to be interned. He was a grad student, like you he was a grad student. He was at University of Washington and he refused, because he felt very strongly that as an American citizen this was completely wrong, so he refused to follow either the curfew orders that were in place or the evacuation orders, and he ended up in prison. He was also a Quaker, so he was a conscientious objector and so refused to be drafted. With that combination he just spent the entire time in prison during World War II. But his case, where he refused the evacuation order and so on, he had said that he partly did that because there was a thought that they could use this as a test case for the whole thing – the constitutionality of the orders. There were a couple other men: one in California, one in Oregon, their cases went all the way to the Supreme Court, they appealed all the way to the Supreme Court each time their conviction was upheld.

That's kind of their story, I mean there's a lot of other things in there but I don't know if you want to hear more.

Well, I'm curious, you said "ee-sa"? Would you mind defining that?

Issei? Yeah, so for the Japanese the numbers ichi, ni, san, shi is one, two, three, four. And I don't speak Japanese, so I'm not sure of my pronunciation on all that, I think I've got that right. The first generation that came to the U.S. were called the Issei. Then the second generation is the Nisei, and third generation is Sansei, and fourth generation is Yonsei. So, I'm a Sansei and my daughter is a Yonsei.

What happened to the nursing home?

That's a good question, I don't know. I think it continued for a long time. It was in Spokane. That's a good question, I should find out about that. I don't know what happened to it afterwards, but it certainly went until my grandmother died. She was actually relatively young. I think she died in the fifties, 1950s, and then my grandfather died when he was quite a bit older, and actually remarried, but I think he was running it until he died.

How would you say your family was impacted by those experiences, being interned and starting the nursing home?

Well, you know, my father never talked about it. And I think that generation for the most part did not talk about the internment. It was a point of shame, basically. For my uncle it was a point of principle to have done what he did. He ended up becoming a professor. He got his PhD, and then he went on to teach. He was a sociology professor, I think he taught overseas a couple of places, then he ended up in Canada where he finished out his career as a professor. He eventually became – what happened was in the 1980s there was a law professor who, with the help of a researcher, uncovered some documents from that time that showed that there was evidence, an FBI report, that stated that for the most part the Japanese community on the West Coast was not a threat in any way. They were loyal to the U.S. and so there was no problem, and that the people who were problematic had been identified and arrested. But that report was suppressed at the time of those court cases, they weren't aware of that report, and it was deliberately suppressed. That happened in the 1980s, it led to a reparations movement to give an apology and some sort of monetary token of recognition of the losses incurred by the Japanese community. Every survivor, everyone who was still alive who had been in the camps, I think they got $20,000. I think for my uncle that was a vindication, that what he had done was right, and I think he never stopped believing that. I think he became a hero for many people.

I think for my dad, and the next brother Jim – so it's Gordon, my dad Edward, and then Jim, were the three oldest – became a professor of anthropology. He taught at San Francisco State and he became a dean. He fought to have an ethnic studies program in the [19]60s and [19]70s, and became a real activist, and I think that in part was driven by his experience being discriminated against for so long. I think that probably led to that level of activism.

I think my dad, when he left the camps and he was working, one of the stories he told later was that the farm that he went to with a friend of his, they picked the smallest farm they could get because they figured it would be less work, it was I think a beet farm in Idaho. He said that they went there, and the farmer showed them where they would be staying and it was a small, little white house and they thought, wow, a little cottage, cabin type thing. And then they saw all these black speckles everywhere and he was like "that's an interesting paint job" because it was white otherwise, and they look closer and it was just flies. This was the chicken coop. They stayed in the chicken coop with flies painted into the walls and the floors. I remember him telling me that and just sort of disgusted with that. He ultimately, when he finished up with that and I think he said he worked as a fry cook for a while, he went to college on the East Coast. He said he wanted to be as far away from the West Coast as possible. So, I think he was pretty angry. I know he had wanted to be with his older brother Gordon and also refuse to be interned but Gordon said "no, you have to take care of the family. You're going to be the older brother now so you need to take care of them."

As far as impact I would say that a lot of people in our family, in different ways, are activists of one kind or another. I think we have a sense of the importance of making sure that injustice is addressed even in little ways. I'd say that's probably how it's affected our family.

