The Honorable Sandra R. Otaka gave her time and energy selflessly to the Asian American community.  She was an extraordinary leader, a trailblazer, a friend and mentor to many, and was taken from all of us much too soon.  She also taught us the importance of Asian American political empowerment and to be politically savvy.  Her candidacy for Cook County judge in the 9th sub circuit is a textbook example for future Asian American candidates running for office.  Judge Otaka will be greatly missed.  To honor her legacy, and inspire future generations, the Asian American Action Fund of Greater Chicago (AAAFGC) established the Judge Sandra Otaka “Making History” Award in 2009.

Judge Otaka was the first Asian American to be appointed to the bench by the Illinois Supreme Court.  Her appointment marked a significant milestone, as she was one of only four Asian American judges in the State of Illinois, and only one of two Asian American judges sitting on the Circuit Court of Cook County.  She won her election in the 9th sub-circuit in 2002, and became the first Asian American to be elected judge in Cook County.  Throughout her career, she worked on the issue of diversity in the judiciary, so that Asian Americans had representation.

The purpose of this award is to honor the late Judge Sandra Otaka’s legacy as a leader and champion of political empowerment of the Asian American community.  The AAAFGC annually recognizes an individual who embraces the vision, drive and determination of Judge Otaka, to honor them both as Asian American leaders and role models.

The AAAFGC Board of Directors identifies award candidates and selects an individual who has a proven track record of:

  • Raising the voice of Asian Americans and communities throughout Chicago and the U.S. through political representation by promoting Asian Americans to serve as elected officials locally, statewide, and/or nationally;
  • Working as a public servant who acts with an intuitive understanding of Asian American issues and is willing to pursue these interests and voice these concerns in shaping public policy; one who, when an issue affecting Asian Americans arises, considers it fairly, but with an Asian American sensitivity that may not be readily within the consciousness of others;
  • Identifying and supporting individuals seeking public office, therefore promoting the full and comprehensive engagement of Asian Americans in the political process.

Past Award Recipients

2013 Honoree

Congresswoman Tammy Duckworth, Illinois 8th District

Tammy Duckworth is running to represent Illinois in the United States Senate.  Following her career as a helicopter pilot in the U.S. Army, Tammy worked as an advocate for Veterans at both the state and federal level.  Tammy was elected to the House of Representatives in 2012, where she has been an active voice for Illinois families.

Tammy was living in DeKalb, Illinois, working at Rotary International while pursuing a Ph.D. at Northern Illinois University, when her unit, headquartered in Peoria, was mobilized in 2003 for Operation Iraqi Freedom.  On November 12, 2004 Tammy’s UH‐60 Black Hawk helicopter was hit by a rocket-propelled grenade.  She lost both legs and partial use of her right arm in the explosion.  As a result of her injuries, Tammy was awarded the Purple Heart.

Following her injuries, Tammy became an advocate for veterans.  While serving as Director of the Illinois Department of Veterans Affairs in Springfield, she implemented many first in the nation programs to alleviate suffering from Post Traumatic Stress, improve traumatic brain injury screening and reduce homelessness among veterans.  She declined a military medical retirement and continued to drill as a Lieutenant Colonel in Springfield with the Illinois Army National Guard.

In 2009, President Obama nominated Tammy to be an Assistant Secretary at the United States Department of Veterans Affairs.  There, she headed the department’s effort to end veteran homelessness and was a leader in initiatives for female veterans.  She also implemented innovative efforts such as creating the Office of Social Media and Online Communications and the Office for Tribal Government Relations.

In Congress, Tammy is focused on growing our economy by advocating for small businesses, investing in infrastructure, improving the lives of our veterans and cutting government waste and fraud.  Tammy serves on the House Armed Services and House Oversight and Government Reform Committees.

Tammy, her husband Bryan, a Major in the U.S. Army, and their daughter Abigail live in Hoffman Estates, Illinois.

2011 Honoree

Coalition for a Better Chinese American Community

The Coalition for a Better Chinese American Community (CBCAC) has made its mission to unite the resources of member organizations to empower Chinese American communities in Greater Chicago.  As a coalition of member organizations, CBCAC carries out its mission through civic education, issue advocacy, communication with policy makers and community mobilization.

