American history yields numerous examples of inspirational teachers who have devoted their talents to important social causes, including advocating for better conditions for the poor and promoting racial equality. One such teacher is Akiko Kato Kurose, an elementary school teacher from Seattle, Washington, who was also an nationally-recognized social activist who worked tirelessly to increase access to education and affordable housing for low-income and minority families.
Akiko, who was always known by the name Aki, was born in Seattle, Washington, on February 11, 1925. She was the third of four children born to Japanese immigrants Harutoshi and Murako Kato. Aki’s father was a railroad station porter, and her mother was the manager of an apartment building. In the Kato home, traditional gender roles were reversed: Aki’s mother studied engineering, learned how to operate the building’s boiler room and furnace, and served as the building’s handyman, while her father enjoyed baking jelly rolls which were served to friends and neighbors at social gatherings he organized every Friday evening.
As a young girl, Aki was active in Girl Scouts, and was also active in her high school band and drama club. She also attended Japanese language school once a week. The Kato family’s typical American middle-class home life was dramatically altered when the Empire of Japan bombed Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941. Aki was a high school senior at the time. In February, 1942, when President Franklin Roosevelt issued Executive Order 9066, the Kato family was among the 112,000 Japanese Americans who were forcibly removed from their homes and relocated to internment camps throughout the United States. The Katos were sent first to Puyallup Assembly Center at the Washinton fairgrounds, and were eventually consigned to the internment camp set up in Minidoka, Idaho.
Aki completed the requirements for her high school diploma at Minidoka, where the plucky teenager became actively involved with the American Friends Service Committee, a Quaker organization, which donated books to camp schools and helped college-age internees obtain permission to enroll in universities outside of the camps. She was able to gain permission to enroll in the University of Utah in Salt Lake City, but shortly after her arrival there transferred to nearby LDS Business College. At the conclusion of WWII, the Aki pursued her college education at Friends University in Wichita, Kansas. In 1981, she earned a master’s degree in Early Childhood Education.
After her graduation from Friends University in 1948, Aki married Junelow Kurose, the brother of her best friend. Junelow had been recently discharged from the United States Army. After their marriage, Aki and Junelow settled in Chicago, where her husband’s parents had moved following their release from internment. Junelow was an accomplished electrician, but due to discrimination against Japanese American citizens, he was unable to find work in that field, even though he was a veteran who had been honorably discharged. Returning to Seattle in 1950, Junelow was eventually hired as a machinist at Boeing, while Aki found employment as a secretary for the railroad porter’s union. Influenced by the discrimination she and her husband faced in their search for a home, Aki became involved in the open housing movement in the 1950s, working first with the American Friends Service Committee (AFSC), and later, in the 1960s, joining the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE). Over the years, the couple enlarged their family to include six children, which Aki enrolled in Seattle Freedom School, an offshoot of the Mississippi Freedom Schools established as part of the Civil Rights Movement. When she participated in CORE civil rights marches and anti-war demonstrations, she took her children along. She was also active in the Women’s International League for Freace and Freedom and the activist branches of the YWCA.
Aki possessed a lifelong passion for education, so she began taking courses in early childhood education and development and devoted her talents to working in preschool programs. In 1965, she collaborated with a group of neighborhood parents to form Washington State’s first Head Start program.
Aki began her career as a professional educator by teaching for Seattle Public Schools through the Head Start program, eventually accepting a job at a local elementary school in 1974. Two years later, as part of the city’s move to desegregate its public schools, she was transferred from Martin Luther King Jr. Elementary, an urban, predominantly African-American school, to Laurelhurst Elementary School, an affluent, predominately white school located in suburban North Seattle. Because of strong anti-Japanese sentiment, Aki had to work hard to overcome opposition to her transfer there, but she eventually won over the parents. When the first students of color were bused to the campus, Aki worked hard to ease their integration and also advocated strongly for the adoption of a multi-cultural curriculum for the school.
In the classroom, Aki emphasized collaborative learning and encouraged her students to learn through hands-on experience instead of rote memorization, and she received numerous awards for her innovative teaching style. She taught principals of peaceful co-existence to even the youngest of students, her first graders, telling them, “If you’re not at peace with yourself, with your neighbor, with your community, you can’t really learn very much. We have to get rid of all this garbage, this angry, competitive feeling. Then we’ll all get along.”
Over time, Aki became one of the schools most beloved and respected teachers. In 1980 she was appointed by President Jimmy Carter to the National Advisory Council on the Education of Disadvantaged Children. In 1985 she was honored as Seattle Teacher of the Year, and in 1990 she was awsarded the Presidential Award for Excellence in Science and Mathematics. Because of her innovative work to integrate peace advocacy with education, she was awarded the United Nations Human Rights Award in 1992. The Seattle Times said of Aki that she had “touched thousands of children, drew parents into the district, inspired many into public service, set an example for many teachers; she personified the best of what happens inside a classroom.”
This talented and dedicated educator retired in 1997 after 25 years of service in Seattle public school. to honor her, students and parents from Laurelhurst school build and dedicated the Aki Kurose Peace Garden on the school campus. This Chalkboard Champion passed away the following year, on May 24, in Madrona, Washington, following a sixteen-year battle with cancer. She was 73 years old.