Building a Community Institution: Bill Watanabe and The Little Tokyo Service Center

Credit: Susan Jean Nakaoka

In the so-called post-racial age of Obama, community development policy continues to prioritize color-blind approaches to serving residents of low-income neighborhoods.  These approaches assume a level playing field and do not consider the impact of race, gender and class oppression on neighborhood development. Although “cultural competence” is determined a legitimate need, a social justice framework which questions structural racism and multi-generational poverty is usually met with heavy scrutiny. A growing field of Asian American Community Development Corporations, however, provide a model of race-based approaches to neighborhood transformational change that center racial and class oppression while providing much needed services and affordable housing.

The Little Tokyo Service Center (LTSC) has balanced the line between reputable social service provider and housing developer with a social justice core and mission. In a series of interviews, founding Executive Director, Bill Watanabe, who led the organization for 32 years, describes the circumstances of the formation of the organization and how the grassroots group evolved into a Community Development Corporation with a multi-million dollar budget, 120 staff members and over 800 units of housing.

The conversation below is edited into one narrative that shows the main elements that guided the development of the organization, Watanabe’s shared leadership style and how the organization evolved over time. Susan Nakaoka, Assistant Professor at the University of Hawai`i Myron B. Thompson School of Social Work interviewed Watanabe for a research project on Asian American Community Development Corporations (CDCs). A former social work intern at LTSC, Nakaoka focused on three west coast CDCs in her research. One of her findings is that LTSC’s success can be attributed to his notions of shared leadership, commitment to the history of the ethnic neighborhood, and values of inclusion in regard to demographic shifts in the residents of Little Tokyo.

Nakaoka: Can you describe the process of starting the organization?

Watanabe: The Little Tokyo Service Center (LTSC) was conceptually started in 1978-79.  I was working for the Japanese Community Pioneer Center (JCPC) at the time in Little Tokyo.  The Japanese American Community and Cultural Center (JACCC) was under construction so there were a number of groups that used to be housed in the old Sun building in Little Tokyo on Weller Street (the JCPC, the Chamber of Commerce, Japanese American Community Services, the Japanese Welfare Rights Organization were all there).  They got kicked out when they started to construct the New Otani hotel so all of these groups were looking forward to moving into the JACCC once it was completed[1].

A fellow by the name of Paul Tsuneishi, a local businessman who was at that time the District Governor of the Japanese American Citizens League (JACL), was a kind of innovator, someone you would call an “idea guy.” He called together all of the social service groups because we were all moving into the JACCC and there was going to be increased rents from what we were paying at the Sun building. He proposed, ‘Let’s try to come together to share costs.” Everyone thought it was a great idea, whatever we could do to keep our budgets in line was a good thing to do. So about 25 people came together representing maybe 10 different groups, and I came as a representative of the JCPC. We talked about the idea of how we can work together as sort of a joint social service federation. I volunteered to look for some funding that could help the groups with reduced rents and some grants to help with this formation of a service federation. I came across the Los Angeles City Community Development Block Grant Fund (which was the federal Community Services Block Grant, Housing and Urban Development money) so I wrote a proposal and the City was agreeable to it but said the grant had to be used for direct services and not just rent. There was a group of people working on this and we moved forward to incorporate a new organization called the Little Tokyo Service Center. So that was the beginning. I was hired as Executive Director in January of 1980 to lay the groundwork for the organization. I was paid through a grant from the Japanese American Community Services (JACS), so JACS gave us the first grant to hire staff and to really get the program going. City funding came through, finally, after about a year of contract negotiations in October of 1980.  

Nakaoka: Can you describe the motivation for why it was necessary to start up an organization like LTSC?

Watanabe: At the time, this was in the late 1970s, the only non-profits in the Japanese American community that were going pretty well were the senior services programs. Those of us who came together in Little Tokyo wanted to form a multi-purpose service organization that could help young families and individuals, as well as seniors.  So that’s how we saw our mission: to be a multi-purpose and comprehensive social service agency that could serve anybody who comes to us with a problem or a need and to be able to serve them.

