~Seiji Sugawara, remembered…By Sylvia Corona, rural development specialist, and Victoire S. Chochezi, Pacific Mountain Network New editor - December 2003
Northern California recently lost one of its great community organizers.
On August 15, 2003, just one week before his 70th birthday, Seiji Sugawara died from a heart attack, while tending trees on his expansive property with his wife Dorothy.
Seiji was involved with many nonprofit organizations in the Ukiah Valley area, and he lived by the motto, “Give more than you take.” He actively participated in many aspects of the community, including issues involving water, housing, youth and seniors, Latinos, Asians, farm workers, education, county affairs, democratic party activities, and health.
When he died, Sugawara was Rural Community Housing Development Corporation’s (RCHDC) board president. RCHDC is a Self-Help housing grantee, which has provided Self-Help housing since 1983. Sugawara became a board member at the agency’s inception, and provided RCHDC with two decades of service. Sugawara was not an ordinary board member; he was a hands-on member.
In addition to his board member duties, he performed an enormous amount of work for RCHDC. He was a real estate expert, and he was directly involved in all RCHDC real estate transactions, from reviewing purchase options to approving all purchase transactions.
He was a visionary. He anticipated RCHDC’s role in meeting future community needs. For example, five years ago, he directed RCHDC home ownership development services to include assistance to community members with very-low, low, and moderate income levels. He worked to preserve affordable housing, and was directly involved in the finance aspects, assisted in the negotiations, and introduced tax credits.
At the opening of Self-Help housing projects, Sugawara would be there working, or barbequing hot dogs for the residents. Sugawara was a natural teacher. He taught business and real estate at Mendocino Community College, and shared his teaching skills with RCHDC board and staff members…
In addition to his many contributions to RCHDC, Sugawara also assisted Near and Arnold’s School of Performing Arts and Cultural Education (SPACE). He joined the SPACE board in 2000 and became president that same year. Sugawara helped SPACE find a downtown building for its office and studio needs. He negotiated the lease, worked with the architect to develop plans, hired a lead carpenter, organized volunteer crews, researched and ordered materials…. He even provided ongoing maintenance for the studio, repairing plumbing, roof leaks, and lighting…
In addition to his work with RCHDC and SPACE, he was a member of the board of directors for Nuestra Casa. Nuestra Casa is a nonprofit organization that helps the Latino community to transition into the mainstream community through education programs, counseling services, support groups and classes, an empowerment program, an immigration program, and tutoring.
In his spare time, Sugawara assisted Concilio Latinoamericano, a nonprofit organization that raises funds to provide scholarships to youth at the high school or college level. “When we needed help, Seiji was there! He helped us not only by donating money, but with physical work. For about 20 years he raised funds for scholarships for kids to go to college. He worked at the fairgrounds at the Mexican booth, provided direction, and was concerned with the education and future of our youth,” said Terry Collin, treasurer of the board for Nuestra Casa, and a former member of the board of the Concilio Latiinoamericano.
Sugawara’s penchant for community activism was tireless. He was a professor emeritus at Mendocino College. He actively assisted the Millview Water District, the Ukiah Unified School District, the Inland Mendocino County Land Trust, and other organizations. He served as a Mendocino County Supervisor.
He indeed lived as a shining example of his motto, “Give more than you take.”