This remarkable community, Riverside, is where I was born and raised. I attended the local public schools where I received a great education. In fact, it was a fourth grade book report on Franklin Roosevelt that first gave me the idea of a life in politics.
Because my mother worked as a secretary at John W. North High School, I spent afternoons with my brothers at my grandfather’s home across the street from where we lived. It was there that I watched gavel-to-gavel coverage of the House Judiciary Committee’s Impeachment Hearings of President Nixon.
I was in awe of Congresswoman Barbara Jordan from Texas who spoke of her faith in the Constitution. The irony lost on me at the time was that as I listened closely to her eloquent words about the constitution, my grandfather sat behind me – a man who suffered from the grand constitutional failure of the Japanese internment during World War II.
The high school where my mother worked had and still has a student body comprised of minority students from the East Side, and the children of University Professors. As the principal’s secretary, she gained admiration and trust from the parents in the community when she advocated for fair treatment for all students regardless of class or color, and at the same time, she learned how the children of UC Riverside’s faculty got into Ivy League schools.
My mother stressed the importance of education at the dinner table. She encouraged us to do our best. Actually, she, along with my father, demanded that we did our best in school.
As any good son would, I did what my mother told me and graduated at the top of my class in high school and earned a scholarship to Harvard. However, four years of college on the east coast left me missing Riverside.
After graduation, most of my classmates left Harvard for the hot job at the time, investment banking in New York City. My middle class background and my family history never put me in the social networks to make that career plausible. Needing cash to live on after graduating from college, I started to work as a substitute teacher in Boston area schools.
I felt I had found a special place in the public schools. I remember feeling that I was doing something important and that I had connected to a purpose in life that was not focused on profits.
One day, I might be working in the affluent schools of Brookline, Massachusetts. Another day, I would be working in the beleaguered inner city schools of Boston where I would walk through a metal detector in a school setting for the first time. I thought about all the social ills that attended the inequality of opportunity in our country, especially the inequality of educational opportunities.
I eventually decided to move back to Riverside so that I could get involved in my community. Riverside was home. I would have felt false beginning any other place but here.
My teaching career began in Rialto. There, 90 percent of the students I taught qualified for free or reduced price school lunches.
Within several years of my return, a small band of Japanese American members of Congress passed HR 442, which called for an official apology by the United States Government to Japanese Americans interned during WWII and which compensated each internee $20,000. Barbara Jordan’s admonishment to have faith in our Constitution was never far from my mind. We know that our government often takes actions that break our hearts, but we also witness moments of triumph when our ideals are affirmed.
Inspired by those events, I sought to make a difference and won public office in 1990, a seat on the Riverside Community College Board of Trustees. After two failed runs at Congress in the early 90’s, I remained involved in my local community and decided to run for re-election to the College Board. And when the independent Redistricting Commission reviewed the district lines in 2011, I was presented with an opportunity to run for Congress once more.
I reflected on my life – growing up in Riverside in an Asian family, my 23 years as a high school teacher and my 22 years as a local elected official. I sensed an opportunity to serve my community in ways that I could not have done 20 years prior. It was an opportunity to serve those who are often left behind.
So when I arrived in Congress earlier this year, I committed myself to giving a voice to those who are being taken advantage of.
Never again, would minorities lack a champion in Congress.
Never again, would someone like my grandfather, be failed by those who swore to uphold the constitution.