Adena Ishii is the first woman of color to be president of the League of Women Voters for Berkeley, Albany and Emeryville. Photo: Supriya Yelimeli

Berkeley locals who have worked with Adena Ishii over the years might be surprised to hear she started her first full-time job just this month. By her resumé alone, it would appear Ishii hasn’t had a second to spare since she moved to Berkeley 10 years ago.

Ishii is the first woman of color to be president of the League of Women Voters for Berkeley, Albany and Emeryville, which offers nonpartisan election resources and organizes candidate debates. At 28, she’s also the youngest person to hold the title.

“I always joke, I’m like a professional hustler,” said Ishii, who has been a nanny, a babysitter, bunny-sitter, tutor, cleaned houses and worked in real estate throughout high school, college and beyond.

When Ishii was about eight years old, her father was diagnosed with dementia and her mom went back to work. Ishii had to watch over her younger sister while managing the house and worked every job she could get her hands on.

After leaving high school as a sophomore, she attended Moorpark College, located near her hometown of Agoura Hills, before moving to South Berkeley in 2009. The move was an “intensely emotional experience” for Ishii, whose upheaval from a Southern California suburb brought her into the engaged, chaotic world of Berkeley.

“The fact that people are so engaged in Berkeley is so inspiring.”

Ishii said her first few years in the city were “crazy;” she was mugged, was in a car accident and became a survivor of domestic abuse. But she now recounts the experiences against an overflowing love for a city that has become her home.

“I immediately felt connected to the Berkeley community, as soon I moved here,” Ishii said. “The fact that people are so engaged here is so inspiring, and I think there are so many people in this community that care about the world… about their own communities. There’s a lot of places, especially in the suburbs, where people kind of just do their own thing.”

Ishii, now a die-hard community college advocate, attended Berkeley City College before graduating from Haas School of Business in 2013. In the spring of 2017, Ishii was the first candidate in the league’s history to enter the presidential race from a floor nomination. After a few debates and speeches over the course of one evening, she was named the league’s new leader.

Ishii sticks out in the league’s 100-year presidential history of white faces. Most were well into their 50s by the time they started leading the organization, but Ishii doesn’t see either pattern as a prerequisite.

“I think the combination of growing up in homes for the elderly, and also growing up being Asian-American and having my parents teach me to respect my elders, I’ve always felt comfortable with people much older than me,” Ishii said.

She hopes to make the LVW a more diverse, inclusive organization, but said she doesn’t expect the League to look different overnight. This would include recruiting new members and fundraising to allow for more paid positions, while making sure older members feel included.

The vote took Ishii from paid consultant to a volunteer president, in a organization that is largely staffed by unpaid volunteers. Last Monday, Ishii began a full-time job working as an Earl Warren Fellow at the Alameda County District Attorney’s Office, but returns to the LVW office in South Berkeley more evenings than not to work on voter engagement initiatives with her colleagues.

The LWV organizes candidate debates and voter guides, registers voters and hosts “pro-con” sessions to help residents decide on local ballot measures and state propositions. To engage voters, the League focuses on local issues that may be more within voters’ control than unwieldy national politics. For youth groups, this means pre-registration and educating them on voting in school board races, which the City Council approved for teenagers over the age of 16 two years ago, but is expected to be implemented by 2020.

For others, this includes education about Measures O and P in Berkeley, which could secure funding for homeless individuals, a projected cannabis business tax in Emeryville and a parks and open space tax in Albany.

“The League fills a void in an age where we have so many partisan voices.”

The non-partisan group is strict about submitting endorsements only for legislation, not for parties or specific candidates. The group is clear about its policy positions, like being “pro-choice” and believing in climate change, and Ishii said the LWV has held its positions for a very long time.

“The League fills a void in an age where we have so many partisan voices,” she said. But the League is inevitably influenced by its home in the liberal Berkeley bubble, and a majority of its members are progressives. The LWV gets pushback from individuals who don’t align with its policy positions, but Ishii said the organization is mostly respected by groups across the political spectrum.

However, “the loudest voice is always the one who has the privilege to speak,” Ishii said, explaining it’s often harder to reach the groups who don’t raise complaints, like minorities and low-income communities.

She said Berkeley is representative of voter registration trends across the country, and homeless populations, people with disabilities and communities of color have lower turnout than communities that are both white and educated. Asian Americans are also affected by low voter turnout, and Ishii said the LWV is trying to reach out to these and all minority groups in “authentic” ways.

Ishii is a fourth-generation American with Japanese, Chinese and Indian roots. Her sister, Emma, works for Alameda County Supervisor Keith Carson, and Ishii says her family history is filled with political engagement. She said conflict can spur some immigrant communities into political activism, but others feel silenced by those in power.

A lot of immigrant communities are hesitant about getting involved, even when LWV explains they’re a nonpartisan resource. “They immediately think Trump,” Ishii said.

Where some groups may feel oppressed by the new administration, President Donald Trump’s election also brought a surge of new members to the LWV in 2016, according to Ishii. One of her challenges now is to keep the momentum going, and reflect back her leadership on the demographics of the group.

Her two-term limit will expire in spring 2019 and her main goal for the League is to arrange stable plans for its future before her departure.

Ishii is still a proud South Berkeley resident (probably another first for a League President, she adds) and said the city felt like home as soon as she arrived. Five years after graduating from UC Berkeley, she’s admitted to herself that she misses school and is currently applying for joint Masters in Public Policy and Juris Doctorate programs.

She hopes to stay in Berkeley and currently serves on the Sugar-Sweetened Beverage Product Panel of Experts Commission for the city, does some transfer consulting and juggles several jobs in the League when vacancies arise.

Amid the deafening roar of politics and the non-stop tempo of her daily work, she finds comfort and motivation in the words of her late father, who Ishii said has shaped her entire life. “You have to stick up for the little guy.”

Supriya Yelimeli is a housing and homelessness reporter for Berkeleyside and joined the staff in May 2020 after contributing reporting since 2018 as a freelance writer. Yelimeli grew up in Fremont and...