The value of research in activism: Kathy Shimizu

Nicole Yakashiro

kathy-speaking-at-council (1)

Kathy Shimizu presenting at City Council. Photo: Carnegie Community Action Project.

Kathy Shimizu is a third-generation Japanese Canadian (Sansei). Born and raised in Winnipeg, Manitoba, Kathy moved to Vancouver in 1990 and maintains strong connections to the Powell Street neighbourhood in Vancouver where she works and where her family lived prior to WWII. She has been actively involved in numerous non-profit and activist collectives and organizations including: the Powell Street Festival Society (and their Advocacy and Outreach Committee), WePress, the Greater Vancouver Japanese Canadian Citizens’ Association and its Human Rights Committee, the Japanese Canadian Community Building Project, Katari Taiko, Sawagi Taiko, and Asian Americans United (based out of Philadelphia).

Kathy wouldn’t call herself a scholar. She supports and works in the grassroots activist community in the Vancouver area, on unceded and occupied Coast Salish territory, specifically that of the Skwxwú7mesh (Squamish), xwməθkwəy̓əm (Musqueam), and mi ce:p kwətxwiləm (Tsleil-Waututh) Nations. She is, at the core, an activist, but her reasons for not brandishing the academic label (despite having a Masters and two Bachelor’s degrees) are not because she sees a distinct binary division between the roles of “activist” and “academic”. Quite on the contrary, Kathy upholds the importance of academic work in political activism. In her words: “academics bring something completely different to the table.”

As I become further entrenched in academia (and all its institutional bureaucracy), I often hear conversations among like-minded academics where the separation between “scholar” and “activist” is discussed and negotiated. There is hesitation (and deep criticism) among many scholars when we consider ourselves activists – how do we reconcile these two roles? How can we do both in an academic system which doesn’t make activism a priority?


At WePress. Photo: Kazuho Yamamoto.

But Kathy’s words motivate me. They prompt me to think about the ways we might transgress this boundary between scholarship and activism. They make me re-evaluate how I participate in academic work. In what ways am I complicit in the structures activists work against? In what ways can I intervene and destabilize these modes of thinking? And in what ways should I stop censuring my role as an academic and just start doing?

Academic work requires this constant critical reflection. Yet, I don’t think the transformative capacity of education and scholarship should be forgotten in the process. So, what kinds of scholarship might provoke the change we seek? On a Tuesday afternoon at the Nikkei National Museum in Burnaby, Kathy and I chatted in the confines of the Japanese Canadian Citizens’ Association office. We talked about our mutual love for taiko, and all forms of art, and how we can start framing our academic work in better, more socially conscious, more activist ways.


I entered my discussion with Kathy anticipating a critical conversation. In my mind at least, scholars are always faced with the task of navigating our power when we study topics and issues that affect people, many who don’t have the privilege of just “studying” injustice. So, naturally, I prepared myself for a necessary talk about how academics are falling short. But that never happened. Kathy praised those scholars she saw as incredibly valuable, even if there’s a long way to go. Without any need to, Kathy expressed gratitude. She placed emphasis not on that which we’re not doing, but rather, on what we are doing and what we can do. She discussed the invaluable way academics can articulate, legitimize, and intervene in critical social conversations. I was moved by her encouragement to “come out” – to simply care enough to show up.


KS: [The Revitalizing Japantown? and The Right to Remain work of Jeff Masuda and Audrey Kobayashi] has had a huge impact on the relationship between the JC community and the DTES community, and we’re super grateful for that. One, [because of] their vision, but also the infusion of their funds. They used the money for their academic research to put into the community and the neighborhood–to build that community and do their research at the same time. That has been an amazing and wonderful thing, and from the feedback I’ve had from members of the DTES community that work with JC members of the community, they are appreciative that another community has taken an interest in their issues and what’s going on now. We’ve built some pretty great friendships and that work is still going. To me, that’s pretty amazing.


To me, young people that care at all, that are even willing to take that step, are amazing. They’re my hope. They are our hope. They are everyone’s hope. Because it’s easy to get busy […] so anybody who cares enough to step outside their privilege and do something, I think is […] really important, and I want them all to come. I want them all to come out because we need more help.

