By Robin Opsahl
Rep. Doris Matsui, D-Sacramento, spoke about her experience in the House, her family’s history of internment and politics in the Trump era Thursday to a crowd of more than 100 at the Citizen Hotel in Sacramento as a part of the “She Shares” series that features prominent women leaders. Matsui answered questions from moderator Karen Breslau, a former Newsweek correspondent, and the audience. Here are some excerpts
Q: Recently, what have you been hearing from your constituents?
A: Usually you get people talking about Social Security or Medicare, concerns about their own lives. But I can’t believe the number of calls I’ve gotten about the fear of losing health care. I’ve heard people who are afraid of what their immigration status means in light of the president’s new executive orders, very concerned about what’s going to happen.
Another concern,, too about our country vis-à-vis what the president has said about Russia. We have to stand up and say “what’s going on?” And I think, with actions like the Women’s March and others that are going on because of recent legislation and politics, people are doing that. They’re standing up on these bigger issues that they might not have had to before.
Q: You’ve been more open about talking about your and your parents’ experiences with Japanese internment camps. What inspired you to talk openly about this subject?
A: You’re right, I haven’t been very open about this previously. My parents were American citizens. I was born in an internment camp, but my parents never talked to me about this at all, and growing up, it didn’t impact me at all. I had an ordinary American childhood. I think my parents didn’t want to burden me with that experience, they just wanted me to move forward and reach for the stars.
I would hear conversations sometimes about someone they knew in camp was in Chicago or whatever, so I sort of knew that it happened, but I didn’t experience their emotions at all. But when I went to college at Berkeley, I met people who were very affected by the internment, or else their parents were and they talked about it openly. Most of the people who were sent to camp were Americans. And you think about that, how did this wonderful country do that? I think that I started realizing, “this is terrible,” and I started asking my parents about it, started having conversations about it. … And when the story was told, the emotions came out. It was unbelievable.
I really feel like when you’re talking about subjects like this, it’s a very different experience to have someone talking about it who experienced it, who is telling their personal story. It shares what someone was actually going through during that time and makes people understand that perspective.
Q: A lot of people are comparing the rationale for the internment camps, as a matter of national security, to actions against Muslims and immigrants now. How do you educate people about the history of these arguments?
A: What we need to keep in mind, what’s very different today than it was in 1942 was that there wasn’t a way for people who were experiencing these things to talk about them, and people who opposed the actions weren’t as public about it. But that isn’t the case right now. We have people in Congress and in other parts of the government who are standing up against these actions and speaking out. We need to stand up and speak out every time something like this happens. I really feel that something like this cannot be buried. It’s important to acknowledge that we have made a lot of progress, and we start taking things for granted, but even in this country we still have to try to get better and try to change things.
Q: How do Democrats remain relevant as an opposition party?
A: I think it’s about values. We know that there are people in this country who are being left behind. But part of our challenge is to make people understand what that actually means. … You get to know people when people are able to open up, and you have to let your guard down a bit. People really respond to stories and the way peoples’ lives are impacted, and we have to keep those narratives in mind and still fight for them. It’s a part of being human.
So I think, really, Democrats are still very, very united. There might be some differences, but we all know we have to do this, we know that we might fall down sometimes, but we have to get back up and keep moving forward and making progress.
Q: As the United States becomes more and more polarized, what do you try to keep in mind when trying to make progress in politics?
A: Even now, especially now we need to remember – we are not a stagnant society, we are a growing society. I think an underdeveloped skill in politics and in the world right now is listening. As citizens of the United States we have to interact with the rest of the world and work on domestic policy; I think we’re strongest together.
We need to have everyone bring their stories and history to the table, and listen to each other to help our society move forward. We’re not separate anymore, and listening helps us unite. That’s the way that I live – I have friends on the other side of the aisle and we talk about our kids, where we go on vacation, all these kinds of things. You have to talk with each other to build some trust, and that’s the best way to make progress. You can still disagree with them strongly, but you have to still hear and think about what they’re telling you. By listening you can find little areas where maybe we’re not so different.