Alumni Hall of Fame: Advocate for social justice Elaine Ikoma Ko
By Amanda Ma -
Elaine Ikoma Ko (BA, 1975) has had a long career of advocacy in social justice. She has worked for a variety of important organizations and today her great span of work has earned her place as one of the newest inductees into the Department of Communication Alumni Hall of Fame.
“I was very surprised and quite honored,” said Ko, when she learned she was chosen. “It’s just a very prestigious award. I just felt very humbled by it.” But, Ko isn’t one to brag, as she’s quite modest about the inspirational work she has done over the years. She says that everything she’s done up to this point is simply because she’s always had that passion to help.
It was her time as a student at the UW that made clear the path she would take in her career. “It wasn’t really until I got into college that my horizons got broadened, and I got exposed to what was going on in the community,” she said. “Activism on campus was ramped up to an extraordinary level with demonstrations, sit-ins and lectures. Every imaginable issue was going on on campus. It was quite an exciting time.” As a student, the issues surrounding that era helped Ko gain valuable experience as a freelancer, writing for the Asian Family Affair, an activist Pan-Asian community newspaper, and for the UW Daily.
Once she graduated, Ko immediately found herself working full-time in the International District of Seattle, doing organizing and advocacy work to improve low-income housing options for the elderly and getting social services in place.
Since then, she’s been known to work hard at jobs that have real impact in the community. “I feel very fortunate that I’ve always had work on making social changes, be it on the policy level or the organizing level.” She says that first job out of college really laid the groundwork for what she would be doing for the rest of her career.
Doing things for the first time, like making speeches and heading up press conferences with lights and cameras for live TV all pointed on her were unnerving, she said, but “very impactful, because you really remember those early times. From there on through the years, it’s all been a culmination of a bunch of great life experiences.”
In the past 30 years, Ko has been dedicated to her life’s work of social justice. At the Port of Seattle she worked as director of the Office of Social Responsibility. She served as executive director for The Inter*Im Community Development Association (ICDA), upholding the company’s mission to promote, advocate for, and revitalize the International District and other Asian Pacific communities in the Puget Sound region. Prior to working for ICDA, she was a regional manager and vice president for Primerica. She worked for City of Seattle’s Office for Women’s Rights from 1991-1994 as director and she coordinated the King County’s Women’s Program.
Ko sits on the Alumni Leadership Committee for Leadership Tomorrow and she is a founding group member of the Asia Pacific Islander Roundtable, a volunteer at Union Gospel Mission’s Women & Family Shelter, and active in her church. She was the founding director of the International District Housing Alliance and remained there until the early ’80s. She has a master’s in Business Administration from City University.
Ko continues to be active in her community as she recently started a nonprofit, the Hokubei Hochi Foundation, translated to English as the North American Post. The foundation’s mission is to promote and preserve the culture of the Nikkei and Japanese community through educational and cultural projects and activities in the Pacific Northwest. Her grandfather was her inspiration for the foundation, as he served as the editor of the North American Post after he was released from the Japanese internment camps during World War II.
“There’s a family connection for me to come back and support the newspaper in an indirect way,” Ko said. Currently, the foundation is working with the UW to digitize past issues of the North American Post, a Japanese newspaper that was founded in 1902. “When it’s all said and done, we’re going to have many of the issues digitized and key-word searchable.” Through the foundation, Ko is also working with a new student intern program and other educational and cultural events.
With everything she’s accomplished, Ko is sure to mention that she’s not done it alone. She credits great friends and her loving family for giving her the support she’s needed. She’s been married to her husband, John, for 32 years, and together they have two children, Kimi and Renato, who have inherited their mother’s passion for helping others. Kimi, 23, is caring for her grandfather in Hawaii, and Renato, 30, is working in New York City at a nonprofit helping at-risk youth.
“You don’t do anything alone and when times get tough you should really be seeking out support, and it’s just always been there for me,” Ko said. Because of that support, Ko’s determination to help others has always yielded the success that the Communication Alumni Hall of Fame honors today. “I’ve always done what I could and my best in my job, so I have felt successful in all of my work.”
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