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Social Impact Heroes: How Lisa Sasaki of the Smithsonian Asian Pacific American Center is helping to bring the stories of Asian Pacific Americans to the public

The power of telling these stories comes from people feeling heard or seen for who they are, whether as an artist or as an audience member. In the words of Nesima Aberra, an Eritrean-American Muslim artist who shared her poetry and music with audiences during a program co-presented by the Smithsonian Asian Pacific American Center […]


The power of telling these stories comes from people feeling heard or seen for who they are, whether as an artist or as an audience member. In the words of Nesima Aberra, an Eritrean-American Muslim artist who shared her poetry and music with audiences during a program co-presented by the Smithsonian Asian Pacific American Center and the Kennedy Center, “I don’t do this often, but I felt very encouraged and inspired to put myself out there.” This particular performance, called “Now You See Us: From Periphery to Presence,” explored Central and South Asian diaspora narratives that are routinely marginalized within the broader cultural landscape of the United States. It was also the first time that a group of performing artists from four different religious traditions worked together, and I am told that “the stories, laughs, and tears shared were unforgettable.” By activating voices from different racial and religious backgrounds, the Center aspires to build trust and create collaborations that span our differences.


As part of my series about companies and organizations making an important social impact, I had the pleasure of interviewing Lisa Sasaki. Lisa is the Director of the Smithsonian Asian Pacific American Center, a museum without walls that brings Asian Pacific American history, art and culture to communities through innovative museum experiences online and throughout the U.S. She recently finished an 11-month term as acting director of the Smithsonian Anacostia Community Museum. Previously she was the Director of the Audience & Civic Engagement Center at the Oakland Museum of California and the Director of Program Development at the Japanese American National Museum in Los Angeles. Sasaki has served as President of the Western Museums Association’s Board of Directors, as a member of the American Alliance of Museums’ Diversity Equity Access and Inclusion working group, and as an advisor on the Advisory Council for the Council of Jewish American Museums. She is a frequent guest lecturer for museum studies graduate programs and has also lectured internationally for organizations like the International Council of Museums and the Museums and Galleries of Queensland in Australia.


Thank you so much for doing this with us Lisa! Can you tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path?

After 23 years in the museum field, it is still hard to believe that I never intended to be here. Starting in the fourth grade, I wanted to be an archaeologist, studying forgotten civilizations in exotic places. This particular idea lasted until my junior year of college when archaeology majors were required to participate in field school. Imagine my surprise when I discovered that, despite having the privilege of working on a dig in Greece, I absolutely hated excavation work. Utterly crushed, I returned to my senior year no longer knowing what I would do with myself. Luckily, I had a wonderful advisor who asked me if there was anything that I enjoyed about the experience, to which I responded, “Well, I really liked working with the objects we dug up.” She helped me get my first internship at the university art museum and the rest, as they say, is history.

What I have come to realize, however, is that original love of uncovering untold stories is what continues to drive me today. While traditionally museums have told singular narratives within their walls, I feel that any exhibition, program, or experience is made richer and more powerful when we add perspectives that deepen, challenge, and complicate our understanding of history, art, and culture.

Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began leading your company?

The most interesting things started to happen when we recently announced the Smithsonian Asian Pacific American Keystone Initiative. The Keystone Initiative aims to deepen America’s understanding and knowledge of the Asian Pacific American experience and recognize 200 years of struggle and contribution by Asian Pacific Americans in ways that will stretch across the entire Smithsonian Institution and the nation. Specifically the Initiative will:

  • Increase presence of Asian Pacific American stories, collections, and research across the Smithsonian.
  • Develop national collecting initiatives to preserve Asian Pacific American stories digitally and through the collection of objects, art, and archives.
  • Increase opportunities for Asian Pacific American students and museum professionals within the Smithsonian, helping to create the next generation of scholars, curators, and leaders.
  • Create a dedicated Asian Pacific American exhibition gallery in Washington, DC.

The interesting story, however, comes not from the Initiative itself, but how people have responded to the announcement. Since we announced the Keystone Initiative, I have had phone calls and emails from Asian Pacific Americans across the United States, offering their support for building the gallery and their assistance in fundraising. These offers are coming from a retired small business owner to the heads of major corporations to physicians and tech entrepreneurs. Each are excited by the opportunity for Asian Pacific Americans to have this long-desired representation in the nation’s capital, a recognition of their families’ stories and experiences.

Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?

It is always hard to remember early mistakes since most mistakes do not feel particularly funny at the time, but I can definitely relate a fun story that could have been a mistake in the making.

One of my earliest jobs was processing archival collections in college. During my first week on the job, I came across an unassuming envelope mixed in with research papers. Inside the envelope was over $1000 in cash. I was stunned and my first reaction was to immediately tuck it back inside the papers and ignore it. Then I thought perhaps it was an “honesty test” to see if I could be trusted with valuable collections (spoiler: it wasn’t). In the end, I ended up taking the envelope to my supervisor. It turned out that a professor had cashed his paycheck 20 years ago, slipped it into his briefcase amid his research papers, and never figured out where the paycheck went, despite the fact that the papers had been organized and processed several times before I was assigned to the task. Although the professor had passed away, his daughter was happy to get the money back and I received a small reward for turning it in. It was a valuable lesson for me at the time: There are times when you may be tempted to ignore something or take the easy way out, but doing the right thing is something you will seldom regret.

Can you describe how you or your organization is making a significant social impact?

As a “museum without walls,” the Smithsonian Asian Pacific American Center brings Asian Pacific American stories to the public through community-focused experiences and digital initiatives. A “museum without walls” refers both to the Center’s focus of moving beyond physical museum walls to provide programs and resources online and in communities outside of Washington, D.C., as well as to its desire to break down boundaries and impediments that traditionally keep communities of color from visiting museums.