Academics have […] a number of things that are super valuable to me. One is that they hold knowledge, research and information that a lot of us don’t have. And they are often able to articulate things in a way that are good to have in the mainstream media. […] I’m sort of an intuitive person and it’s my gut feeling [to think] “we should be doing this, we should be standing with people who are marginalized and we should do something to change what’s going on, because it’s not right.” The academics that I’ve worked with are amazing because they can articulate this in a way that I can’t, like “Yeah that’s what I meant! That’s why we’re doing it!” They have the language and the details about the history of past oppression or violations of rights. They can talk about systemic racism and they can talk about power imbalances, and they have this kind of knowledge and language that can explain to people why we’re doing something. Or sometimes, [they can] fix the conversation. There’s a lot of poor bashing, there’s a lot of blaming people for their own problems and their situations, and there’s an academic way of explaining [to people] that there are historic power imbalances and systemic reasons why it’s not fair all the time. And that we need to try and fix that, and we need to call for justice.


I love art and what art can do. I think that’s partly why our conversation kept returning to the topic of art as a resource for both education and activism. I’m frustrated by the common dismissal of community-based art in academia – those forms of art largely excluded from what the academy considers sophisticated or legitimate enough for scholarly study. Kathy echoed my concerns, speaking to her experience in both activist and academic contexts where art became the transformative force for bringing people together and provoking change. It’s clear that research is an essential step in educating and mobilizing communities, but how can we be more creative about engaging an audience? Can art transcend boundaries in academia and society? Kathy pushes back against the devaluation of art, and emphasizes its humanizing power.


KS: Part of my loyalty and dedication to Powell Street Festival comes from this idea that arts are part of the glue. Arts and culture have a super important role in all our work because for one – they build community. It’s an entry point for a lot of people, in a way that’s really engaging and can be easy and fun. The festival itself is creating something together that’s hard work and yet joyful – that’s powerful. Because people come back year after year–they love it and are invested in it and they feel it’s their festival. They have a level of ownership that is pretty unique. […]


At WePress. Photo: Kazuho Yamamoto.

There’s also something [about singing] that humanizes part of what you’re doing. You’re not just shouting, you’re not just asking or demanding things, and you’re not just trying to change stuff. And when people can see these people that they think of as “other,” as people — [it] humanizes [them]. Like the Asahi Tribute game. Everyone playing baseball together. That’s a thing that puts everyone on a level playing field. You see that everybody is just a person. Or making arts and crafts together. People have talents that are hidden talents. They have trouble with other things in their life but they can create something beautiful, something amazing. So [art helps us] find other ways of valuing people and who they are. And just music itself, it pulls something out of you, it changes things.


The RJ [Revitalizing Japantown?] project, the exhibit at the museum, was doing community building and research through art workshops. The thing about visual art, the value [of it could be] a way to validate the spending of money. If you’re doing something visual, then it can be a communication tool as well as a way to engage people. It’s a way to share what you’ve done, or what you’ve created, or what you’re meeting about. […] Something that is visually impactful and people are helping you make it, you can kind of do two things in one, and maybe it can justify the spending of resources on it, because it can serve more than one function.

You don’t want to undervalue (and people do this all the time) – they undervalue arts and culture and the power that it has and the meaning it can bring to the different things you’re doing. So I think it’s a great idea if you can think of a way to pull it in. All the [art] workshops that we’ve run in the community, trying to connect the JC and the DTES communities, it’s been really important. You think about if you’re trying to connect with First Nations communities, drumming and singing is a big thing, and dancing. So, there’s a lot of ways that you could justify [using the arts in academic work].


Drawing on our discussion of art, Kathy and I considered the significance of the media we use when we communicate our scholarship. If the work isn’t accessible, who is it for? While I acknowledge that scholarship has certain limitations within academic institutions, Kathy’s words on making our research accessible and applying it to the “real world” really resonated with me. Are there ways we can share our work to be more inclusive? Are there creative ways to integrate and honour differing perspectives and ways of communication? Kathy’s words remind me to keep my work grounded – to give attention to a bigger vision that goes far beyond myself as a researcher.


KS: It depends on what are the goals of the group, what are the goals of the meeting? There’s lots of ways to achieve the same thing. If it gets too dry, you’re going to lose people anyway. Especially if you invite community people and they’re not all academics, you need different levels of sharing information. […] I think you have to think about [who your audience is]. [When you’re] losing people left and right, you’re not really communicating anymore. I think you really have to think about the objectives and what you want people to come out of the gathering or the meeting with.


Sawagi Taiko performing for National Aboriginal Day at Carngegie Community Centre. Photo: Phoebe Man.

