A trio of island treasures

For work that furthers peace and compassion, Dr. Frank Y. Kitamoto and Kim and Ela Esterberg will receive the 2002 Island Treasure Awards.

Honoring a champion of minority history and agents of international friendship seemed particularly appropriate in light of Sept. 11’s tragic events, organizers said.

“The jurors had all been newly reminded of the dangers of hatred and prejudice, (and) reminded, too, of the potential for connection and friendship,” Island Treasure Award founder and chair Cynthia Sears said. “The selected honorees stand for the vision and inspiration and hope we need especially at this time.”

The awards, including $2,000 and a trophy, are given annually by the Bainbridge Island Arts and Humanities Council to several islanders for inspiring achievements in the arts or humanities.

In 2001, awards went to Bob McAllister and Norma Edens.

This year, Kitamoto was selected for work within the Japanese-American community and for preserving and presenting the history of the internment of Japanese Americans during World War II.

The Esterbergs were selected for their Bainbridge Ometepe Sister Islands Association, and their 15-year relationship with the Nicaraguan community.

Both Kitamoto and the Esterbergs are pragmatic humanitarians who believe that compassion can be harnessed to engineer a water system or to educate a child. Real change, they feel, happens hands-on.

“If you touch another person, then that person may help the next one,” Kitamoto said. “It’s not huge, it’s not encompassing – it happens at the local level.

“But someone has to take the risk to do that.”

Lives of change

Kitamoto, an islander who spent three years in Manzanar, a concentration camp for citizens of Japanese American descent, has not shied from risk-taking.

Raised among people of Japanese descent who were cowed into cautiousness, Kitamoto isn’t sure why he is more forthright.

“There was something within me that said I could do those things,” Kitamoto said. “I don’t really know why.”

In 1983, Kitamoto started an oral history project on the internment with Ron Nakata and John Sakai, despite some resistance from the Japanese American community.

“A lot of it was bringing back pain that they thought they had laid to rest, and opening old wounds,” Kitamoto said. “After all, this is a situation we have spent over 50 years trying to forget.”

In recent years, Kitamoto says, people have become more open, in part because they realize that soon there will be no first-hand witnesses left to convey that experience.

Kitamoto wanted to record the contributions of Japanese Americans to the island as well as the dark chapters.

“I never studied the role Japanese Americans played in clearing the land,” Kitamoto said. “I would admire the cherry trees at the high school – but I didn’t know they had been planted there by the Japanese-American community.”

He began to educate a whole generation of school children in the history of his people that he himself had not been taught – and brought to public attention the wartime history that had formed his parents’ generation.

He helped collect and curate community historic resources for the successful “Kodomo No Tame Ni, For the Sake of the Children,” a Washington Commission for the Humanities’ traveling photo exhibit of 100 years of Japanese history on the island.

He has headed the Bainbridge Island Japanese American Community for more than 25 years, and his dedication to civil rights led him to help found the schools’ Multicultural Advisory Committee, where he still serves.

He believes the community’s history is as much a record of individual accomplishment and courage as a chronicle of oppression.

“I’ve come to the realization that this is not a story to make people feel bad,” Kitamoto said, “It’s an American story – including the people who stood up for us and took risks for us.”

Co-winners Kim and Ela Esterberg grew up in different worlds.

Kim was raised in Washington State in a log house built by his father and Ela was an East Indian born in Mombasa, Africa to Indian-Christian parents. But the two joined forces in a real sense when they married as students at Washington State University.

Both were already dedicated political activists and the two soon formed an organization to build a high school in the Congo.

“It had a very long name and a very special mandate,” Kim Esterberg said. “It was ‘The WSU Memorial High School in the Congo.’”

By the time the Esterbergs moved to Bainbridge in the late 1970s, they had two children.

Kim appraised real estate and Ela struggled to balance motherhood and college, finishing her degree in eight years to become the first woman to graduate from UW with a master’s in air pollution engineering.

Kim and Ela made time for activism on Bainbridge, working against nuclear weapons and US intervention in Central America.

“I found, though, that I didn’t want to always be against something,” Kim said, “but for something.”

The cause the Esterbergs found was the Nicaraguan island of Ometepe, but few Bainbridge islanders shared Esterberg’s vision.

“People were lukewarm,” Kim Esterberg said. “My own sense was that this was how we were going to change the world.”

Esterberg’s belief in person-to-person contact had been formed on extended travels through Europe.

“I stayed with families in every country,” Esterberg said. “World War II was still a very fresh experience to them. My perception was that they were all good people who had been talked into fighting each other.”

The Esterbergs founded BOSIA in 1987 to foster the island-to-island connection. Recently, the islands celebrated a 15-year anniversary of their association, which continues to grow in depth and richness.

“I was hoping that the relationship we would develop would be on many levels, just like the relationships we have on this island,” Kim said.

“I wanted a school classroom to be touched by a school classroom on Ometepe. I wanted a family on Ometepe to take in a family from here. I wanted a restaurant here to commemorate with a meal that might be served down there something happening up here.

“There’s lots of different ways to know each other – that’s what gives life high value.”

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