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Asian American Hero of CO: Kenzo Kawanabe

By: Patricia Kaowthumrong

A fourth-generation Coloradan from the San Luis Valley, Kenzo Kawanabe is dedicated to honoring his roots.

Kawanabe’s great-grandparents on his father’s side came to Colorado in 1925 to farm the land; and while they did not suffer the injustice of the internment camps, Kawanabe’s grandparents on his mother’s side were not so fortunate. Despite being U.S. citizens, his grandparents were forced from their home in California to live in an internment camp in Arizona. Kawanabe grew up attending the La Jara Buddhist Temple, which was co-founded by his great-grandfather in 1937, and graduated from Alamosa High School like his father. “For our society, the Rule of Law is one of our most important values. The Rule of Law ensures justice, and the internment camps are a horrific example of what happens when the Rule of Law is not upheld,” says Kawanabe.

A Boettcher Scholarship recipient, Kawanabe attended the University of Colorado Boulder and Georgetown University Law School and studied at Temple Law in Tokyo before returning to Colorado in 1997. As a commercial trial attorney at Davis Graham & Stubbs LLP for over 20 years, he represents clients in a variety of high-stakes matters relating to commercial disputes, mass torts and intellectual property. Kawanabe has also led the firm’s pro bono efforts, and he has represented refugees, as well as some of the poorest school districts in the state with their constitutional school finance claims.

Kenzo Kawanabe, a Boettcher Scholar, speaks at the Boettcher Foundation Make Your Mark event.

“I am so fortunate in life and recognize that many people contributed to my successes,” he says. “My community raised me, and I have an obligation to do the same for others in our community. But this is not just about helping others, it’s about helping ourselves. Making the communities where we live and work stronger—that should be part of each of our legacies.” Kawanabe served as the first-ever General counsel for the National Asian Pacific American Bar Association, as well as on the board of advisors for the Institute for the Advancement of the American Legal System. He currently serves as a board member for the Boettcher Foundation (board chair), Sakura Foundation, Colorado Lawyers Committee, Colorado Legal Services, Barton Institute for Community Action, and Asian Americans Advancing Justice (AAJC) in Washington, D.C. AAJC’s latest work concerns obtaining an accurate count for the Census, including those in our APA communities, and battling hate crimes associated with the current pandemic. He also supports other community organizations, including the Asian Pacific Development Center and the Women’s Foundation of Colorado: Dads for Daughters.

“A man of great humility, intelligence, compassion and quiet humor, Kenzo; his wife, Irene; and their two teenage daughters, Mika and Aya, are committed as a family to paying forward the opportunities from which they have benefitted,” says Lauren Y. Casteel, a friend and colleague of Kawanabe who nominated him for the award.

The Kawanabe Family

Kawanabe’s greatest achievement is his family and traveling the world with them is his greatest joy. “For me personally, my ancestors taught me the value of hard work, honesty and community,” he says. “My wife and I try to instill these values in our daughters, and we teach them that happiness should always be a focus in life.”

Kawanabe encourages younger generations to remember their roots—but to chart their own courses. “Despite a pandemic, economic meltdown and school shootings, you not only survived, but thrived. You are strong and resilient, and you will make the world a better place. Remember that you are part of one of our largest generations ever, and together, you will make positive change. Be genuine, humble, and kind. Remember... it’s not about you, it’s about us.”

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