By May S. Ruiz
On March 4, Maki Hsieh, Arcadia Performing Arts Foundation Executive Director, was honored as the 2019 Woman of the Year by Senator Susan Rubio of the 22nd district. Since 1987, the California Legislative Women’s Caucus has awarded women in each State and Assembly district this recognition at a ceremony held at the California State Senate Chamber at the state capitol.
The day after the event, Hsieh is still in disbelief at the unexpected accolade. I’m sitting at her dining table to chat about the award, how she was chosen, and what it means to her.
“I didn’t know this was coming and I was caught completely by surprise!” Hsieh declares. “I spearheaded Arcadia’s first formal Chinese New Year’s festival in January. This was the first time the city sponsored it, and the foundation organized and helped promote it. Because it was a special event, elected public officials attended it and gave certificates.
“One of the officials was Senator Susan Rubio, who was a teacher at Monrovia for 17 years. She was really impressed by how hard the Foundation works for arts education and arts excellence in school. When it came time for her to honor her first ‘Woman of the Year,’ she and her staff went through a whole vetting process. She has a million people in her district and they looked at a lot of candidates. And my name came up.”
Continues Hsieh, “ Her team contacted me from Sacramento and asked me for my biography but I really didn’t have one. The last time I wrote something about myself was for a press release that went out in 2017 when I was appointed Executive Director for the Foundation. So I dug up the press release from our website, downloaded the PDF, and sent it to them. When I asked what it was for, they said ‘We’re looking at ways to increase our arts outreach to the community so we wanted to learn more about you.’
“Then in February, her office kept trying to schedule time on my calendar. And every time they requested to reserve an appointment with me, they said ‘The senator would like to speak with you for a few minutes to tell you about the award.’ All along I thought it was about arts outreach. But, again, other things took precedence, like fundraising and dealing with a lot of issues.
“Finally, they called and said, ‘Please, you have to speak with the senator for a few minutes.’ I was in Las Vegas then and this was when the city had three snowfall days for the first time in over a decade. I was stuck at the airport and couldn’t leave. But they insisted that Senator Rubio needed a few minutes to speak with me. So I asked, ‘What is this in regard to? If this relating to the art outreach program, I would be happy to connect with her at a later time.’ They still didn’t tell me what it was about or that the senator needed to speak with me because they had to book my flight.
“When we ultimately connected, I said ‘Thank you very much, Senator, for giving me a call. I look forward to hearing how you would like us to help you.’ And she said, ‘No, it’s not about you helping me. It’s about me honoring you!’ And I said, ‘Honoring me for what?’ Then she said, ‘Every year the California State Senate honors a ‘Woman of the Year’ from their district. This year I would like you to be my very first ‘Woman of the Year’ and we will fly you to Sacramento.’ It was an immense surprise to me, I started tearing up, and all I managed to utter was ‘Really?! Me?!’”
Hsieh adds, “Being bestowed this honor got me thinking about my mother’s journey. She started her new life in this country with nothing but a dream. She first came here in the 1950s to Sacramento, with two suitcases, not knowing any English. She was 19 years old. She toiled her way through Sacramento City College and then Cal State Sacramento – as a busser at Sacramento’s German restaurant; as a live-in maid at former Supreme Court Associate Justice Anthony Kennedy’s home, for free room and board; and as a laborer at the Chinese laundromat, for ten cents an hour – until she eventually got her Masters at USC. And here I am one generation later, getting this award. Going back to Sacramento, recalling my mom’s path, had special meaning to me.”
This recognition isn’t merely an achievement for Hsieh, but for the Foundation as well. She explains, “We have a shoestring budget so getting free publicity is a god-send. I always say ‘A rising tide lifts all boats.’ And if I’m that rising tide in the region, it will lift the foundation in many ways. Fundraising is one thing, but more important than fundraising is awareness that arts excellence is a legacy and it will go away if we don’t support it. Arts excellence is not funded by the state and it is severely lacking in focus and vision. This honor will elevate the region as a cultural mecca and Arcadia as a destination for kids who already are high achievers but can really benefit from something more.”
