The Women

Our team of eight oral history researchers interviewed a total of fourteen API women leaders for this project. Click on the individual names below to see photos, video, interview excerpts, and more.

Rev. Tofaifaleula Tosi Amosa (Tofa)
"The name that changed the religious history of American Samoa." Tofa was born in Ofu, Manu'a; raised in Pavaiai, Amerika Samoa; educated in Suva, Fiji; and now resides in San Jose, California. Tofa is the first Samoan woman to be ordained by the Congregational Christian Church of American Samoa (C.C.C.A.S), at Kanana Fou. Tofa is a mother to an active soldier, a pastor, a pastor's wife, and an educator. She continues to encourage Pacific Islander (specifically, Samoan) women to seek the opportunity at Kanana Fou Theological Seminary. Interviewed by Siouleolelei Paogofie.

Rev. Wako Puanani Burgess
Puanani Burgess has been involved in Native Hawaiian sovereignty movements from 1970 to the present. Earlier in her life she was involved as an advocate in several community land struggles, including: West Beach; Protect Kahoolawe Ohana (1979-1982); and Community Based Economic Development (1982 to the present). Her work has greatly impacted the Wai`anae Coast of O`ahu, where she helped found the Wai`anae Coast Community Alternative Development Corporation and other organizations including the Wai`anae Coast Community Mental Health Center, Legal Services for Children, Ka`ala Farm, Inc., The `Opelu Project, Hoa`aina o Makaha, Wai`anae Time Out Nurseries, and the Pū`ā Foundation. She is now a mediator, community developer, facilitator and consultant of community-building and conflict transformation. She is a poet, a mother and an ordained Zen Buddhist priest. Interviewed by Deborah Lee.

Choeung Chuord and Sarou Vong
The four women in this interview-- Choeung Chuord, Sarou Vong, Sambat Oun and Vat Nobb-- all have roots in the state of Siem Reap, Cambodia. They all were born and raised in Cambodia and passionately follow the Buddhist faith.You would not find their faces in history books or newspapers. Instead, Choeung Chuord and her friends can only be found in the hearts of silent heroes. These women are the backbones of their families and survival of the Cambodian genocide. They did not hold banners and protest on paved roads with policemen present. The luxury of free speech was not there for them. They were silenced and sent to labor camps. Sarou Vong was sentenced to death in the killing field, but miraculously survived the injury and escaped. Staying alive is very political. All of these women are active in temples and do charitable work in Cambodia. They all collect and give what they can and Choeung Chuord will make a trip to Cambodia herself to make donations. Interviewed by Sophay Duch Ferriera.

Jean Ishibashi
Jean Ishibashi was born in Chicago, Illinois soon after her parents were released from being interned with thousands of other Japanese Americans during World War II. She dedicated much of her life to organizing people to stand up against injustices in their communities. She has played an active role in the civil rights movement, women’s movement, farmworkers movement and many other mobilizing efforts across the country. A Women’s Studies professor at City College in San Francisco, she believes that education needs to be transformed so that students learn to find strength and knowledge in their own lives and the histories of their ancestors. Interviewed by Jun Stinson.

Cynthia “Cindy” Joe
Cynthia “Cindy” Joe is a second-generation Chinese American who grew up in San Francisco Chinatown. She began her leadership development at Donaldina Cameron House and the Presbyterian Church in Chinatown in middle school, and has been driven by her faith and committed to the community ever since. While working full-time as a chemist by day, she attended church committees and non-profit board meetings by night, persevering through long struggles to build and maintain low-income housing in Chinatown. She has worked to ensure that Asian Americans, women, and their concerns were represented in the national Presbyterian Church denomination. She has had her finger on the pulse of the Chinatown community for over forty years, always remaining open to doing what needs to be done. She continues to work in and through the church, volunteering at the Cameron House Food Pantry and in post-Katrina New Orleans and serving on committees addressing racial ethnic equality and social justice issues. Interviewed by Lauren Quock.

Manufou Liaiga-Anoa'i
Manufou Liaiga-Anoa'i: a native San Franciscan with roots in both Samoas. A product of San Francisco's public school system, American Samoa Community College and University of San Francisco. Serving as a translator for her mother, Papali'i Manufou Liaiga, as she attended meetings for Samoa Mo Samoa. An awareness of civic duty and responsibility was awakened by these experiences at a very young age.While living abroad in the territory of American Samoa, she found herself protesting against the nuclear testing thousands of miles away in the sister islands of Raratonga and Tahiti; this led to running for Student Government President at the local American Samoa Community College. Manufou's life continues to be rooted in community. She prides herself in being a mother of four and she has been married for 24 years. Visit Fou online at and throughout the various pockets of API communities. Interviewed by Crystal Talitonu.

