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Empowering Women at Home and Abroad

Atsuko Toko Fish explains her story of commitment to public service.

Atsuko Toko FishAtsuko Toko Fish is being honored as a Champion of Change for her efforts as an AAPI Women leader.

My commitment to social change did not occur overnight. It was a gradual learning process of being inspired by meeting and working with extraordinary people in Boston and beyond.

Working for former Massachusetts Governor Michael Dukakis gave me an opportunity to be a bridge between Massachusetts and Japan by creating and implementing long-term tourism and trade strategies. I also served for ten years on former Massachusetts Governor William Weld’s Asian American Commission, receiving his New American Appreciation Award.

At Management Sciences for Health (MSH) in Boston, I had the first-hand experience of an excellent nonprofit making a difference and impacting people’s lives in developing countries. This experience at MSH prepared me to quickly respond to the earthquake and tsunami disaster that occurred on March 11, 2011 in Japan. I knew exactly what to do, understanding that time is of the essence, and the importance of being on the ground to assess the needs. I called for immediate action and, with a team of Japan-experts and energetic young professionals, created The Japanese Disaster Relief Fund - Boston (JDRFB). As a vehicle for people in New England to directly support the affected area in Japan, JDRFB raised nearly $1 million by March 2013 and gave 24 grants to 19 organizations.

My passion has also been empowering women, particularly through two organizations: the Asian Task Force Against Domestic Violence (ATASK) and the Japanese Women’s Leadership Initiative (JWLI).  ATASK is a Boston-based organization providing shelter and support services to Asian survivors of domestic violence and their children. The board and I helped move the organization forward from a grass-roots group to a social enterprise that now transforms dreams of domestic violence victims into reality. In 2005, I founded JWLI to empower Japanese women to become leaders in the emerging nonprofit sector and agents for social change in Japan. In partnership with Simmons College, we developed the JWLI Fellows Program in Boston, a unique hands-on leadership training focusing on best practices of nonprofit management and strategies; and the JWLI Forum Program in Japan, a platform for the JWLI fellow graduates to share the knowledge and experience gained in Boston. By 2012, JWLI graduated 23 fellows, who established the JWLI Alumnae Association Japan and hosted four forum events, attended by approximately 500 people in total.

As a first generation American, I understand the challenges and complexities faced by immigrants. Therefore, I am involved in the Greater Boston Citizenship Initiative (GBCI). GBCI is a collaborative project that educates immigrants about the benefits of citizenship and helps eligible, legal permanent residents (LPRs) to overcome barriers to naturalization. GBCI hosts clinics providing eligibility screening, application assistance, legal referrals and all materials needed to apply for U.S. citizenship. This work is rewarding because I believe that if you have a vision and work hard, the United States is still the country where your dreams can come true. GBCI provides this important step, getting closer to realizing dreams.

It is indeed a privilege to receive this recognition and a pleasure to share this special moment with my family, friends and those from whom I have learned. Now more than ever, I strongly believe that the United States is a land of opportunities and a place where dreams come true.

Atsuko Toko Fish is a founder of the Japanese Women’s Leadership Initiative and Japanese Disaster Relief Fund-Boston