“A crucial mission of mine is getting young people off the screen,” Hsieh explains. We have to give them a lot of things to do – activities that are fun – that have direct impact in their lives. It was, therefore, a fortunate development when the district rolled out and funded mandatory orchestra or general music in 4th and 5th grade, for one period a week, throughout all six elementary schools. In the past, music was a pull-out system where you signed out and you were pulled out of class. But those kids were always the ones who didn’t want to be in class and needed a reason not to be there. Now it’s mandatory, everyone’s on the same page.
“I didn’t think it was a big deal until my 10-year old daughter came home one day and said ‘We have to pick an instrument.’ I said, ‘But you’re already doing drums and piano.’ To which she replied, ‘No, this is mandatory, it’s going to be part of our school day and we’re all really excited. Every day at lunch we’re talking about a different instrument to pick so we could have a quartet, or we can have a band, or we can do this …’ and on and on she went.
“It isn’t just about learning to play an instrument or being on stage. It’s about having a shared experience with their peers, which is something they’re missing. Today kids play ‘Overwatch’ on the TV with a headset that connects through WiFi with other kids in their home doing the game. They’re playing and watching a game but they’re not having a communal shared social experience, it’s all on the screen. Furthermore, seniors aren’t able to participate in children’s lives because they don’t play computer games on TV. And suddenly you have a whole generation of kids who are disengaged from their parents, grandparents, veterans, and those people who can really pass on their wisdom. Children can use their artistic talents to be involved with them. ”
Most of the honorees in the ‘Woman of the Year’ are in the academic, medical, or political fields and the write-ups about them in the event book reflected that. Hsieh’s bio spotlighted her artistic achievements before touching on her professional career, which helps tremendously in providing a model for young people to emulate.
Hsieh expands on the point. “Artistic talent is a gift from your family, from ancestors, from DNA, from the heavens. And what you do with it is your gift to the community and the world. If you do it as a side thing and have fun, that’s fine too in its own merit. But, I think, if you focus on your gifts and work on them, they would evolve into being a means to effect change. It’s an agency to help your community and, in a way, it becomes a public service. My musical ability made me the right fit for my position at the Foundation, which led to my being honored. I didn’t appreciate that until now.”
And Hsieh’s accomplishments at the Foundation are as impressive as her artistic talent. She discloses, “When I first started, our fundraising wasn’t covering operations –we were in the red and we had a debt obligation we couldn’t pay. Diversity programming was almost non-existent and it was focused on a certain demographic. The founder, Mickey Segal, actually walked out on the board because he didn’t feel that the Foundation was doing what it was called on to do. I inherited a lot of things that needed to be fixed pretty quickly. It wasn’t a five-year plan, it had to be done now or we were going under. Fast forward to today, we’ve paid off our debt and we’re going to be in the black for the first time in our operation’s history. We had a 114% net sales growth; we’ve just acquired a match challenge – in seven days we raised $88,000 towards that match. We recently secured our first $1 million planned gift. We’re really starting to see traction in both awareness and funding for arts excellence. Art excellence is such a great legacy in our region and it can’t go away. It’s a battle we have to win.”
Offering her assessment of what this honor means, Hsieh says, “The ‘Woman of the Year’ has been an annual tradition during the Women in History month. But this year, I believe, it has a greater significance to many people because of the growing trend in giving female leaders a place in the national scene. At the awards yesterday, we had the first female lieutenant governor of California.
“Being chosen ‘Woman of the Year’ out of one million people in the 14 cities in Senator Rubio’s district, heralds a wonderful opportunity for Asian females. Until now, we didn’t a voice. When my Mom came here, there were signs that said ‘Japs should not sit here,’ ‘Japs are not allowed,’ ‘Chinks go to the back.’ She wanted to work for the state and she interviewed constantly, but they always picked the Caucasian male. The door was closed. While the door isn’t entirely open, I feel the welcome mat is there. We still have to knock on the door to be admitted, but at least we’re no longer being sent away.”
As a woman, I am proud of Hsieh’s award. And as an Asian, I would like to think that it is as much her singular honor as it is her mother’s and the other Asian women who arrived in America before her. It so eloquently speaks to how far we’ve come as a people in this country. And it is so reflective of our silent crusade to be recognized, not by going out in the streets to rant about the acknowledgement we deserve, but by quietly demonstrating through talent and action what we’re made of and what we’re capable of accomplishing.