Racial Justice and the U.S.-Japan Community Series: Cultivating Diversity for Participation and Leadership in the Future

For the second post in this series I want to talk about the talent and leadership pipeline in the U.S.-Japan community. A lot of organizations rave about the “talent pipeline” for the future of the relationship, and the need for diversity, which is great. But when it comes to concrete investments in cultivating that talent and thinking about who comprises that pipeline, I have not seen as much of a commitment or action. When I question white colleagues about the lack of diversity in the pipeline or ask why participants of programs are generally of the same type, I often hear – They (Black or People of Color) are not interested in Japan, We don’t know where to find them or We just don’t know any. In my experience running programs in the field of international exchange, I think these excuses are just cop-outs. I always think about diversity when I develop programs, serve on selection committees or search committees for employment. I always make conscious efforts to broaden recruitment strategies for programs and employment opportunities. To me, doing this is not complicated, but perhaps people just don’t think about it or feel comfortable going about it. Well I am here to help get people past that mental and action block, so that the future of the U.S.-Japan relationship will be a place for anyone who has a passion and interest in both countries.

They are not interested in Japan

Where to begin with unpacking this one? An underlying assumption of this claim is that if black individuals are not interested in the things you assume “people who are interested in Japan” are, then they simply do not exist. You have an idea or visual in your mind of who you believe “are the people who are interested in Japan.” And let’s be honest, they generally aren’t people of color, are they? Do they look like you? Do they remind you of yourself? Do you expect them to have the same interests in Japan as you? Do you expect them to come to Japan the same way you did? If you answered yes to any of these questions, that is at the heart of the problem. The principle thing you need to understand here, is that we all need to get rid of the picture we have in our minds of who are the “people interested in Japan.”

            Historically the people who were interested in Japan, were of a certain type. They were from certain majors, came from particular universities, and had similar experiences that introduced them to the U.S.-Japan relationship.  When I entered the U.S.-Japan relationship as a high school student studying the language, I was often the only black kid in my class and one of maybe three (3) kids who participated in related programs/activities. My passion for Japan was always met with questions from friends and family about how and why I was interested. Even now, for most of my closest friends, I am still the only black person they know who does Japan stuff. They don’t ever say it, but the way they talk about it is as if, I am some sort of unicorn. To participants in my programs, when they meet me in person for the first time, there is always a fleeting look of surprise or curiosity that says, “You are not what I expected. How are you here?.” The response from black people I encounter in programs is always enthusiasm at seeing someone like them working as a professional in the space. I am always surprised to see other black and brown faces in U.S.-Japan circles. But the way I interpret this trend is that there are not many of us because the community has not gone out of its way to invite or include diverse faces. And part of that is due to expectations about the pathways that lead people to the U.S.-Japan community.

           I bet if you ask most leaders or professionals in the community, they can give you a description of the typical U.S.-Japan person. In addition to having ideas about what people who are interested in Japan look like, there is also an assumption about how people find their way into the community. The most important thing you must acknowledge, and respect is that everyone comes to the U.S.-Japan community differently. There is no right way. And no entry point is better than another.  I always tell program participants my entry point through high school language classes and a summer exchange more than 25 years ago may be different from theirs which is most likely through pop culture (e.g. anime, manga, music, films etc.). And that is great! The more pathways there are into the relationship, the richer and deeper it is. Those in leadership or decision-making positions need to recognize and respect the different pathways that bring people in and keep them connected to the U.S.-Japan community. Not everyone has a Japanese language class at their school/university. Not everyone developed strong Japanese language skills by studying abroad. Not everyone came from a school with a storied list of Fulbright or Boren fellows that gives them access to additional information about how to successfully apply. Despite their interests or passions, not everyone is able to study abroad or do the JET program. Just like college admissions had to reconsider their underlying assumptions and biases against applicants of color in their decision-making processes, so must you question the assumptions you have about who is interested in Japan and their entry points. So, what can you do?

