Before attending the University of California, Berkeley in the mid-1960s, Reiko Homma True never thought of herself as an activist.
"Activism was quite foreign to me," says True, a native of Japan who thought of herself as a quiet Asian woman. Yet as her mentor, Mary Goulding, and friends grew increasingly involved in the progressive movement, True saw their efforts make an impact. "It was quite empowering," she says.
Soon she found herself working with them to push San Francisco Bay Area governments to create culturally and linguistically appropriate mental health services, like the Asian American Community Mental Health program in Oakland, the first California mental health center focused on meeting the needs of a minority population.
That taste of success led her to San Francisco's Department of Public Health, where in 1980 she became the first woman and first minority to serve as director of Mental Health, Substance Abuse and Forensic Services. She encouraged the department to develop strong multicultural services, like residential treatment programs for women with children.
When a magnitude 7.1 earthquake hit the city in 1989, True's department quickly mobilized a mental health disaster assistance network to reach out to the communities grappling with nearly $6 billion in damage.
"At the time, we knew very little about disaster mental health systems," she says. "We had to gather the local county system along with others to develop and secure services for victims and the community."
The experience helped True respond to the magnitude 7.3 earthquake that hit Kobe, Japan, in 1995. The quake killed more than 6,400 people and left more than 300,000 homeless.
"In Japan [in 1995] disaster mental health care was virtually unheard of," she says. "The extent of the devastation, the death toll and injuries left most of the city psychologically devastated."
To help the area recover, True traveled as a Fulbright Senior Scholar to Kobe University Medical School in Japan, where she developed a Mental Health Disaster Assistance Program to train mental health professionals to assist victims of the Kobe earthquake.
Since her return from Japan, True has worked in a private practice for non-English speaking Asian Americans and other minorities in San Francisco's Japantown. True works with such clients as Asian-American women struggling with their husband's expectations that they be subservient.
"Minorities have a unique struggle at various levels-whether they are first, second, third or fourth generation," she says. "Whether the issues deal with their family relationships, at work or at school, there are cultural differences that must be reconciled."
She helps her patients articulate their problems-a major hurdle for many Asian Americans, she says-by probing their current personal and professional situations. She also directs them to look back at their past to understand the present.