Derek Okubo: Inspiring Collaboration and Equity

One of the League’s longest-serving staff and board members, Derek Okubo, is transitioning away from direct involvement with the League after nearly 30 years of service. Derek left the board of directors in December due to term limits.

Back in the early 1990s when Derek Okubo joined the staff of the National Civic League as assistant director of the Community Services program, he facilitated a communitywide visioning/strategic planning effort in Lee’s Summit, a suburb of Kansas City, Missouri. The planning process was a success.

So successful, in fact, that word spread around the region. Okubo went on to facilitate similar efforts in nearby Blue Springs, Independence, Raytown, Gladstone, Harrisonville, and Kansas City, among other Missouri cities.

A few years earlier, during its own strategic planning process, the League developed a concept called “civic infrastructure” to describe the capacity of some communities to come together and solve local problems. “A common thread in successful communities,” wrote then League President John Parr, “is the ongoing struggle through formal and informal processes to identify common goals and meet individual and community needs and aspirations. Successful communities are blurring the boundaries between government, business, and the nonprofit sector.”

Did these collaborative, visioning/strategic planning processes in those small Missouri cities make a difference? “Oh, yeah, no doubt,” says Okubo, who now serves as executive director of the Denver Agency for Human Rights and Community Partnerships. “It changed the civic culture and the way their local governments practiced. They learned that in highly complex situations the best thing to do is to convene the community. And the main thing that told me they learned that lesson was the way they applied it to other areas without our help.”

Okubo grew up in Littleton, Colorado, a suburb of Denver the son Japanese American parents, both of whom were interned in camps by the federal government during World War II, one of the grave injustices of American history. (Okubo has been active in historic preservation efforts at the Camp Amache site near Granada, Colorado, where his father was interned.)

After majoring in psychology at the University of Northern Colorado, he went to work as county coordinator for Big Brothers of Metro Denver, where he organized a high school volunteer mentoring program. Later he joined Colorado Governor Roy Romer’s staff as a community liaison before being recruited to the League by Parr.

Okubo worked for the League between 1992 and 2011, serving as director of Community Services, vice president, interim president, and senior vice president, among other job titles. After leaving the League’s staff to work for the City and County of Denver, he continued to serve the League as the organization in a variety of capacities—foreperson of the All-America City Award Jury, vice chair of the Board, chair of the Board, and chair of the Nominating Committee.

Today, as executive director of Denver’s Agency for Human Rights and Community Partnerships, Okubo oversees the Division of Disability Rights and the offices of Anti-Discrimination, Disability Rights, Financial Empowerment and Protection, Immigrant and Refugee Affairs, Sign-Language Services, Storytelling, Nonprofit Engagement and Aging.

Originally known as the Commission on Human Relations, the agency was formed in the late 1940s to address racial disparities unearthed in a study commissioned by Mayor J. Quigg Newton, a modernizer who eliminated patronage in the city’s hiring practices, developed a regional planning office, and reorganized the Denver Police Department. “No one really knows about him,” says Okubo, who often mentions his name during speeches, “but I view him as heroic, actually. He was way ahead of the curve as far as race was concerned.”

Okubo carries on the Newtonian tradition by championing innovative programs such as the Financial Empowerment Centers, which give free advice to Denver residents on credit ratings, debt reduction, and banking services. In a series of facilitated strategic planning meetings, Okubo worked with staff to develop the program, which began with a two-year grant from the Bloomberg Foundation and is now a permanent part of the agency’s brief.

“We had this one client I was talking to,” recalls Okubo, “and she was in tears because when she came to us for help, she was on the verge of being evicted from her apartment. Through the course of our intervention and coaching, she was not evicted. She reduced her debt, increased her savings, increased her credit score, and she ended up buying her own home. When I talked to her, she not only had her own home she bought two more. She was crying, she said, because for the first time in her family’s history, she was going to leave her children with assets and not liabilities.”

Okubo, who is currently working with League staff and board to facilitate a strategic planning effort for the organization, is leaving the board of directors after serving three consecutive, three-year terms, the limit of service on the board under the League’s bylaws.

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