In the early years of her life's work as an advocate for social justice, Diane Narasaki asked a longtime activist: "How is it that you've...

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In the early years of her life’s work as an advocate for social justice, Diane Narasaki asked a longtime activist: “How is it that you’ve lasted?”

The woman advised: “You have a choice between being a sprinter or a long-distance runner. If you want to be in the race for the long haul, you need to be strategic.”

Narasaki — then a recent college graduate involved with various causes — took those words to heart. She became a master at combining her own strengths with the power of others to create change and at finding opportunities in setbacks “whether they are immediately apparent or submerged.”

Today, at 53, she has been named one of 17 national winners of the Leadership for a Changing World Award funded by the Ford Foundation. Recipients are described as “individuals tackling some of the nation’s most entrenched social, economic and environmental challenges.”

Narasaki, who will be recognized at a ceremony in New York City later this month, will receive $100,000 for Asian Counseling & Referral Service in Seattle, a nonprofit agency she has directed for a decade. The agency provides a range of services — including mental-health care, citizenship classes and employment training — to some 18,000 people, including children and senior citizens.

A thousand people were nominated for the award, which recognizes that leadership comes in many forms — not just in high-profile personalities — and aims to inspire ordinary citizens to help shape national discourse.

Friends and admirers say Narasaki is best known for her humility, tenacity and strategic thinking.

“She’s a very powerful woman who just won’t let anything stand in her way, but very humble about it,” said Laura Chambers, vice president of the Advocacy Institute in Washington, D.C., a sponsor of the awards program, along with the Ford Foundation and New York University.

Narasaki, a Renton High School graduate who was born and raised in Seattle, said she grew up in two different worlds.

In mainstream society, she rarely saw Asian female role models in history books, literature or on TV. And when she did, they typically were depicted as “as a dragon lady or prostitute or submissive servant.”

But at home, her grandparents and her parents — all of whom endured internment during World War II — constantly reinforced the value of her Asian community and culture, and taught Narasaki “to never accept inequality for myself or others.”

As she matured, Narasaki also came to understand that what was good and just in the world was not an accident.

“That change didn’t come out of nowhere,” she said. “It always came after a long period of struggle, oftentimes that was quite unglamorous day-to-day work.”

After graduating from the University of Washington, Narasaki worked for 20 years at the American Friends Service Committee, the Northwest Labor and Employment Law Office and The Wing Luke Asian Museum.

Over that time, she advocated for equal rights for all people, especially women, racial minorities, workers, immigrants and refugees. As one example, she co-chaired the Washington State Equal Rights Amendment Coalition. She also organized community support for a legal team’s efforts to overturn the conviction in the decades-old case of Gordon Hirabayashi, a Japanese-American student who went to jail for refusing to go to an internment camp.

“Because it’s the right thing to do, she believes it can eventually be done even though it’s against all the odds,” said Sharon Maeda, a consultant who nominated her for the award.

In 1996, when welfare reform threatened services to many low-income Asians in the state, Narasaki organized more than 1,000 people to tell lawmakers in Olympia what it would mean to lose services. As a result, she says, some services were restored at the state level. Last year, she co-chaired a meeting that drew more than 5,000 Asian-Pacific Americans to learn about advocacy and citizenship work in 25 different languages. Her latest project is raising $19 million for her agency’s new headquarters in South Seattle.

Now that Narasaki qualifies as a mentor, what would she advise younger social activists?

“Hold on to your vision. Stay rooted in your values. And, never give up.”

Marsha King: 206-464-2232 or mking@seattletimes.com