Ellen Somekawa

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Ellen Somekawa

Ellen Somekawa is a Philadelphia activist. Executive Director at Folk Arts-Cultural Treasures Charter School. Staff have included her husband Eric Joselyn, Ngo Thanh Nhan, and Debora Kodish.


In the staid, nearly all-white Minneapolis suburb of Wayzata, Somekawa was the girl who wore a black armband to classes at Wayzata High.

She earned top grades. But while other kids cheered at football games and jockeyed for popularity, Somekawa marched in protests and skipped the senior prom.

"She had her own views," her friend Kathy Bergman-Baer said.

Bergman-Baer was 8 when her family bought a home on Ridgeview Drive, where Carl Somekawa and Mari Somekawa were raising Ellie and her older brother, Roger Somekawa.

The Somekawas were the only Asian family on the block.

Carl Somekawa, an accountant, labored in his garden on the weekends. His wife helped out at his office and tended the children. Their house was immaculate.

At the outbreak of World War II, Carl Somekawa was the college-age son of a general-store owner in Portland, Oregon. He and his family were sent to the Minidoka War Relocation Center in the high desert of Idaho. High-school student Mari Kawanami and her parents were taken 1,400 miles from their home in San Jose, California, to the Heart Mountain camp in Wyoming.

Mari earned her diploma while imprisoned.

An early-release program by chance brought both to Minneapolis, where some Japanese were being resettled. They met at a Methodist church event and married in 1947.

When Ellie Somekawa was 15, someone at a Japanese American Citizens League dinner handed her a leaflet. It explained how Japanese had been locked up by a government that saw them as potential traitors.

Somekawa was shocked. And she realized, in a moment of clarity so profound it remains with her still, that society possessed a specific view of a whole group of people - her people. That it treated them differently based on their race, and that the treatment was unjust.

She came to Philadelphia in 1983 to advance her education, earning a master's degree in history at the University of Pennsylvania. Five years later, she joined Asian Americans United as a summer staffer and in 1996 became its fourth director.

Today she lives in the city's Olney section with her husband, artist and teacher Eric Joselyn, and their children, 16-year-old Tai and 13-year-old Chi. [1]


Studied at University of Minnesota.

Activist partnership

Ellen Somekawa, Eric Joselyn

When Ellen Somekawa asked for volunteers to help her research a defense contractor who had been recruiting on the University of Minnesota campus, Eric Joselyn’s hand shot in the air.

“I’ll do it!” said Joselyn, then a college freshman.

Somekawa wanted him to dig through papers and microfilm reels in the basement of the campus library to inform the work of a campus anti-nuclear organization called Northern Sun Alliance. The group wanted to protest the defense contractor, in part, because of its Trident nuclear submarine.

“She drafted me for the grunge sub-basement task of factual research so we could then mount a broader mass campaign against their presence,” he said.

Somekawa, now 58, and Joselyn, 54, (in 2014) have spent much of their adult lives immersed in campaigns for social justice.

After coming to Philadelphia and earning her master’s degree in urban history from the University of Pennsylvania, Somekawa worked with Jesse Jackson’s Rainbow Coalition campaign. Joselyn too has been politically active over the years, speaking out against apartheid and the Iraq war.

Both activists support the Philadelphia Public School Notebook.

In fact, Joselyn was one of the co-founders of the publication 20 years ago. Both he and his partner Somekawa have been long-time donors – and members since the creation of the membership program in 2009.

In the early 1990s, Joselyn worked with Paul Socolar, now the Notebook’s editor and publisher, in an organization called E-Quality, a local parent-teacher alliance that sought systemwide student-centered reform. At that time, Socolar suggested starting an education publication.

“The content he envisioned really complemented the other work we’d been doing,” Joselyn said. “It made sense [given] the broad-based motion in the city.”

In addition to being a mainstay of the working group that launched the publication, Joselyn, who studied art at the University of Minnesota, also produced the logos and began creating the editorial cartoons that have graced every print edition since the debut issue in 1994.

