The Womxn Who Saved VC
Abraham FerrerHeading into its second decade of service as the nation's premier Asian American media-making organization, Visual Communications (VC) found itself teetering on the brink of insolvency. An ambitious, feature-length film project documenting Los Angeles’ Japanese American community and its fight against community redevelopment went way over budget, resulting in a crushing $150,000 debt. The organization's main avenue of federal educational production funding was cut off as a result of the Reagan Administration’s new priorities, and staff members left in droves, reducing the working staff to a virtual skeleton crew of three people. Two remaining staffers—Nancy Araki, originally from the San Francisco Bay Area, and Linda Mabalot, a native of the Sacramento Delta farming town of Dixon—engineered a series of policy changes that eventually retired the debt and re-imagined the way in which the organization would move forward in fulfilling its reputation as the “media arm” of the Asian American Movement. In the process, Araki and Mabalot together altered the power dynamics of VC; they took it from a male-dominated organization, typical of many community-based organizations born during the transformative 1960s and 1970s, to an organization run and managed by women arts administrators, filmmakers, and advocates. This new organization had an unwritten rule that its affairs would be conducted with egalitarianism and a steadfast allegiance to the communities whose stories and perspectives it honored and created.
In 1981, at the invitation of then-core staff member Linda Mabalot, I first set foot in the Little Tokyo offices of Visual Communications. The space, a 4,000-plus square-foot loft that occupied the entire third floor of a four-story hat-making factory, was a beehive of activity. In one section, staffers were busy editing a video in one of the two post-production bays overlooking San Pedro Street, while in another corner, a gaggle of artists were gathered around a large light-table, laying out page comps for the latest issue of the Nikkei Sentinel, the official news magazine of the community advocacy group Little Tokyo Peoples’ Rights Organization (LTPRO). LTPRO freely used the VC offices to hold their regular meetings. The epicenter of the nation’s premier Asian American filmmakers’ collective definitely was a constant buzz of activity.
Cut to one year later, 1982: the next time I visit VC is in a cramped 500 square-foot office space in the new Japanese American Cultural & Community Center (JACCC). The dramatic downsizing, due to drastic operational cutbacks, also came with a human cost. Virtually all staff members I met the previous year were gone, leaving a two-person staff to manage the entire operation. The president and ringleader of VC, the visionary and irrepressible Steven Tatsukawa, was now holding down a day job at KCET-TV, leaving the day-to-day business of running VC to two women who coordinated the activities of contract workers and part-time staff. Running VC in those challenging times were Nancy K. Araki and Linda D. Mabalot. They’d both arrived in LA around 1978 under different circumstances and became involved with VC just as the organization was launching into a particularly frenetic period of film and media production. Nancy stayed on through the end of summer 1985. Linda was appointed Executive Director in 1985, nearly a year after Tatsukawa’s untimely death in 1984, and led VC through a series of game-changing permutations until her passing at age 49 in 2003. Nancy and Linda, who served as friends and mentors during a particularly precarious period at VC, were unorthodox visionaries who brought a new and dynamic generation of audience and community to VC. At the same time, they upended, in their own ingratiating and homespun ways, the male-centric power dynamics of Asian American and Pacific Islander community groups of the day. To look back on Nancy and Linda’s impact on VC is to bear witness to a progressive movement in flux.
Visual Communications was in many ways a far different outfit at the cusp of the 1980s than it is today. And yet the troubling sociopolitical times in which the organization found itself forty years ago could not be more similar to America's current social and cultural quagmire.
- Upon his election in 1980, then-President Ronald Reagan set about the dismantling of the Department of Education—formerly the Office of Education, and a key source of VC’s early production funding via the agency’s Emergency School Aid Act (ESAA)—in the belief that the federal government should yield administering affairs of education to state and local governments. Reagan never quite achieved his objectives: he fired his first Education Secretary, Terrel H. Bell, who changed his mind about carrying out the President’s directives. Bell’s replacement, William J. Bennet, was equally unsuccessful at eviscerating the Education Department and recasting it as a foundation. However, the Reagan Administration was successful in initiating cuts to the Department that hindered its ability to provide equitable educational opportunities for all Americans. Among others, those cuts spelled the end of the ESAA, in effect halting VC’s federal support to produce media materials for both local communities and schools.
- Likewise, the Reagan Administration, initially under the guidance of Office of Management and Budget Director David Stockman, advocated for the elimination of both the National Endowment for the Arts and the National Endowment for the Humanities by branding both agencies as wasteful uses of taxpayer dollars. Instead, a special task force that included close Reagan allies, actor Charlton Heston and beverage magnate Adolph Coors, persuaded the President that both the Arts and Humanities endowments deserved continued federal support. That, however, did not prevent the Reagan Administration from attempting a planned 50% cutback of the NEA’s budget in 1981.
