Reflections from Jill Nishi: History, Community and Public Service

In honor of AAPI Heritage Month, we invited Philanthropy Northwest CEO, Jill Nishi, to share some reflections. Jill is a fourth-generation Japanese-American and Seattleite who is committed to working toward greater racial and economic equity and a more just future for our northwest communities. Her life’s work in public service includes past leadership roles at the City of Seattle and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. Passionate about sharing the stories of the Asian American experience, Jill also serves as board co-president for the Wing Luke Museum. Here’s what she had to say. 

As a Japanese-American, during this AAPI Heritage month, what is an aspect of your heritage that you carry with you, that shapes your life and work? 

During World War II, both my father and mother’s family were incarcerated in an internment camp in Minidoka, Idaho. This was an egregious violation of their civil rights in addition to 120,000 other Japanese Americans without any due process under the guise of national security.

My great-grandparents and grandparents lost their livelihoods and their children’s lives were forever altered. My great uncle was set to enroll at the University of Washington in 1942 but denied his college education due to the incarceration – this changed the trajectory of his adult life.

Given this family history, I am keenly aware of the fragility of our civil liberties, and the responsibility and obligation each of us has to hold our government accountable when it acts from a place of fear and systematically denies the humanity of an entire group of people. This experience has informed my work as a public servant and in philanthropy, where I hope I have given voice to those who unjustifiably sit at the margins of power. 

What elements create a sense of belonging in your life?  What does “belonging” look like and feel like for you? 

I was very fortunate to spend my formative years in a very diverse neighborhood and public schools in the south-end of Seattle. My Asian-American identity was affirmed for me at a very early age, as I saw myself represented in my friends, neighbors, teachers, and people in my community. I also went to school with students who were different from me racially and ethnically, and socio-economically. We all seemed to be very accepting, genuinely curious about one another and appreciative of our individual differences and collective diversity. We saw our shared humanity – we were kids first. In hindsight, I think this early sense of acceptance and belonging grounded and gave me a strong sense of self.  It was not until much later in life that I found myself ‘othered’ and in increasingly segregated environments, which I now understand was not random but an outcome of inequitable systems that conferred benefits to some while denying others.

When you think about equity and safety for Asian American Native Hawaiian Pacific Islander people, what stands out as important? 

As a member of the Asian American Native Hawaiian Pacific Islander (AANHPI) community, it’s very important for others to know that we are not a monolith.  The AANHPI experience is so diverse – some of our communities have been in this country for multiple generations, while others are more recent immigrants and/or refugees; and some segments of our community have experienced colonization. 

We have the greatest income disparity of any community – the top 10% of income earners make nearly 9 times that of the bottom 10%. Many in our communities are struggling economically and yet we receive less than 0.2% of philanthropic giving. We are often viewed as perpetual foreigners despite our presence in the United States for more than 250 years and our significant economic, educational and social contributions to this country. This outsider narrative has often resulted in an unacceptable pattern of violence and discriminatory policies – the Chinese Exclusion Act, Japanese American internment, and inability to own property to name a few. More recently, the Asian American community has experienced an alarming increase in violence and anti-Asian hate, reporting more than 11,000 hate-related incidents since the spring of 2020 and the onset of the pandemic.

Finally, and importantly, everyone should know the historic allyship between the AANHPI community and other communities of color in this region – we have a rich and long history of coalition-building and people of color coming together in solidarity. The BIPOC ED Coalition is the latest example of this, for which we should all be proud.  

What nourishes you in community and in the ecosystem, you move in every day?

I feel very privileged to work in both the non-profit sector and in the field of philanthropy. At Philanthropy Northwest, rarely a week goes by where I do not find myself both inspired and humbled by courageous colleagues who are advancing equity and justice, and unrelenting in their commitment and quest for progress and change. We are all working in a complex ecosystem—one that has experienced massive shocks in recent years. The work requires continuous learning and curiosity—I am learning new behaviors and unlearning others. With this disruption comes the opportunity to define new paradigms and forge new ways of working together. To do this work at Philanthropy Northwest with our network of partners is both nourishing and exhilarating all at once.