Leading by Example
Japanese Canadian Young Leaders Conference
“How do we get young people interested and involved?” Anyone with a more-than-superficial involvement in the Japanese Canadian community has heard this refrain many times over the years. Given the median age of most of those in senior positions in the various post-war organizations it’s not an unreasonable question and one that many have tried to tackle over the years, with mixed results.
For the past three years, a group of youth associated with the National Association of Japanese Canadians (NAJC) have been working to address the dearth of young people in leadership positions. A youth meeting and digital storytelling workshop at the 2012 NAJC Annual General Meeting in Kamloops, BC gave rise the following year to the first Japanese Canadian Young Leaders Conference which took place September 20-22, 2013 in Toronto, Ontario.
This September, a second conference for Japanese Canadian youth will take place in Vancouver. Once again running concurrently with NAJC AGM, the Japanese Canadian Young Leaders Conference will take place from Friday, September 19 to Sunday, September 21. In the words of conference coordinator Lisa Schoenhofer, “The conference will educate, inspire, and connect youth with powerful ideas that can help motivate you and your community. Great speakers, interactive discussions, networking, and facilitated workshops will ensure you make new connections and energize your inner leader!”
Interview: Lisa Schoenhofer
Lisa Schoenhofer was born in Tokyo, Japan, but immigrated to Canada as a toddler. A child of a mixed marriage, or “hapa,” Schoenhofer says she feels very Canadian, yet maintains a close connection to Japan, and professes an admiration for its values.
Raised in Ottawa, she earned a Bachelor of Commerce degree with a specialization in Marketing from the University of Ottawa, Telfer School of Management. While at university, she did a six-month exchange in Rouen, France, a valuable experience that inspired Schoenhofer and two friends to create a bursary at the University of Ottawa to ensure that others embarking on exchanges would have a similarly great experience.
A self-professed city girl, Schoenhofer lives in downtown Ottawa, “where all the action is.” Since 2005 she has been involved with the Ottawa Japanese Canadian Association in various capacities, serving as a board member, youth coordinator, and vice president.
She spoke to The Bulletin by email.
Your mum, Yumi Schoenhofer, has been active in the Ottawa JC community for many years. Was it a given that you would become involved in the community yourself?
My mom is still very active in the Ottawa JC Community, and has also served nationally on the executive board of the NAJC. She is often the bridge that connects imin (newer immigrants) and Japanese-speaking JCs to non-Japanese-speaking JCs and community members. When I came to Canada at the age of 2 ½, I was immediately immersed in JC community activities and events thanks to my mom. I am even a founder of the OJCA because my mom donated money on my behalf to open the cultural centre. My mom has always pushed me to grasp opportunities — I am glad I formally got involved as a board member of the OJCA in 2005, because it has given me a lot of skills and opened a lot of doors for me. I have had the privilege to be sent to conferences and meetings across Canada, which motivates me to continue to stay active in my community (great ROI!).
You were in Kamloops two years ago at the NAJC AGM helping facilitate a youth meeting and digital storytelling workshop – how did you get involved in that?
I got involved with the Kamloops meeting because I had been recruited to be on the board of the NAJC. In 2005, I attended a COPANI (La Convención Panamericana Nikkei) conference in Vancouver where I met young Nikkei from North, Central, and South America. I had a blast at this conference, and the feeling of excitement from it has stuck with me for many years. So when I took on the Youth role on the NAJC, I wanted to build a conference that had this same spirit. I was put in touch with another young lady, Lindsay Tsuji, and we organized that first meeting in Kamloops.
I sat in on one of your sessions and it was interesting watching the group tackle the various issues and questions of identity. What did you take away from the experience?
We were surprised at the age range of participants, and were wary of whether we would all be able to understand each other at such different stages of our lives. But as the conference progressed, we realized how connected we are, and that although we have differences, as young people we are very open and tolerant of different experiences. I think this way of thinking should be adopted by JC Communities across Canada, because the JC community is so diverse that our identity can no longer be put in a box. We have JCs whose relatives date back 100 years, JCs who speak Japanese, JCs who don’t speak Japanese, General Canadians interested in Japanese Culture, spouses of JCs, yonsei with ¼ Japanese blood, immigrants who have come with their families, active elderly JCs, temporary students from Japan . . . and the list goes on!
