By BRYAN THAO WORRA
AAP staff writer
In 1997, the world-famous Smithsonian Institution established the Asian Pacific American Program and appointed Dr. Franklin Odo to lead the new effort as the founding director. In January 2010, after 13 successful years of bringing the Asian American experience into the museum – Dr. Odo retired.
Dr. Odo will deliver the Keynote Address at the 2010 Asian Pacific American Heritage Month Dinner on Saturday, May 15, 2010, 6:00 p.m. at Crowne Plaza – Riverfront Hotel, 11 East Kellogg Boulevard, downtown St. Paul.
A Japanese American author, scholar, activist, and historian, Odo brought numerous exhibits to the Smithsonian highlighting the experiences of Chinese Americans, Native Hawaiians, Japanese Americans, Filipino Americans, Vietnamese Americans, Korean Americans, and Indian Americans. He is also the only Asian Pacific American curator at the National Museum of American History.
With a background and training in traditional Asian Studies, Odo became involved in the movement that created Asian American Studies and other ethnic studies in California in the late 1960s and early 1970s as a result of the anti-war and anti-racism activism in the United States.
Asian American Press caught up with him to discuss his work and future.
Asian American Press: If you had to explain your job to someone on the street, what would you say?
Franklin Odo: As Director of the Smithsonian APA Program, I need to convince the central administration and our 19 museums that APAs must be included in our nation’s story. At the same time, I had to convince our many diverse APA communities that we must be included in the national story.
AAP: How did you get started in your field?
Odo: Hmmm, I started in traditional Asian Studies as a grad student at Harvard in East Asian Regional Studies. Completed a Ph.D. in Japanese History [Tokugawa era feudalism] at Princeton but was caught up in the 1960s social movement for social justice and peace and ended up in Asian American Studies.
AAP: How many others work with you at the Smithsonian’s Asian Pacific American program
Odo: I retired from Smithsonian in Jan 2010. At the time, and for some years prior, the Smithsonian supported me and one other staff person with salaries and benefits. Everyone else was there because of fundraising I did with one parttime development person. Fortunately, we were able to raise about $500K to $1M each year and so had perhaps 8-10 people on board at any given point in time.
AAP: Where did you grow up, and who were some of the most influential teachers you remember?
Odo: I was born and reared in Honolulu, Hawaii and went through a mediocre high school there, graduating in 1957. But there were some caring teachers and one who was very demanding – an English teacher who was widely disliked by us students. But she did inspire me to think beyond my colleagues. AAP: What’s the best part of your job? FO: The best part of the job was making an impact both on the Smithsonian, encouraging or forcing major units to incorporate APA people, resources, programming, education, research, artifacts, and exhibits into their operations – at the same time encouraging our APA communities to feel that the Smithsonian should be responsive to their concerns.
AAP: What are some of your personal favorites among the many items on display at the Smithsonian?
Odo: Good question; one would be the lunch counter where African American youths sat in to desegregate America. But we need many more to illustrate the important roles APAs had impacting mainstream American history.
AAP: How do you hope our descendants will look back on this period? What do you think they will be most interested in?
Odo: Well, we do have a couple of grandchildren but…I hope they will reflect on our struggles to keep our heritages alive.
AAP: What’s the best thing anyone’s said to you about your work over the years?\
Odo: I guess that our work was important in encouraging them to pursue their own interests? Great questions. Much along the lines I’ve been thinking for decades so I’m very encouraged that your generation has smart folks following this trajectory!!
AAP: What are important skills you’d recommend for anyone interested in Asian Pacific American studies?
Odo: Skills? I think curiosity and open-mindedness would be one; ability to see the intrinsic value of wide diversity of experiences to our national and global perspectives would be another. Willingness to persevere.