When we met earlier you mentioned that your father was in the foreign service, and that had a big impact on you, could you speak a bit about that?

Yeah, so he was a professor at SUNY New Paltz, of social psychology. I guess he had written some articles about how, and I'm going to be a little fuzzy on this, but the story is that he wrote some articles about how we should be doing aid in foreign countries or something to that effect. The United States AID program had just – the Agency for International Development – had just started relatively soon. It started during [President John F.] Kennedy's time, so it was relatively young. I think he had written an article about this is how aid or this is how development should be done, or something like that. That's the story, anyway. The person who was heading up one of the programs said, you know, why don't you put your money where your mouth is, why don't you join us and show us how we should be doing this? Something to that effect. I don't know how true any of this is, [chuckles], but that's the family lore.

He hadn't finished his PhD yet, and I think my mom was thinking "you know you're not going to finish your PhD, you're never going to do it, so let's just do this foreign service thing." I think for my mom, being French, she liked the idea of maybe being able to live overseas, I think that really appealed to her. She loved to travel. They actually met in India because my father was studying religion and my mother was interested in international relations. They met at the Banaras Hindu University, at the International House there, and they fell in love and got married. I think for my mom, she liked the idea of not just living in the U.S. She always joked and said that she married my father in spite of the fact that he was American. She was always kind of a bit anti-American – she's a socialist and has found sort of the U.S. capitalism to be a little hard to take at times. And the focus on materialism and so on, she's found a little difficult to swallow.

So, my father decided to join the foreign service. I was two years old at the time, and I have a twin, and the two of us are the youngest. Their first post was in [19]67, and it was in Ecuador in Quito. I can't imagine how my mom managed to get, I think of it as my mom but my dad was there too of course, but my parents took two two-year-olds, a four-year-old, a six-year-old, and an eight-year-old to Ecuador. To me it just seems unfathomable that they did that [chuckles].

That's how we started in the foreign service. We were posted in Ecuador in Quito, and then Recife in Brazil for a brief stint there, then Rio de Janiero, Brazil for maybe a little over three years. Then we moved back to Washington D.C., we were posted in the States for five years. Then my father got a post in Ethiopia in Addas Ababa for two years, or one and a half years, then we were kicked out of that. The whole AID was closed down with the exception of I think agricultural aid. Which is a whole separate – political infighting among AID people – but anyway the result was that my father, whose program was education and human resources, his program was ended and we were posted then in what was Zaire – Kinshasa, Zaire, which is now the Democratic Republic of Congo. At which point I was in high school so we were there for three and a half years, so that's where I graduated from high school. Then his final post after that was in Sana'a, Yemen. That's where he finished his career. He was in for twenty years.

Can you tell me a bit about what it was like growing up in that?

I loved it. I was very shy as a kid, extremely shy. I think I struggled – I was smart, and I worked hard and I studied hard but I was shy. I think when we went to Ethiopia, it was like a chance to redefine myself. I remember bits and piece of living in Ecuador, I think I was five when we left there, and I remember some of Rio as well. But I think when we went to Ethiopia, I was thirteen and I think that was really – you know, you're a teenager, and a lot of questions about identity and who you are and what's important to you and so on. I think that was really great for me, to have left the U.S.

We were in a pretty big school, we were living in a suburb, it's easy to just kind of live a quiet life like that, you know? You just go along with what everybody else is doing and stuff, and so moving to Ethiopia was a big jolt. It was a good one for me. It got me out of my shyness. We were in a smaller school, and I got a chance to really excel and learn how to speak for myself. That was a really good opportunity for me and I loved living there. I wish we had been able to stay longer. There were some difficult parts, at the time it was a Marxist country and the restrictions on the local population were extremely high, as well as on us. There was a curfew for everybody, after which you might get shot if you were out and about so there's no messing around with that. There was definitely the local population, I think were under scrutiny, and being watched all the time. There was an undercurrent of fear, I would say. At the same time, as a kid, and not being Ethiopian, although I had lots of Ethiopian friends, it was a great place to grow up. I really enjoyed the experience of living in another country.