CBCAC seeks to impact the greater Chinatown community.  Traditionally, Chinatown has been viewed as the commercial district surrounding Cermak and Wentworth.  Thirty years ago, nearly all of the Chinese residents lived in this area.  But now, the population has spread beyond Chinatown/Armour Square into Bridgeport, McKinley Park, Brighton Park, Douglas and the South Loop.  The Chinese population in this greater Chinatown community grew over 50% during the 1990-2000 decade and during the 2000-2010 decade and now totals over 27,000.  While this community is often viewed as homogeneous, there is great diversity.  This diversity reflects when a person or family immigrated to the U.S., educational background, language spoken and socio-economic status.  While most communities are defined by a narrow socio-economic range, Chinatown’s identity is built around a shared ethnicity.

2010 Honoree

Honorable Paul M. Igasaki, Chair and Chief Judge of the Administrative Review Board at the U.S. Department of Labor

Mr. Igasaki served as a consultant on equal employment, diversity, legal services, government, and community affairs matters.  Clients included the Epilepsy Foundation, Southeast Asian Research Action Center, U.S. Army, and U.S. Air Force.

Mr. Igasaki served as vice chair, chair, and commissioner of the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission from 1994 until 2002.  Noted for his management overhaul of the Commission’s case handling system, his initiatives streamlined the process and eliminated the crippling case backlog.  Under his leadership, Mr. Igasaki moved the Commission to protect the rights of all Americans, regardless of immigration status and he participated in the development of the Americans with Disabilities Act and the establishment of sexual and racial harassment standards in the United States.  Mr. Igasaki represented the Commission in the announcement and settlement of the landmark Mitsubishi Motors of America case, which involved the largest discrimination award for sexual harassment.

Prior to his appointment to the Commission by President William Jefferson Clinton, Mr. Igasaki was the executive director of the Asian Law Caucus in San Francisco, the nation’s first Asian Pacific American civil rights legal organization.  He also served as staff to the late Rep. Robert Matsui’s campaign for the U.S. Senate in California and as a lobbyist and representative for the Japanese American Citizens League, where he worked on funding for the World War II Japanese American redress claims, immigration reform, and the Civil Rights Acts of 1989-91.  Early in his career, Mr. Igasaki served as liaison to Asian Americans for the late Chicago Mayor Harold Washington and as counsel to the Chicago Commission on Human Relations.

2009 Honoree

Nancy Chen, former Director of U.S. Senator Paul Simon’s Chicago Office

Like Judge Otaka, Ms. Nancy Chen is an Asian American pioneer in politics.  In Illinois, she was one of the first Asian Americans in a position of leadership in any political office.  Chen has been a longtime advocate for the Asian American community, a champion for justice and fairness in policy, and a fierce mentor for emerging leaders.

Nancy Chen led the Midwest regional office of the Women’s Bureau, a federal agency designated by Congress to address issues and concerns of working women from 1997 to 2010.  She was the first Asian American regional administrator in the history of the Women’s Bureau, U.S. Department of Labor. Nancy directed and developed the regional programs to address issues and concerns of working women in the states of Illinois, Indiana, Minnesota, Michigan, Ohio and Wisconsin.  Under Nancy’s leadership, this office has been a prominent champion for women on equal pay, financial literacy, workplace flexibility and non-traditional employment, especially in math, science and technology careers within the six states.

Nancy’s career reflected a rich history of public and community service in Illinois and Washington, D.C.  Prior to joining the Women’s Bureau, Nancy served as Director of Asian Pacific American Outreach at the White House Office of Presidential Personnel under the Clinton Administration to identify and promote qualified Asian American candidates for key political appointments throughout the second Clinton Administration.

Before her Washington tour, for six years, Nancy was Director of U.S. Senator Paul Simon’s Chicago office overseeing the Senator’s legislative and constituent programs relating to Chicago and northern Illinois.  As a key advisor, she played an important role in Senator Simon’s achievements relating to family and business immigration legislation, civil rights and economic development.

Since her retirement in 2010, Nancy remains committed to empowering and advancing women and minorities.  Nancy was appointed to serve on Governor Pat Quinn’s Advisory Council on Women.  She also serves as a Board of Counselor at the Paul Simon Public Policy Institute in Illinois.  A strong believer in electing more women into government of all levels, she was actively involved in Tammy Duckworth’s congressional race in 2012 and Sheila Simon’s campaign for Illinois Comptroller.