HomeJapanese AmericanOakland street sign honors AAPI healthcare activist Sherry Hirota

Oakland street sign honors AAPI healthcare activist Sherry Hirota

by Akemi Tamanaha, Associate Editor

Over a hundred people gathered in Oakland’s Chinatown late Wednesday morning to celebrate the unveiling of Sherry Hirota Way, a street now renamed after activist Sherry Hirota.

Hirota was the CEO of Asian Health Services (AHS), a non-profit healthcare provider in Oakland, for more than 40 years. She retired in 2022 but continues to be an advocate for the AAPI community in Oakland.

“You know, normally you have to be dead to get a street named after you. You understand how gangster is for her to get a street named after her while she’s still alive?” Alameda County Assessor Phong La joked at the celebration.

Sherry Hirota Way is located, on the block of Alice Street between 9th and 10th Streets, near the AHS main building. The street was once a part of Oakland’s Japantown, which disappeared after the incarceration of Japanese Americans during World War II.

Sherry Hirota speaks at the street sign unveiling ceremony // Photo by Akemi Tamanaha

Hirota began her journey with AHS as a patient 48 years ago, when the organization was, according to Hirota, just a small operation above the Episcopal Church of Our Savior on Harrison Street. The healthcare and social services provider had only opened a year before Hirota walked through its doors.

“At that time, it was so easy to fall in love with an organization like Asian Health Services. It was dedicated. They had a mission to making healthcare accessible in Oakland Chinatown,” Hirota said during the celebration on Wednesday.

Hirota joined the AHS staff after being a patient, quickly becoming a vital part of the organization. Her colleagues at the celebration joked that she was promoted to CEO a day after she joined.

AHS’s goal is to provide Asian Americans in Oakland with culturally competent care. In keeping with its mission statement, AHS offered headsets to attendees that translated the speeches at Wednesday’s unveiling ceremony.

As CEO, Hirota fought hard to ensure that leaders in Oakland understood that healthcare is a right, not a privilege. She spent decades driving AHS’s mission forward.

Now, Asian Health Services has over 500 staff members serving 50,000 patients in more than 12 Asian languages. Several staff members and patients attended Wednesday’s celebration.

Taiko drummers perform at the unveiling // Photo by Akemi Tamanaha

Mychi Nguyen, the Chief Medical Officer at AHS, thanked Hirota for inspiring patients, staff members and the broader community.

“You have shattered ceilings, pounded on podiums marched in the streets. Your vision has guided us through challenges, your perseverance, has achieved remarkable results. Your impact goes beyond the walls of the clinic,” Nguyen said.

Hirota is known in the broader Bay Area for her community activism. In addition to her work as a healthcare advocate, Hirota has supported several other civil rights movements and built relationships with other minority communities.

Oakland city councilmember Nikki Fortunato Bas praised Hirota for [orchestrating] efforts to install the city’s first traffic light Scramble System to promote pedestrian safety where numerous elderly people in Chinatown.” Hirota also alerted BART to the environmental impact of construction plans at the Lake Merrit BART station near Chinatown.

Several city leaders— including Bas and Alameda County Supervisor Keith Carson— attended the unveiling celebration.

Hirota’s advocacy has reunited her with familiar faces. Over the past two years, she has joined forces with California Attorney General Rob Bonta, whom she babysat when he was a young boy.

“He said that was it while it was probably a pain for Sherry, it was an honor for him. To this day the AG considers it an honor that he gets to serve alongside a woman who took care of him, mentored him and inspired him,” Cat Nou, a member of Bonta’s executive team, said. Bonta could not attend the event and sent Nou to speak on his behalf.

From left to right: Oakland City Councilmember Nikki Fortunato Bas, former AHS CEO Sherry Hirota, current AHS CEO Julia Liou and AHS President Thu Quach stand beneath the Sherry Hirota Way sign.

Together, Hirota and Bonta took on former President Trump’s public charge rule, which said immigrants could be denied their permanent residency status if they received public benefits. They also collaborated to fight the rise in anti-Asian hate during the height of the pandemic.

Hirota was also one of the first people to begin working with the Asian Prisoner Support Committee (APSC), an organization raising awareness about the growing number of AAPIs being imprisoned, detained and deported. APSC was created out of desire to support the “San Quentin 3”—Eddy Zheng, Viet Mike Ngo, and Rico Riemedio. The trio was punished by the prison after calling for Ethnic Studies at San Quentin.

“So as someone who has benefited from not only Asian Health Services, but Sherry’s mentorship, and her guidance, I feel intimately connected to Sherry because she never left anyone behind,” Zheng, whose parents became AHS patients in 1982, said at the unveiling.

Most of Wednesday’s celebration centered around Hirota’s work, but the healthcare leader took the time during her remarks to acknowledge the support system around her. She asked the crowd to applaud the staff members in attendance, as well as the six patient leadership councils who meet in Cantonese, Mandarin, Korean, Vietnamese, Tagalog and Khmer.

Hirota also thanked her family, specifically honoring her grandfather Masa Jiro Hirota, who helped build the Buddhist church on Jackson St., and her father Tadashi Tadd Hirota, a crucial leader in the Japanese American incarceration.

“Thank all of you who came here today. You are my people. You are my community. I love you very much,” Hirota said.

AsAmNews is published by the non-profit, Asian American Media Inc. Follow us on FacebookX, InstagramTikTok and YouTube. Please consider making a tax-deductible donation to support our efforts to produce diverse content about the AAPI communities. We are supported in part by funding provided by the State of California, administered by the California State Library in partnership with the California Department of Social Services and the California Commission on Asian and Pacific Islander American Affairs as part of the Stop the Hate program. To report a hate incident or hate crime and get support, go to CA vs Hate.

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