I think the part that I got out of that, out of living overseas, was that when I lived stateside, I clearly didn't belong. I was a minority. Most people probably thought that I was Chinese or something but you know I was clearly not white and didn't fit in that way. When we went overseas, we were clearly also the minority. We were obviously outsiders because we were not from that country. I think I started to get comfortable being an outsider. That was part of my role then. When you're living overseas, it's very obvious that you're the outsider and there's no question that you will just fit in or anything. Whereas when you're stateside, you're an American and think "well, I'm an American so I should fit in" but you're constantly being kind of told no you don't fit in, you don't belong, you're not part of the mainstream, and so living overseas I started to accept and enjoy being an outsider. I think that was part of what I got out of living overseas.

Also, because we were with AID, which is working in developing countries, the level of poverty, the disease, the suffering, is so far above anything at least I have seen in the U.S. I've seen some level of poverty, homelessness, but I don't think I've ever seen anything like what I saw living overseas. I think it gives you perspective. It's not to say that what people are feeling here in the States isn't suffering, it is, it's just I'm aware of how bad things can really, truly, be. I guess part of it is for me, personally, when I have something to complain about, I think there's always a part of me that goes yeah, yes but, at least you're not X, you know? At least you're not in a refugee camp, you're so lucky and I think that's kind of another part of it. Part of my identity is being aware of how lucky I am, how fortunate I am to have the life that I have is pretty amazing. To be living the way I live. There's always a concern that families who lived, who were posted overseas like this would have culture shock upon coming into a country, so there was this sense of let's make sure they're going to be okay. But they only time that I had culture shock was when I went back to the States. We would go back almost every summer, and I think that was when I felt the most kind of surprise about where I was. I remember going to a supermarket, my mom wanted to get some laundry detergent, so she sent me in and there's just an entire aisle of laundry detergent and I just panicked. I didn't know what to do. There was so much selection and I just needed to leave the supermarket and sit on the curb and just breathe for a while because it was so strange. That was the culture shock: that feeling of what is this? I can't compute what I'm seeing at all. That was when I really felt it, things like that.

I got a chance to experience cultures in a way that you never get when you're visiting. You're actually living it. It made me aware of the role of the United States in perpetrating a lot of that. I think I was politicized in that way. In a lot of ways, it was the best education I could have ever had, was living overseas. So, yeah, that's a long answer.

You mentioned being politicized by it, could you speak a bit more about that?

When I was in Ethiopia, the Americans were not viewed kindly, it was a Marxist government. There were a lot of Cubans in Ethiopia as a kind of military presence there. I remember one time we were walking to the school and some Ethiopians saw us walking by and they said “Viva Cuba!” The last thing you want to do is say anything about being an American. People would yell at you when you would be driving by in a vehicle that showed diplomatic plates, “capitalist pig,” people would yell at you. I just remember going “Viva Cuba!” We were all like yeah! Cuba! I think that was the beginning of the awareness of the political games that were going on between countries over these African countries.

When we got to Zaire, my father arrived and they told him "there's a problem with your program because the money for your program has disappeared, it's been stolen by one of the ministers, the Zairean government ministers." Zaire was known as

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a kleptocracy in that one percent of the population owned everything and everybody else was just dirt poor. I think that while I saw poverty in Ethiopia, I think the level of poverty in Zaire was so much greater, and I realized the role the U.S. was playing in that.

I remember we had a journalist from the Washington Post come to our school and give a talk about what he was doing and he said, "AID is just a financial foot in the door for the U.S. All they're doing is just funneling money to the government, they're not really doing anything. You guys don't really think your parents are doing anything good. You're kidding yourself if you think that anything they're doing is actually helping out because it's just money that's going into somebody's coffers." I remember being dumbfounded by that. My father believed very strongly and tried to make a difference and help people. And here was this guy saying it's just a joke, don't kid yourself.

