This summer, Emma Ito joined the Virginia Humanities team as our first-ever Director of Education. In her previous role at the Library of Virginia, she spearheaded an initiative to research Asian Pacific Islander Desi American (APIDA) history in the library’s collections and engaged with community members both across the state and nationally to highlight APIDA experiences through programming and outreach.
Emma’s work at Virginia Humanities is just getting started, but we wanted to catch up with her to talk about why it’s important to incorporate AAPI history and culture in K-12 education, learn how she’s coping with the COVID-19 pandemic, and maybe (just maybe) get the inside story on some of Emma’s literary themed tattoos.
You made a big career change right in the midst of the pandemic. That’s got to be exciting and maybe even a little scary. What drew you to this position and to Virginia Humanities?
It’s definitely a little bit exciting and scary but more exciting than scary for sure. I previously worked at the Library of Virginia as an Education & Program Specialist and was very lucky to get to know some of Virginia Humanities’ work from that role. I was especially familiar with VA Humanities because they collaborated with the Library of Virginia to create the exhibition New Virginians: 1619-2019 & Beyond, which included interviews with first-generation immigrants and refugees who arrived in Virginia after 1976. I think it is so important for people to be able to tell their own stories because stories are the fabric of history. I see storytelling as a priority at Virginia Humanities and that really drew me to the organization. I’ve loved living and working in Richmond, but I am also excited to be in a new building in Charlottesville. Another thing I love about Virginia Humanities (and the Library of Virginia!) is its state-wide reach. Education and outreach are integral throughout the entire state, and I love it when my work takes me on the road.
Our staff has been working in a hybrid model since May, spending some time in the office and some time working from home. Has it been a challenge getting to know people? What have you learned about your new colleagues?
I love the hybrid model, and I feel like I’ve met more people these past COVID years than ever before. There have been so many more accessible and different ways to connect with folks, and I have loved getting to know my new coworkers through Zoom. I already knew about some of the folks in Virginia Humanities from the incredible work they do, but I have to admit that in some ways I’ve been a little bit star-struck working with public historians like Justin Reid. It’s been exciting to learn how much my colleagues care about amplifying and sharing the histories and stories that create the fabric of Virginia.
You’ve done a lot of work related to Asian American and Pacific Islanders in Virginia. Why is that work important to you?
I’m Japanese American. I was born and raised in Virginia in the 1990s-2000s, but I don’t remember ever engaging with AAPI history in a K-12 classroom. When I reached college, and as I pursued my Master’s degree in History at Virginia Commonwealth University, I realized there was still so much I didn’t know and wished I had begun to explore at a younger age. I completed my thesis on the Japanese immigrant and Japanese American experience in Virginia from Jim Crow through Japanese American Incarceration during World War II. I learned that there were Japanese Americans here in Virginia throughout those time periods and that Japanese immigrants were taken from Virginia to the World War II incarceration camps in the West. Throughout that process, I learned how few publications existed on AAPI history not just in Virginia, but throughout the South. However, as I researched in the Library of Virginia’s collections, I learned that their collections contained rich histories of AAPIs in Virginia. These stories are integral to the larger understanding of American history.
We’ve got a lot of book nerds on staff at Virginia Humanities. You literally wear your love of books on your sleeve. Do you have a favorite literary-themed tattoo?
I’m a HUGE reader, and it only made sense to shout out that love from my arms! I would have to say that my favorite literary tattoo is my hobbit hole door. As many of us know, it’s “not a nasty, dirty, wet hole, filled with the ends of worms and an oozy smell, nor yet a dry, bare, sandy hole with nothing in it to sit down on or to eat: it was a hobbit-hole, and that means comfort.” Most folks recognize that tattoo, as well as my Peter Rabbit tattoo, my Harold and the Purple Crayon tattoo, and my Chronicles of Narnia tattoo. The tattoo that I find to be the least recognizable is the one of a badger with a golden stripe, a flowing red cape, and holding a large mace (if you guessed this one from my description, I am VERY impressed!!). The badger–named Sunflash the Mace–is from a childhood favorite from Brian Jacques’ Redwall novel series.
How have you maintained your sanity through the COVID quarantine? What have you done to keep yourself connected and engaged?
I would say that I am reading my way through COVID! I began a social media account on Instagram (@bookedwithemma) that I use for book reviews and book spotlights. I’m quickly becoming familiar with the world of “Bookstagram.” Through that platform, I met so many incredible folks–not just in Virginia, but across the world. Our shared love of reading–and buying exciting new books from our favorite Indies (looking at you Chop Suey!)–is bringing us together. From that account, I learned about the Feminist Book Club, and I am now a regular contributor on their podcast. I’m attempting to read 200 books in 2021, and so far I’ve made it to 136–I need to catch up because here we are in fall already!