  • STOP using your pathway as the template for locating those interested in U.S.-Japan stuff. Your entry point to the U.S.-Japan relationship is not the only one. It is based on your own experiences and interests. It would stand to reason that even if someone else shared similar interests, their own experiences might lead them to enter in a different way or at a different point in their journey. It is important to not only ask people how they got interested, but I challenge you to push yourself to meet someone with a different pathway from your or what you might expect. Learn about their motivations and experiences that led them here. You cannot find people until you understand the many possibilities of where they can come from.
  • STOP assuming that there are only certain professional opportunities available in the U.S.-Japan relationship. You must understand how the nearly exclusive focus of the U.S.-Japan relationship on the alliance, security and economics may leave people feeling like they do not belong or have a place, particularly as a professional. In recent years I have happily seen the dimensions of the U.S.-Japan relationship expand beyond those historical areas. It represents a recognition that fields like STEM, entrepreneurship, tourism, the arts, and international exchange are not only different entry points but are valuable areas for cooperation and can offer professional opportunities in the two countries in the future.
  • DO support the multiple entry points idea with programming that reflects that value. Professional talks and events about the relationship need to go beyond security, politics, and economics. It is not enough to simply showcase other areas of the relationship or leave the other subjects to cultural organizations. Be intentional with your programming to highlight areas where you may see interest or activity among diverse populations (i.e. fashion, culinary, tourism, etc.). It can be something that not only attracts new people to the relationship but can also make people feel welcome and want to stay and contribute.

           But acknowledging that not everyone comes to the community the same way and that they aren’t all of the same type is only the first step. Now you must go out and actively recruit them and bring them into the relationship. But where and how can you find them?

We Don’t Know Where to Find Them: The Problem of Networks

Illustration by Sirin Thada for Catapult

            This is one of the most common reasons given for the lack of black or candidates of color for programs, scholarships, and jobs in the U.S.-Japan community. But it just feels like an excuse to do nothing more than what has always been done. If you think about your networks for promoting job or program opportunities and when selecting speakers for programs and the like, are the places you go likely to produce black or candidates of color? Why or why not? Do you have any black professionals in your own network? Why or why not? Research shows that heterogeneity of networks and groups makes for better decision-making, problem-solving, more creativity, and a greater ability to deal more effectively with complex challenges. But that is not the norm of most networks among whites in general, which tend to be less racially diverse than those of non-whites. However, there is a higher value placed on white contacts within networks, so that too must change. In this transformative time, imagine how diverse perspectives and ideas can strengthen your networks, broaden your influence, and maybe even reposition your organization for future success!

            There are so many things that you can do to address this issue. The first thing is to recognize that most networks in the U.S.-Japan community are not diverse, particularly at the leadership level. This accounts for the lack of diversity among executives and on the boards of many organizations. Second, when you are thinking of recruiting and mentoring for the future, you must interrogate your assumptions about the pipeline. You might blame the pipeline of talent (PoT) for not presenting qualified, candidates of color when opportunities arise. But that again is laziness. The pipeline is not a naturally occurring thing. It is cultivated by people. It is formed and filled by people complete with their expectations, biases, and attitudes about who should be included. But have we really taken a hard look at the professional PoT in the U.S.-Japan community? Some questions to ask yourselves as proposed by Tony Effik, Senior Vice President at NBC Universal, are – How diverse is the PoT? Who is missing? At what velocity are groups moving through it? How do we explain those different velocities? What are some strategies you can employ to address these challenges? Again, many of the suggested actions below are not complicated, but do require a bit of effort.

What can I do?

  • Recruit for programs and positions in non-traditional ways and places. It is not the responsibility of your black and brown colleagues to serve as your only links to minority communities or those outside your known network. You need to learn how to access and navigate those communities on your own. Do not just pursue the low-hanging fruit (i.e. schools that have Japanese language programs) but there are people who are passionate about Japan at Historically Black Colleges and universities (HBCUs) and Minority Serving Institutions (MSIs) or Japan related clubs at Predominantly White Institutions (PWIs). Promoting opportunities via academic success programs that focus on minority students (e.g. PEOPLE, POSSE, etc) or culturally specific groups on campuses (e.g. Black Student Union, Minority Student Coalition) are another way to reach these communities. I did it when recruiting for six regional U.S.-Japan student conference programs. And compared to some other programs in my portfolio, the applicant pool and selected participants were some of the most diverse I had the pleasure of working with. They also happen to be some of the most active and engaged alumni. They maintain their connections with each other through the shared experience of the program. When people feel valued, welcomed and seen, they are likely to give back in so many ways. The connections they make now are the beginnings of diverse networks among the next generation of young people who are committed to the U.S.-Japan relationship in ways that we have not even thought of yet.
  • Use your power to elevate and make visible black scholars and professional of color in the field. Here is where you can use a bit of your power or influence for good. You must be intentional. Advocate for and invite diverse professionals as speakers for events. I moderated a Town Hall, The Tokyo 2020 Olympics as a Bridge to U.S.-Japan Relations back in February of this year (yes there was life before Covid 19), and all three of us were people of color. I cannot remember ever seeing that before in any of the events I have attended as part of the professional U.S.-Japan community. There may be one or two people, if you are lucky, but it is rare when all the speakers are people of color. Why do you think that is? What are you thinking when you begin brainstorming names of who you want to headline your events? What value judgments are you making when you dismiss suggestions of black or speakers of color? Are they even considered or mentioned? If you do not know any, what does that say about your networks? In the age of Google, it is not hard to do a bit of research and find them. When you find them, get to know them and their work, follow them on social media, sign up for their newsletters or listservs. Do all this before you need to, so that when an opportunity presents itself, they can be up for consideration. Also make a commitment to invest in connecting them to others in your network and opportunities the same way that you already do for the average white people you meet.
  • Diversify your own professional networks in terms of race (and age).
Source: aelitta/iStock/Getty Images Plus

