Tribute to Jean Yonemura and Reese Erlich. Posted July 8, 2022.
Jean Yonemura was an editor of Unity Newspaper during the entire lifetime of the publication from 1978 to 1992. Reese Erlich was also an editor of Unity Newspaper in the early 1980s and wrote extensively on international and domestic issues. Both Jean and Reese were essential in developing Unity Newspaper as a respected journal with a wide following in progressive and Left circles.
Jean and Reese also served as mentors to many writers and staff members. In addition to their work on Unity newspaper, Jean and Reese were renowned in their fields of education, journalism and activism.
Jean Yonemura passed away on March 29, 2021. For more details on Jean’s life, see Jean Yonemura: Warrior for Educational Equity.
Reese Erlich passed away on April 6, 2021. For more details about Reese’s life, see In Memory and Celebration of Reese Erlich.
The following remembrances were provided by friends who worked closely with Jean and Reese. – Eddie Wong
I learned a lot about good journalism from Reese when he was my editor in the early 1980s, more still from his work as a foreign correspondent (a once-glamorous calling that the commercial media have all but abandoned today), and finally in January of 2020 when Fay Wong and I were lucky enough to be part of a Cuba trip he led—exposed to some great music, memorable conversations, and much insight into the difficult but necessary task of building a just society and making it work under less than ideal conditions.
We lost another of my editors from Unity two weeks earlier with Jean Yonemura. Unlike Reese, her death was sudden, unexpected, and came as a terrific shock. I worked with her on the paper for six years and vividly remember her patience, her kindness and compassion, her unfailing good humor, her ability to make you feel good about what you were doing even under the most difficult and crazy-making circumstances. She knew how to get the best out of people, and it showed in the quality of the paper.
So privileged to have known these two and called them comrades. Their spirit remains with us as we carry on with the struggle. – Peter Shapiro
Jean was the glue that held the staff of Unity/La Unidad together for the many years she was managing editor and/or editor in chief. Her kindness, backbone, brilliance & selflessness set the tone for our work. She led the editorial board and section editors, oversaw the content, worked with the editors of La Unidad and the Chinese paper, and was the main liaison with and assignment editor for all 22 of the Unity bureaus. She oversaw our work in design, graphics and production, working side by side with us to get each issue produced and press ready. She trained writers all over the country to write with accuracy, detail and insight. She was responsible for most of the books, journals and other publications we produced.
She set the tireless pace we needed to do our work. She also had a wonderfully corny sense of humor and was unfailingly kind. These were priceless qualities at 4am, when the paper had not yet been put to bed and the press run was looming.
Jean had an unflagging dedication for the work of “peace, justice, equality and socialism.” Working with others, she was instrumental in bringing the paper we wanted and needed into being. Under her leadership Unity/La Unidad became a voice from inside the struggles of people of color and working-class people generally, as well as a force building the revolutionary movement. She believed in uniting all who can be united and wanted Unity/La Unidad to appeal to the broadest possible readership. We would never have had the paper we did without her.
She was a powerful, but quiet and selfless, leader. – Lucy Clarke
I knew Jean for fifty years. We worked together in New York’s Chinatown in the early 1970s to produce Getting Together (Tuanjiebao 團結報), an English-Chinese bilingual newspaper published by the revolutionary youth group, I Wor Kuen. We worked in IWK’s storefront, writing articles about conditions in Chinatown, about struggles for racial equality and social justice, on solidarity with the Vietnamese people’s resistance to American imperialism, news from the People’s Republic of China. Getting Together was one of the predecessors of Unity/La Unidad newspaper; and in the late 1970s and early 1980s we worked together again in the Bay Area on the paper. That’s when Reese joined the paper. Jean was the managing editor, I wrote national news, and Reese wrote international news. The major themes, again, were solidarity and resistance against racism, exploitation, and imperialism, told through coverage of specific events. Reese was especially suited for the international section, owing to his extensive knowledge of U.S. foreign policy and the liberation movements in the third world. By this time we had word processing but production still required typesetting (done by Liz, Reese’s wife) and all-night sessions for laying out the paper. It was all serious work, of course, but there were also lots of joking, lots of storytelling (Jean’s specialty), and lots of snacks that got us through the night.
Jean and I also were personal friends; in the early New York days we shared an apartment (with a dog named Blue) and we remained close over the years through political changes, personal changes, career changes. Jean was always more of an ethnographer than a writer per se and went on to a brilliant career in educational equity. I followed Reese’s ongoing career as a journalist and writer and invited him to speak at Columbia about his book on the Iraq war. I have continued to write, though I switched genres.
