Connecting Action and Academia in California's Central Valley

Isao Fujimoto and Tim Marema on the power of ‘edgewalking’.

By Tim Marema

"Isao is a one-man network, a direct link to seminal events in U.S. history, and a person for whom building bridges comes as naturally as breathing air."

Isao Fujimoto, PhD, grew up on the Yakima Indian Reservation in eastern Washington. For the last ten years, Fujimoto has been the project facilitator for the Central Valley Partnership for Citizenship, a collaborative of community-based organizations working with emerging immigrant, migrant, and low-income communities.

Tim Marema, vice president for communications of the Center for Rural Strategies, grew up in rural east Kentucky. He is a former newspaper journalist who served as development director of Appalshop, and helped found the Center for Rural Strategies in 2001 to provide communications planning and support for rural advocacy organizations.

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Isao Fujimoto has spent his life crossing boundaries and borders. The retired University of California Davis professor grew up on a Yakima Indian reservation in the Pacific Northwest, where his family farmed. He spent World War II in the infamous Japanese American concentration camps in Wyoming and California. He graduated from Berkeley in the 1950s and served in Korea in the armed forces. And when he had his pick of schools for a graduate science-education program in 1960, he chose Howard University, where he was the only non-black in his program, because he thought he would learn more than just chemistry from the experience.

Isao is a one-man network, a direct link to seminal events in U.S. history, and a person for whom building bridges comes as naturally as breathing air.

His need to create connections is palpable, even over the phone when I interviewed him for this brief article. With 75 years of history and experience to discuss, he takes time to ask about my history. (It’s far less interesting, I assure you. But Isao doesn’t think so, or doesn’t let on if he does.)

It’s no accident that Isao wound up in an academic field that has allowed him to build bridges between the academy and communities, between immigrant and community groups and the labor movement, and among the diverse racial groups that call California home.

A rural sociologist by training, he joined the faculty at U.C. Davis’s College of Agriculture in 1967 and quickly found himself straining to overcome divisions within the university. “When I came to U.C., there were very few people asking questions about the social consequences of agriculture,” he said. Living wages, health effects of chemicals, the right to organize farm labor—all of these topics were out of bounds. “I started asking questions about this and, right away, I was hitting the wall. I found out these were not research questions, these were political questions.”

Isao was part of group of faculty who thought the study of agriculture should deal with people, not just crop hybrids and yields. So, he started building bridges. He participated in a large campus debate about the responsibility of the agriculture school to research social consequences of farming. Simultaneously, the field of ethnic studies started to blossom on the U.C. campus, and Isao helped start the Asian American studies program. The farm labor movement was in full force in California at the time, and Isao got involved in labor issues in the Central Valley, where his family had settled after being held in the Japanese-American internment camps during World War II.

This unique confluence of interests and events—agricultural science, rural sociology, ethnic studies, immigration, community organizing and labor organizing—led Isao and others into pioneering a new approach to academic studies—action research.

Action research is yet another bridge discipline for Isao, one that links the power of academic research with the needs and expertise of local communities. In this research method, academics work closely with groups to frame research questions that explore community issues. The research provides information that citizens can use to organize and create change.

One example. Researchers from the Central Valley Partnership helped Central Valley high school students expose the effect of racial tracking in the school system. Students knew that the system was pushing certain racial groups into work and educational paths without regard to individual needs or aspirations. But the administration didn’t see the problem until researchers helped students document and study the system of discrimination. Armed with studies of teacher and student attitudes, student performance, and other hard data, the students compiled a report that the school board couldn’t ignore.

Creating these links between worlds can make bridge builders distrusted in both worlds. “Doing this kind of applied research is looked down on” by many academics, Isao said. And hardscrabble communities living on the economic edge may not easily see the value of investing energy into research. But both sides in the relationship benefit when it works well. “We have to figure out ways to communicate and do the bridging,” Isao said. “And the way I’ve done this is to work with off-campus groups on research.”

Over the years he’s formed many relationships with social justice and community service organizations such as the American Friends Service Committee, Global Exchange, and Food First. Such groups have kept Isao abreast of the issues that are important to communities. In return, he’s kept them informed about relevant academic research and helped them create their own research projects.

He’s also been active with the Rural Development Leadership Network, which helps rural community organizers of minority background earn college degrees. The program, which Isao starting working with at its inception in 1985, has helped participants from Indian Country, the Spanish-speaking Southwest, and African American sections of the Southeast. He’s placed his students from U.C. Davis with these same organizations, building links around the country through practicums and internships. And his work with California’s labor movement has created bridges among the state’s diverse racial groups: Chinese, Japanese, East Indian, Filipino, Mexican, Central American, and others.


Isao was also there at the beginning of Central Valley Partnership (CVP), a social justice organization that has brought together community-based groups in the Central Valley to work together to improve their communities. “The Central Valley is the richest agricultural region in the world and yet has the greatest concentration of the poorest communities in California,” he said. The CVP combines the disciplines of community-based organizing, legal strategies, popular education, social services, media, youth empowerment, and applied research.

It also looks as though Isao has built a bridge to the next generation. His son Basho, who is Japanese-Welsh-Irish, was featured in Nina Krebs’ book Edgewalkers: Defusing Cultural Boundaries on the New Global Frontier (New Horizon Press, 1999).* The book explores the social contributions of people who belong to multiple ethnic, cultural, or spiritual groups. Basho Fujimoto says, “We call ourselves ‘fitties,’ 50 percent this, 50 percent that. Our interest is not in taking traditional elements from our old cultures and mixing them all together, making a nice, evenly distributed multiculturalism. It is more like taking the consciousness of all of our heritage … and working with that to create something new.”

*See also Edgewalkers: Heirs to many cultures, multihued youth are creating an identity of their own by Nina Boyd Krebs (Utne Reader, 1/1/99)

Original CAN/API publication: March 2008