Nakaoka: What were the common social problems and needs at that time?

Watanabe: Well, language was certainly a problem.  There were still a lot of people living in Little Tokyo who lived there because of the language and culture. So LTSC, in the early years, did do a lot of work with non-English speaking Japanese clients, low-income individuals, and people living in these Single Room Occupancy (SRO) rooms here in Little Tokyo.  There were also single women living alone who had come to the US with military husbands, but because of cultural or marital problems needed support (they used to be called “war brides).  That was really the population we felt we should serve, those right in our neighborhood and those limited by language.

Nakaoka: How was the community engaged in the early years of the organization?

Watanabe: Well, LTSC in the beginning was a coalition of community groups such as the Little Tokyo People’s Rights Organization, JACCC, the Japanese Welfare Rights Organization, Maryknoll Church, Union Church and others. So, each organization had representation on the board and influenced the development of LTSC. 

The JACS money that we got in January, 1980, to hire me was about $9,000 and with my salary and office expenses, we were running out of money by May.  The Board pulled together a fundraising dinner in July and we had 300 people who came out for this dinner. We asked George Takei to emcee the event. He didn’t know us at all, and he said he would do it.  We were totally untested, untried. We hadn’t done anything yet and they all came out and supported this dinner.  This amazed me! I think it showed that there was broad community support for an organization like LTSC. We made enough money to carry us through until the City grant came through in October. SoI think people were very supportive to the idea of a multi-purpose community center to help the whole community.

Nakaoka: So it seems as if this support came from the broader community, not just individuals living in Little Tokyo.

Watanabe: Back then, most of the people living in Little Tokyo were poor people, people who had to live here.  At that time it was really dilapidated, mainly old SRO hotel spaces.  Most of the support for LTSC came from the businesses and other community groups, and those people lived outside of the neighborhood. At the time, about 5 out of the 15 Board members were young attorneys who were committed to social justice and saw this as a way to give back.  In the 1970s they were young revolutionaries and by the 1980s they were into their professions so they became more like, ‘let’s work in the system to create change from inside.’ So I think the support was very broad, people saw Little Tokyo as a kind of a base and a center from which they could do things.

Nakaoka: How did the organization continue to evolve?

Watanabe: I was alone from January through the end of September 1980.  The grant from the City, which I believe was for $60,000, started in October 1, 1980, so we hired Yasuko Sakamoto to be our social worker and Evelyn Yoshimura to be our office manager/receptionist.  Despite our titles, all three of us did everything together.  We met in October at Evelyn’s house and we asked the question: “What are our goals as a staff for this new organization called Little Tokyo Service Center?”  We came up with a few basic values.  First, we would work together as a team and not let our roles say, ‘Oh, I can’t do that, that’s your job.” We would all help each other.  Second, we would accept all people with respect and equality.  Third, we would put on a quality service program that’s professional and that we could be proud of.  Those were some of our guiding principles from the very beginning.  Having this conversation helped us because it put us on the same page.  Yasuko was kind of a social activist, Evelyn had been involved in political activism since she was in college so I think all three of us ethically, philosophically and experientially were pretty much on the same page and coming up with those core values helped us to determine how we were going to function.

That was in October and we started to add programs because now we had a base, we had an office, and we had volunteers that had started to come in.  We started the Escort Program, which provided bilingual escorts and transportation for seniors and monolingual individuals who needed assistance going to medical or other service appointments.   In 1981 we got our first grant from the Arco Foundation and then one from the California Community Foundation, so year by year we stared to add different programs and grow the organization.

Nakaoka: What other programs and financial support did you have in the early years?

Watanabe: We also had a Stroke Support Program, that was a grant from the Parsons Foundation, I believe.  When we were brand new we had no track record so foundations, and I can understand why, were reluctant to give money to a new group like us.  So getting that first grant from Arco and California Community Foundation was very big because here were two established foundations who said, ‘We trust you.’  We worked very hard to make sure we didn’t blow that.  So after that it became a little easier to get attention from funders.