Rev. Mele Laufilitonga Luani
Rev. Luani was born in Nuku'alofa, Tongatapu--the main island of the Kingdom of Tonga. She comes from a strong Christian background and has played many leadership roles with her Methodist faith. She was the first woman to do office/clerk work for the Tongan Government. Mele also taught as a history professor at the all-girls school known as Queen Salote College. Later she became one of the first people to start the Tongan Methodist Church in the US; eventually she decided to make her work official and become an ordained Methodist minister. Now she is retired, and continues to work on her faith and relationship with God. Interviewed by Sina Uipi.

Doreen Der McLeod
Doreen Der McLeod is a fifth-generation Chinese American born in San Francisco in 1943. Her great-grandfather, grandfather, parents, and two of her siblings immigrated from Hoiping, China. Doreen grew up playing in the alleyways of San Francisco’s Chinatown and helping out at her dad’s curios shop on Grant Avenue. In high school, she was introduced to faith-based community work through the Cameron House youth program and the Presbyterian Church in Chinatown. She was part of the first generation of children in her family to go to college and attended U.C. Berkeley at a time when there were very few Asian students there. In 1965, as pastors at the Presbyterian Church in Chinatown were preaching from the pulpit about the Civil Rights Movement in the South, Doreen boldly decided to boycott classes and participate in the Free Speech Movement at U.C. Berkeley, though few other Asian students were doing so. She fought for the needs of Chinatown to be recognized at a time when racial awareness included only Black and White, advocating for parks, playgrounds, and open space in the overcrowded neighborhood. She has faithfully worked to address the changing and diverse needs of the Asian immigrant and Asian American communities in the San Francisco Bay Area for over 40 years, fearlessly posing critical questions and standing up for what is just as a social worker, program director, and executive director in numerous organizations serving youth, women, and elders. Interviewed by Lauren Quock.

Yuri Morita
Yuri Morita is a native of Japan and has been active in social issues from her early years as a high school student. When she was 26, she traveled to Mexico and Central America, and eventually came to the United States in the late 1970s and was an active supporter of the American Indian movements and the Nipponzan Myohoji Buddhist peace makers. She co-authored an autobiography of Dennis Banks, American Indian Movement leader, in Japanese. She helped to coordinate part of the World Peace March in 1981, which started in Japan and traveled to Hawai'i and Seattle before ending in New York, where over a million people from all over the world gathered to call for nuclear disarmament. She worked as a diversity trainer in the Office of Affirmative Action of the University of California for seven years before moving back to Japan in 1996. For over twenty-five years she has worked in child abuse prevention and domestic violence prevention in both the U.S. and Japan, drawing connections between interpersonal violence, war and global violence. She has authored over 25 books in Japanese and is the founder and director of the Empowerment Center in Japan. Interviewed by Deborah Lee.

June Shimokawa
June Shimokawa was born in the Big Island of Hawai'i and is of Japanese ancestry. A key part of her leadership formation as a woman and as a Christian was through her early involvement in the YWCA; she eventually became the YWCA Western Regional Director. June also spent time working with the United Methodist Church General Board of Global Ministries in New York City. Through the YWCA, Methodist Church social action committees, the American Friends Service Committee of Hawai'i and other community involvements, she was involved in education and awareness efforts for civil rights, the women's movement, anti-racism, disability awareness, refugee resettlement and Hawaiian sovereignty. In the early 1980's, she was part of the formation of a group called APANA, Asians and Pacific Americans for Nuclear Awareness, in Pasadena, California. Today she resides in Honolulu, where she continues to read and reflect on theology and spirituality and remains active in social justice work. Interviewed by Deborah Lee.

Marion Wake
Marion Wake played an active role expanding mental health services to ethnic minorities in the United States as a licensed Marriage and Family Therapist. She is the mother of four children, and is married to the Reverend Lloyd Wake, a United Methodist Minister and prominent civil rights activist. Marion spent her early childhood in the Santa Monica Canyon of California. Her father, a Coast Guard veteran, was a cook and chiropractor and her mother was a housekeeper. In 1942, when she was fifteen, her family was interned, along with 120,000 other Japanese Americans then incarcerated in camps by the US government. She’s dedicated much of her life to working as a counselor for ethnic minorities in the Bay Area because says she had always wanted to help people live to their fullest potential and noticed a lack of psychological services available to people of color. Interviewed by Jun Stinson.