Don Nakanishi ’71, founder of Yale’s first Asian American Students Association, died March 21 of cardiorespiratory arrest in Los Angeles. He was 66 years old.
Nakanishi is widely credited as one of the founders of the field of Asian American Studies and as a key figure in establishing the field’s legitimacy. In 1971, while a senior at Yale, Nakanishi co-founded the Amerasia Journal, the country’s oldest academic Asian American journal and one of the leading publications in the field. After leaving Yale, Nakanishi served as national president of the Association for Asian American Studies and director of the University of California Los Angeles Asian American Studies Center. Last year, Nakanishi returned to his alma mater to give the keynote address at an Asian American conference hosted by Yale’s Asian American Studies task force and Asian American Studies Center. Nakanishi, who was born in East Los Angeles, is survived by his wife and his son.
“The fact that Nakanishi graduated from Yale and was director of the most eminent Asian American studies center in the country has encouraged us to build on his legacy because we’re in a sense following his footsteps as Yale students,” said Alex Zhang ’18, co-chair of the Asian American Studies Task Force. “His career trajectory shows that you can build great things even if the institutions you’re embedded in can’t support you as fully as you would like.”
As an undergraduate at Yale, Nakanishi played an active role in jumpstarting the college’s scholarship in Asian American Studies. Together with several other members of AAAS, Nakanishi helped make Yale the first Ivy League school to offer a course in Asian American Studies. Beginning in the spring of 1970, the class was overseen by political science professor Chitoshi Yanaga, although the students largely taught it themselves.
After receiving his Ph.D. in political science from Harvard, Nakanishi went on to teach at UCLA. However, Nakanishi was later denied tenure at the school, leading to a lawsuit challenging the decision. The lawsuit drew national scrutiny of UCLA’s decision, and following the case, Nakanishi was granted tenure.
“For so many young scholars, his fight for tenure gave inspiration, and even validation, for so many faculty of color who struggle through the sometimes isolating, disempowering and racially charged experiences of securing one’s ‘place at the table’ through tenure,” said Loan Dao, an Asian American Studies professor at University of Massachusetts Boston and speaker at the Asian American Conference. “Moreover, Professor Nakanishi shared his lessons learned and advocated for younger generations of scholars who have faced the seemingly insurmountable challenges of the tenure process.”
Outside of his contributions to the field of Asian American Studies, others have pointed to Nakanishi’s ability to unite people as one of his greatest strengths. Nakanishi, along with 10 other Latino students at Yale, helped form a group called Los Hermanos — Spanish for “the brothers” — which later evolved into Movimiento Estudiantil Chicano de Aztlán, or MeChA. He also helped found what is today Yale’s peer liaison program.
All of these organizations are still important to undergraduates today, and Nakanishi’s work demonstrates how important it is for students of color to come together, said Adrienne Gau ’17, who attended last year’s Asian American Studies conference.
Director of the UCLA Asian American Studies Center David Yoo GRD ’94 said Nakanishi’s legacy includes his students and colleagues as well, adding that Nakanishi spent much of his career mentoring and guiding others. Not only did Nakanishi help establish Asian American Studies, Association for Asian American Studies President Linda Vo said, but he has also been a community and network builder.
During his career, Nakanishi received numerous awards, including the Yale Medal from Yale University in 2008 and the inaugural Engaged Scholar Award from the Association of Asian American Studies in 2009. He is also the namesake for the Nakanishi Prize in Yale College and the Don T. Nakanishi Award for Outstanding Engaged Scholarship for Graduate & Undergraduate Students at the UCLA Asian American Studies Center.
“The very fact that we have an Asian American Studies program at the University of Connecticut and I have a job is directly attributable to him,” Association for Asian American Studies president-elect and UConn Asian and Asian American Studies professor Cathy Schlund-Vials said. “He fought a lot of battles that I didn’t have to fight.”
Correction, March 24: A previous version of this article misstated Nakanishi’s place of birth. In fact, he was born in East Los Angeles.