Asian Pacific Americans (APAs) are the fastest growing group in the U.S. with a population of almost 20 million. Yet Asian Pacific Americans are often underrepresented or made invisible in mainstream America. This invisibility has led to the ongoing stereotype of APAs as a “model minority” or primarily of East Asian descent, when in fact APAs communities are incredibly diverse, speaking over 100 different languages, practicing all major religions, and coming from over 20 different countries spanning continents and oceans. There are over 1.5 million undocumented immigrants from Asia living in the U.S., and income inequality in the U.S. is greatest among those of Asian descent.

The Center’s vision is to enrich the American story with the voices of Asian Pacific Americans, specifically voices that would otherwise be silent. Through programs highlighting untold stories — like the digital project “A Day in the Queer Life of Asian Pacific America,” which looks at the Asian Pacific American LGTQ+ experience, to our pop-up program examining the refugee experience through literature — we aim to change how America understands Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders.

Can you tell me a story about a particular individual who was impacted by your cause?

The power of telling these stories comes from people feeling heard or seen for who they are, whether as an artist or as an audience member. In the words of Nesima Aberra, an Eritrean-American Muslim artist who shared her poetry and music with audiences during a program co-presented by the Smithsonian Asian Pacific American Center and the Kennedy Center, “I don’t do this often, but I felt very encouraged and inspired to put myself out there.” This particular performance, called “Now You See Us: From Periphery to Presence,” explored Central and South Asian diaspora narratives that are routinely marginalized within the broader cultural landscape of the United States. It was also the first time that a group of performing artists from four different religious traditions worked together, and I am told that “the stories, laughs, and tears shared were unforgettable.” By activating voices from different racial and religious backgrounds, the Center aspires to build trust and create collaborations that span our differences.

Are there three things the community/society/politicians can do help you address the root of the problem you are trying to solve?

To build a broader understanding of Asian Pacific Americans, or any community of color in the United States, it is important to

  1. Challenge and then discard old stereotypes.
  2. Embrace the diversity of America.
  3. Listen to just some of the millions of individual stories — the good, the hard, and the heart-breaking — that make up our collective communities.

How do you define “Leadership”? Can you explain what you mean or give an example?

I would define leadership as the ability to articulate and implement a vision of the future with enough clarity and/or excitement to get others to follow you toward that goal. This means that leadership can happen at any level and with any title, not just CEO or director. It also means that you have to listen to what people are saying to you — stakeholders, board members, staff, colleagues, etc. — as people seldom will follow if they do not see their place in an organization’s vision. A common misunderstanding about leadership is that once you are a “leader” you have unlimited decision-making power. I have found that leadership means you have more people to report to, not less, and that you have many more options to consider when making a decision.

What are your “5 things I wish someone told me when I first started” and why. Please share a story or example for each.

I was lucky enough to have great mentors along the way, and here are some of the gems that they shared with me when I first started — and they are the gems that I wish I had listened to more closely at the time:

  1. Love what you do. Or if you are not always able to love what you do, ask yourself what you could do that you would love. There will always be a time or part of your job that you will not particularly enjoy, but knowing why you do what you do helps to make those times easier.
  2. You are the best advocate for your own career. It is not the responsibility of your manager, leader, business or organization to know when or how your career should advance. This is especially true for positions and/or organizations that you are personally passionate about but may not be meeting your needs financially or through other advancement opportunities. You can make the decision to stay or leave…or to stay until you are asked to leave.
  3. There is no “they” in any organization, only “we.” Early in my career, I often railed against the “they,” the people in power who seemed to have control over decisions that affected my work. When I changed the subject to what “we” did together, I found agency within these decisions even if I could not always change the decisions themselves.
  4. Listen. Listening is actually much harder than you would think, especially when you are full of brilliant ideas; however, it is the first step to developing those ideas, getting buy-in, building consensus, and moving a team forward.
  5. Dream and know that you are the right person to build that dream.

You are a person of enormous influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂

It is my ongoing belief is that museums and other culturally based institutions serve a vital role in communities, large and small. While many see museums as passive repositories of art and artifacts, museums today can be important gathering spaces for communities to discuss urgent issues from climate change to racial inequity. Data from the National Awareness, Attitude & Usage Study of Visitor-Serving Organizations shows that the public trusts museums more than newspapers, government agencies, and other nonprofit organizations as credible sources of information and as trustworthy entities overall. The public also expects museums to recommend behaviors or actions in support of their missions and their communities. As a result, I see museums continuing to evolve into centers of civic engagement, helping their communities thrive. This movement is already underway, but I hope to inspire more museums to take on this role and more communities to demand this from their museums and cultural centers.

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?

“To thine own self be true.” Shakespeare said it best, and this is the “life lesson” that I most frequently repeat to myself and to others. So often our lives are shaped by what others expect from us. I have had friends — especially Asian American friends — throughout my life talk about how they ended up doctors or lawyers because “that’s what was expected.” Societal and familial expectations can have such an impact on the lives we live that it can be hard to even define “thine own self,” let alone how to be true to it. As an Asian American woman working in a field where there are less than 1% Asian American leaders of museums across the U.S., I am often examining my role and how I can continue to be true to myself and the work that I do.

Is there a person in the world, or in the US whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this, especially if we tag them. 🙂

My dream would be to have lunch with Ruth Bader Ginsburg. As a champion of women’s rights and gender equality, Justice Ginsburg continues to pave the path for future generations of women who are not afraid to make their opinions known and to dissent when needed.

How can our readers follow you on social media?

Follow the Smithsonian Asian Pacific American Center on Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter @smithsonianapa or me on Twitter @lisasasaki

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