Top Contributor: Joan Yoshitomi — Career working in politics highlighted by work in education

Joan Yoshitomi

By Jason Cruz
Northwest Asian Weekly

“I probably should have become a teacher,” Joan Yoshitomi said half-joking.

Yoshitomi is retired, but not really.

Although she officially retired in 2006, the 72-year-old still lends her skills to political campaigns.  This election cycle, she worked as a consultant with the Jay Inslee campaign, advising on how to reach out to the Asian community.  She also worked with judges on the basics of running a campaign for election.

Yoshitomi’s career in politics began working on Jim McDermott’s campaign and continued through her involvement with the Inslee campaign.

“Joan has been a great political campaigner for every Asian/minority candidate since the late 70s,” said close friend Vera Ing.  She added that Yoshitomi is “[a] dependable follow through and go to person.”

But the former Chief of Staff and Community Outreach for then King County Executive Gary Locke admits her passion for K–12 education highlights her career.

Yoshitomi was born in Burlington, Wash. in Skagit County during World War II.  Being Japanese American, her family was sent to the Tule Lake internment camp in Northern California when she was 4.  Although she has no recollections of living in the internment camp, photos document her stay.

During their internment, her father joined the 442nd Infantry Regiment, an Army unit comprised mainly of Japanese Americans, and the family moved to Mississippi.

After the war, Yoshitomi’s family moved back to the northwest where she attended Renton High School.  After graduating, she moved onto college at the University of Washington.  She attended her first two years but left as she married and had children.  It was not until her 30s that she returned to the University of Washington to obtain a degree in Sociology.

“I did a lot of work in the K–12 system and went to work for the Renton School District,” Yoshitomi said.  She then moved on as a Policy Analyst for State Senator McDermott’s staff.  Yoshitomi had volunteered with the McDermott campaign when he ran for the position.  Working for McDermott, Yoshitomi learned the ropes of the governmental process.

“What I realized when you are working there [Olympia] is that what you read in the newspaper is not entirely true,” said Yoshitomi of the policymaking that occurred at the capitol.  “Before there were statistics, there were newspapers,” added Yoshitomi of how the press influenced public opinion at the time.

After working for McDermott, Yoshitomi was hired on by the City of Seattle where she worked as the Deputy City Comptroller.

Yoshitomi’s reputation gave her the opportunity to work on Gary Locke’s King County Executive campaign.  When Locke was successful in his run for office, she was made a part of the Locke transition team.  “[The transition team] was a fascinating process for me,” explained Yoshitomi. “We had to find good people to hire or keep.”  Yoshitomi’s role included making sure that then King County Executive Locke was able to speak with all the individuals the staff considered hiring or retaining.  She was also tasked with the duty of maintaining King County Executive Locke’s schedule.

After the transition was complete, she was invited to stay on as Chief of Staff and Community Outreach.  Yoshitomi managed the work of the numerous deputies under King County Executive Locke.  She worked with the staff in ensuring that issues within the communities of King County were addressed.

While working with King County Executive Locke, Yoshitomi assisted with his successful campaign to run for Governor of the state as well as his reelection.

“Joan is an intelligent women devoted to serving the Asian American community through her work in education,” said longtime friend Judy Vu.  Vu and Yoshitomi worked on the Locke reelection campaign.

After three years with the Office of the King County Executive, Yoshitomi moved on to follow her passion of education in the K–12 system.  She was hired by Dr. Terry Bergeson with the Washington State Superintendent of Public Instruction in Olympia.  She first worked in a governmental relations position but then moved on within the agency to manage a $12 million federally funded program.  The 21st Century Community Learning Centers Program finances afterschool and extended education programs all over the state.

Yoshitomi found this position one of the most rewarding in her career as she had the opportunity to travel statewide and meet educators, teachers, and students.  She reviewed programs to determine funding and made sure that once the programs were in place, they lived up to expectations.  While traveling through the state Yoshitomi found “very innovative programs in science, math, and art,” which helped children learn.

One of the challenges of the program was getting educators to understand that for kids to become engaged, the afterschool programs could not be the same as ones offered during school.  While she had to persuade some, she also found one of the rewarding parts of the program was meeting regularly with educators to discuss what worked and didn’t work.

“We worked with teachers and found them very innovative with the willingness to try new things and I love working with kids,” Yoshitomi said. “It was the most fun for me.”

Although she left her post in 2006, Yoshitomi continued to consult with the program and remains active in advocating for K–12 education.

While Yoshitomi is retired, she quickly became involved in volunteering.

“I found I got bored when I was retired,” Yoshitomi admitted.  Currently, Yoshitomi serves on the board for the Center for Asian Pacific American Women.

Yoshitomi notes Delores Sibonga as one of the people that has influenced her career.  Similar to her career path, Sibonga went back to law school to become an attorney after time away from school.  Yoshitomi wrote a letter to Sibonga detailing her admiration, which, to Yoshitomi’s surprise, was answered by Sibonga.  Yoshitomi was a supporter of Sibonga as she ran for Seattle City Council and attributes Sibonga for helping her get a job with the Seattle City Deputy Comptroller.

Yoshitomi offers some advice to those seeking guidance in their career.  “Think of what you want to do and create an “elevator speech” – a short statement on what you want to do,” she said.  “Find your passion and commitment to it.”

She continued, “Even at age 40, I had 25 years to have a career. You don’t have to start early.” (end)

Jason Cruz can be reached at

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