Meet Karen K. Narasaki ’80, former U.S. Commissioner on Civil Rights and an expert on media diversity, immigration, voting rights, civil rights, and race relations.

In this Asian American and Pacific Islander Month Alumni Identity Spotlight, Narasaki shares how her family's history inspired her and looks ahead at how the alumni community can continue to transform the world together

This feature is part of a series focused on amplifying the voices of alumni who are making an impact today and illuminating how the identities we bring to Yale transform both our community and the world. 

What is your most enduring memory of your time at Yale?

I loved my time at Yale and appreciated the diversity of my freshman suite in Lawrence. I shared a room with a Jewish American dancer from Pittsburgh. The other double was a devout Christian Puerto Rican from New York who thought chocolate milk came from chocolate cows and a Catholic socialist from Malaysia. One single had a Caucasian woman from Cleveland who attended a private country day school that had cows. The other single had a blonde swimmer. Yale provided a world class education but what I value most is what I learned outside of the classroom from the incredible diversity of students. I was active in the Asian American Student Association and with the Third World Alliance. I learned how to be a leader and how to work in coalitions during a time when apartheid in South Africa was a huge issue on campus and when Asian American students were fighting for classes on Asian American Studies and a cultural center. We invited the President of Yale to a meeting in the small office we had and everyone (about 3 dozen of us) put our shoes outside in the hallway to make a vivid point. We got some seminars, but it would take many years to get a cultural center.

How has your identity shaped your Yale experience?

Karen K. Narasaki commission hearingI remember being told that Yale's original mission was to graduate 1,000 male leaders and I took that to heart. Because of affirmative action, I had the opportunity to gain knowledge and skills and build networks with other young leaders to serve my community. I had asked my father how the United States could violate its own Constitution and imprison citizens without any due process simply based on their ethnicity and he told me it was because too few people stood up to defend the Constitution and our community. That led me into wanting to understand how people could ever do something like that to other people, to understand politics, history and the fight for fairness and equality. During my time at Yale, while I continued to be friends and learn also from my freshman suitemates, I explored my identity and felt a responsibility to use the privileges I'd been given to help organize the East Coast Asian Student Union and hold an East Coast Asian American student conference at Yale. As a student on financial aid working in the Dining Hall, my experience was very different from the many students who graduated from private schools and came from families with more money than I could imagine and who had the privilege of not having to experience racism or sexism. In some ways, I think I had the richer experience.

What is your hope for the future of the Yale alumni community?

I am appreciative that Yale is finally having its own racial reckoning. I'm glad the Yale President reversed his original refusal to change the name of Calhoun and that the school is more seriously working to improve the diversity of its faculty and use some of its endowment to help moderate and low-income students, so they don't have to face a mountain of debt. It took me a decade to pay off my loans so that I could afford to work full time on civil rights at a nonprofit which required me to take a 50% cut in salary from being in a large corporate law firm.

I feel it is promising that the Yale Alumni Association is working to understand why alumni of color are less likely to come back to reunions or be active in the alumni clubs and to engage us. There is a wealth of untapped knowledge in its alumni of color.

What advice would you give to fellow or future Yalies? 

Take every opportunity to learn from each other and to keep learning, even from those with whom you don't agree or think you share nothing in common. Being challenged in what you think you know and what you believe, will help you grow and make you a better citizen. You've have been given an extraordinary learning opportunity and network, and you owe it to yourself, your fellow students and students to come, to give something back to the school and to your country.

Karen K. Narasaki is Japanese American and was born in Seattle. At the time her family moved to the suburbs there were racial covenants in the more well-off communities barring sales of homes to "orientals" like her family resulting in a fairly racially segregated school system. Here, she attended a blue collar high school. Both her parents and their families had been sent into concentration camps during WWII even though they were citizens. When they returned to the West Coast, they continued to face discrimination. Her mother also faced gender discrimination at the public utility she worked for.

Karen was waitlisted at Yale and was able to be admitted because of Yale's affirmative action program. Other students of color who came before her at Yale had established recruitment programs targeting students of color and had established a prep program for freshman students of color to be acclimated to Yale's campus. She graduated Magna Cum Laude from Yale College with an economics and political science major and attended UCLA Law School where she graduated Order of the Coif. She was recruited by the Japanese American Citizens League to become their civil rights lobbyist and from there became the Executive Director of what is now known as Asian Americans Advancing Justice/AAJC. After serving in that position for over two decades, she was appointed to the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights by President Obama. She is an expert on media diversity, immigration and immigrant rights, voting rights, hate crimes and race relations. Currently, she advises national and regional funder collaboratives on strategies for addressing the persistent undercount by the Census Bureau of households of color, immigrants, low-income households, and young children and also strategies to organize communities to advocate for fair maps in the redistricting process, particularly in the South.