I know that my father was getting kind of cynical about it himself. His program, which was human resources and education, one of the big parts of that program was that you would arrange for people from, whether they're Zairean or Ethiopian or whatever, people from the country that you're in, students to go to the U.S. and attend university. That was a big part of it – arranging for that so that they would get their education in the U.S. and they would come back and therefore be able to bring the knowledge and skills that they've acquired to their home country. Usually, it didn't work out that way, a lot of times they just never came back. It was something where the ones that were going, in some countries certainly, were the ministers' kids. The people who had pull were the ones who were going. I think my father didn't want to do that. He never wanted that to be his entire program. What he liked to do, what he was really interested in, was teaching civics. Teaching how to be a citizen in your country and how to participate in your government. Which I think, in a Marxist country like Ethiopia or in a dictatorship like Zaire, is not going to be seen very well. He kept trying, and it was a great idea, but I think that ultimately it wasn't successful. I think he became increasingly cynical because it was a great idea but it wasn't something that any of the countries that he was in, the governments, actually wanted. It was again, part of that politicization, seeing him become increasingly cynical.

I think the other piece was, I worked one summer while I was in college, I worked as an assistant to a secretary at the AID program in Zaire. I remember, it was fun I was just typing stuff up or filing, whatever it was someone had me do. And I saw an AID brochure and I opened it up and looked at it and it said what the goals of AID are. I'd always thought, oh they're trying to help develop these countries, help them develop, that's what their goal is, but I think the second goal was to create markets for U.S. goods in developing countries. It's to make it such that we can sell our goods to the country, that was actually a goal for USAID. I found that so wrong, because, some of these countries, what are they going to do with this stuff? They're struggling to get electricity, to get the most basic things, put food on the table, what are they going to do with the types of goods the U.S. is producing? It's ridiculous. This was part of that politicization, of, what are we doing in these countries? What are we really doing in these countries? And realizing how much, I mean I don't know why I should have thought otherwise, but just how much self-interest was playing in these countries. That was, I think, a big piece of it.

Where did you go to college?

I went to Reed College, in Portland, Oregon.

Can you tell me a bit about your own activism, how you got started?

Some of that learning how to stand up for yourself started in high school. I became more kind of anti-authority in high school. Not so much with my parents, which I think is a common thing, it was more with teachers and with the administration at the school. I got a taste of that as a leader of my class. I was a class president my senior year. It was one of those things where – it's funny, it's kind of a first world problem – we had this thing where you raise money throughout high school to go on a senior trip, which I think happens here too. Then you have teachers who go with you, and theoretically they're the teachers who have helped you raise that money in various ways. Our year the principal, or superintendent (they were one in the same), he had decided that he wanted to be able to choose who would go on the senior trip because he viewed it as a perk. So that should be something he should oversee because it would be given to those teachers who he thought should get that for how he sees the work they had done. Which was just basically taken away from the students who had been working with particular teachers to help them and it wouldn't necessarily be the same ones. In fact, it wasn't. We said "no, you can't do that." He said "yes, I can." "No, you can't." "Yes, I can." I ended up leading the effort to say no to that, to protest that, and we took it to the school board. It ultimately was a compromise, but the superintendent was extremely angry about the whole thing. It partly had to do with his contract not being renewed, so he was kind of bitter and decided to take it out on us in particular. I got a feel for what that was like – of trying to take a stand and protest when your rights are taken away from you. On a very tiny thing, you know, but it's still something that you do. At one point my mother was on the school board. We had met with the principal/superintendent about what we had wanted to do and he got very angry, in particular with me. He was extremely angry with me because it was clear that I was leading it, and was really insulting. We left that meeting and when I got home, I told my parents about it and they said "okay, we're going to take it from here." My father went and met with him to talk about what was going on, and my dad said he just broke down. He started crying. He was upset because, and he told my dad, he said "you know, your daughter needs a good spanking." Of course, my dad was like yeah, not doing that. But he said he was upset because he had been basically fired by not having his contract renewed, and he was angry that these students weren't just following his orders. That he didn't understand it, that he was very upset about that. I think that that was my first understanding of – I had done some other things prior to that – but that was the first really taking a stand.

In college there was some anti-apartheid stuff that was going on and so I was aware of, and I took part in some of that at school like some sit-ins, but I wasn't leading at that point. While I was at Reed, which is a very liberal college, and it was funny because I remember when I was there Yuri Andropov died. He was the head of the Soviet Union at the time. At the school, Reed is located in one of the suburbs of Portland, someone put up the Soviet flag at half-mast. The neighbors were incredibly angry about it. I think I remember that again as this mode of self-expression, and it was kind of in jest, too. It was mostly just a funny statement. But it was again that, how do you express yourself? And be willing to take a stand that's not popular.

