Rodney Yashushi Horikawa
A pioneer for improving campus climate
(Reprinted with permission from Asian Wisconzine, January 2008, p. 12)
By Laura Salinger
Rodney Yasushi Horikawa has not led an average life. Nor does he hold an average job position at the University of Wisconsin-
Madison where he serves as the community building coordinator for University Health Services (UHS). While the job title sounds
ambiguous, it is a position that works to improve cultural competency and campus climate. Horikawa serves as a liaison between
UHS and the many multicultural and social justice initiatives on campus. At the heart of his work is the hardened belief that student
health is directly tied to how the campus deals with issues of multiculturalism.
"My work is really focused on multiculturalism and social justice," Horikawa explained. "Issues of race, class, gender, and sexual
identity have a huge impact on student health."
Horikawa experienced this in its starkest sense when he lived with his wife, Beth, in Alaska. The couple were teachers for nearly
two decades at an alternative school that primarily served Native Alaskans, or Yupik. Alaska, renowned for its picturesque
landscape and wildlife, is also a state wrought with overt racism and underrepresentation of its indigenous populations, according to
Horikawa. He described the discrepancy between the privileged and the underprivileged as blatant and unnerving.
"Racism is very much a part of Alaska," Horikawa said. "I can't think of one Alaskan native student that wasn't filled with rage."
Horikawa explains it as rage, he said, because it is different from anger, a flash of emotion that results from a single or short-lived
action. Rage, on the other hand, is an accumulated emotion resulting, in this case, from years of oppression and injustice. He
compared it to the slow drip of a faucet, an emotion that is cultivated over time.
It was in Alaska, that Horikawa — a third generation Japanese from Hawaii — began to delve deeper into how race, and the
treatment of race, affects the mindset and learning of students. It would later become one of Horikawa's passions.
"You can't work as a teacher in a marginalized community without your pedagogy becoming political," he said.
Born and raised in Hawaii in a small pineapple-farming town, Alaska was a far cry from Horikawa's native O'ahu Island. He
chuckled as he recalled a 52-degree Fahrenheit "cold front" that closed down his tropical school.
In Hawaii, his family lived in the rural town of Wahiawa, just over 20 miles northwest of Honolulu, and situated on the 1,000-
foot high Leilehua Plateau. Rich in Hawaiian legend, the town is known as the location where Oahu chiefs once trained their armies
and the revered place of royal births at Kukaniloko (birthing stones site). Later, the town would become known as the hub of the
pineapple industry. In the early 1900s, James Drummond Dole purchased 61 acres and built a cannery next to his pineapple fields.
He packed his first cans in 1903 and would soon become famous for his Dole pineapples.
Many Japanese were employed by the Dole Food Company, along with a variety of other ethnic groups, which would create a
diverse township that Horikawa said was nearly devoid of racism, or at least his impression of it. His family life was humble — his
father was a fireman and his mother worked in the school cafeteria. Yet, he lived in what many view as paradise. So, why leave?
“Education.” It is the answer that Horikawa said drew many people away from that tropical wonderland.
Horikawa left Hawaii to attend the University of Massachusetts and then returned to Hawaii to complete his undergraduate
studies. He would then meet his wife while studying in the UW-Madison master's program for Asian Studies. When they saw a call
for teachers in Alaska, Horikawa and his wife decided to find some adventure in the U.S.’ most northern state. For them it was an
opportunity to explore the mystique of a place unknown to them. What they were met with was bitter cold temperatures and
disenfranchised students. But the experience would forever shape Horikawa. When he returned to Madison, he was armed with a
better understanding of how the treatment of diverse and underrepresented populations plays a critical role in a student's education
It is from this perspective that Horikawa plays a crucial role in numerous diversity initiatives at UW-Madison. For starters, he is
the board chair for the Multicultural Student Center and a Plan 2008 Oversight Committee member. He also works closely with the
group that started SEED (Seeking Education Equity and Diversity) and SEEDED (Seeking Education Equity and Diversity for
Experienced Doers) Seminars on campus. Dr. Seema Kapani, director of the SEED Seminars and diversity education coordinator for
the Office for Equity and Diversity, had glowing things to say about Horikawa and his work.
"He is a true champion of community building," Kapani said. "He has taught me that it is only through community building that
we can start building a just community, a community that welcomes and affirms all. This work is hard, and one needs patience with
self and others. Rodney personifies this."
While Horikawa was quick to praise others and their work in diversity and social justice issues on campus, he was sheepish when
it came to extolling his own work. But it is clear that he is a notable force in diversity issues at UW-Madison. Still, he admits that
there is a lot of work left to be done.
"Students of color leave the UW, not because they are unprepared academically but due to campus climate issues," he said. "We
have a tremendous amount of room for improvement."
While campus climate issues remain a struggle for UW-Madison, it is refreshing to meet the people who are truly passionate
about improving campus climate and creating a University that truly is for all people.