Nakaoka: How did you get those first two grants? 

Watanabe: That’s an interesting question. I had been thinking about an escort program because we knew that seniors, not only seniors but non-English speaking people, if they went to a doctor and the doctor didn’t speak Japanese, or if they needed to go to the Medicare office and if nobody there speaks Japanese, they were stuck.  People had talked to us about this need so my thought was to pull a project together.  So I got this letter from the California Community Foundation and was invited to a meeting to meet the new Executive Director.   I went to Boyle Heights for the meeting expecting about a hundred people, but there was only six of us there! I was shocked, but I went up to him after the meeting and said, ‘You know, I was thinking about an escort transportation/translation program’ and he says ‘Well, we’d be interested, however we will not fund a van.  We’ve funded vans, vans break down, people coming back and they want more money, we need drivers, we do not want to fund a van.’  So I said ‘we weren’t thinking of a van, this is more like 1:1 so we want a small economy car.’  He liked the idea and I sent him a proposal that got funded.

At the same time, through a community connection, I was introduced to someone at the Arco Foundation who also had funding for transportation. They were willing to fund half of our costs, which helped to secure the rest of the money for our program.

The funding was good for maybe a year and a half.  We were going to buy an economy car but one of the local banks was getting rid of an executive car and they called and said ‘We have this executive car, it’s only two years old, can you use it?’  I said ‘Yes!’ so we didn’t have to buy the car and that gave us an extra six months worth of funds.

Out of the blue, as our funds were running out for this grant, I got a call from the City who needed to divert funds from a Skid Row program that did not work out.  Since we were the closest organization to Skid Row, they asked us if we could use $25,000 for transportation.  I quickly said ‘Yes! We have an Escort Transportation Program’ and they said ‘Perfect’.  So, for the next twenty years the City funded the project.

To me, that was a great story where you just kind of cobbled together two small grants but the project itself kept going for 20 years because the City came in and picked it up, which doesn’t happen all the time,  but in this case it was good.

Nakaoka: At what point did you grow beyond just the three of you on the staff?

Watanabe: The Escort Program started in the fall of 1981 and about a year later we hired three part- time workers, a part-time coordinator and two part-time drivers. Shortly after that we had the Stroke Program funded, so that was one more full-time bilingual social worker and then we also got a State grant to do Hypertension Education in the Japanese community.  That was a fairly big grant, and we hired three people fulltime to work on that.  So I would say by 1985 we were probably up to about five full-time and three part-time staff,  which for us was pretty good.

By that time, I found that my job was to look for programs and grants that used LTSC as a base to provide services.  I felt a lot of flexibility in that as long as we can get money to serve our clients, not just those in Little Tokyo but Japanese-speaking or Japanese folks, or low-income folks, that we would be fulfilling the original purpose of forming a multi-purpose center.

Nakaoka: In those early years did you talk about social justice as a defining value of the organization?

Watanabe: I do not think we articulated it, but there was an agreed-upon value that our focus should be to help people in need and that they were not in their situation because they were lazy or did not want to work, but many of them were victims of social injustices.  I would say what guided our values and direction was our team. I was more the administrator and grant-seeker, Yasuko was more the heart feelings, compassion, and Evelyn was more the social justice, political, economic justice person and we all had those different strengths that when we combined it, it was pretty good, it worked out well.

Nakaoka: What about the actual mission? I’m assuming that in the very beginning the focus was deliberately and was articulated as Japanese and Japanese American, or was it?

Watanabe: That was a debate, like when we were talking about our name. Some people said Why don’t we become the Japanese American Service System, or something like that?’ and Paul Tsuneishi said, ‘No, I think we should call it the Little Tokyo Service Center. Little Tokyo is not just Japanese. You know there’s a lot of people who live here, come here, who are not Japanese, so it’s geographical.’  He felt that Little Tokyo is going to change over time, and LTSC is a more encompassing, inclusive name.   Everyone thought about it and they said, ‘You know, you’re right.” So, there was a conscious choice to call it ‘Little Tokyo Service Center’ and not have Japanese or Japanese American in the name.  I think that proved to be one of the more wiser decisions we made at that early stage because Little Tokyo is still changing and I think the name allows us to do a lot of things where we’re not confined by an ethnic group or language.

