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Karen K. Narasaki

Civil Rights Advocate

Washington, DC

If not for the women and minorities who went before me in the struggle for equality, I would never have had the opportunity to study at Yale or become a civil rights attorney.

My parents were teenagers when they were ordered leave their homes by President Roosevelt. It was during World War II and all people of Japanese descent were under scrutiny and considered un-American regardless of origin. Although they were born in America, they were both sent to hastily-built concentration camps for the sole crime of looking like the enemy. To prove his loyalty, my father volunteered for the U.S. Army from behind a barbed wire fence.

My parents were true heroes. Following the war, opportunities for minorities started to expand dramatically. A decade after Yale began admitting women, I was accepted. I had never been outside of the West Coast. I had came from a blue collar high school, where a majority of students did not go on to college. My older sister believed in me and said I could either take the safe route, and attend a local public university, or I could take a leap into the bigger world. I did — I leaned in — and I learned as much from my fellow students as I did from my professors.

I went on to law school and after graduation, I had the opportunity to volunteer on a civil rights case. Subsequent evidence had come to light proving that the Department of Justice had knowingly allowed false and bigoted testimony to be provided to the Court. I sought justice for the victims, a verdict that was denied my father and other Japanese Americans when they asked the U.S. Supreme Court to declare their internment unconstitutional.

In working on my first case, I became concerned that the men always seemed to be the ones in front of the camera. There were many women lawyers working on the briefings but we were all behind the scenes. I thought it was because the men were pushing the women out. However, the reality was that the women were not eager to step up and draw attention to themselves.

Years later, I had a chance to step up and I took it. The Japanese American Citizens League (JACL) asked me to become their civil rights lobbyist in Washington, D.C. At the time, I was on the verge of making partner at my Seattle law firm, working for corporations and practicing securities law. I knew nothing about lobbying, other than what I had been doing as a volunteer, and I was terrified of public speaking.

My mother warned me that JACL members would probably not like me for violating their cultural expectations. After much deliberation, I thought it was unfair for me to criticize the lack of women in leadership positions — especially Asian Americans — if I was not willing to step forward and Lean In.

If not for the women and minorities who went before me in the struggle for equality, I would never have had the opportunity to study at Yale or become a civil rights attorney. So I knew it was my turn to help move our democracy forward. The job at JACL has allowed me to help ensure that what happened to my parents during WWII will never happen again.

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