AAPIP Voices

Conversation with 25 Leaders in Action: Sharon Maeda


To commemorate AAPIP’s 25 years of building a more democratic philanthropic sector, we asked you to help us identify 25 leaders who are making a difference in your local community and/or nationally. The 25 Leaders in Action honorees represent a diverse group spanning a wide range of organizations, years of experiences, roles and sectors.  We invite you to learn about these outstanding leaders, their inspiring work and what keeps them going in our blog post series.


Sharon Maeda

1. Why are you passionate about advocating for AAPI communities?

While in college, I helped to raise a lot of money to register Black voters in the South.  At the same time, I had saved up enough of my own money to go as well.  My African American friend told me that I couldn’t go because I was too naïve (I was) and would probably get shot if I did go.  He said that I needed to stay and work within my own community for civil rights.  At the time, I was very hurt but that lesson has always been in the back of my mind.  And, not only did I commit myself to advancing civil rights, but was inspired by people in the API community.  In all the justice work spread from the United Farm Workers to anti-Apartheid in South Africa, I’ve been inspired most closely by people like Yuri Kochiyama, Grace Lee Boggs, Patsy Mink and my own aunt, Frances Maeda.  My work was global, but the passion comes from my faith and the inspiration of these and other API women.

2.  What do you believe are the most critical issues facing AAPI communities today?

There are several issues that intersect to affect our status here in the U.S. Immigrants and low income families are particularly vulnerable and have diminished opportunity.   For one, the privatization of public education (early learning to higher education) will leave many API young folks behind.

Additionally, our broken immigration systems will keep families apart for longer periods and threaten to destabilize families who have undocumented members and forced to live in the shadows. 

APIs are subject to racial bias and discrimination in the work place and racial profiling .  Due to the lack of disaggregated data and need they often face multiple barriers accessing resources and affordable housing due to the lack of disaggregated data.

Of equal concern are the current threats to our voting rights. There are hundreds of “reforms” being implemented across the country to make it harder for communities of color to vote.  In Seattle, it’s the lack of translation of voting materials, summer primary when no one is paying attention, and other barriers to full participation.

3.  In what ways do you strive to address the unmet needs for AAPI communities?

Locally, we have many outstanding leaders in the API communities.  I tend to work at levels and/or on issues that are not yet being taken up by the community or where there’s a gap in skills/expertise.   Since 2012, I have been working with undocumented youth and I have raised the issue repeatedly in the API communities, who have told me “we don’t have any undocumented youth.”  However, once the 2014 government report came out showing specifically that there are thousands of undocumented API youth in Washington state alone, the issue finally got traction and others took up the cause.  I am strongly “achievement” oriented and want to add value, not duplicate efforts. 

4.  What keeps you inspired?

Gandhi’s “Be the change you wish to see in the world” quote, and the inspiration of others, past and present, keep me going.  Plus, I am an eternal optimist who won’t take no for an answer!

Sharon has been blessed with opportunities that took her to Los Angeles, New York, Washington D.C. and around the world.  For 47 years, social justice and mentoring youth/young adults were the constants throughout.  As a teacher in Seattle, she saw how negative media about people of color and women affected the students.  She learned filmmaking and became a producer at KCTS/9, manager of KRAB-FM and executive director of Pacifica Radio. 

In 1993, President Clinton appointed her Deputy Assistant Secretary of HUD to Secretary Henry Cisneros; she also was detailed to the White House.  Upon her return to Seattle, she coordinated the Seattle Community Development Partnership, funded by the Ford Foundation, to support nonprofit low income housing development.

As Deputy General Secretary at the global mission agency of the United Methodist Church, she initiated projects that empowered people throughout the world, including a daily multilingual radio program on HIV/AIDS awareness, beamed into sub-Saharan Africa by shortwave radio in order to get around the media controlled by national leaders in denial about the disease that was killing thousands of their people. 

Off and on since 1988, Sharon’s firm, Spectra Communications was her way of supporting nonprofits in communities of color.  In 2008, she became Director of Special Projects for UFCW 21, Washington’s largest private sector union.  They tapped her to create a new nonprofit, 21 PROGRESS, to build a 21st century movement for equity and justice.  Their flagship program is providing support to DREAMers in Washington state.  She retired from 21 PROGRESS earlier this year.

Sharon has served on many boards and commissions, as well as countless political campaigns.  She founded the Youth Media Institute and is currently a Trustee of the Harborview Medical Center, Public Radio Satellite Trust and the Seattle Immigrant & Refugee Voting Rights Task Force.  She’s a UW grad where she also did masters and doctoral studies and was director of the Ethnic Cultural Center.