— Mae Ngai
jeannie was my editor for more than a decade. she taught me concision and focus all the while insisting that the dignity of people we wrote about or interviewed be front and center. – mark prudowsky
I worked with Jean on Unity for many years. She was the editor in chief, and I was the international editor. In our work together, I got to know Jean fairly well, and to respect her deeply. Jean was one of the most dedicated, hardest working people in the organization. Putting out a newspaper regularly required long hours and long days, and Jean was consistently present and fully engaged for every hour of every day. She was invariably already at work when I would arrive at the newspaper office, usually about 9:00 am, and she was still at work when I would leave in the late afternoon or early evening.
Jean was both very particular but also very patient. In those days, the article drafts were printed on paper. When I would turn in the first draft of an article, she would read it intently, mark it up thoroughly, then return it to me for rewriting. She would always have an optimistic look on her face in handing me back the article, and would say something along the lines of, “This is good,” or “Nice job.” Then I would look down to see many suggestions on each page. Her edits were uniformly helpful and made the subsequent drafts much better. Sometimes the articles would go through 5 or 6 drafts, but with each review, Jean remained very patient, even though some of my writing was cumbersome, unclear, and wordy.
Eventually, the articles would always be finalized, and Jean’s smile at those times was very engaging.
I learned so much from Jean. I learned how to write more clearly and crisply. I learned how to present complicated subjects in understandable ways. I learned from her a depth of awareness of the realities of life in the U.S. and the world. I learned what it meant to commit oneself to progress and justice. She was a mentor, a colleague, and a friend. – Richard Fleming
Reese’s writings made me laugh. Here is an excerpt from his book, Dateline Havana – The Real Story of U.S. Policy and the Future of Cuba.
He asked if I knew the difference between socialist hell and capitalist hell. Actually I did. It’s a joke I first heard in the Soviet Union in 1990, but it probably goes back even further. I decided to play along. “No,” I said innocently. “What’s the difference?”
Fumes tells the joke. Former Soviet Union President Mikhail Gorbachev dies and arrives in hell. The Devil tells him he has a choice of living in capitalist hell or socialist hell.
“What’s the difference?’ asks Gorbachev. The Devil says, “In capitalist hell we tie you to a stake, pour gasoline over you. And set you on fire. That continues throughout eternity.”
“That sounds horrible,’ Gorbachev says with a shudder. “What’s it like in socialist hell?” The Devil says, “We tie you to a stake, pour gasoline over you, and set you on fire.”
“So what’s the difference?’ asks an incredulous Gorbachev
“If I were you,” says the Devil leaning closer, “I’d choose socialist helll. Some days we have no gasoline. Other days we have no matches …”. – Jon Jang
Jeannie was one of my first friends I called comrade. Many years ago when we were in college, we met and immediately established a connection that became lifelong. We were then young radicals, revolutionaries, who were sick of the imperialist war in Southeast Asia and the rampant racist violence at home. We, along with many others, wondered what to do and sought ways to advance our goal of eliminating systems of exploitation and domination. We debated the merits and problems of Mao, Che, the Panthers, and others. We even were members in an extended household, a collective, where we lived frugally, cooperated in our chores, and worked together in New York’s lower east side.
We remained connected over the years and then worked together on Unity newspaper when it operated out of Oakland. As editor, Jeannie was consummate. No one on the team worked harder than she. She held to the highest demands for the quality of thinking and writing; and constantly engaged with writers, producers, and distributors. She practiced revolutionary equality and respect.
Jeannie was consistently pleasant and optimistic, even when the road politically and personally got difficult, and her gentle demeanor complemented an iron backbone and an unwavering commitment to social justice. She was a loving partner to Butch and mother to daughter Teri and a friend to countless numbers she touched as a journalist, friend, activist, educator, and community leader.
For the many years I knew Reese, he was unshakable in his commitment to contributing to the making of a better world and opposing war, aggression, and oppression. He dedicated his entire life to standing for what was right in the movement for social justice. He lived modestly and worked diligently to constantly advance his craft of political journalism, especially about international matters. Though earnest and sober-minded, Reese was also humorous and liked to joke and laugh.
Injustice disturbed Reese to his core and even after Unity ended publication, he continued to find ways to publish his writing, travel, and challenge the dominant narrative shaped by Washington. He was a good husband to Liz and a supportive father to Jason. Reese’s vast writing archive and progressive spirit lives on! – Gordon H. Chang