Location: North Shore, Hawaii
Growing up in Bend, Oregon, Kiki Nakamura-Koyama was painfully aware that the central Oregon town was 94% white. In the International Baccalaureate Program she pursued in high school in the hope of a more diverse student body and curriculum, Kiki was one of two Asian Americans and one of ten people of color in her class. “Even when we read multicultural books,” Kiki says, “the discussions were never explicitly about race.” Kiki always felt that something was wrong with her. “I never truly felt like I fit in,” she says. “I internalized feeling so different and it made me feel bad about myself.”
That changed when she went to college. At Bowdoin College, a small, private liberal arts college in Brunswick, Maine, Kiki found her people. “I finally found people who shared my sense of humor,” Kiki says, “who also happened to be people of color.” Neither Maine nor Bowdoin are particularly diverse either, but for the first time Kiki had a voice for her angst and a large support system in which to voice it. “What is good about Bowdoin is that at a small liberal arts college you can’t divide into your own affinity group,” Kiki says, “so you learn what the issues are for other people of color.” A series of racial bias issues happened on campus while Kiki was a freshman, displaying racial insensitivity that did not impact Kiki directly but, she says, “because the people who were hurt were my friends, I felt like I had a stake in it.” When the lacrosse team dressed up as either pilgrims or Native Americans for their annual Thanksgiving party or the white male students on the sailing team dressed up as thugs for a “gangsta party” or the student government threw a tequila party complete with sombreros and fake moustaches, Kiki began to speak up.
By her junior year, Kiki was hired by Bowdoin’s administration to be a student director of multicultural life. She planned events to increase racial awareness and diversity and became a student leader for activism on campus. Kiki also took a class in her senior year that focused on how the West perceives the East. “It was the first time I encountered passport power and our global positioning in the world,” Kiki says. She was already determined to take the work she was doing on diversity and multiculturalism into her future endeavors, but her Imagined Asias class helped her narrow her focus. “I was always concerned with broader social and structural injustice,” she says, “but that class helped me narrow it down to Asian/American challenges.”
Kiki graduated from Bowdoin College in 2017 with a BA in Government and Legal Studies and an Education minor. She then pursued a one year Master of Arts in Teaching program at Smith College in Northampton, Massachusetts that was funded by Project Coach, an intergenerational sports nonprofit in Springfield, Massachusetts. Kiki was in charge of mentoring ten local high school students and keeping them on track academically and socially. The work not only paid for her studies, but solidified her desire to become a teacher.
Her time at Smith, and her Masters research on counteracting stereotypes through Asian American literature, also provided an opportunity for Kiki to pursue her interest in developing a curriculum that is both racially diverse and can move the needle on cultural awareness and sensitivity in the classroom. She put out a survey asking the high school students she was teaching if they had ever talked about race before in the classroom. The overwhelming answer was no. Kiki knew she was on to something. “Despite the rapid changes in racial demographics in the United States and how relevant race is in everyone’s everyday lives,” she says, “the answer was no.”
Realizing that she should learn more about diaspora populations outside of the United States herself, Kiki headed to Indonesia on a Fulbright scholarship to teach English. She learned some key lessons while in Indonesia that impacted her scholarly research and focus but also her personal growth and world view. “I had to realize that people are multi-dimensional,” Kiki says. She was initially devastated to learn that her closest friend in Indonesia was homophobic, telling Kiki that she considered being gay worse than being a murderer. Kiki, who identifies as queer, says the disclosure “really hurt” but that she also realized she could not immediately dismiss her friend, who had otherwise shown her tremendous kindness and hospitality. “I had to come to terms with how close-minded I was,” Kiki says, “and appreciate all the nuances of how someone was raised and how she got to that point.”
Prior to her time in Indonesia, Kiki’s approach to something that struck her as culturally bigoted or insensitive was to immediately shut it down. “I was very intolerant of anything that hurt someone’s dignity,” Kiki says. “But that discounts people’s intentions.” She now realizes that there are so many ways in which we miscommunicate, and it is far better in the long run to understand where someone is coming from. “I would never have been able to learn this lesson in the United States,” Kiki says. She notes that as a woman of color, she was often very defensive. “In Indonesia, with passport power,” she says, “I was able to reflect more on my reactions.”
Kiki is now back in the United States and about to spend a month in Maine serving as a dialogue facilitator with Seeds of Peace, a camp for young people with disparate identities that empowers them to go back to their communities and make change. That goal synchs nicely with Kiki’s overarching goal for the classroom, and she is hoping to line up a teaching position for the fall. She is ready to have all of her research, advocacy and teaching experiences, both at Smith and in Indonesia, coalesce into a teaching job that will allow her to “talk to young people about very sensitive and difficult topics.”
Kiki sees herself as having a “very delayed ethnic identity.” She would like to facilitate an earlier awakening for the students she teaches by implementing the anti-racist curriculum that she has developed and continuing to work on making power more accessible. “We all need to understand that people are multi-dimensional and work through their multiple truths,” she says. “Students are ready for it and they want to talk about it.”