Joselyn is an award-winning artist and an art teacher at the Folk Arts-Cultural Treasures Charter School – a K-8 school in Chinatown that Somekawa helped to found and that both of their children have attended. He said he has referred people at his school to articles in the Notebook and has clipped stories to distribute to colleagues.

The Notebook allows parents to become better informed, Joselyn said.[2]

Charter school comrades


Helen Gym, Ellen Somekawa, Ngo Thanh Nhan 2012.

FRSO connection


In 1992 Ellen Somekawa guest edited an edition Freedom Road Socialist Organization's Forward Motion. "Marxism and Asian Americans": The Struggle Continues!, Forward Motion Asian Pacific American Special Issue edited by Fred Ho, Meizhu Lui, Ellen Somekawa and Dao Tran, Vol. 11, No. 3, Jamaica Plain, MA, 1992.

FRSO member


In 1992, Ellen Somekawa was a member of Freedom Road Socialist Organization.

Forward Motion

Forward Motion, July 1992, page 12

In 1992 Neeta Patel, Ellen Somekawa, Dao Tran, of Asian Americans United contributed an article "Asian lives do not come cheap" to the July 1992 issue of Freedom Road Socialist Organization's Forward Motion.

"Remaking Urban America"

Asian Americans United June 7, 2009:

MANY THANKS to everyone -- speakers, community organizations, Drexel's School of Education -- who made this community dialogue such a success!!


Photo of AAU members at "Remaking Urban America" sponsored by Drexel's Multicultural Collaborative on June 5.

Bret Flaherty, Scott Kurashige, Neeta Patel, Ellen Somekawa, Helen Gym.

Youth Power Rally

Asian Americans United December 4, 2010:


Youth Power Rally @ South Philly High - Dec 3, 2010 — with Ellen Somekawa, Helen Gym and Judy At Aau.

"The Guardians"

City Paper October 21, 2010 Big Vision Award "The Guardians" : AAU with SASA! — with Joan May T. Cordova, Judy At Aau, Nancy Dung Nguyen, Wei Chen, Ellen Somekawa, Helen Gym, Alison Sprague and Xu Lin

Corbett protest

Asian Americans United May 12, 2012:


On Tuesday May 15th, Governor Corbett is coming to Prince Theater in Philadelphia to address the Greater Philadelphia Chamber of Commerce. During his time as Governor, Corbett has made massive cuts to education, medical assistance, and social services while he is spending $685 million on new prison construction. His recent budget alone proposes $264 million in cuts to higher education, $319 millio... See More — with Lai Har Cheung, Xu Lin, Alice Vuong, Judy At Aau, Paul Socolar, Masaru Edmund Nakawatase, Erika Almiron Niz, Mica Root, Wei Chen, Nancy Dung Nguyen, Desi Burnette, Maxine Chang, Helen Gym, Betty Lui, Erika Funk, Ellen Somekawa, Joan May T. Cordova and Alix Mariko Webb.

"Challenging Anti-Asian Harassment"

"We Have the Power to Make Change: The Role of Community Lawyering in Challenging Anti-Asian Harassment at South Philadelphia High School" by Cecilia Chen and Andrew Leong. The authors thankedd Ellen Somekawa, Helen Gym, and Xu Lin from Asian Americans United; Nancy Nguyen and Michelle Nguyen from Boat People SOS; Tram Nguyen and Alison Sprague from Victim/Witness Services of South Philadelphia; Mia-Lia Kiernan, Debbie Wei and the Asian Student Association of Philadelphia for their courageous efforts to address bias-based harassment at SPHS. [3]

Defending Asian students

Asian Americans United December 2, 2013:


On December 3rd, 2009, 26 Asian immigrant students were attacked both inside and directly outside of South Philadelphia High School. The students boycotted school for eight days, demanding accountability from school leadership. AAU worked with a strong and passionate team of allies to support the students. Most importantly, the students were unified, they stood strong and they didn’t back down…and... See More — with Alison Sprague, Duong Nghe Ly, Nancy Dung Nguyen, Wei Chen, Cecilia Chen, Neeta Patel, Xu Lin, Betty Lui, Masaru Edmund Nakawatase, Judy At Aau, Joan May T. Cordova, Ellen Somekawa, Helen Gym, Alice Vuong and Maxine J. Chang.