Nakaoka: When you started, obviously it’s different than it is now, but what were the conceptions about Japanese and Japanese Americans at that time?

Watanabe: This whole idea of the Japanese American community has made it, that they’re doing well and they don’t have problems was still pretty prevalent.  I think there was a sense that we need to make sure people understand that that’s not true. Especially here in Little Tokyo, there’s a lot of people who need help, but also, even well-to-do people have problems (family problems, youth problems, drugs and alcohol).  I think from the very beginning we wanted to make sure people understood that and weren’t lulled into this thinking that the Japanese American community has it together and doesn’t need help cause that’s just not true.  What do they call that? The ‘model minority?’

Nakaoka: Yes. So, some of your work was about educating people about the needs of the community.  How would you see values of racial and social justice impacting programs and the direction of the organization?

Watanabe: I think from the beginning LTSC has been dedicated to prioritizing people in need, which often meant financial and economic need, and so our focus and priority was always to help people who are victimized by social systems, economic systems, political systems, but we were never thinking that it was all we would do.  Like our Tobacco Control Program and the High Blood Pressure Program, these were ethnic based and language based, but certainly not financial, we didn’t serve just low-income people. Eventually, we had a three-mission focus: Little Tokyo residents, especially non-English speaking Japanese, Asian Pacific Islanders, and other low-income populations all became different spheres of our mission.

Nakaoka: How did the board make decisions on prioritizing these populations or on social justice or equity issues? I ask because I remember one time when I was an intern with LTSC and was observing a board meeting.  You proposed to the board that LTSC become a fiscal sponsor for a grassroots organization that was focused on fighting against women’s trafficking.  They had come to you for assistance because they felt you could provide the structure they needed. Some board members felt it did not fit LTSC’s mission since the program had an international focus and it did not serve Japanese Americans or Little Tokyo residents per se.  They asked good questions, and at the end of the discussion you said “Well, I think it’s the right thing to do.” And they said “Okay.”  That spoke so much about how much they trusted and respected you, but also that they were open to an issue that addressed a social justice or service need if they felt that LTSC was the only organization that could do it.  Were there other times when you had to think about how to propose something like this to the Board?

Watanabe: I see one of the Board’s functions to be a checks and balances to me as Executive Director and I see my job is to propose and to say ‘This is what we should do.’  It’s the Board’s job to say ’Really, this is what we should do? does it fit  our mission, can we really  afford it?’ Those are the kinds of things they should be asking, that’s part of their job.  But if what I’m proposing kind of fits our mission, it’s not going to financially break us and it kind of answers those questions, then they shouldn’t hold it up because of  fears or other misconceptions.  At some point we have to take risks, we have to not be held by fears.  So that’s a part of my job, too, I think.  If I sensed there was strong opposition to it, I wouldn’t push it, maybe I’d talk with them individually and ask about the reasons for their objections.

After we did our first housing project, the San Pedro Firm building, there were a couple of Board members who said, ‘You know, we’re social services, but we’ve been doing housing,’ as a way to say that we were drifting from our mission.  Then I proposed that we do the old Union Church[2], which is not housing.  They said ‘this is a whole different thing and I don’t think we should do it’, but I felt we should. It wasn’t that they objected to it, they were just kind of afraid that we were getting into something we didn’t know too much about and there was a discussion about whether we should do it and who would be at risk.

Nakaoka: Why did you think that project was so important?