- Also in the early 1980s, US Immigration and Naturalization Service raids on communities of color to ferret out undocumented immigrants were rampant. These raids (some of which visited Little Tokyo in early 1982) were relatively genteel compared to the recently-concluded Trump Administration’s actions to vilify migrants as cancerous criminal elements that needed to be eliminated from American society—in spite of his seeming willingness to exploit undocumented labor.
- Between 1980 and 1981, nearly all of VC’s core staff members exited the organization amid government funding cuts, the desire to seek other career opportunities in the entertainment field, and an outstanding $150,000-plus production debt incurred from the realization of a feature-length narrative film in 1980. Some of those exiting staff helped to shepherd VC during the height of the Asian American Movement in the 1970s, after their mass departure resulted in a near-shuttering of the organization. Without that valuable institutional and professional knowledge to steer VC through rough waters, dissolution seemed imminent.
While not native Angelenos, Nancy Araki and Linda Mabalot each brought a distinct Northern Cal flair to VC, even as the political and social power-base of the Asian American media movement shifted from Los Angeles and New York City to the San Francisco Bay Area, starting with the 1980 establishment of the National Asian American Telecommunications Association (re-christened in 2004 as the Center for Asian American Media). Nancy, whose family was incarcerated at the Amache, CO, and later the Topaz, UT, concentration camps for Japanese Americans during World War II, was the author of cultural books including MATSURI: FESTIVAL, a 1978 activities book written and illustrated by Nancy and Jane Horii. After relocating to Los Angeles in early 1979, Nancy served as the casting director and crew member for VC’s debut feature-length project Hito Hata: Raise the Banner. Linda, an alumna of UC Davis, executed a career pivot from medical school to community activism; this was a direct result of the affirmative action struggles surrounding the US Supreme Court’s 1978 Bakke Decision ruling. Linda and other Asian American and Pacific Islander student activists of her generation became involved with the statewide Asian Pacific Student Union (APSU), which formed in 1978 in response to the Supreme Court ruling. After relocating to Los Angeles to refocus her career aspirations on media activism, Linda found time to work on several VC productions outside of the massive Hito Hata film project, and actively sought to recruit a new generation of budding media activists into the VC fold in response to the 1981 exodus of staff. Linda often recruited Asian American college undergraduates from the “house-party” circuit who, like herself during her college years, were just beginning to explore their social and political activism.
With the Reagan Administration’s debilitating cuts to arts, culture, and education funding, and without forthcoming funding streams for productions, many VC staff members left to find work to support their professions and families or completely abandoned arts and media production altogether. By the beginning of 1982, VC had become a virtual ghost town in its new location at JACCC. The VC of my early memories involved Nancy and Linda co-running the office while Steve functioned as a sort of invisible Executive Director. UCLA Film School student John Esaki, a part-time grant writer, and Amy Kato, a USC graduate who worked part-time as Office Manager, were the main holdovers from the Hito Hata production. Like many remaining staffers at that time, VCers were paid through a special on-the-job training program that Nancy and Linda leveraged with some “creative” job hiring strategies. Along with Kaz Takeuchi, a drop-in volunteer who ran VC’s black-and-white photographic darkroom when he wasn’t working days as a union set-builder at 20th Century Fox Studios, this skeleton team of part-timers held VC together during what should have been some dark times.
And yet, Nancy and Linda saw VC’s predicament during the early ‘80s not as a fatal reckoning of its very being, but as a prime opportunity to remake the organization and to adapt it to the changing cultural, social, and political landscape facing the Asian American community. VC, which had largely been a male-centric filmmakers cooperative during its first decade of existence, could re-imagine its identity and broaden its capabilities without compromising its allegiances to the communities and movement that it served. With Nancy and Linda running things, VC would be guided with a whole different mindset, from a distinctly “womxnistic” perspective.
To renew VC, a series of radical shifts had to be made in both identity and how business would be conducted with the community. Right away, Nancy and Linda set about repositioning the mission and purpose of the organization. In a now-famous manifesto presented to the Board of Directors in 1982, Linda directly challenged VC’s board to take responsibility for steering it out of a yawning fiscal chasm and to reaffirm the organization’s values and its commitment to community-based, grassroots media production. Even more significantly, this “Fold or Fight!!!!” declaration called for a structural overhaul of Visual Communications, taking it from a filmmakers’ cooperative to a media arts center. Nancy and Linda envisioned harnessing VC’s vast media resources, amassed over the course of its first twelve years, to better serve the communities whose stories and experiences inspired its creative output, and to pull back on the Hollywood-style aspirations that put VC in a financial hole in the first place. Nancy and Linda knew that failure to adapt was a roadmap to financial ruin, liquidation, and the loss of a key community resource where none had previously existed. Failure to adapt was not an option.