Canadian youth are career-focused, flexible, open-minded, technologically savvy, social, sensitive to perceived age discrimination, and look to volunteering as a bridge for their skill development and networking. Understanding youth and the barriers they face may help JC communities overcome their own barriers. At the Toronto Conference, one barrier that was very obvious was the lack of time. With full time jobs, community, social, educational, and personal commitments on top of ongoing career building, we were often scrambling to get things into place. We have different motivators in life, so there is no one magic formula for youth engagement; however, through the Young Leaders Conference and the connections we make, we hope to equip youth and communities across Canada with a variety of tools needed to guide young Canadians to become leaders in their own communities. Because “leaders are made, not born.”
The first Japanese Canadian Young Leaders Conference was held last September in Toronto. Do you feel that there is momentum building to get youth more involved in the community?
Yes, I definitely think there is a momentum building for JC Youth across Canada. We are just realizing that hey, there are many JC young people across Canada, and they are facing the same issues as me! This year I am getting a lot of help from youth in Vancouver, and we are all very positive and excited for what’s to come. We are hoping to get many participants this year and have some great discussions.
Do you sense that there is a pool of future leaders being created across the country?
I think that after this conference there will be a pool of future leaders. Leadership takes some time to build, and sometimes we do not have all the time in the world to commit to lengthy projects. We hope that if youth are thinking about getting more involved, DO IT and stick with it, because you never know where that will lead. We are hoping to create a community of young leaders across Canada to provide the support to make projects and activities happen.
Young people are so busy these days, at least it feels like that compared to when I was younger. How do you convince them to set aside part of their precious time to volunteer their time for this amorphous thing called “community”?
It’s great that you bring this up because I have been swamped with work lately! Young people have had to fight very hard to get jobs, work while paying for school, taking care of family members, etc. For me personally, it is a learning process to know what is really important enough in my life to dedicate time to. I’m grateful to have people on the Young Leaders Conference planning committee that check in with me and support me. The NAJC executive board has been a great help as well. I think if you reach out to people, people are generally willing to help you.
In terms of motivation, everyone is motivated differently, and this is very apparent at different stages of life. At the Young Leaders Conference this year we will have a workshop focusing on different topics (where the youth can pick the topic that interests them). I think you need to have different types of programming to appeal to different types of youth. I have heard in the past that a young person wanted to participate more in her community events, but didn’t because all they did was odori dancing, plays, and bake sales (which isn’t the most exciting thing for a young person!). I think youth are trying to move forward and make an impact in some way, all while having a good time.
What are the rewards of being involved in the JC community, from your perspective? Is there a payoff?
There is definitely a payoff! For me personally, when I started out with the OJCA when I was 17/18, I was looking for volunteer experience that I could put on a resume. It looked quite impressive that I was on a board of directors (certainly looked better than my retail job!). Connections I made through being on the OJCA board also landed me my current position as a Marketing Coordinator at a medical manufacturing company. Being involved in your community connects you to people of all ages and interesting backgrounds. You never know when you’ll need a job reference or a great recipe for okonomiyaki.
Also, I think it’s good to push yourself to do something other than work and play. Emotionally, it’s rewarding to know that you are making a positive change in your community (and it’s not something you are contractually obligated to do). Volunteering can also help you make new friends, increase your social skills, and I also hear that volunteering can help suppress diseases and keep you healthy!
Community organizations continue to struggle with how to get youth involved. Based on your own experiences, what would your advice to them be?
Put aside a budget for youth activities, and let young people know this! Often youth need a bit of direction and guidance, so do not expect a young person to take a budget and run an event or project by themselves.
Often with tight budgets in our local communities, we have to come up with creative ways to do programming and fundraise, which is where I think youth can really shine.
And lastly, make it fun!
For more information about the conference and to register, please visit www.youngleaders.najc.ca or email firstname.lastname@example.org. We highly encourage you to contact your local community for sponsorship. Also, subsidies are available through the NAJC (first come, first served).