By Vivian Nguyen
Northwest Asian Weekly
Born during a period of emerging diversity in education and politics, advocating social change is inherent to Ruthann Kurose.
She grew up in the Central District surrounded by a rich tapestry of cultures. She was born into a family that believed in social responsibility and community service. These were the two guiding principles that shaped Kurose’s views on activism from a young age.
Though she is known for her work with community organizations, Kurose’s standout achievements stem from her time on the Bellevue College Board of Trustees from 1996 to 2008, where she fought for minorities on campus. For her devotion to promoting diversity in the community, the Northwest Asian Weekly Foundation has named her a 2010 Top Contributor.
Keeping it in the family
Kurose credits much of her success to her late mother, Aki Kurose, who was an educator and a well-known activist who fought for the antiwar and peace movements and equal opportunities for kids in the achievement gap. Aki Kurose Middle School in Seattle is named in her honor.
“There is not a person in the community who doesn’t know the Kurose name and what it means to civil rights and social justice,” said Leslie Lum, faculty member at Bellevue College in the business transfer program.
Lum worked with Kurose at Bellevue College. Lum lauded Kurose for her work there, in pushing for cultural pluralism among students and garnering many diversity awards for the college under her leadership.
“[The Kurose] name signifies personal caring for the young, especially the socially and economically disadvantaged ones in our community,” said Lum.
While reflecting on her mother’s work, Kurose said, “Her activism certainly put me in touch with lots of different people … and though I met a lot of great models as I went on, I was lucky to have had [my mother] and other people ahead of me as great examples to follow.”
These role models instilled the importance of politics into Kurose, who graduated with a Bachelor of Science in Political Science from the University of Washington.
“I see politics as a pathway to social change,” she said. “And that’s an area I have pursued in a different way.”
Despite her political activism, Kurose has never had a desire to run for office. She does her part by investing support for candidates based on their issues and seeks to pass on her inspiration to inform others.
“She is always honest, even when the truth hurts. Therefore, she has earned a high level of trust within the community and public,” said Beth Takekawa, executive director of the Wing Luke Asian Museum.
Takekawa worked with Kurose when she was a member of the Wing Luke Museum Capital Campaign Committee. “She wields a tremendous power on behalf of all of us,” said Takekawa.
In the 1970s, Kurose worked for former Gov. Mike Lowry, who was a congressman at the time. She worked with tribal leaders on Indian treaties to protect tribal fishing rights. Lowry would be one of many politicians Kurose would actively support during her years of service.
Inspired by his work as a senator, Kurose started campaigning for then Senator Barack Obama in 2008. In particular, she found his multicultural background representative of her views on diversity for the future.
“I supported [President Barack Obama] because I believed his unique background and experiences enabled him to identify with the diverse circumstances of all people and that he could lessen the divisions among us,” she said.
Overcoming personal obstacles
Kurose has not only battled on behalf of social change — she has also combated cancer.
As a cancer survivor, Kurose cites her cancer as the biggest obstacle she’s overcome. After losing her mother and two brothers to the same disease, she’s learned to look at life from a different perspective.
“I realized how lucky I am,” she said about her fight against cancer. “I started to see through the lens of a child and understood how fleeting life can be. And it emphasized and confirmed what was important to me.”
Currently, Kurose is still active in public service and community work. She is a regulator with the Washington State Liquor Control Board, a position that Gov. Chris Gregoire assigned her to. She is also on the Seattle Art Museum Advisory Board and is helping out with the re-election campaign for Senator Patty Murray through letter writing and phone banking.
But she remains modest about her contributions and insists her accomplishments are born from the work of others.
“Ruthann always protested to us that she didn’t do enough,” said Takekawa on Kurose’s time at Wing Luke. “But at those critical times when we needed to mobilize the community voice, she was the master at building our advocacy.”
“I see myself as more of a lifetime advocate than a lifetime achiever,” said Kurose about her work.
“There are always people doing things [towards activism] … and this is what makes our community great,” she said. “Our community is so open to inclusiveness, so it’s not just about one person but about everyone.” ♦
Vivian Nguyen can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.