Another way in which Nancy and Linda asserted the “new VC” approach was to monetize its resources as a means of paying down its sizable production debt. This involved announcing that VC’s assets could no longer be available for free, or at a deep discount, to fellow community members and activists. Shifting to charging sales or rental fees to those who were similarly strapped for cash was seen as un-neighborly, and brought charges of elitism and capitalism to VC’s doorstep from some community members. Nancy and Linda stuck to their guns and refused to give in to friends and colleagues seeking steep discounts for VC’s shareable assets of photos, films and videos, and photo exhibitions. They knew that goodwill, no matter how altruistic, would do nothing to pay the rent . . . or to make the massive production debt disappear.
As a prime example of this new mode of monetizing VC’s production resources, Nancy and Linda teamed with Amy Kato to establish pricing guidelines for VC’s assets, like use of the photographic darkroom, as well as to promote its award-winning films and video programs for the educational market and for community-based grassroots organizations. Borrowing a page from Betty Chen, a first-generation VCer who recognized early on the importance of engaging audiences and prospective users for its products (her mantra: “We must not ‘distribute’ . . . we must ‘market’”), staffers piggy-backed on Distribution Manager John Rier’s aggressive salesmanship of VC products during the organization’s “Fold or Fight!!!!” period, which resulted in a series of lucrative licensing agreements for Hito Hata which significantly reduced the organization’s debt. Slowly but surely, once VC clearly assessed its resources for both non-profit and commercial uses, a small and steady revenue stream developed that allowed VC to support its then-modest ambitions, and raised awareness for its photographic archive and filmography.
Nancy and Linda also tag-teamed frequently with John Esaki, a gifted and imaginative writer and filmmaker, to take up the slack when many of VC’s grant-writing staff exited the organization. Over time, the three of them worked out an assembly-line approach to writing grants. John almost always took care of writing the proposal narrative, while Linda, using a unique “seat of the pants” approach to fleshing out budgets with Nancy, would take care of the numbers and somehow make them jibe with John’s narratives. The many grants received during this period—from the City of Los Angeles’ Cultural Affairs Department to major awards from the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, and from commercial companies that sought VC’s expertise in promoting a wide variety of consumer items to the Asian American market—served as a crucial bridge to a wider audience.
For instance, Nancy’s most lasting legacy while at VC was to enjoin the support of Japanese American World War II veterans as key supporters and donors. As the exploits of the Nikkei veterans of the 442nd Regimental Combat Team and 100th Battalion (and, not much later, those of the Military Intelligence Service) became intertwined with the burgeoning movement for monetary redress for incarcerated Japanese Americans, Nancy saw the importance in VC embracing the veterans whose stories formed the basis for many of its past productions. Nancy’s own story as a former incarceree, a distinction unique among youngish staff, strengthened the linkage between VC and Nikkei vets. This resulted in a long-time relationship that ranged from Nikkei vets’ perennial appearances at many of VC’s annual fundraisers to their regular support for VC’s most far-reaching program initiatives, including the Filmmakers Development Program, a series of community video workshops, the then-nascent annual Los Angeles Asian Pacific Film Festival, and so much more.
As for Linda, most of the staffers at that time seemed bemused by her reluctance to accept sponsorship monies from companies that exercised questionable business policies towards minorities and chronically underserved communities. For instance, her steadfast refusal, on political principle, to so much as sniff at money and product thrown at her feet by representatives of the Adolph Coors Brewing Company became a major sticking point with Asian American Coors marketing personnel. Throughout the 1980s, Coors spent much time, money, and energy throughout communities of color to rehabilitate its image, which had been marred by discriminatory hiring and workplace practices against members of the Mexican American and LGBTQ communities. While some groups, most notably the then-Los Angeles Lesbian and Gay Media Coalition, made themselves conspicuous in their acceptance of Coors sponsorship and advertising monies, Linda held her ground and only began to accept Coors monies and product after it was learned that the Coors family reversed its discriminatory policies in the mid-1990s. Though she was a two-pack-a-day smoker until her last days, Linda likewise refused to accept sponsorship money or products from tobacco companies. Given that many of VC’s community fundraising events reflected a growing cross-generational patronage of VC and its mission, Linda and others rightly determined that promoting risky health behavior for the upcoming generation, whom she dubbed the “youngbloods,” was a bad example to endorse.
