Kuma Takamura never really intended to get involved with the Greater Mankato Diversity Council.
That is, until his wife brought home an application for herself to volunteer as a facilitator for the organization’s staple program: the Prejudice Reduction Workshops.
Last year, more than 8,000 public- and private-school students participated in the workshops that address acceptance of diversity in all its forms. They are administered around the region by dozens of volunteer facilitators.
As Takamura began perusing his wife’s application, he also began thinking to himself that “this is really exciting.
“I think I’ll apply, too.”
As circumstance would have it, Takamura’s wife never really found enough time to volunteer with regularity. But since Takamura works as a consultant for a Japanese company — and is at the mercy of a 14-hour time difference — he has plenty of flexible time during the day.
The former manager for Thin Film Technology in North Mankato and former executive director of the Minnesota Center for Engineering and Manufacturing Excellence at Minnesota State University began giving workshops as often as possible.
He joined the Diversity Council’s board of directors and served for nearly two years.
And now, Takamura has been hired as the Diversity Council’s new education director. In that role, Takamura will be primarily responsible for continuing to improve and expand the workshop program.
“I really enjoy it,” said Takamura, who left Japan for the United States in 1980. “Japan is so homogenous. Here, it is not. It’s a learning experience for me and it’s also something good for people and society.”
Takamura — whose real name is Tsugohiko but adopted the nickname Kuma (meaning “bear” in Japanese) when a former supervisor could not pronounce his real name — said one of his initial goals is to improve the workshop program for students in the primary grades, and perhaps even expand it to include preschool students.
He recalled one presentation in which a first-grade student raised his hand to say that his grandfather told him the Japanese were bad people. Takamura also recalled a visit to the Blue Earth County Library in which a group of young students listened with rapt attention while he read Japanese folk tales — in the Japanese language.
Takamura said the pair of stories illustrate the ways in which young minds can be shaped by their experiences:
“It’s so important to enlighten them as early as possible. Younger kids are so much more open.”
Takamura said he also hopes to begin publicizing the workshops to members of the public, so that they too can come and view or participate. And he wants to develop a more quantitative tool for evaluating the workshops’ success.
“Being a scientist, that’s something I’m interested in,” he said.
Takamura follows former education directors Mary Lou Kudela and Honey Stempka. Bukata Hayes, executive director of the Diversity Council, said the search for new director lasted several months and yielded a quality candidate.
“We think he’ll continue our great legacy of education directors,” Hayes said. “We’re excited to have him join us.”