“I am someone who has pretty much dedicated her life and career to helping others and to providing for common basic human needs… I’ve tried to focus on systems approaches to improving people’s lives and lifting them out of poverty.”
Mariko Yamada’s lifelong record of public service and concern for the dispossessed springs from many places, not the least of them being her own history as the daughter of Japanese-Americans forcibly removed to the Manzanar Internment Camp in California’s Owens Valley in 1942. After the war, the family settled in Denver, where Mariko was born in 1950 and later attended inner-city public schools. Among her earliest memories are accompanying her father as he tended the gardens and grounds of wealthy Denver residents.
This early understanding of class differences and the economic challenges facing the marginalized led Mariko almost inexorably to a public service career. That career was highlighted by three terms in the California State Assembly, where she represented all or parts of Colusa, Lake, Napa, Solano, Sonoma, and Yolo counties. Termed out in 2014, she most recently mounted a vigorous and well-contested campaign for California State Senate District 3, which ultimately fell short in the November, 2016 election against a fellow Democrat.
“I am someone who has pretty much dedicated her life and career to helping others and to providing for common basic human needs, focusing on prevention, education, protecting and preserving the environment, and addressing social justice issues,” she says. “I’ve tried to focus on systems approaches to improving people’s lives and lifting them out of poverty.”
Indeed, her academic training (B.A. in psychology from University of Colorado, M.S.W. from University of Southern California) has always informed her career work, whether as an elected official or in earlier positions. Her service has included five years each with the U.S. Census Bureau, the Civil Rights Division of the U.S. Department of Commerce, and as affirmative action officer with the San Diego County Department of Social Services.
In 1994, she and her husband, social worker Janlee Wong, relocated from San Diego to Davis, California, where they raised two daughters, both now college graduates and embarked on their own careers.
In between tending to her daughters as well as an aging parent, Mariko served four years as a district director for the Yolo County Board of Supervisors. She was tapped by then Governor Gray Davis to fill a vacant seat in 2003, where she was elected a year later to a full, four-year term, serving until 2008 when she won her first election to the California State Assembly. She focused there on her interests in aging and long-term care, civil rights and outreach to the underserved, in addition to advocating for open space and agricultural preservation.
Her three assembly terms followed, during which she served as Chair of the Assembly Aging and Long Term Care Committee and sponsored thirty-one bills that were signed into law.
“Serving six years in the California Assembly was a high honor for me,” she said during her later campaign for State Senate. “Together we survived those difficult years, but there are still many challenges ahead that will require experienced and energetic leadership. We must boost our economy and protect small businesses and the lives of working people whose labor supports it. We must also ensure that the promises made for a secure retirement are kept fair for all Californians, and ensure that care is accessible for the most vulnerable in our state. I have always put Main Street ahead of Wall Street, and I always will.”
She sounded a similar note to a newspaper reporter, hearkening back to the issues and causes that have always inspired her: “I’m a professional social worker; that’s my background, with an emphasis on ‘work’ and not ‘social.’ My husband is also a social worker. We recognize that our profession allies with the most vulnerable people in our society. We put that as a priority.”
Senses Cultural is pleased to honor Mariko Yamada as a Woman of Change. We salute her unwavering commitment to pursuing the public good by including and empowering those who have historically been relegated to the sidelines of American life. We also wait with enthusiasm as she shapes the next chapter of her life in service.