When I was in Portland, one of my Uncle Gordon's friends lived in Portland. It dated back to when he was in college at the University of Washington – lifelong friends. I was connected with them, had dinner with them a few times. One time they took me to a meeting of the Japanese American Citizen's League. [They were] holding a dinner for Minoru Yasui who was my Uncle Gordon's counterpart in Oregon. He was the one who refused the orders and ended up also serving time, and his case went up to the Supreme Court. I went to the dinner as well. I think I learned a lot about the internment there.

I didn't know anything about what happened to the Japanese Americans until I was in high school. It wasn't in any of the history books, and my father never talked about it. Because we were overseas, we were never a part of a Japanese American community in any way. We were traveling and most of my dad's family was on the West Coast, we didn't see them that much. I just wasn't aware of this part of history, my ancestral history, and my family's particular history. I knew nothing about what Gordon did. I found out about it – and this story might be partly wrong – but essentially, I think one of my brothers went to college and when he came back partway through and I think he had been staying with Uncle Jim who was much more an activist, and I think Jim had talked about the internment. When my brother Sean came home, he asked him [dad] "what's the deal with the internment?" That was the first time I knew anything about it, and that was when I was in high school. That was a huge eye-opener for me. I had no idea that this had happened. He said he didn't talk about it because he didn't want to. That's [in the] past. It's done. I don't talk about that. Later he became much more willing to talk about it, but initially he was like we don't talk about that. I think that was common for that generation. I think a lot of that early awareness of that level of activism.

I did get involved with, there was a museum. After college I went to Los Angeles, lived in the Los Angeles area. There was a museum called the Museum of Tolerance in Los Angeles. Are you familiar with that museum?


Its main exhibit was about the Holocaust. I got involved as a facilitator for that – as a volunteer. That was a great opportunity. What they would do is they would have community groups that would go through the museum, and afterwards they would have facilitated discussions about what they experienced. The idea was to try to help people begin to understand, because there was so much racism – I think that must have been around the time of what happened with Rodney King. I think that was part of what this program went through. I facilitated a few of those programs, and that was really great. I really enjoyed doing that.

I remember there was one group – and we were trained on how to facilitate them – and there was one group that were cadets from the police academy who went through it. There are parts of it that – it's very emotional – your response would be very emotional. It's designed to shock you, to get you uncomfortable, and to get you to realize what some people experienced. I remember one of them – there's a hall you walk through, it's a Hall of Whispers, and as you're walking through it you hear these racial epithets being whispered at you. It's very jarring and it's very unpleasant, it's not a long hallway but you definitely feel exposed to it. I remember with the cadets there was one group I was facilitating and they're all – you know – kind of tough people; here they are they want to become policewomen, policemen, and I thought they were not going to want to talk about it.

One person, I think it was a young woman, leaned forward and she said “This was so upsetting.” She started talking about how it affected her, and the whole group leaned forward and leaned in to what she was saying, and it was amazing. To me it was wow, this is so cool and I don't know what happened with that group but I thought that's what it's supposed to be doing – it's supposed to make people aware of what is going on. I think she was Hispanic, and I think she talked a bit about how it made her feel about her family and so on. Some people could have said, well, you're full of it or whatever, but they didn't, they all leaned forward, they physically leaned in to what she was saying and heard what she was saying. It was really amazing. That was another experience of just understanding the importance of listening to each other and the importance of trying to make a difference of trying to do things to make the world a better place. I think that was probably another area where I was doing some form of activism.

I think that when I came to Cooperstown, which was in 1999 – my husband had gotten a job in '98 at the Baseball Hall of Fame – I came out after him about a year later since I was doing work on a project I needed to finish. I was looking for ways to be part of the community. I think one thing that I found, again as being kind of an outsider and comfortable with being an outsider, as a result I was not that comfortable with belonging – that was hard for me. I found that true in my work, that it was difficult for me to totally commit because of this feeling of "I'm an outsider."

