A Q&A with Ken Fujimoto
What drew you to organizing?
As a young child, I learned about the incarceration of my family during WWII and the whole experience they had to go through during that incarceration and after the war. It made life very difficult for my family. In spite of these challenges, my parents overcame the racism and discrimination and became successful and productive citizens. My parents’ siblings also did well for themselves.
I got into organizing work through the United Farmworkers. Part of what attracted me was my family history. My grandparents came to this country as farmworkers and a lot of the things that happened to farmworkers were not talked about or addressed during their lifetimes. Growing up, I was angry at my family’s incarceration and how that impacted farmworker families. I was angry about how big agriculture in California exploited farmworkers, but also with how they were a driving force in getting Japanese Americans incarcerated during World War II because they felt like Japanese growers were in competition with white growers. Instead of providing opportunities for both sides of my family to become farmers, they were relegated to farm worker roles. That contradiction fueled my interest in farmworker organizing, and the United Farmworkers enlightened me on social justice and racial justice issues.
What inspires you about the fight for social justice right now?
Since I started my professional life, all I've ever done is organizing. This current role has expanded my horizon, because of its base of students. I’ve always been inspired by the example of students and young people, both historically and from the recent present. That’s why I’ve been a student of the civil rights movement. I have also been inspired by the struggles that people have gone through to form unions, and to form movements for social justice. I was agitated by my family’s history and experience and just always wanted to be a part of the social justice movement, my entire career has been in that sector. I always joke that I've never had a real job, because I‘ve always been able to organize. I can’t believe that I get paid to do what I love.
Do you think that young people have a role to play in these social justice movements, and if so, what will it be?
Students and young people have always been part of the vanguard of social movements for racial justice and equity. Their role is to speak truth to power. One of my heroes is Civil Rights activist Bob Moses, who led the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee(SNCC) efforts in Mississippi. Unlike older people, who may identify that injustice is wrong but are too attached to their lifestyle, their salaries, and to what they’re doing to take a risk. Historically, it is less likely that older people will take the risk in doing what students initiate. You see that today in the current protests and Black Lives Matter.
What book or article have you read lately that you want to share?
There is a book called I've Got the Light of Freedom by Charles Payne. When I was with the Industrial Areas Foundation, we did a couple of workshops with Civil Rights activist Bob Moses. I just thought that book was compelling because it discussed how students put themselves in danger so that people could garner the right to vote. There are a couple of chapters in the book about the organizing process, and to me that was and continues to be inspiring. I was also inspired by Cesar Chavez and the farmworkers movement before I went to work with them, but I've Got the Light of Freedom is a seminal book because it outlines, from a student perspective, their leadership and sacrifices that helped Black people in Mississippi and elsewhere gain the right to vote.