I have been involved in creating programming, grassroots museum exhibits, and digital storytelling tools related to public history and education since 2008.
Exiled to Motown (2017-)
You’ve heard the story of Japanese American incarceration during World War II.
But do you know what happened next?
Exiled to Motown began as an oral history project. From 2003 to 2015, the Japanese American Citizens League Detroit Chapter History Committee conducted oral histories with Japanese Americans living in the metro Detroit area, ultimately publishing them in a collective volume, also titled Exiled to Motown (2015). For the 2021 exhibit, additional interviews were conducted by members of the JACL Detroit Chapter from 2019-2021.
Though the Midwest is often overlooked in the history of Asian America, these stories represent a critical chapter in this history, and the history of the United States at large: What happened to Japanese Americans after their incarceration during World War II?
Even within the Japanese American community, the history of Japanese Americans in the Midwest isn’t well-known. Here, attendees at the Japanese American Citizens League National Convention in 2019 explore Exiled to Motown.
Many returned to the West Coast, but a substantial number left the camps to pursue life in cities such as Chicago, Cincinnati, and Detroit. And these Midwestern locations were no accident: “Resettlement,” as the U.S. federal government called it, was intended to break up Japanese American communities in the hopes that they might “assimilate,” lose their cultural ties to one another, and disappear into the so-called great American melting pot. Thrust into a new place without support or resources, however, Japanese Americans in Detroit survived by rebuilding the very community they’d been sent to the Midwest to lose. What’s resulted is a distinctly Midwestern Japanese American history–one with critical connections to the complex racial striations and industrial booms and busts of the Motor City.
Here’s where I come into the project: I joined the JACL Detroit Chapter in 2014. In 2016, the JACL Detroit Chapter first began making plans for a project that would continue the work of the original Exiled to Motown book. In order to share these oral histories with as broad an audience as possible, and illuminate the history of the Japanese American community in metro Detroit, I am in the process of leading a series of museum exhibitions that combine these oral histories with objects and images from the JACL Detroit Chapter’s archives. I also link them to the broader regional history of metro Detroit, and invite exhibit viewers to reflect critically on their relationship to their own communities, and the ways we can center solidarity efforts in pursuit of social justice for all.
The murder of Vincent Chin in 1987 galvanized the Asian American community in metro Detroit and beyond. American Citizens for Justice was one of the primary organizers in the wake of Chin’s death; many members of the JACL Detroit Chapter were also active members of ACJ.
My co-curator Celeste Goedert and I, along with the rest of the JACL Detroit Chapter, are currently preparing a large, interactive, multimedia exhibition in partnership with the Detroit Historical Museum! While originally scheduled to premiere in June 2020, we now plan to open in summer 2021, in light of the COVID-19 pandemic.
In my role as co-curator of the Exiled to Motown exhibits, I’ve taken on any number of roles and exercised almost every skillset I own, in the tradition of grassroots museum work and public scholarship, where you do a little bit of everything, and strive to learn as much as possible in order to provide the desiderata of the project–to do what is needed and desired.
Collaborative visioning with project collaborators
A community project like Exiled to Motown truly takes a village. While I bring to the table my expertise as a researcher and writer in Asian American studies, the spirit of the exhibit, and the stories that power it, belong to the Japanese American Citizens League Detroit Chapter.
The project is also indebted to our community collaborators, such as the Ann Arbor District Library, Novi Public Library, JACL National Convention, Consul General of Japan in Detroit, and the Detroit Historical Museum. Each audience we’ve prepared the exhibit for has lent its perspectives and histories to our telling of this history.
Conducted primarily at the Bentley Historical Library at the University of Michigan.
Graphic design and digital content development
Exiled to Motown was designed in Photoshop CS6 on a 13″ Macbook Pro. Small screen, smaller hard drive… Big aspirations. I’m currently working on the three-dimensional content redesigns for our Detroit Historical Museum exhibition.
We’ve worked with journalist, writer, and professor Frances Kai-Hwa Wang to produce a storytelling workshop in partnership with the Ann Arbor District Library, brought the exhibit for a private exhibition as part of Dr. Ian Shin’s “Introduction to Asian American Studies” class at the University of Michigan, and are planning more collaborations for the future.
I also presented a public lecture about the history of Japanese Americans in Detroit and World War II to a packed house at the Novi Public Library in Summer 2019. I will give a second presentation at the Michigan Local History Conference in 2021 (postponed from 2020 due to COVID-19).
Grant writing and project management
For a long-term project with multiple different iterations and shapes, project management and record-keeping is essential. As is, of course, the nuts and bolts of budgeting, purchasing, printing, etc. Exiled to Motown has been supported financially grants I received from the JACL National Legacy Fund Grant Program and the University of Michigan Professional Development Grant Program.
The “travel” in traveling exhibit
Since its birth in Phoenix, Arizona, the physical Exiled to Motown exhibit has traveled thousands of miles by car and plane, from AZ to Michigan to Utah and back. It’s heavy! But it fits in the back of my car!
Here it is at the Little America Hotel in Salt Lake City, Utah.
Exiled to Motown in the D
And in 3-D! As we prepare for our Detroit Historical Museum exhibition, we are in the process of envisioning new ways of expanding the stories we tell, and inviting visitors to share in them. This means developing interactive exhibits, opportunities for visitors to contribute to their own stories.
Previous to Exiled to Motown I worked as a Mellon Public Humanities Fellow at the Arab American National Museum in Dearborn, MI. I worked with the Curatorial and Research teams to conduct preliminary research for a prospective upcoming exhibit about anti-Muslim and anti-Arab rhetoric in the United States, both pre- and post-9/11, and in our contemporary moment surrounding the Syrian refugee crisis and series of travel bans enacted by the Trump administration. I compiled information from academic monographs, national hate crime data, and various newspaper and community newsletter archives. I also pitched potential ways of juxtaposing different flashpoint moments in Arab American history; interactive exhibit ideas; and multimedia resources the museum might draw on in creating this exhibit.