Photo by An Rong Xu.
It is with a heavy heart and a reflective spirit that our community remembers and meditates on the life of Yuri Kochiyama. For over half a century, she has helped shape and redefine conversations around race, gender, and justice. It is Yuri's active and generous practice -- sharing knowledge and building deep solidarity -- that has tied so many of us to her legacy.
"Don't become too narrow. Live fully. Meet all kinds of people. You'll learn something from everyone." -- Yuri Kochiyama
I first stepped into Sumi Pendakur’s office eight years ago. Sumi was assistant director of Asian Pacific American Student Services at the University of Southern California at the time, and made herself available to students across campus. I came to USC believing that I knew everything there was to know. When angry, I expected everyone to be as angry as I was. When ready for action, I expected an army by my side. I would come to Sumi time and time again, hoping for affirmation. Perhaps a fellow student was not radical enough for me. Perhaps I felt an organization was not following their mission the way I expected. Perhaps I was feeling unheard in class and outraged at the politics of my professors. Time and time again Sumi would listen -- and then she would ask questions. She would help me analyze the situation, ask me to consider angles I didn’t even know existed, and in the end I would leave her office understanding that, perhaps, I did not know everything there was to know.
These moments of grounded reflection have shaped my process and growth as a community organizer. We often grow thanks to the generosity of those around us, and those whose work we read and follow. We take this inherited knowledge, study it, adjust our perspective, and then pass it forward. It is through this process of learning and sharing that our understanding of the world changes, and it is this very process that has connected so many of us to Yuri Kochiyama.
I did not know Yuri, nor do I know as much of her work as I should. Her spirit, like mist over permafrost, has floated through our conversation and community spaces, evaporating into our actions and words. Yuri opened her home to visitors in New York and held countless meetings at her apartment, introducing attendees to lifelong collaborators and seeding projects innumerable. She modeled tangible solidarity, contributing her hands, her feet, and her voice to Black Panthers and the Young Lords (among many other organizations). Her image amongst “Free Mumia” signs, energy radiating from her powerful face, will not soon be forgotten; how could it be? We have known her words, even if we did not know her, and we have known her actions, even if we did not have the privilege to personally build with her.
It is with great generosity that Yuri shared her life and her stories, raising scores of organizers, activists, thinkers, and writers. Today this indomitable spirit still burns in her work, her mentees, and her family -- who continue in the revolutionary resistance she embodied. We will still fight for freedom in our government and society, in the way Yuri fought to achieve a more just and free-thinking world.
With each generation the conversation changes, but the spirit of these mentors, thinkers, and elders persists. There is so much more learning, so much more sharing to be done.
Our thoughts are with the Kochiyama family, Yuri’s close community, and those who carry her legacy ever forward.
Rest, rise, and revolutionize in power.
You can read more about Yuri Kochiyama's life and legacy here. Please add your memories and reflections in the comments below.
The author would like to thank the many people who helped shape this piece in various ways, particularly Cynthia Brothers, Terry Park, Juliet Shen, Trung Nguyen, Lorraine Bannai, and Tracy Nguyen-Chung.
Accompanying photo by An Rong Xu, a documentary photographer based in New York.