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In the midst of a nation wrapped up in socio-political discord, and a pandemic that’s confined many folks to their homes, it’s easy to feel helpless. But Phyllis Tajii, who’s found ways to enjoy the outdoors and help others, isn’t one of them.

She’s a spirited advocate of diversity and world peace who’s been able to find inner peace at Hoofbeats Stables in Sonoma County. 

Tajii’s love of horses stems from her childhood spent on a 10-acre farm in San Jose, where she was a voracious reader of fiction that featured the animals. Buoyed by a loan, her father purchased the farmland — which cultivated strawberries and plums — after many years living near poverty level, and having been interned in one of the U.S. government’s camps during World War II. (She reports with sadness in her voice, some 110,000 men, women and children of Japanese descent were interned in four camps.)

Today, however, is a vastly happier time for the Petaluma resident, resembling something of a personal dream come true. 

Tajii’s favorite out of the herd is the little red pony Wiz (short for Wizard), even after he bucked her off three times when first learning to ride. (Photo courtesy of Phyllis Tajii)

After retiring seven years ago, she started volunteering at Hoofbeats, which specializes in recreational therapy and equine life coaching and education. She now joyously feeds a hay breakfast to all eight horses each Saturday and Sunday, and helps out “on occasion, when I’m needed, in the evening.”

“The herd is such a calming presence,” she explained. “They all know where they fit — and they all get along.” 

The 69-year-old Japanese-American doesn’t say it in so many words, but she clearly feels the horses do much better than many people in that regard, especially in today’s politically- and racially-charged climate.

“Today’s hateful words are reminiscent of the rhetoric toward Japanese immigrants in the first half of the 20th century,” she wrote in an email.

In hopes of helping to promote inclusive diversity, Tajii last month joined the comparatively new United in Kindness Project initiated by the Interfaith Council of Sonoma County.

The group, she said, is “doing concrete things like getting cities to endorse a resolution against bullying, and promoting practices of not harming people because of ability, age, appearance, ethnicity, gender identity, language, race, religion, sexual preference and socio-economic position.” 

She noted that the project is also working to implement these concepts in schools, and “make it part of the curriculum so students will accept everyone.”

When asked if she considers the hyphenated phrase “Japanese-American” insulting or demeaning, she replied, “I don’t mind it because of my heritage. Foremost, with all of us living here, is that we’re Americans and the diversity of our backgrounds makes it interesting.”

Tajii volunteers with Edgar Marroquin at Committee on the Shelterless preparing food for pre-pandemic distribution throughout Sonoma County. (Photo courtesy of COTS)

For years Tajii has been active with civil rights, peace and social equity organizations — including the Petaluma Community Relations Council (PCRC), Japanese American Citizens League (JACL), The Peace Crane Project (PCP) and the Committee on the Shelterless (COTS) — and continues to play an active role in promoting inclusivity, dignity and respect in her community.

“It’s easy to demonize those who look and sound different,” she observed, “but the new immigrants have the same dreams and hopes as those who have come before.

“We’re all interconnected. I know that whatever I do affects others and vice versa. I’m just a small piece in this giant jigsaw puzzle so it’s a question of where I fit in and what I can do to make the whole puzzle better.”