Watanabe: Well, it wasn’t necessarily about helping poor people but it was an economic development project that I thought would be invaluable for Little Tokyo.  Little Tokyo was still suffering from economic blight and the riots of 1992 and people weren’t coming Downtown after dark.  To me it was part of our seeing Little Tokyo as our primary mission, not the poor people but just the neighborhood itself.  This gave us an opportunity to do an economic development project even though we weren’t versed in that work and again it meant taking a risk.

I fully understood why some Board members didn’t want to take that risk, but the rest of the Board said ‘Let’s do it’.  And I give them all the credit because I certainly didn’t know what I was doing, but I strongly felt that we should do this.  There was nobody else out there to do this.  That was in 1996-1997, so you must have been here then, when we were just starting the Union Church project.

Nakaoka:  Yes, I was there the year after! So when was the Community Development Corporation side of LTSC formed?

Watanabe: The CDC was formed in 1994.  We finished the San Pedro Firm building around 1992. But when we finished that project there was a sense that LTSC is good on social service but we needed more expertise to do more development projects.  We decided to form a new organization with bankers, accountants, and real estate people to guide our development.  So we decided to form two organizations.  You know, I actually didn’t have a vision for that but it made sense.  Our valuable Board President Alan Nishio said, ‘And we think Bill should be Executive Director of both organizations’, and I thought ‘Really, how’s that going to work?’  But I trusted Alan and he said this way we’ll have the two organizations tied together but still have two different missions and goals, purposes, and staff, but tied together by a common director.

Nakaoka: So did it seem like there was momentum, everyone was in agreement that the development projects should keep happening to maintain the commitment to place?

Watanabe: Yes, the Union Church renovation was a successful project, I think the Board was very happy with it, but at the same time we felt that if we’re going to keep doing it we should bring on people who knew what they were doing. So the CDC Board started in ’94 and I became Executive Director of both. Casa Heiwa, our housing development with 100 units and which houses the LTSC offices was completed in 1996.

Nakaoka: So by this time, the kind of relationships with the funders and city government had changed and evolved.  Did you have a strategy about working with power and developing more access to those with power to make these development projects a success?

Watanabe: I was pretty naïve, I think, about power and having access to power. I had this idealistic belief that if we do our social services well people will hear about it and we don’t have to talk about it. I always thought we had political access because I think politicians saw us as harmless but good people. You know, I don’t necessarily disbelieve that now, but I do realize that having people who have a more sophisticated view of political access has made a difference.  People like Judy Nishimoto who was one of the first people we hired for our housing project. She was a Legal Aide attorney and was strong in political savvy. I realized when dealing with big developers they respected Judy’s expertise and more forceful manner in negotiating. We needed to make sure that we develop enough power that people don’t jerk us around.  People like Lisa Sugino, Erich Nakano, Dean Matsubayashi and others, have a more sophisticated sense of political access. We began to do more things like hosting fundraisers, going to places, meeting their staff, so I think gradually, for myself, it was more of a learning process.

I still hang on to the idealistic thing, but now that we’re into it, they expect us to go to their fundraiser.  You know, it costs a lot of money, but I have to say I guess it’s worth it.

Nakaoka: There are definitely perceived leaders of LTSC.  You as Founding Executive Director, Lisa Sugino as the head of the CDC when it was a separate entity, and Dean Matsubayashi as the current Executive Director, but there is still a willingness to share leadership. The willingness to share leadership and have a very horizontal organizational structure is in place.  This is also evident in all of the local, regional and national collaborations that LTSC is a part of, and in some cases spearheaded.  Would you agree that this has been integral to your success?

Watanabe: There’s a saying: It’s amazing how much you can get done when people aren’t worried about who gets the credit.  There’s a lot of truth to that. It’s a huge waste of a lot of time and energy when people are self-serving or have huge egos. If everybody has mutual respect and a commitment to the goal, without worrying about who gets the credit, everything goes so much smoother and more efficient. You can get things done. There are good dynamics of the people involved.

Nakaoka: I’ve studied other organizations that started from the context of the Asian American movement, and they started out talking about radical, transformative change, but as they more professionalized, I wonder if these kinds of organizations still be “radical?” When thinking about LTSC’s theory of change, is it about transformation of the system or incremental change?

