Secretary Norman Y. Mineta is a person of many firsts. He was the first Asian-American mayor of a major city, San Jose, California; the first Japanese American from the mainland to be elected to Congress; and the first Asian American to serve in a presidential cabinet. Mineta served as President Bill Clinton’s Secretary of Commerce and President George W. Bush’s Secretary of Transportation. SPICE is honored to be collaborating with Mineta and Bridge Media, Inc., on making Mineta’s legacy more broadly known at the secondary and collegiate levels through the Mineta Legacy Project (MLP). The MLP will include a documentary and educational curriculum that are being developed with Mineta’s full involvement.
The documentary, titled An American Story: Norman Mineta and His Legacy, “delves into Mineta’s life, public service career, and unabashed love for his country… this, in spite of the fact that in 1942 his country betrayed him,” note producers Dianne Fukami and Debra Nakatomi.
Presidents Clinton and Bush were recently interviewed for the documentary and educational curriculum. “[Mineta’s] family was in a Japanese internment camp in World War II, and it could have made him bitter, angry,” commented President Clinton, “but instead he used that…to deepen his own commitment; to make sure that people weren’t discriminated against or held back or held down. In that sense, he represents the very best of America.”
This quote will be one of many presented to students in the educational curriculum, which pivots around the essential question, “What does it mean to be an American?” When asked this question, President Bush referred not only to key values such as freedom of speech and freedom of religion, but also to a sense of decency in the public square and to the nation’s communities of compassion. “It means that we care about each other. One of the real strengths of America [are] what I would call the ‘armies of compassion’…people in their communities who set up programs to feed the hungry or find shelter for the homeless, without the government telling them what to do.” He also referred to the United States’ long history of immigration, and said that being an American means recognizing that “although, on the one hand, we ought to enforce our laws, [on the other hand] we ought to welcome immigrants in a legal fashion, because immigrants reinvigorate our soul.”
Beyond Mineta’s groundbreaking achievements, Mineta epitomizes the dreams and aspirations of youth. He is the son of immigrants and his family was forcibly removed from his home to spend years in an internment camp for Japanese Americans during World War II. And yet, he remains a patriot, has led with integrity to achieve a long and distinguished career as a public servant, and continues to champion the underserved and mentor students.
The educational curriculum is being developed by Rylan Sekiguchi of SPICE in consultation with Fukami and Nakatomi and is targeted to high school and college educators and students. The curriculum will be offered free on the MLP and SPICE websites and is being developed in coordination with the documentary. The standards-aligned lesson plans will highlight six key themes connected to the life of Secretary Mineta—immigration, civil liberties & equity, civic engagement, justice & reconciliation, leadership & decision-making, and U.S.–Japan relations—and ask students to examine them in both historical and current-day contexts. Mineta himself has underscored the enduring relevance of these themes in U.S. society, for example drawing parallels between the Japanese-American experience following the Pearl Harbor attack in 1941 and the Arab-American and Muslim-American experience following 9/11. As our country debates contentious topics such as deportations, immigration bans and restrictions, surveillance, and registries, the lessons learned from Mineta’s life can help us.