"It Started With A Dream" was the theme of the annual Martin Luther King Jr. luncheon on Monday at the Dunkirk Moose Lodge.
The luncheon, sponsored by the Martin Luther King Jr. Luncheon Committee, featured Nate Shinagawa as its keynote speaker. Shinagawa, an Asian-American, was the Democratic candidate for U.S. Congress.
Organizer Loretta Slaton Torain said Shinagawa was a strong choice for her when the group first began discussions about a luncheon speaker.
Nate Shinagawa was the keynote speaker at the annual Martin Luther King Jr. luncheon on Monday.
Photo by Shirley Pulawski
"But he's not an African American," she said, and explained she wasn't sure how others would feel about the suggestion.
She said once his name was mentioned, others in the committee said they were considering him as well.
"It's a choice Mr. King would approve of," she told the crowd. She noted the choice was a first for the group, which has always featured African American speakers.
Shinagawa previously worked for three years in hospital administration and has served on the Tompkins County Legislature for more than six years and currently serves as the county legislative vice-chair. He has led numerous committees in the county and has served for the past two years on the Tompkins County Industrial Development Agency and the Economic Development Corporation. He formerly served on the health care subgroup of Gov. Andrew Cuomo's Regional Economic Development Council and as vice-chair for the Air Service Board of the Ithaca Tompkins Regional Airport.
Shinagawa discussed his father's work in civil rights in California where he grew up. When his father taught American multicultural studies at Sonoma State University, one of the students was fatally shot by a police officer. The officer claimed he feared the student would use martial arts against him. Shinagawa said the man was "being belligerent" with police after drinking in a bar, but forensic evidence later showed the officer's bullet was shot from a distance too great for the man to pose any physical threat to the officer. Local officials, he said, tried to cover up the event, and many were outraged by the attempt to stereotype the Asian-American as a dangerous expert in martial arts, in which the man had no training.
"I remember going to (the slain student's) house, and his three children, all under 3 years old, were running around ... and his wife was crying. ... I couldn't understand how a government that is supposed to protect its people could do this to them," Shinagawa told the audience.
A recording of Dr. King's "I Have a Dream" speech, given to him by his father, was an inspiration to Shinagawa. "I used to walk around my neighborhood listening to it ... and I used to pretend I was Dr. King." He said he memorized the speech along with King's "I will not be silent" speech, which he said motivated him.
Shinagawa also spoke of "righteous indignation" and explained that when he was younger, he believed righteous indignation gave him a license to be angry.
"I thought I could be angry about injustices in the world," he explained. He quoted King, who said "Our lives begin to end the day we become silent about what matters," and Shinagawa said at the time, he believed this statement justified his anger. He cited corporate greed, raided pension funds and bankruptcy by people who could not afford to pay medical bills as injustices which angered him.
"Did it motivate me? Sure it did," he said. "Can anger be the only motivation, no matter how right I think I am? Can it be the only force for change?" he asked.
He said the words of a friend helped change his perspective.
"My friend said to me one day that anger is like grabbing a hot coal with the intent to throw it at someone else. I was only burning myself." He said he was involved in many committees until he was burned out.
King's words once again motivated Shinagawa, but with new direction.
"Dr. King came to my rescue again," he said. "Where do we go from here: chaos or community?" he asked rhetorically, citing the title of one of King's books. Again, he quoted King: "The ultimate weakness of violence is that it is a descending spiral, begetting the very thing it seeks to destroy. Instead of diminishing evil, it multiplies it. Through violence you may murder the liar, but you cannot murder the lie, nor establish the truth. Through violence you may murder the hater, but you do not murder hate ... adding deeper darkness to a night already devoid of stars. Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that."
Shinagawa said he equated violence with anger, and said he sought new motivation: compassion, love and hope. He said defining love was initially challenging for him.
"Compassion is central to nonviolence," he explained, and said compassion was more than empathy and "takes empathy a step further" with action to end the suffering of another person. "I began to understand what this idea of love meant," he said.
He said he believed compassion motivated the civil rights movement of King's time and continues to be a catalyst for social change today.
"People watched CBS News and saw people doing nothing more than standing up for their own dignity and being beaten down," he said, noting the compassion it inspired in those watching led to changes.
"Through working together, we succeed as a society," he said, and noted, "Freedom and interdependence are intertwined."
He spoke of sequoia trees in California, which live for hundreds of years and grow very large, but have shallow roots.
"They are able to stand tall because the roots go out and interconnect with each other," said Shinagawa.
"Hope is progress," Shinagawa said. He cited recent mass shootings and said, "We look at these tragedies, and there can be so much to despair," but he again quoted King, "Darkness cannot drive out darkness." He explained hope became a motivating force for change for him.