The last place I worked in the Los Angeles area was at Disney. I was part of IT – sort of the Information Technology piece of what they do. I had not expected to belong. The whole Disney, happy place type thing I thought there is no way this is ever going to work. I remember going through their orientation, which I think was like a week long, and at one point you get pixie dusted – the whole thing was just very uncomfortable for me because they are trying very hard to make you feel like you're part of the Mickey Mouse Club essentially. It was very uncomfortable and I thought this was a mistake, I shouldn't have done this. Then I started working. In my department I was a part of, it was such an amazing group of people, and the leadership was so amazing – that was the first place I ever felt like I belonged. I never would have expected it, but they were so wonderful.

I remember at one point there was a guy who led – they split it [the department] by the type of hardware – so one guy who was leading this one group. He was a young guy, I think he was in his twenties, he was diagnosed with cancer and it was very quick. The level of concern for him by this group – it was very clear this was a family. Everybody sort of joined together – and he felt that way about the place he was working. His family came and talked with the group about how important it was. He died very quickly, I think after he was diagnosed it was maybe a month or two. I think when I saw what it was like to belong, like this group, I think I realized yeah this is something I want to do.

When I came here, I got more involved in doing various kinds of things to meet people. To feel more of a sense of belonging. I thought I would struggle with living here because it's so small. It's not diverse at all, so I thought it would be really difficult for me to be happy here. But it's turned out to be overall a very positive experience. I still think there's a lack of diversity. I still think that's something that we as a community need to work on. I think that in terms of activism, I got involved with – I started working for Opportunities for Otsego. I ran the Emergency Housing and Employment programs, which included the homeless shelter. I think that was also really good for me to get a sense of what the issues were and why, what's going on and understand about the systemic problems within. I think that was one way that I got more involved. Then, I think most recently being part of the local League of Women Voters is probably the way that I've done much of the activism that I've been involved with lately.

How do you feel your identity as a woman has impacted your activism, if it has?

I think I have been aware of – working in lots of different environments, in particular working in places where women were the minority. I worked at an aerospace company, and there were very few women working there. I remember having conversations with people. I was working in the documentation group; I was a technical writer. I ended up supervising it, and one of the things I really tried to push for was, when we talk about things that people are supposed to be doing, the engineers and so on, let's switch it up between "he" and "she." There was huge pushback, because it was always "he." I said that I think it's really important for people – when you write "he" then everyone is picturing a guy doing this. If you write "she" then you are going to have people picturing a woman doing it, and that's an important thing for us to do. There was so much pushback to that because it was like "we don't have any women doing that." And I said that's why.

At some point you have to start making this effort to change things around. I think there was maybe one woman engineer, and I said we have to do this so that people can picture her doing this work. If they don't then we're never going to change anything. I think what it came down to was that nobody wanted to change anything. But I was aware when you're in an all-male environment or a highly male environment of the desire not to change that.

I think working at Opportunities for Otsego I noticed that many of the leadership positions, and this is true in most places, that [while the organization is] highly female – right now I work in healthcare and it is mostly women that I work with – but the leadership positions at most of these places is men. It's still the men who are running it. The doctors are mostly men, which is often the most highly paid position. There's still a long way to go in terms of making things more equitable for women. I mean I'm aware of that as a woman. And the League of Women Voters for me, interestingly, what I'm trying to do with the League of Women Voters is increase the diversity of the League. Which means that I'm actually trying to push to get more men into the League, and to get a more diverse ethnicity, race, everything – age – you name it. We are primarily older white women, and we need to change that. We need to change that so that we can be more vibrant. But we need to change that so that we are making decisions that reflect the American experience. I think that for me, the thing about the League of Women Voters is I very much agree with the mission, and that women continue not to be heard. I think we also have a lot to do within the League to make ourselves more representative than we currently are.

There was one other thing I was going to mention but I can't remember what it was so we'll just keep going.

I just wanted to ask you about the decision to share your family story at the Otsego Rally in Support of Asian Americans.

Right, so, there is an organization that one of my cousins is involved with called Stop Repeating History. I'm not actively doing stuff with them, but I pay attention to it. One of their big things is to try to prevent what happened to the Japanese Americans from happening to others. Let's not do that again, kind of thing. Certainly after 9/11 there was a big push to "let's lock up all the Arab Americans" and so on. I think it came out of that, but it continues to, especially during the [President Donald J.] Trump Administration, they became very vocal.