[In the DTES] having a First Nations group do the welcome with singing and drumming, or taiko, or whatever the thing is, it can energize people in a way that gets all the other stuff flowing. Sometimes if you start off with a really dry, “We’re just going to talk about all this stuff,” people don’t get engaged from the beginning. But if you get them excited about things, and have a vision that’s bigger than “This is what we’re doing this weekend or today” – but actually [make it a] part of this bigger thing, so our goals are bigger than this research. We want it placed within the bigger community, we want it placed within the real world. You want it outside the academic community, we want it to be a part of these other things. That can be part of the discussion. You can try and bring some of that in. And if you have people from the community there, who aren’t academics, you’re going to have to do it anyways. You’re going to have to explain what you’ve been doing for the last year in a way that’s not over their heads.


I’m learning that the Powell Street neighbourhood is a layered space. It is a colonized space and one of dispossession, in 1942, long before that, and today. Kathy, who works in the area, spoke of a “moral obligation” Japanese Canadians have to the marginalized people facing displacement in the Downtown Eastside today. While this space holds a Japanese Canadian history that we honour every year at the Powell Street Festival, it holds many more complex and unsettling meanings. As an organizer of the festival and member of the Japanese Canadian Community Building Project initiative, Kathy demonstrates how we, as Japanese Canadians, can simultaneously re-claim space for our community, while centring the historical and contemporary dispossession of so many others. In the face of exclusivity, Kathy is a voice for an inclusive vision of the Powell Street neighbourhood.


KS: There was a call in the late ’90s to move the [Powell Street] festival, because [people] didn’t want to come down to that neighborhood and they didn’t like being around “those” people, and they didn’t want to be in that environment. […] There [were] a lot less groups that supported a lot of the marginalized folks, and people [most of the JC community] weren’t there year round. They would just come for the festival and they felt like things were getting worse. But we had a community meeting about it and it was really clear that we, the main people involved in the festival who had a lot of loyalty to it, and also other people in the community, really felt it was important to be in the neighborhood. Not only because of our history in it but also to stand as allies. We have a moral obligation to stand with people who are like our community was before the war. We were not wanted, we were hated by the mainstream, and demonized. The community is like that now, and so a lot of us feel like we should be fighting for justice with them because redress was our community’s achievement and we should be sharing that achievement and fighting for other people’s need for redress. […]

I feel like the ownership in that sense of the neighborhood, and taking the space, and trying to keep it a part of our community is really important. There’s lots of different ways to do it. The [Vancouver Japanese] Language School being there, and the [Vancouver] Buddhist Temple, and the JC Community Building project […]. These buildings that are now owned by other people that were taken from the community, we would love to get [one] back. […] the building could be used for something that is of value to the low income and marginalized communities. We talked about having social housing and having a space for our community on Powell Street is really important to a lot of people. […] We want to have a presence and try and help find a way that people who live there now can stay there, not be displaced and pushed out. And how do you do that?

[…] I think that any building or any space that a community group that’s working on the ground can claim or hold on to [is important]. Even [keeping] city-owned [property] is super important because at least then […] we have a say in what’s going to happen there. All of these things are really critical, to try and keep [the neighborhood] more social. To try to keep it more equitable. And inclusive. Because what’s happening, of course, is that all these new spaces are not welcoming to everybody, and they’re not for everybody, and what they sell is too expensive for [many residents]. So part of the idea of “possession” is not necessarily to own it for ourselves, but keep it in the public realm and community. To find ways to make the neighborhood inclusive. And it’s going to be a struggle. Because the forces are all against it.


Kathy Shimizu is a refreshing reminder of the important and beautiful work being done within our communities. At a time when both our historical research and contemporary events expose the violence and injustice of society and government, Kathy reveals the resilience of community and art. This is an energizing, humanizing, and incredible gift I am grateful for.


Powell Street Festival Diamond Stage Crew. Photo: [stu-di-o] by jeanie.

I wish to thank Kathy Shimizu for being such an amazing interviewee – her passion, dedication, and patience continue to inspire me as I navigate this messy, but (I hope) important work. I am grateful to Kaitlin Findlay and Trevor Wideman for their insights and valuable time with the piece. Any and all errors or oversights are, of course, my own.


  1. Olivia · · Reply

    Hello, I would like to reach out to Kathy for an interview in August. Please share my contact info with her. Thank you for your consideration. -Olivia


    1. Hi Olivia, thanks for inquiry. Send us a note at and we can share contact information privately. – Kaitlin


  2. Annette Kasahara · · Reply

    Hello Nicole, excellent article! Challenging to us all, as we sort through how to be in this world. -Annette


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