Peggy Ann Nagae ’73
This year, the alumnae/i association, AAVC, turns 150. Throughout 2021, the College will be celebrating this anniversary by highlighting a few of Vassar’s most notable alumnae/i in architecture, arts, business, education, entertainment, health care, humanitarian efforts, law, social justice, and technology.
Attorney, corporate DEI consultant, leadership coach
Stepping forward and speaking out for justice
Peggy Ann Nagae is a lawyer and diversity and inclusion consultant who brings a passion for social justice to everything she does—from organizing fellow waitresses to protest inequitable pay in her college days, to fighting barriers for minority students in law school, to making sure the conviction of a Japanese American lawyer who violated a race-based curfew during World War II would not stand. Her wide-ranging legal career has encompassed Legal Aid, criminal defense work, law school administration, and corporate consulting to improve diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI). She is a recipient of the American Bar Association Commission on Racial and Ethnic Diversity in the Profession’s Spirit of Excellence Award. Over the years, she has worked to focus attention on anti-Asian violence, which spiked once again during the COVID-19 pandemic.
In 1995, Nagae was appointed by President Bill Clinton to the Civil Liberties Public Education Fund Board of Directors, charged with distributing $3.5 million in grants aimed at redressing civil liberties violations committed in the 1940s against Japanese Americans—including her own parents—and educating the public about the forced relocation and imprisonment these citizens endured so that it never happens again. There’s a myth, Nagae explains, that Japanese Americans who were incarcerated “pulled themselves up by their bootstraps after the war; they didn’t let that stop them from achieving”—yet the truth is far more complicated and painful. “My parents, everybody in their generation, they lost so much,” she observes.
Nagae led the legal team that reopened the case of Minoru Yasui, a young lawyer who, in 1942, intentionally violated the military curfew imposed on Americans of Japanese descent and was locked in solitary confinement for nine months in an Oregon jail. His case had gone all the way up to the U.S. Supreme Court, where he lost. But Nagae helped Yasui prevail 40 years later. “I remember reading about this case in law school and thinking if there was ever anything I could do to right this wrong, I would do it,” she said. “But it had gone to the Supreme Court, so there wasn’t anything else that could be done—or so I thought.” Later, Nagae spearheaded Yasui’s successful nomination for the Presidential Medal of Freedom, awarded posthumously in 2015, and continues to work with the Minoru Yasui Legacy Project, a civil rights organization that she co-founded with Holly Yasui, Min Yasui’s daughter.
Raised in near poverty on her family’s farm in Boring, Oregon, Nagae never expected to become a lawyer. In fact, her arrival at Vassar was a triumph over both socioeconomic barriers and Homeric logistics. “I had never been east of Boise, Idaho,” she says, recalling how a travel agent in Portland had told her she would fly to JFK and then somehow get on another plane to Poughkeepsie. “So I get to JFK, and there are no airlines to Poughkeepsie,” she remembers. “There I was with three big suitcases going, ‘What do I do?’ But that’s sort of who I am, I just delve into it and come what may. My experiences are great and not so great.”
Vassar was an adjustment for Nagae, who says she at first felt out of her element culturally and got the message from some professors that she was unprepared academically. “On the other hand,” she notes, “the environment really said as a woman you can do anything—and twice as good as any man—just go out and do it. That was really something, because I had never heard that before.” Nagae found herself becoming more confident and outspoken at Vassar, joining fellow students on a trip to Washington, DC, in 1971 to protest the Vietnam War. “I remember a time when I was sitting in the Vassar Chapel thinking, what would I give my life for? What would be so important in my life that I would put my life on the line? Because that’s what was going on for other people of color, African Americans especially. And I never did come up with anything. But to me, Vassar taught me how to think and how to look at the world and also to say, you can make changes, you can make a difference.”
The East Asian studies major decided on a law career the summer between her junior and senior year while working as a waitress at a Lake Placid resort. Nagae challenged what she saw as an unfair system of doling out high-paying tables to favored waitstaff. The manager was not impressed. “He said, ‘We could fire the lot of you tomorrow because there are no labor laws protecting waitresses—and besides, our Board of Directors has 11 lawyers from New York City, and blah blah blah.’” Nagae quit the job, but the conversation stuck with her. “I’d never even talked to a lawyer before, but I said, if lawyers are this powerful, I’m going to law school for social change.”
During the pandemic, Nagae was unable to do the constant traveling her work as a consultant usually entailed—and found she didn’t miss it. “I’m working hard to work less,” she says. “I want to know what it’s like to not have anything on your schedule. What will come through creatively if you don’t have a packed scheduled?” She recently left a job with a DEI consulting firm because “it did not feel that we were walking our talk,” she explains. “We were not—as an organization—partnering across difference. As well, when Trump signed an executive order barring DEI training, we had an opportunity and a platform to step forward and speak out. To me, not doing so was not only a missed opportunity, it was a lack of leadership and taking responsibility for our professed values.” After all, Nagae remembers, it was another president’s executive order that had opened the door for her parents and 120,000 other Japanese Americans to be incarcerated.
“I don’t think they or others fully understand the ramifications of the murder of George Floyd and what it meant and what it did for those of us who have been working in diversity and inclusion for all those years,” she says. “It really just opened the floodgates to saying, I am no longer going to be quiet about these issues. If not now, when? When am I ever going to step forward and talk about racism and anti-racism?” Nagae now sees this event as part of a pattern: “I have quit many jobs based on my values,” she says. And her values demand that she fight unfairness and prejudice wherever she finds them. It’s something of a marvel to her even now.
“If you had gone to that girl in Boring, Oregon, picking strawberries and said, ‘Hey, listen, this is going to be your life,’ she would have said, ‘No way. That’s impossible. It just won’t happen,’” Nagae declares. “And that’s why I say to everyone I speak to, especially younger people, ‘You can do this. The reason I know you can do this is because I didn’t think I could do what I’m doing. Believe me, if I can do this, you can do this.’”