Watanabe: I never saw LTSC nor myself as trying to institute transformative change. But I did definitely see it as more making changes incrementally while at the same time trying to impact external systems and to make change. Our board members were former activists, some would call some of them revolutionary.  I realized that by the 1980s, even these folks were no longer “bring down they system” kind of people. They were trying to change it, but our values were to work within the system to bring out the change we want to see. That’s where I always thought we were and where we needed to be.

Nakaoka: One of the concepts I’m looking at and analyzing, is the idea of community’s cultural wealth: what is it that is unique to the community, what are its greatest assets?  If you had to identify the community’s cultural wealth (think about space, culture, history and context) how would you describe it? 

Watanabe: I’ve never been asked that particular question. It’s a new concept for me, actually, but at the same time, I think that’s what LTSC does in its neighborhood development and its cultural preservation work, even though it maybe never articulated it like that. That’s what it’s trying to do. Preserve its cultural wealth.  For Little Tokyo that would incorporate the Japanese and Japanese American heritage, the culture that was brought over from Japan and adapted to the US and assimilating in this country. That would involve different forms of traditions, food, customs, festivals, music, art, history, location, stories, civil rights, all of those things that are combined within the ethnic locale. And I think LT has done a pretty good job of preserving much of its cultural wealth over the 100+ years its been in existence.

I give credit to the Nisei Week festival, next year will be their 75th anniversary, its all volunteer. The basketball leagues, its not just basketball, but as you know its Japanese American baseketball, and that’s been going on for probably 90 years, all volunteer run. I think Little Tokyo has done a pretty good job.

Nobody knows what the future will be, but I see some hopeful signs.  Some people are worried about particular populations moving in, the cost of housing and the gentrification.  All of those are potential threats and you do kind of worry.  But at the same time I really believe that Budokan[3] is going to have a big impact.  The fact that young people, ethnic young people, will come to play basketball and eat and shop here will help.  The metro connector with it’s new train station being placed in Little Tokyo, is going to increase the foot traffic of other visitors, but will also help the people who want to come to Little Tokyo to have some Japanese food or go to the JACCC without having to worry about driving and parking.   So I think that’s going to help all of the businesses including all of the shops. Hopefully it will help the JACCC and the Japanese American National Museum.  Certainly, the group working on Sustainable Little Tokyo[4] is a good sign of community trying to empower itself to have control over the future. The metro connector is happening, but without the Budokan and Sustainable LT, it would be much more dark, dire.

Nakaoka: Thank you so much for your time and wisdom.

Susan Nakaoka is a PhD candidate in Urban Planning.  with the UCLA Luskin School of Public Affairs.   With a background in Asian American Studies and Social Welfare, Ms. Nakaoka over 10 years of experience in working in providing social services to residents of public and private low-income housing.  Currently the Director of Field Education at the California State University, Dominguez Hills Master of Social Work department, Ms. Nakaoka will be starting an appointment with the University of Hawai`i in January, where she will be an Assistant Professor in the Myron B. Thompson School of Social Work.  Ms. Nakaoka’s research focuses on the application of Critical Race Theory to social work practice, community development in the Asian American and Pacific Islander American communities and Japanese American history.


[1] The construction of the New Otani hotel was a part of the development that occurred as a result of Urban Renewal policies in the 1950s-1960s. The Sun building, which provided low-income housing as well as space for community-based non-profit organizations, was demolished during this project.

[2] The Union Church was a $3.4 million adaptive re-use project of a vacant Japanese American church.  Completed in 1998, it is now called the Union Center for the Arts and houses local Asian American arts organizations and a theater.

[3] Budokan of Los Angeles is LTSC’s largest project, a multi-purpose sports facility planned for Little Tokyo.  Fundraising is underway for a potential ground-breaking in 2015.

[4] A community-generated planning process that began in 2012 and focuses on environmental sustainability and responsible development