Community Voices: Gayle Yamasaki, Southern Oregon Leadership Council
Gayle Yamasaki is an education and cultural leader in Klamath Falls and Southern Oregon. She is currently the 21st Century Community Learning Centers Program coordinator for the Klamath Falls City School District and an advocate for culture, heritage and the arts through her role as a “story catcher.” Gayle is also a member of OCF’s Southern Oregon Leadership Council.
OCF: How are you doing in these interesting times?
What I thought my year would be like and what my year is like are really two different things. It has given me an opportunity to pause and reflect: What do I want to give myself to after COVID-19? I’ve learned that where and what I pay attention to is where my energy goes.
OCF: Could you tell us a little about your work, and in particular, what it means to be a “story catcher”?
My whole life, I’ve been listening to stories. Professionally, I was trained as a counselor. I ask myself, “How do we make sense of our lives through story? How might I move beyond my own narrative in this reimagining?”
I’ve been fortunate to facilitate several story-catching projects: at Chiloquin, where students found the hero within themselves; at Nixyaawii Community School, where students documented the lives of their elders through art and stories; and with Native American World War II veterans as they shared their stories of war and coming home through narrative and photography.
Closer to home and my heart was the opportunity to document the stories of Japanese Americans who were incarcerated at the Tule Lake Segregation Center during World War II. I am fourth-generation Japanese American, born in Hawaii. My family had not been relocated and incarcerated during World War II. I felt a curiosity and a compelling need within to hear and document these stories. Many of the individuals I sat with in their homes are now gone, yet their stories through their own voice can be remembered.
I also am an artist and writer. I have experimented with ideas that extend story-catching and storytelling beyond oral documentation—reimagining story. For example, I am a quilt rescuer; I find abandoned quilts, and I restore and reimagine them—imagining the story that’s within the fabric pieces chosen. I’m not sure that I’m that good a storyteller, but I think I am good at listening and asking questions that help to release the other’s stories.
OCF: What do you think is the main value, both for the individual and the community, of listening to those stories?
We all have a need to belong, to be part of a community. Stories help us find that place of belonging, and also I think they help build a community of understanding.
OCF: What do you like best about your role on the Southern Oregon Leadership Council?
I’ve gotten to go deeper in knowing my own community. The other piece is that I’m a part of something much larger and bigger than what I could do individually. I’m part of a statewide effort as well as being, I hope, of service to my own community. We are working together in service of things worth caring about. I get to use all these parts of who I am—storyteller, story catcher, midwife, matchmaker, artist and writer—to listen and understand.
OCF: Which of OCF’s responses to community needs stands out to you most?
I’ve seen OCF’s impact in my own community in terms of capital projects—the library, the theater, our outdoor science school. I’ve seen the impact of sponsored programs through mentor programs, programs being an advocate for kids. I work with the school district, so I saw the magic of bringing musical instruments to fifth graders and what that meant in terms of their world getting bigger. I’ve witnessed what strategic funding can do for the arts in OCF’s small arts grant program. I’ve been part of some really interesting short-term, responsive projects OCF has done in COVID-19 response and also part of some strategic, systemic changes and impact in narrowing the opportunity gap for kids. I feel grateful and fortunate that I’ve been able to be part of that.
OCF: What do you think is most important for prospective donors and volunteers to know about OCF?
For volunteers, I think that because OCF is large, there are large opportunities. You can be in grantmaking, you can be on the leadership council, you can be part of a community advisory board. There are different affinity groups you can be a part of. As a volunteer, I think about those three things OCF talks about in terms of their leadership council: advocate, ambassador and advisor. So you’re able to involve yourself in those three worlds whether it’s in your own community, regionally or through a statewide initiative.
What I would like donors to know is that because OCF is large, it gives you more opportunities to match what’s important to you as the gift you want to leave for people in Oregon. Money is one of the tangible outcomes of our life work. As a person who is compensated with money, I’ve sacrificed a lot. Sometimes you miss kids’ things, marriages happen and fall apart, businesses close, trauma happens, you celebrate windfalls. So if I’ve sacrificed and made all these decisions because of, if you will, money, what does that mean if I then want to leave some of that beyond myself? I’m looking for organizations, as a donor, who are the best stewards of the things that I value, right? Whether I value the natural world, whether it’s education, whether it’s elders, I want to be able to put my gift where it matches my values. And I think OCF—because of its breath and scope and responsiveness, and ability to listen to me as a donor—can be a really good fit for my resources and values.
