Our Stories: Chris Yoshinaga-Itano
by Janet Meyer, October 20, 2020
You think you know someone, and then they surprise you. That’s what happened to me when I walked into an event at Boulder High School last year put on by Right Relationship Boulder. The gathering was a meeting of the Arapahoe people and the leaders and residents of Boulder County, to make progress on the long and fraught process of reconciliation. I had volunteered to take photos, and noticed Chris seated next to a man I didn’t recognize, communicating with him using American Sign Language. I love this photo I snapped at that moment because it shows so much about her – her Japanese heritage evident in her appearance, her caring nature evident in her noticing the indigenous man who needed assistance, her professional expertise evident in her fluency with sign language, and finally, her commitment to social justice evident by her presence at the event in the first place.
Chris’s story begins in the neighborhood where her family lived in east Los Angeles. Her grandfather operated a grocery store that counted Hollywood silent film stars Charlie Chaplin and Fatty Arbuckle among his customers. She was raised Catholic, an anomaly among Asians, because the Maryknoll missionaries ran a completely Japanese K-8 school with over 300 students, where her family had close ties.
These missionaries had accompanied the Japanese to the internment camps during WW2 and engendered a lot of loyalty in response. Both Chris and Wayne’s families were interred during the war, first at race tracks and eventually at an astonishing seven different camps. Chris’ family was one of the few who had something to return to after they were released because a friend had taken care of her grandfather’s property during their absence; most had lost everything.
She was born five years after the war ended, and grew up in a neighborhood that transitioned from Jewish to Mexican to Japanese. She didn’t know any white people until she attended an all-girl Catholic high school, located further out in an all-white wealthy suburb. It was there that she started to become aware of racial issues. “We were a curiosity, and we posed no threat because there were so few of us.” Her grandmother worked as a housecleaner in that area. Chris worked at the school on weekends as a receptionist to pay her tuition, and took piano lessons there, as well. She remembers being at school “all the time.” The Watts riots in 1965 were her first real introduction to racial tensions in the US. Her family watched on TV while parts of LA burned and people stood with guns and kept their family grocery store open. Once again, they had been helped by their strong community relationships.
Although Chris dreamed of going to college at UC Santa Cruz, her father forbade it, saying it was just a place for sex and drugs. Instead, he sent her to USC, a wealthy private school that Chris hated. She recalls that students were openly racist, and objected loudly to anyone, including her, they thought was there due to affirmative action.
While she started out as a math major, she was dissuaded by an advisor who told her that “women couldn’t pass calculus.” Instead, she studied music, German and psychology. She studied in Germany and Austria during her junior year, and encountered an overt racism in those places that was shocking. Signs proclaimed “No Blacks or Orientals Allowed” and the Nazi presence was still very strong.
Chris continued her studies at Northwestern outside of Chicago, where she earned a Master’s degree in education of the hearing impaired and her Ph.D. in audiology, hearing impairment, and communication disorders.
She married her first husband there, a Mexican American veteran and war objector who sadly struggled with alcoholism. She had her first daughter, Nicole, with him, and they moved to Denver where she taught at DU and they eventually divorced.
Newly single, she was sure that there were no Japanese men who would marry a divorcee with a Ph.D. and a mixed-race child, but agreed to go along to a committee meeting at the urging of a friend. Meanwhile, Wayne came to the meeting specifically to meet Japanese women. Although she remembers him being exceptionally shy, she liked that he was very bright, loved learning and education and had “aspirational values.” “We had so many things in common – the way we were raised by our parents, our life experiences. There were differences, of course, but the values and priorities were easy. By the time I met Wayne I had come to appreciate some of the things I had rejected as a teenager. And, for his part, nothing about me intimidated Wayne.”
They married in 1983 and Chris joined the faculty at CU. She taught speech pathologists and audiologists how to provide parent-centered early intervention assessment and treatment of deaf and hearing-impaired children from birth through three. She specialized in multiple disabilities and special populations, including non-English speaking, low income, racial and ethnic minorities. The universal newborn hearing screening program she worked on was passed in 1998 by the Colorado legislature and has now been adopted by all 50 states. It was ranked by the CDC as one of the top 10 public health initiatives in last ten years, and is now being promoted internationally.
Recently retired after 40 years, she still works part time on research grants and a lot of volunteer work. While she misses the students, she still enjoys mentoring, including some international students. She spent a couple months early in the pandemic working on a WHO report to recommend universal newborn hearing screening around the world.
Chris and Wayne are some of our longest-term members at the Fellowship. They attended UUCB in the 1980s, drawn mainly by the RE program for their two daughters, and Wayne’s desire to “counteract” the Catholicism of Chris’s youth. In 1987, the Fellowship (then meeting at CU) let him know that we had hired our first RE teacher, and they switched congregations. The Fellowship services were more consistent with the services of Wayne’s upbringing, the kids liked the RE program, and so they stayed.
Chris has served our Fellowship in a wide variety of ways in the 33 years she’s been with us. A dedicated member of the choir, past President of the Board, a passionate Steward, and longtime volunteer in RE, her main work now is on the Social Justice Council. She is currently helping to infuse an anti-racist perspective into the School of the Spirit and adult Faith Formation classes. The Front Range UU BIPoC speakers’ series going on this Fall is a result, in part, of her speaking up about these folks — folks like her — needing support.
Her focus right now is to help the community of our congregation become more proximate with people of color in the Lafayette community. She hopes that we will form true partnerships, not a project “to help out those poor people.” She believes that learning what their priorities are and following their lead in solving those problems will give our congregation the practical experience to become the welcoming community we aspire to be.
One of the things she’s learned already from the series of meetings with other UUs of color is that there isn’t a model out there of how to do congregational life “right.” To this she says, “the good news is we have as good as chance to help as anyone.” She thinks we can begin to develop a model that will help other UU congregations become more inclusive. She is excited about the opportunities that BVUUF has to partner with BIPoC groups who want to be in relationship with us – local Black churches, the Latino/a/x families of El Paso, and the work she was doing already with the Arapahoe People where I saw her on Indigenous People’s Day last year.
Chris lives in south Boulder with her husband Wayne, and her 98-year-old mother. It was a delight to get to know Chris better and I know we all feel we are lucky to have her as a friend and leader in our congregation.