This may be a hard one and somewhat uncomfortable for some of you to do. You must intentionally expand your networks to include professionals of color. Specifically, I am referring to those who identify as Black, Hispanic/LatinX, Asian, Indigenous, Pacific Islander, Middle Eastern and multiracial. A 2018 study from the Journal of Corporate Finance asserts that the more heterogenous the networks of CEOs, the greater value to the organizations they lead, particularly in terms of better innovation.  Wouldn’t you like to see those benefits for your own organizations? Well, where do you start?

    You can build relationships with minority serving professional organizations to start. In government, there is the Congressional Black Caucus and their Fellowship program for early career professionals in public policy. Or the Congressional Fellowships on Women and Public Policy. Why not find ways to connect them to the Japan Caucus or the Embassy of Japan for events and possible programmatic collaborations (e.g. KAKEHASHI)? Or other U.S.-Japan organizations? For scholars and academic experts, get to know the Mellon Foundation or National Academies of Science, because they offer fellowships to address the lack of diversity among faculty in higher education. Past fellows/scholars of these programs could have some expertise in Japan or U.S.-Japan relations that could be showcased programmatically. In the arena of Business, there are too many organizations to mention, but a few are the Executive Leadership Council, the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies and the National Black Chamber of Commerce.

            If you are not black or a person of color, you may not feel like you have an entry point for connecting with these organizations.But there are so many smart people out there, I know you can figure out how to approach it.  I won’t sugar coat it, it is gonna be awkward at first. You may be concerned about the optics of doing so, given this cultural moment. And all that is fine. But if you are committed to change, then this is the hard work that must be done. It is connected to the related action of “getting comfortable talking about race,” which I will discuss in an upcoming post. Many of the above organizations are also connected to higher education institutions where you might find black students for program recruitment as well. It is all connected. Of course your networks and whatever fruit they bear will not change overnight, but an intentional and sustained commitment to broadening your networks will in the end serve you, your organizations and programs for the better in the complicated future we face together.

  • Get comfortable mentoring across racial lines.
Source: Getty Images

The fallacy of mentoring is the belief that we are best and of primary use to those who are most like us. And the interpretation of “like us” is often in terms of ethnic background or Japan pathway/entry point. I recognize that there are many different types of mentoring relationships, but at the core an important feature of a good mentoring relationship is connecting with individuals as human beings. There are always ways to make meaningful connections with others. In the U.S.-Japan community, I am always excited to hear about the different ways people find their way into it and what they are thinking of doing with it in the future. My philosophy in mentoring is that I want to be helpful and provide guidance, support, and encouragement to anyone who asks. And if it is an area that I am not familiar with, then I connect them with someone who is. I have mentored young people from various institutions, majors, and ethnic backgrounds, and at different points in their careers, in both the U.S. and Japan. But I do not see that modeled back to me in the U.S.-Japan community. If we really want to be inclusive, then everyone needs to get comfortable building relationships with all the types of members who populate this community. Like any of the concrete steps listed above, it is going to be hard and awkward at first. Initially you may not be good at it, but like any skill, with practice and effort, gradually you will get better.

          In this week’s post, I hope you walk away with some concrete ideas about how you individually and perhaps within your institution or organization can begin to take steps toward fostering a more diverse, welcoming and racially just U.S.-Japan community. As I said at the beginning of this series, dismantling these systems is going to be a long-term endeavor and will take work. But if we can take actions and share our successes and challenges, then I am excited to see what the next-generation of the U.S.-Japan community will not only look like, but what they will be able to do together! I invite you to share what you are doing in your organizations to achieve these goals in the comments section below. The next post will look at biases in how evaluations of credentials, backgrounds, experiences and statements about organizational or cultural fit lead to a lack of diversity in various parts of the U.S.-Japan community.

Thank you for reading. See you next time!!

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