JSNH&B • Spring 2011 • vol. 4 no. 1

Standing Guard: Our Story

by Dr. Debra Sutphen

Dean, Sierra College Liberal Arts Division, Co-Project Director, Standing Guard Project

Editor’s Note: In 2002, The Standing Guard Project at Sierra College directed the school's rich resources toward a variety of interdisciplinary projects focused on commemorating the 60th anniversary of World War II Japanese American internment and on the lessons that event in our history teaches about the necessity of protecting and upholding the rights of all United States citizens under the Constitution. The resulting endeavor merged more than ten different disciplines in a college-wide, multi-faceted educational vehicle that breached traditional classroom walls, united instruction, blurred the differences between liberal and vocational arts, and drew dozens of members of the local community into active participation in the college through the project's many different and ongoing programs.

The following is a review of the history and future of Standing Guard presented by Dr. Debra Sutphen, Dean of the Sierra College Liberal Arts Division and Co-Project Director of the Standing Guard project. At the beginning of the project, Sutphen was not yet Dean, but a Professor of History.


Project begins when Rebecca Gregg calls a Fall 2000 flex meeting. The meeting was focused on how to commemorate the internment of Japanese Americans and their other experiences during WWII, with focus on Placer County Japanese Americans. In doing this Rebecca sought to fulfill a promise made 25 years earlier to Ida Otani, Sierra staffer, to tell her story and the stories of other local Japanese Americans concerning their WWII experiences. Lynn Medeiros, Professor of History, and I attended that meeting, and afterward got to talking about doing an oral history teaching project via the History 35 special topics classes.

We went to Bill Tsuji, then Dean of Liberal Arts, to ask his opinion and help. He thought the idea was intriguing, but told us that we’d be “lucky to get ten Japanese Americans to talk to us” about what happened to them and their families during WWII. He said he was the son of a family interned during the war, and had been born in an internment camp, Manzanar. Bill said he’d help us by allowing us, if we got the necessary enrollments, to teach two separate History 35 classes that would meet on the same day/same time. We put the classes together for Spring 2001, got the enrollments, and asked Rebecca Gregg and Randy Snook if their Photo students would work with our History students on the oral history project. They agreed.


History 35 classes join with Photo classes and we provide students the historical background for anti-Asian prejudice in the US up to and including WWII, then we train the students in effective oral history techniques. At the same time the Photo students join our classes from time to time regarding the background and then go through their own training regarding how to photograph for oral history work (very personal photos taken during very sensitive interviewing).

Meanwhile, as the class begins Lynn and Deb approach the Placer JACL (Japanese American Citizens League), at Bill's advice and with his intro, to request funding assistance for the project (specifically to purchase 25 tape recorders) and also to determine if they would help us establish a narrator network. They agreed to both. Their assistance in establishing the narrator network was essential.

Also, Rebecca and Deb applied for and received for Sierra College a California Civil Liberties Public Education grant for $12,000 to use toward the project. Finally, toward the middle of the spring 2001 semester we sent our first student teams out to interview our first narrators. The narrator response was very warm and praising. The narrators felt strongly that telling their stories about internment and all of its attendant humiliations was important to establishing the historical record that was sparse, at best, regarding internment. Narrators told our students things they had never told their own children or, in some cases, their own spouses. Soon, narrators were calling potential narrators in the community and urging them to talk to our student teams. Students who did the interviewing returned to our classroom with remarkable stories that their narrators had told them.

Standing Guard posterBy the end of the semester we had 39 narrators as part of our project. We asked Tom Fillebrown and Pam Johnson from Applied Art and Design Department, to work with us to design and develop a coffee table-style book that we could use to publish the narrator stories. We would also put together a CD of extras, such as photo albums and the full transcribed interviews—some 3 to 4 hours long. Pam designed the CD and Tom the book. We worked with Gary Noy and Tricia Lord to edit the transcribed stories and the book in hopes of publishing the book on the 60th anniversary of WWII internment in February 2002.

In September 2001, Islamic radicals used jetliners as missiles to destroy the World Trade Center twin towers in New York City and a wing of the Pentagon in Washington, D.C. Shortly afterward, as rising anti-Muslim xenophobia gripped the US, Standing Guard created "Standing Guard NOW" to help educate the college community through special college-wide projects about WWII internment and the necessity for all Americans to preserve and protect the constitutional rights of all Americans. Over winter break the Standing Guard Publication Group (Rebecca Gregg, Lynn Medeiros, Randy Snook, Tom Fillebrown and I) put the finishing touches on the book, it was published on time that February. The original 1500 copies sold out in four months.

Editor’s Note: The Standing Guard Project produced the first publication of the Sierra College Press, which has grown into the only full-service academic press operated by a community college in the United States. The book was the award-winning Standing Guard: Telling Our Stories (2002), which compiled oral histories from survivors of the Internment period.

The book and the Standing Guard Project were recognized by the Placer Arts Council and with the Rice Diversity Award from the California Community College Chancellor's office. Members of the Project were invited to speak at community colleges and universities statewide and in Mississippi. Donations from the local community and elsewhere poured into the Project's Sierra College Foundation account – the Project eventually raised almost $100,000, to be dedicated to publication of the book and a sequel, as well as to a Japanese American Remembrance Garden to be built on the Rocklin campus.


Garden stone

Rebecca Gregg works with local nursery owner Hiroshi Matsuda to design the Standing Guard Remembrance Garden. Matsuda and others locally contributed the many Japanese features of the garden, including its large boulders, construction of its authentic Japanese gate, the lanterns, and the beautiful Black Pine trees.


On April 27, 2007, The Standing Guard Remembrance Garden is dedicated as part of the college's first Honorary Degree Ceremony. The college's Board of Trustees had agreed to be confer 86 honorary degrees on local Japanese Americans who had either contributed to the Standing Guard Project as narrators or who had been interned during WWI. Among those honored at the ceremony were several members of the all-Japanese American WWII 442nd Regimental Combat Team, the most decorated unit for its size in American history. The honorary degrees conferred that day marked the first move of its kind in California or the nation to honor those Japanese Americans who had sacrificed so much for their country during WWII. This ceremony is remembered in the accompanying photo gallery.


California State Assembly member Warren Furutani introduces a bill (AB 37) requiring all California public institutions of higher learning to locate and then grant honorary degrees to any Japanese Americans who had attended the various colleges and universities prior to WWII and had been unable to finish their educations because of internment. Rebecca Gregg, Marie Hayashida, Frank Kageta, and I were asked by Morgan Lynn, the California Community College Vice Chancellor and former Vice President and Interim President of Sierra College, to testify before the California Community College Board of Governors in support of Furutani's proposed bill. Sierra College was the first public institution of higher learning in the state of California to have identified and then conferred honorary degrees upon those Japanese Americans who had attended Sierra but had been unable to finish their educations because of WWII internment. Furutani's bill passed and was signed into law that spring. Sierra had led the state in ensuring this very important piece of recognition for the nation's Japanese Americans.

2009 to present

The Standing Guard Project continues. Lynn Medeiros worked with Randy Snook on a second learning community project that identified another thirty local Japanese Americans – mostly sons and daughters of the Nisei generation which had endured internment – and their students completed interviews and photo sessions with these people. The raw narratives will be edited and published in the foreseeable future as the second edition of Standing Guard: Telling Our Stories.