No stadium campaign

In 2001 Debbie Wei worked with Ellen Somekawa to stop a stadium being built, near Philadelphia;s Chinatown.

Ellen Somekawa is a community activist in Philadelphia. She has been involved with Asian Americans United for the past twelve years.
As a child growing up on the fringes of urban Philadelphia, Debbie Wei remembers heading to Chinatown every weekend to buy the food staples which nourished the spirits and bodies of her immigrant parents and three siblings. Now her own children find the same sustenance in the same place, and her hope remains for the community to carry on maintaining hearts and souls for generations to come.
In the spring of 2000, a shock hit residents of Philadelphia's Chinatown. Out of the blue, the City pegged our neighborhood as their intended site for a new baseball stadium. In response, the Chinatown community came together to fight the project like we haven't seen since the mid-'70s. Youth and elders, conservatives and progressives, immigrant and U.S.-born organized and fought using tactics ranging all the way up to a Chinatown-wide general strike. Our group, Asian Americans United, joined this broad array of forces in the struggle.[4]

Asian Americans United

Ed Nakawatase‎, Debbie Wei, Ellen Somekawa

Asian Americans United founders were Debbie Wei and Ellen Somekawa.

2011 board

Asian Americans United June 11, 2011:

Welcome to AAU's Board!


Ally Vuong, Maxine Chang, Mia-Lia Kiernan, Judy At Aau, Helen Gym, Alice Vuong, Xu Lin, Masaru Edmund Nakawatase, Maxine Chang, Joan May T. Cordova, Betty Lui and Ellen Somekawa.

AAU event

Friday, April 29. 2013 Asian Americans United Exhibit Closing Night & Special Forum on the Shifting Politics of Race at Cedar Works.

Exhibit Closing Night: (5:30 to 6:45 pm) Your last chance to view AAU’s exhibit, We Cannot Keep Silent, at the Philadelphia Folklore Project (735 S. 50th Street). Curated by Helen Gym, Ellen Somekawa and Joan May Cordova. Featuring photos by Harvey Finkle and Kathy Shimizu, first person voices of boycott participants, and oral histories.

Special Forum (7pm): Speaker presentations followed by dialogue time. Light Refreshments will be served.


  • Scott Kurashige, Ph.D: Asian American Movements, Anti-Asian Violence & the Intersection with African American History
  • John Elliott Churchville, Ph.D., J.D.: African American Movements in Philadelphia & the Intersection with Asian American History.[5]


Folk Arts-Cultural Treasures Charter School founders were;[6]

Progressive Philly Rising

Ron Whitehorne February 3, 2014;


Wife Patty took this picture of me yesterday in which I appear to be a Methodist preacher. Not the case. Endorsing John Hanger at the Progressive Philly Rising event at Arch St. Methodist. Proud to share the podium with Nancy Dung Nguyen, Kia Philpot Hinton Hinton, Desi Burnette, Helen Gym, Bill Fletcher, Jr., Ociele Hawkins, Dina Yarmus, Ellen Somekawa and, of course, John Hanger. A spirited, multi-racial crowd of a couple of hundred people strongly identified with Hanger's call for a fight to defend public education, attack income inequality and end mass incarceration. Join Progressive Philly Rising and help build a new rainbow coalition in our town.

MMP comrades

Media Mobilizing Project April 7, 2017:


With Helen Gym, Ellen Somekawa and Alix Mariko Webb.