How Student Adena Ishii Made History With the League of Women Voters

3 min
Law student and East Bay voter education leader, Adena Ishii (Ajakari Mark Angelo Porter Robinson)

The 100th anniversary of the 19th Amendment, which enshrined women’s constitutional right to vote in the United States, is on Aug. 18, 2020. So we’re asking politically engaged women in our community to share their personal voting stories with you.

Today: meet law student and precedent-setting president Adena Ishii.

Adena Ishii’s not quite 30 years old and still in school — going into her second year at Santa Clara University School of Law.

But she’s already served as president of the League of Women Voters of Berkeley, Albany and Emeryville.

She’s the first woman of color ever to hold this position for the nationwide, voter education nonprofit, and also its youngest-ever president. She even appeared in one of their recent national ad campaigns.

"My role is not just to be a voter, but to be an engaged and informed voter," Ishii said. "And what that means for me has been to be involved with the League of Women Voters."

Ishii said she didn’t always feel that way. She used to think of the league as mostly being for people who were old, well-off and white.

"I was kind of like hustling through community college, working three jobs and trying to make ends meet," she said. "And I didn't really see a role for myself there."

19th Amendment Centennial

But Ishii changed her mind after being recruited to help out with voter registration and student government elections at Berkeley City College.

"It wasn't until folks would invite me to events and try to engage me that I realized, like, 'Oh, I could have a place here,'" she said.

Share your own voting story with KQED — we'd love to potentially feature you too

Ishii said she didn’t know about the league’s racist roots back then.

The organization was founded in 1920 — the year the 19th Amendment was ratified and women got the right to vote — by a group of mostly wealthy, white suffragists, like Carrie Chapman Catt.

Suffragist and League of Women's Voters founder Carrie Chapman Catt. (Courtesy National Woman's Party Records)

Some of the league’s founders, including Catt, have come under fire over the years for upholding racist values and excluding people of color from their campaigns. In 2018, the league published an article addressing the prejudiced elements in its past, citing a quote from a speech Catt made while lobbying Southern senators in pursuit of the 19th Amendment: “White supremacy will be strengthened, not weakened, by women’s suffrage.”

Ishii, whose Japanese American forebears were thrown in concentration camps by the U.S. government during World War II, made it her mission during her 2017-2019 years as president to help the league become more inclusive and diverse.

She grew her league’s membership by 50 percent, brought more people of color onto the board and attracted many new members under 30.

“When I say ‘outreach,’ I mean actually, literally going into another space," she said while coaching regional leaders about how to attract fresh blood in a workshop at the league's 2017 California convention. "Going somewhere new; talking to new folks; visiting different organizations; going out into the community.'"

Ishii said Californians have a blind spot when it comes to equity and diversity issues, like voter turnout. 

"People want to believe that because California is so liberal, that we care so much about people's rights and diversity and all of this, that people don't want to think that it's a problem," she said.

And she doesn’t think the universal mail-in ballot is going to solve the problem. She said more needs to be done to help those who don’t have ready access to a mailbox, or need special assistance with filling out their ballots.

"There’s definitely education that needs to be done around that," Ishii said. "What do you do with your mail-in ballot? Is it safe? I think people are concerned about those things. And those are all barriers for people, especially underrepresented populations, people of color and low income folks."

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Now share your story with us

Use the box below to tell us about the first time you voted. We'd love to potentially feature your experience on KQED: