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IRENE HIRANO INOUYE '70, MPA ‘73
By Jasmine Ako

Building US-Japan ties, expanding access for women and families to quality healthcare, and promoting humanities and public arts programs - although incredibly diverse - are just a few of the initiatives that Irene Hirano Inouye ‘70, MPA ‘73 has tackled in her career. In recognition of her numerous contributions to society through her leadership and global collaboration efforts, the USC Sol Price School of Public Policy granted Hirano Inouye the 2013 Global Ambassador Award.

Growing up during the civil rights era, Hirano Inouye saw what she describes as “a lot of injustice.” As a first-generation Japanese American whose grandfather’s family was incarcerated during World War II, she also had a personal connection to the impact of injustice. These formative experiences ignited her long-term passion for community service and education, and a belief that it was possible to work with others to instigate change.

That belief has manifested itself in Hirano Inouye’s expansive career in the nonprofit sector, where she has devoted herself for over three decades to advancing opportunities for numerous communities and causes.
 

 

From her earlier roles as executive director of the To Help Everyone (T.H.E.) Clinic in Los Angeles to her current position as President of the US-Japan Council, she has steered organizations and programs that promote diversity, expand human rights and ultimately strengthen communities around the world.

Founding USC APAA

Hirano Inouye’s efforts to build and support communities began before she even entered the workforce, at no place other than USC. Alongside several classmates including current Asian Pacific American Alumni Association (APAA) President Karen Wong JD’86, she helped to found the USC APAA, originally called the Asian Pacific American Support Group, to fill an unmet need in the Asian Pacific American (APA) community.

“A number of us felt that there should be greater involvement of Asian Pacific American alumni, and this was at the time when the Asian Pacific American Student Services Office (APASS) was being created,” says Hirano Inouye. “Given the large number of Asian Americans that had gone to USC, we felt that there was an opportunity to not only support students, but to engage people.”

In the decades since the APAA was founded, the APA alumni connection to USC has grown in leaps and bounds.

“There have always been APA alumni that were connected to USC, but they were connected with specific academic departments,” reflects Hirano Inouye. “Also, the identity of an APA community is something that is still evolving. In terms of USC over the years, people are much more willing to be involved and to be engaged in something that is pan-Asian as opposed to being connected to one particular ethnic group and/or one particular department of the school.”

A long-time, dedicated contributor to both the APA community and USC, Hirano Inouye received the USC Alumni Association Merit Award in 1994 and USC APAA’s Leadership Award in 2010, and currently serves on the Board of Advisors for the Price School’s Center for Philanthropy and Public Policy. Through her current philanthropic endeavors with organizations such as the Ford Foundation and Kresge Foundation, Ms. Hirano hopes to further awareness of the diverse needs that the Asian American community faces.

“The work that I’m doing in the philanthropic sector is to really have foundations and others understand the diversity of needs and supporting organizations in the APA community,” she explains. “There are many Asian communities that are poor and have a greater need, so I think understanding and unpacking what the different needs are is important.”

 

Creating a Foundation for Success

Hirano Inouye recognizes her USC education for helping to set the foundation for a successful career in the nonprofit world. Completing her master’s degree in public administration through a fellowship with the National Institute of Health, she received valuable training and tutelage in healthcare administration which proved directly applicable to her first major work with the T.H.E. Clinic.

She also gained useful transferable skills from her general public administration coursework for her next role, as she was approached to head the newly formed Japanese American National Museum. Her work as founding president and CEO of the museum, where she lead the museum’s efforts to connect the public to Japanese American heritage for 20 years, is one that she is most proud of.

“Building the Japanese American National Museum, really from the ground up with no existing institution, was very gratifying,” she says. “It was gratifying to be able to see how people work together and can accomplish a big vision and a big idea.”

Global Thinking & Civic Engagement

Despite her already very accomplished resume, Hirano Inouye’s to-do list is as full as ever. In her current position leading the US-Japan Council, an organization dedicated to promoting people-to-people relationships between the US and Japan, she aims to motivate young people to think more globally.
 

 

“I’m working on encouraging and supporting young people to become more global in their thinking and experience, encouraging them to travel abroad, particularly in terms of young Americans - young Japanese Americans included - to travel to Japan and around the country,” she shares

No stranger to the political landscape - her late husband, Hawaii Senator Daniel Inouye, served for nearly 50 years in the U.S. Senate and was the highest ranking Asian American politician in US. History - Hirano Inouye also aspires to encourage Asian Americans to get involved in politics.

“It’s important that we have others who are thinking about running for office, whether it’s at a local or national level,” she says. “It’s important to encourage young Asian Pacific Americans to think about going into politics.”

No matter what field they aspire to go into, students can look to Hirano Inouye as an example of what can be achieved through employing effective collaboration, and also having strong beliefs and values.

“One’s values are important to maintain strong, ethical practice and to understand that these values are important,” she says. “Also, it’s very important for Asian Pacific Americans to really understand their own culture and heritage. From a leadership standpoint, understanding that to be successful in a leadership role in the US, often doesn’t mean that you have to give up your cultural values or how you grew up.”

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