When DJ Ida was growing up in Park Hill, her mother always advised her to blend in. The more American she was—the less Japanese she was—the safer she would be. Fortunately, the third-generation Japanese American didn’t listen. She went on to help form the Asian American Educational Opportunity Program at the University of Colorado Boulder; create the Asian Pacific Development Center, a culture-specific nonprofit that includes a specialty mental health clinic, in Aurora; and form the National Asian American Pacific Islander Mental Health Association, an organization that she now helms as executive director. And on October 31, Ida received the first Award for Health Equity from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, the nation’s largest philanthropy dedicated solely to health. We sat down with her to chat about mental health and how she’s working to address the stigma against it in her own community and beyond.

5280: What it was like receiving the award from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation?

DJ Ida: I actually hate awards. I get very uncomfortable with them. Whenever you get put into the spotlight, and they talk about how you did this and you did this, I go, ‘But I haven’t done this’ and ‘I shouldn’t have done that’; ‘oh, I could have done this better.’ My sisters say my diagnosis is terminal Japanese-American; it’s very hard to brag about yourself.

How did your family end up in Colorado?

My grandparents came from Japan, and my mom was born in California. Then Executive Order 9066 forcibly removed 128,000 Japanese-Americans from the West Coast and placed them into concentration camps. My older cousins were actually born behind barbed wire on U.S. soil. We came to Colorado because Governor [Ralph Lawrence] Carr was the only governor who allowed the Japanese to come in free, and it cost him his political career. When I hear the anti-Muslim rhetoric going on right now, there’s a real threat about fomenting this kind of rhetoric that is very, very intolerant. When you talk about health equity and mental health issues, there’s a real issue there.

When you say health equity, what do you mean?

Let’s say I’ve got a Cambodian male, an older gentleman who’s been traumatized by Pol Pot [a former Cambodian leader who triggered a genocide of 1.5 million people]. To come in and do talk therapy with me using an interpreter is about as useful as a shovel to the head. It does nothing. Part of the trauma is you feel incompetent—well, try talking through an interpreter about mental health, which is so foreign to you. They’re either going to think, ‘What the hell am I talking about?’ or it’s dredging up all the trauma. But if you let them go fishing, if you let them do a garden, they’re doing something that they know how to do, and they heal. So health equity is about understanding culture; it’s about understanding language; it’s about understanding different historical trauma; it’s about understanding oppression and racism and sexism and homophobia, the list goes on and on and on. It’s about understanding that those with the education and the degrees and the western worldview aren’t the only ones with the answers.

What kinds of mental health issues are affecting Asian Americans specifically?

If you’ve got a fifth generation Chinese American who’s biracial, it’s a very, very different situation than someone who’s from Nepal or somebody who’s a Vietnamese refugee or a Cambodian refugee. So it’s really important to disaggregate the data and look at sub-populations, because there is really no such thing as an Asian American. When we look at the issues for the Southeast Asian refugees, so many of them were severely traumatized that there are health issues related to that. We’re looking at elevated rates of diabetes; we’re looking at stress disorders; the Vietnamese women have very high rates of cervical cancer. So there are all these health issues related to mental health issues, and because they’re so afraid to talk about mental health, these other things don’t get addressed at all.

What’s your next step in trying to address these problems?

Next June, we’re hosting a conference in New York. We’re going to develop a national research agenda on best practices using integrated care that is culturally and linguistically competent. If we get the top researchers together and the people who are doing really good programs, and say these are the questions you need to ask and bring in the community and the community owns it, then we can do good research.

And right now, the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration is in the process of looking at integrated care in behavioral health care settings. We went to D.C. and testified. My role in going to talk to them was to say not only do we need to look at integrated care in behavioral health settings, but it has to be behavioral health settings that have a history of being interethnic-specific. You need something like the Asian Pacific Development Center in Aurora, a place that does nothing but work primarily with Asian American Pacific Islanders, because the way they do behavioral health may be different—like gardens, tai chi, cooking classes, etc.

How do you feel about being Japanese-American in Denver?

About three weeks ago, I was up at the Aspen Institute for the University of Denver’s International Career Advancement Program talking to mid-career people from underrepresented groups in the State Department; I do sessions with the women. My job is to talk to them about what it means that you’re a strong woman of color, how you make decisions when you’re in a power position, what does power look like to you. Part of it is to redefine what strength is and that you can be strong in a way that may not match the western standard. Being a Japanese-American female is very important to me; that’s my identity. I chose to put my office on the same block as Sakura Square because it’s Japanese community and social justice all rolled into one. There are three status: Governor Carr, Minoru Yasui [a prominent Japanese-American lawyer], and Yoshitaka Tamai. The first two fought Executive Order 9066, and then Tamai helped settle the Japanese-Americans when there was a lot of anti-Japanese-American sentiment. People consider him a living Buddha—he just exudes compassion and kindness. That’s how I was raised: to emulate that.

Follow assistant editor Mary Clare Fischer on Twitter at @mc_fischer.