[START OF TRACK 3, 0:00]

With the pandemic, and the push toward a lot of anti-Asian hate going on in the country. One of the students at Cooperstown School had talked to her mom about – I think she is Asian – reading about this anti-Asian hate going on especially down south, and she wanted to do something. She contacted the group that had been running this series that we did after the murder of George Floyd. The Village Library [of Cooperstown] held a series on racism in Cooperstown. I moderated that series.

The League of Women Voters, because of the pandemic we bought a Zoom license and so we were doing everything virtually rather than in-person. We provided our Zoom platform – we used it for debates, which normally would be held in-person but we were doing those virtually. The Village Library asked if we would provide the platform for it. Because of their [the library's] lack of familiarity with Zoom, I said I would moderate. I ended up moderating those sessions, and I think because of that I was also involved in the discussion about this rally. The students wanted to hold a rally, and they were talking about speakers, and I offered. I said, “I could talk about my family's experience if you want,” thinking about the Stop Repeating History organization – is there something that I can do to kind of give a historical context on why we need to address this. That was my impetus for doing that.

Since we just have a little bit of time left, what impact do you hope your activism has locally?

So, one of the things about Cooperstown that I've always struggled with is just how white it is. And how somewhat complacent it is in its whiteness. Almost as if it's a celebration like – I don't think they're celebrating their whiteness, but I think they're celebrating their “All-American”-ness. You have this "America's most perfect village" kind of thing, so that for me has been difficult to be comfortable talking about where I live because of that. I don't feel like I belong because that seems to be really important to this area – to be this all-American thing. One of the people who talked at the rally, one of the other speakers, talked about how the twenty-first century “All-American Village” is a diverse village. It's an inclusive village, and it's a very diverse village. That's what we should be working on. For me that's what I would like to work on, whether I'm working in the League by trying to diversify our membership or working at the hospital and trying to promote hiring people of different ethnicities.

I think that increasing our diversity has become something that I feel is really important and I'd like to see more of everywhere in our community. I think the more we do that, the more people will realize that it's not something to be afraid of. It feels like I hear people worrying about their identity. Losing their identity as things become more diverse. To me, I feel like, if you give it a chance there's a lot that you can gain in terms of who you become and who you're willing to see yourself as. I know there's a lot of fear associated with that, I get that, but that's what I would like to see: how we can continue to increase our diversity and to celebrate our diversity more than we currently are.

Thank you so much for making the time to speak with me today.

You're welcome.

I really appreciate it. I'm going to stop the recording.
Liane Hirabayashi, November 13, 2021
Liane Hirabayashi
Katherine Novko
Asian American History
Gordon Hirabayashi
Japanese-American History
League of Women Voters
Museum of Tolerance
Opportunities for Otsego
Social Justice
Tule Lake
United States Agency for International Development
Liane Hirabayashi was born September 17, 1965 in Poughkeepsie, New York. When she was two years old, her parents embarked on careers in the foreign service. Liane has lived in several places throughout the United States and abroad, before moving to the Cooperstown area in 1999. Since her time in college, Liane has been involved in multiple nonprofit organizations, including Opportunities for Otsego and the local chapter of the League of Women Voters. Her involvement in the community is something she attributes in part to the lessons she learned growing up overseas.

This interview contains stories related to Liane’s family – many of whom became activists in light of their individual experiences as Japanese Americans during World War II. Liane discusses her own politicization and activism, beginning with some foundational events from when she was a teenager. Ideas surrounding identity and belonging are woven through the interview, at points highlighting the importance of accepting oneself as an outsider, but also recognizing the role a sense of community can play in one’s life. These themes of identity, being an outsider, and being a member of a community all relate to the work Liane has done at nonprofit organizations. The interview ends with a discussion of the village of Cooperstown as a 21st century village, diversity in the village, and the recent Otsego Rally for Solidarity with Asian Americans where Liane shared part of her family story about World War II.
Upstate New York
Cooperstown, NY
Katherine Novko
Cooperstown Graduate Program, State University of New York-College at Oneonta
Cooperstown Graduate Association, Cooperstown, NY