OCF: What do you think about how Oregon’s people and institutions have responded to COVID-19?
I work with the school district, so I really see the impact for families, for kids, for teachers, for our community at large. It’s had a great impact on people’s daily lives.
I live in a community where child care is not abundant, nor is it affordable. So what are your options? You’re not going to leave your kids home alone! I live in a community where technology is not easily accessible. Even if you have internet, you might not have good internet. If you’re doing online learning, the service to be able to access that learning is different depending on where you live, or even if you can afford to have it. How do you give access to everyone?
For teachers who’ve never done online teaching, how do they be creative and engaging with kids, some of whom they’ve never met before? If they’re lucky, they know some of their kids. For administrators, how do you keep everybody safe, productive, resourceful, happy and creative? So this is just one niche, but I have somewhat of a sense of the challenges and some of the successes, not only for our teachers but for learners and our families. It’s more than a worry about getting sick; it's much more complicated than that.
OCF: How can we move toward a more equitable society?
We have to rethink and reimagine the narratives we’ve lived with all our lives. There has to be a shifting, and I see some of that shifting all around us.
You know, we say it takes so many months for habits to change. Well, we’ve been doing this now for eight months. Things are shifting, and I think that’s going to create change in a different way than we’re used to. We have to reimagine the narratives or the stories that we have invested so much in, thinking they were true.
So what does that mean individually, collectively and as a country? I think about some of the organizations that are really helping to facilitate those hard conversations. I would like OCF to do more of that—to help facilitate those connections in place, or conversations in place—because I think it starts within yourself, but it only grows within community. In the sixties, we used to say “the personal is political,” right? You have to figure out within your own inner work what’s important, and how does that move through you and show up in the world. But you have to have conversations!
OCF: How do you see organizations facilitating that kind of work?
Oregon Humanities does a wonderful job in their conversation projects. They used to have their Think and Drink. Now, it’s called Consider This. Also, you’re no longer limited to have to go to McMenamins for a Think and Drink, or to show up at your community library to have a conversation on civic engagement. We are doing it through Zoom or through a variety of ways, so you get voices that you might never have heard.
It’s through these kinds of conversations and interactions that people are going to change. People don’t change because they’re aware of something; they have to understand cognitively and affectively for us to move forward in action. Although that seed of thought might start with me, I certainly know that I don’t want to do it alone! And so how can we bring people together? Even if we disagree on our positions, we still have a longing to belong, and this place we call home is our community. So how do we begin to have those tough conversations of reconciliation? If we don’t have them, I don’t really know how things are going to change.
OCF: What gives you hope?
It is that reimagining of our narrative, both personally and collectively. We have to challenge the narrative, and I think that’s some of what’s been going on.
Also, there’s that whole thing about “grow where you’re planted,” right? How can we help people grow where they’re planted? That’s what the “community” could mean in “Oregon Community Foundation.” It’s laying the foundation for community in Oregon. What could that look like? How do you ignite those shifts in individual and collective consciousness?
How do we be more inclusive in those conversations? I don’t know how we choose people on the leadership council, but is it a reflection of the community? Those of us that are chosen, are we are reflection of the demographics of the people in our community? Or if we want to change the demographics, maybe those voices of leadership need to change. Part of that shifting is us having to change our narrative of what leadership is supposed to look like and where it’s supposed to come from. Who should be given that voice? We have to think about that a little bit.
OCF: Is there anything we didn’t ask about that you would like to share?
I’m third-generation Japanese American on my mother’s side and fourth generation on my father’s. I certainly know the impact of racism and discrimination, historically and currently. And I see a lot of things going on that need some shifting or at least some conversations. Or listening. Maybe some of these aren’t so much conversation projects as they are listening projects.
I’m an optimist in temperament, so it probably colors all my perceptions. I want to stay curious—to still be delighted and awed by the moment—and this time has given us much more room to lean into that kind of insightfulness about who we are and who we collectively can be. So again, I think the challenge is how we can reimagine the narrative as things begin to shift around us.