The second annual Asia Philanthropy Congress kicked off on December first at the beautiful Hotel Gajoen in Tokyo. The conference brought together speakers and attendees from multiple foundations, NGOs, and activist circles to discuss the future and sustainability of Asian philanthropy. The main focus of this year’s conference was diversity, equity, and inclusion (DE&I) in the philanthropy sector, with a special emphasis on disability rights.
‘We all have a commitment to catalyzing a social change ecosystem that is characterized and underscored by the spirit and philosophy of collaboration. Collaboration is at the core of everything AVPN does,’ said Naina Subberwal Batra, CEO of AVPN.
‘Our role and yours is to build the bridges that connect philanthropic leaders and foster an environment where the power of collective action can really be harnessed. All of us here today are not merely architects of change, but cultivators of a platform that promotes social transformation through dialogue and collaboration across Asia.’
Basketballs and violins
One of the afternoon plenary sessions focused specifically on the role arts and sports can play in fostering stronger DE&I in Asia. In the session, ‘Promoting DE&I through sports and art: Stories and Impact’ representatives from the Hong Kong Jockey Club, Love 21 Foundation, the Audio Description Association, and the Hong Kong School of the Creative Arts shared with audiences how the arts have changed the lives of those struggling with disabilities.
The Love 21 Foundation is a Hong Kong-based organisation focusing on empowering the Downs Syndrome and autistic community in the city. Jeff Rotmeyer, founder and CEO, explained that almost one-third of those living with Down Syndrome in Hong Kong have experienced homelessness. His foundation has over 4,000 volunteers and 50 full-time staff members who provide nutrition and sports classes.
‘Over 90 percent of people in Hong Kong shelters don’t have an emergency contact. These are lonely people,’ explained Rotmeyer. ‘Sports creates a connection. Sports is the equalizer and we have seen many transformations from people who become independent.’
Dawning Leung, founder of the Audio Description Association in Hong Kong, told the audience how she left her teaching position at a university in the UK to come to China to promote audio description for the visually impaired. Leung described her mission ‘to make the visual verbal’ by translating visual elements into verbal descriptions. By learning specific techniques, any sort of visual experience can be transcribed into verbal narratives. She gave the specific example that by learning audio description techniques, a lifelong visually impaired individual can learn something as complex as Thai boxing.
The plenary session ended with a question that summarised the mission of the congress: how do you engage the disabled and help them feel empowered? Answering for his fellow panellists, Rotmeyer added, ‘When you’re helping a community you should strongly emphasize how much that NGO works with that community, and help that community get more involved and educate society about who you are standing up for. We need to focus on education in society.’
Equal opportunity for social participation
Two panels in particular focused on the core theme of DE&I. The first, ‘DE&I in Japan – Realizing a society with equal opportunities for all’ brought together speakers from a range of organizations that work for increased visibility and awareness of marginalized groups in Japanese society. Fumino Sugiyama, co-chair of NPO Tokyo Rainbow Pride, spoke about the lack of LGBT rights in Japan and the constant threat of discrimination faced by the trans population. He informed the audience that Japan is the only member of G7 countries that has not legalized gay marriage. Sugiyama, who is a trans man, explained that due to discriminatory laws, he does not have parental rights to the children he shares with his wife.
Tokyo Rainbow Pride has taken place every year since 2012 with a steady increase in attendance each year. The increased attendance is a reflection of the changing attitudes towards the LGBT community. A February poll by Sankei Shimbun, a right-leaning Japanese newspaper, revealed that over 70 percent of Japanese people approve of same-sex marriage, with 91 percent of support from those 18-29 years old. Sugiyama explained that although several prefectures across Japan, including Tokyo, have extended some sort of legal protections for LGBT couples, there is still work to be done on the national level to grant true equality to all members of the gay community.
Toshiya Kakiuchi, CEO of Mirairo Inc., told the audience about his own experience navigating Tokyo’s complex metro system in a wheelchair and the need to increase funding for disabled individuals with reduced mobility. He added that mobility is not just a concern for the disabled, but that with an increasing aging population, Japan will require major infrastructure to ensure that all facilities are accessible to those with limited mobility.
To Japan’s great credit, almost every metro station in the city is wheelchair accessible and the ticket machines are at a low enough height that those in a wheelchair can access them. This stands in stark contrast to other major metropolitan areas. Only 18 percent of London tube stations are wheelchair accessible, and in Paris only one metro line can be accessed in a wheelchair. According to Kakiuichi, Mirairo’s core mission is to design a new Japanese society without barriers so that any individual regardless of gender, age, or disability can maximize their value and follow their path without obstruction.
Masako Okuhira, director of the Diverse Abilities Planning Group in the Human Resources division of Deloitte Japan, shared her own experience of living and working with cerebral palsy. She said that for her an inclusive work environment must have three key elements: being barrier-free, offer reasonable accommodations, and foster understanding amongst all team members. According to Okuhira, companies that embrace a culture of strong DE&I are more likely to be competitive and retain better talent. Although her own company has so far hired few team members with disabilities, Okuhira said she remains optimistic that attitudes are changing and more disabled workers feel empowered.
Charlotte Kilpatrick is the digital editor at Alliance magazine