All these changes in work habits and organizational culture culminated in VC’s 15th anniversary gala at the then-Japan America Theatre in August 1985. Though Steve Tatsukawa’s passing the previous winter weighed heavily on the hearts of many in the audience that night, the nearly four years of hard work overseen by Nancy and Linda resulted in dividends that no one could foresee in 1981:
- The complete retirement of the $150,000 production debt.
- The completion of yet another major Visual Communications film production, John Esaki’s Yuki Shimoda: Asian American Actor, which world-premiered at the 15th Anniversary Gala.
- The completion of not one, but two major mobile photographic exhibits: a Japanese American History exhibit produced as a collaboration between Visual Communications and the Japanese American National Museum; and PLANTING ROOTS, created with California Arts Council funds and spearheaded by Linda.
- The creation of the print publication Little Tokyo: One Hundred Years in Pictures on the occasion of Little Tokyo’s centennial.
- The 1983 launch of the Los Angeles Asian Pacific Film Festival.
- The 1984 launch of the Filmmakers Development Program and VC’s decade-long foray into Super 8mm filmmaking.
- The participation and backing of a new generation of VC supporters, exemplified by the creation of The Friends of Visual Communications, the organization’s first-ever paid membership vehicle, transitioned from the ad hoc national committee that oversaw the Hito Hata national community premiere roll-out.
Visual Communications is still around, forty years after Nancy Araki and Linda Mabalot took over for a legion of departing filmmakers. They fought with smiles on their faces and good cheer for VC's ideals and purpose. Their approach to recognizing and nurturing up-and-coming talent would impact the entire media arts arena for years to come.
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- Dan Bauman and Brock Read, “A Brief History of GOP Attempts to Kill the Education Dept.,” The Chronicle of Higher Education, June 21, 2018, https://www.chronicle.com/article/a-brief-history-of-gop-attempts-to-kill-the-education-dept/.↵
- “National Endowment for the Arts: 1981 Attempts to Abolish,” Wikipedia, April 23, 2021, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/National_Endowment_for_the_Arts.↵
- William H. Honan, “Book Discloses That Reagan Planned to Kill National Endowment for Arts,” New York Times, May 15, 1988, https://www.nytimes.com/1988/05/15/arts/book-discloses-that-reagan-planned-to-kill-national-endowment-for-arts.html .↵
- Peter Imamura, “Immigration raids alarm Little Tokyo,” Pacific Citizen, February 12, 1982, https://pacificcitizen.org/wp-content/uploads/archives-menu/Vol.094_%2306_Feb_12_1982.pdf.↵
- Massimo Calabresi, “What Donald Trump Knew About Undocumented Workers at His Signature Tower,” TIME Magazine, August 25, 2016, https://time.com/4465744/donald-trump-undocumented-workers/. Kevin Liptak, Maegan Vazquez, Ariane de Vogue, and Catherine E. Shoichet, “Trump signs order targeting undocumented immigrants in the US census,” CNN: Politics, last updated July 21, 2020, https://www.cnn.com/2020/07/21/politics/white-house-census-undocumented-immigrants/index.html.↵
- Regents of Univ. of California v. Bakke, 438 U.S. 265, (1978), https://supreme.justia.com/cases/federal/us/438/265/.↵
- As a result, this essay uses the intersectional feminist term "womxn" that points to the prismatic ways that gender, nativity, class, and culture shape the contexts of people's lives.↵
- Japanese American is, generally, a term used to define native-born Americans of Japanese descent who, with few exceptions, have grown up from birth never setting foot on Japanese soil.↵
- “Adolph Coors Company (A),” Business Case, Tuck School of Business, Dartmouth College, Archived from the original PDF on May 27, 2006, https://studylib.net/doc/8074032/adolph-coors-company---tuck.↵
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- Visual Communications staff members Linda D. Mabalot and Nancy K. Araki
- The Visual Communications’ team strategizes a support plan for the organization.
- Linda D. Mabalot posing with a family photo
- Portrait of Abe Ferrer
- Visual Communications’ Nancy K. Araki, shown attending the unveiling of the VC and 110th/442nd/MIS Museum Foundation photo exhibit JAPANESE AMERICAN VETS, circa February 1984
- Stephen Gong, Linda D. Malbot, and Nancy Araki
- The Media Center Concept
- Fold or Fight!!!!