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Groundbreaking Educator Amy Sueyoshi Looks to Buddhism at Work, Life

Amy Sueyoshi is a groundbreaking educator at San Francisco State University. She was the first person hired in Queer Studies in the College of Ethnic Studies, the first female dean of the same college and initiated an online undergraduate certificate in ethnic studies for incarcerated youth.


On July 1, 2022, Sueyoshi added to that list of distinctions, becoming the first person of color to serve as the Provost and Vice President of Academic Affairs, the university’s top academic official. She is responsible for setting academic goals and making sure there are the resources to achieve those goals.


“We’re fortunate to have someone with Dr. Sueyoshi’s depth of experience who also knows our campus so well at this important time in our history,” said San Francisco State University President Lynn Mahoney in announcing the appointment.


Serving in top academic positions as Sueyoshi has done for years has been rewarding, but is also stressful and all-consuming. She looks to Buddhism to help cope with daily challenges.


‘Feel Grateful’


“I am constantly thinking about Buddhism at work and in my personal life,” said Sueyoshi, a former Jr. YBA president of the San Mateo Buddhist Temple. “As cheesy as it may sound, it helps me get through all my daily difficulties. If I am feeling stressed out, I force myself to slow down, smell the air, and just appreciate all the beauty around me that I am able to enjoy.


“Each day, I actively feel grateful for the simple things — that I can ride my bike to work, that I have a stable job that has benefits, and even that I can put one foot in front of the other and continue to walk. I realize that there will come a time (when I) will not be able to bicycle or walk. This active gratitude brings me happiness, even though I know in Buddhism that technically you are not supposed to feel happy for your health or financial stability. I also feel like I am good at feeling anger and emotional pain in hopes that I’ll be able to let go of it, which I think is how meditation is supposed to work.”


Born to a father who was a kibei-Nisei from Okinawa by way of Hilo, Hawaii, and a mother who is Shin-Issei from Tokyo, Sueyoshi grew up in San Mateo. While their two brothers were part members of the historically Japanese American Boy Scout Troop 12 in San Francisco, Sueyoshi had little contact with Japanese Americans and no religious practice.


When she started high school, she approached their mother with an unusual request: She wanted to start going to a church.


“When I think back on it now, I can see it’s an odd thing to want as a kid,” she said. “I knew I didn’t want to go to a Christian church and I just happened upon the San Mateo Buddhist Temple in my research looking for a church. So, I started just going as an individual and joined the Jr. YBA.”


She noted this happened against the backdrop of a surge of anti-Japanese sentiment in the United States during the 1980s due to the success of the Japanese auto industry and growing influence in the electronics industry. In June 1982, Vincent Chin, a Chinese American, was beaten to death in the Detroit area by two unemployed auto workers who mistakenly thought he was Japanese.


Joining the San Mateo temple was also a turning point for Sueyoshi, establishing a connection not only with Shin Buddhism but also with the Japanese American community.


“When I look back on it now, I think I also wanted to be around more Nikkei folks,” she said.


Sueyoshi was a “regular kid in church.” She was a Girl Scout, helped in the kitchen during Obon and, as a senior in high school, became the Jr. YBA president.


After high school, she initially set out to become a doctor because she had three heart surgeries by the time she was in college, and she wanted to “give back to the medical community that had given me life.”


But despite a stated goal of pursuing a medical career, she encountered an obstacle she couldn’t overcome — “I was terrible at science” she said. Sueyoshi failed chemistry and barely got by in biology and physics, landing on academic probation during the first two years in college. She nearly dropped out of school.


Then, she happened to take a history class, a women’s history course, which ignited a love of the subject. Sueyoshi would earn a bachelor’s degree in history from Barnard College at Columbia University in New York, and a doctorate in history from the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA). She is currently completing an MBA at San Francisco State University.


Sueyoshi was the first Japanese American to be the Community Grand Marshal of San Francisco Pride and the founding curator of the first queer museum in the country.


Began Nikkei Jeans


During the pandemic, Sueyoshi started Nikkei Jeans, a sewing project to repurpose old blue jeans into items such as tote bags and pouches. She was inspired by a designer, Justin Messinger, who makes hoodies out of thrift store clothing.


Sueyoshi told the Nichi Bei Weekly that Nikkei Jeans is about environmental justice and community building.


“After learning how much clothing waste goes on in the fashion industry and how countries in Africa, Asia, and Latin America are impacted by our clothing choices, I was motivated to take up a leisure activity that would not have a negative impact on the environment or other people on a global scale,” Sueyoshi told the Wheel of Dharma.


Two leaders in the 1968 strike that resulted in the college of Ethnic Studies have helped with the project. Penny Nakatsu gave Sueyoshi an old sewing machine and Betty Matsuoka provided sewing lessons.


Nikkei Jeans’ first craft fair was the annual boutique in September 2022 that was organized by Midori Kai, made up of Japanese American professional women.


The project also connects with the lessons that Sueyoshi’s mother taught about respecting everyone and everyone, not wasting resources such as water, and being compassionate toward others. Her own life lessons, she said, are rooted in Buddhism and reinforced by services in San Mateo, Jr. YBA conferences and discussions with fellow Shin Buddhists.


Ministers’ Impact


Sueyoshi recalled that during a summer program at IBS, Rev. Tetsuo Unno “had all of us teenagers crying our eyes out, repenting for the ways we treated our parents with disrespect. Yes, at the time, I was deeply embarrassed about my parents because of the way they dressed because they didn’t speak English well and because they were socially awkward. Reverend Unno had this way of capturing our disdain of our parents and flipping into ‘see this is how much your parents love you.’ It was an eye-opening moment, and I went home with a deeper appreciation of my folks and their struggle.”


Another minister who made a lasting impression when she was growing up was Rev. Carol Himaka, who recently retired.


“I thought she was cool, being a woman in a man’s world, and she had this super chill energy,” Sueyoshi said.


While being a Buddhist has helped deal with difficulties that she has encountered, she wishes there were more Buddhist texts for feminists and people who are actively fighting for equity.


“I want the Buddhist book for survivors,” she said. “How do we continue to work toward justice even as we feel angry or exhausted.”


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