My Great Leap of Faith
by Jenni "Emiko" Kuida

They say that Asian women never look their age. When I meet people, they often ask if I’m a student and tell me that I look much younger than I really am. They are shocked to learn that I have over 16 years of experience working in law firms. The year I got my driver’s license, I was working as a file clerk/typist in a small law office. By the time I was 18, I was working as a legal secretary.

When I was 20 and still in college, I started working at a growing mid-sized law firm. By 26, I became the human resource administrator of the 100 employee law firm. I learned a lot of skills, such as writing personnel policies and employee safety plans, organizing company picnics and client parties, and managing people. It was a well-paying job, with long hours, heavy responsibility and lots of stability. Today, that law firm has 9 offices throughout California.

So why did I leave? Well, after working as a volunteer in several community-based and grassroots organizations in the Japanese American community and becoming active in progressive causes for the last five years, I had long felt the need to spread my wings, and work in an area closer to my heart. I wanted to feel that I was contributing to something more creative and meaningful than "the bottom line." It was a difficult decision to change careers, but one that I am glad I did.

Ten months ago, I started working at Great Leap. Great Leap is a performing arts organization that focuses its efforts on creating and presenting original works about Asian American and multicultural experiences to deepen understanding between diverse cultures using music, theater and dance. It’s about using the arts to make change in positive ways.

Knowing virtually nothing about arts administration, I have learned much in the last year. I’ve scheduled performances in Chicago, Dallas, Florida and Massachusetts. I’ve been fortunate to work with terrific people who are supportive of Great Leap’s works, working with college students across the country, mostly via telephone and e-mail.

On the local end, I’ve met and worked with some dedicated artists, musicians, students and multicultural arts supporters in LA and the Bay Area. I’ve written grants, and am learning daily about fundraising, budgeting, and being very resourceful with limited resources and shrinking arts dollars.

While I’m a novice, Great Leap has been doing this for 20 years. With founding Artistic Director Nobuko Miyamoto and some terrific Great Leap friends, we have been planning our 20th Anniversary celebration, "To All Relations ‘98," a concert set for Friday, July 17 at the Japan America Theatre. It has been a long journey, but one that I’m really excited about. This concert will blend the power of song, and the sharing of story and dance in an offering to bring the world family together.

In October, I was able to attend the first "A Grain of Sand" reunion concert of Chris Iijima, Nobuko and Charlie Chin at UC Berkeley. The audience of over 500 college students and other activist folks (who "own the original album on vinyl") were blown away by the power of the music from the 70s that is as relevant today, as it was back in 1973 when they first recorded "A Grain of Sand." This legendary Asian American trio, Chris Iijima, Nobuko and "Charlie" Chin, will reunite in Los Angeles on July 17th to share songs from their seminal album, "A Grain of Sand," which was re-issued on CD with Bindu Records earlier this year.

One of Great Leap’s goals is to improve race relations among young people. We are reaching more than 10,000 students every year. In May, we performed our multicultural production of "A Slice of Rice, Frijoles and Greens" at 15 different venues, most of which are schools in Southern California. I’ve attended performances where the kids are captivated by the humor and personal stories by the performers.

At our anniversary event, you will see cameo appearances from our dynamic collection of "Slice" artists including Lauren Tom, Dan Kwong, Shishir Kurup, Bob Devin Jones, Louise Mita, Sybil Desta, Paulina Sahagun, Calvin Jung, Young-Ae Park and Arlene Malinowski, performing a delicious medley of stories that reflect the Asian, Latino and African American experience in "A Slice of Rice, Frijoles & Greens."

On the program for this special event will include a performance of Gaman, with June Kuramoto playing the koto. Other special musical guests will include Derek Nakamoto, Francis Awe, Nigerian talking drummer, Johnny Mori and Danny Yamamoto of Hiroshima, Bobby Matos of the Afro-Cuban Jazz Ensemble, and more. A rousing ensemble of "Drums Across L.A." with Japanese Taiko, timbales, Brazilian drums, surdos, and the Nigerian Talking Drum will be featured as well.

We have also been working in partnership with different organizations. We have been working with Upward Bound - USC doing a month-long series of arts workshops. Some of the students from Upward Bound will be participating in the performance of "The Chasm."

We have also worked together with the Los Angeles City Human Relations Commission and the JACCC to co-present this special evening. Great Leap and Upward Bound are two of the award recipients to be honored by the LA City Human Relations Commission. The Human Relations Commission is sponsoring the Post-Performance Party where obon dancing mixed with samba and African dance steps will continue outside in the JACCC Plaza after the concert has ended.

For museum and history buffs, we have been working on an Exhibit highlighting Great Leap’s 20 years of arts in the community. An exhibit of posters, videos, music, and costumes from 1978-1998 will be Great Leap's involvement with community and art. This exhibit will be on display from Wednesday, July 15 - Sunday, July 19th at the JACCC North Gallery. Gisele Fong, one of our Great Leap Board members has been working on this special project. We invite people to stop in and see this exciting exhibit.

TO ALL RELATIONS ‘98, a multimedia concert of song, story, and dance will be presented one night only, Friday, July 17, 1998 at 8:00 p.m. at the Japan America Theatre, 244 S. San Pedro Street in Little Tokyo. General admission: $20. Student, senior, and groups of 10 or more: $15.

I hope you will attend this very special anniversary show. I’ll be one of the people running around, looking twice my age... because they say Asian women never look their age.

Jenni Emiko Kuida works as the Arts Administrator at Great Leap and is co-author of "101 Ways to Tell if You’re Japanese American."

Originally published in The Rafu Shimpo, July 8, 1998.

Updated: 11/10/02

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