LEXINGTON, Ky. (April 7, 2023) — What does it mean to be a changemaker?
Kotomi Yokokura has been asking herself that very question for as long as she can remember.
“Understanding the pain of those whose voices are overlooked ignited my need to advocate,” she said. “I knew I needed to utilize my voice to amplify their stories and create change.”
As a young girl growing up in Northern Kentucky, Yokokura remembers always being passionate about advocating for the most vulnerable members of her community.
“My dream job in high school was to be able to aid those experiencing homelessness more fully,” she explained. “At that time, I thought the only way to do that was through volunteering.”
In 2020, Yokokura enrolled at the University of Kentucky — and so began her search for a way to turn passion into purpose.
“I didn’t begin my journey at UK in social work. Instead, I was a special education major during my first semester,” she explained. “Thankfully, a conversation with an advisor opened my eyes to the field of social work — a major that directly aligned with my passion for combating the experience of poverty.”
Yokokura’s dedication toward advocacy only grew after discovering the College of Social Work (CoSW).
She knew she could apply the tools her professors and advisors would give her toward anything she wanted to do in the future.
But Yokokura didn’t hesitate to put those skills into practice.
During her freshman year, she founded the “Take a Tampon” initiative — hosting a donation drive to ensure ample supply of hygiene products across campus.
After much research, Yokokura realized how prevalent period poverty is and how detrimental it can be to not only one's mental and physical health, but their academic success.
She also sought collaborative partnerships with other institutions, including the University of Louisville, to address this issue on higher education campuses, in low-income middle and high schools, and at homeless shelters across the state.
Recently, Yokokura met with State Sen. Harper Angel, the sponsor of a bill providing menstrual products in schools and created research documents to contribute to the cause.
“Interestingly, while many of my advocacy efforts often directly affect women, I hadn’t set out to target women’s issues or rights,” Yokokura explained. “Instead, my passion for proactively working to achieve change stems from the stigmas often associated with these experiences. I understand societal stigmas can lead topics to be overlooked — increasing the need for leaders and action.”
As communities and individuals face continued threats of discrimination, marginalization and violence, the CoSW is resolved to uphold its long-standing commitment to core social work values and principles of social justice.
Students in the program gain the knowledge and skills needed for careers in social work and social justice, with curriculum spanning advocacy, crisis intervention, social policies and more.
Through her time at UK, Yokokura also hopes to address common misconceptions about the field of social work.
“As a social work major, I have turned the obstacle of negative community reactions as a motivating factor for my work. I work harder as I want to help communities to see the impact social work has,” she explained. “This obstacle also empowers me to enter into fields, such as policy research, social work often does not have a presence in. I want to combat the misconceptions held by demonstrating the benefit social work can have in all fields.”
Yokokura’s work in the community also includes research on two other important societal issues.
She assisted with research on the migration of those experiencing homelessness in relation to community services available with Andrew Sullivan, Ph.D., (a graduate of the Martin School of Public Policy and Administration) and completed a study on the perceptions and utilization of social support among men experiencing homelessness with Natalie Pope, Ph.D., (CoSW).
Yokokura has a published peer-reviewed journal article on homelessness in the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development’s "Cityscape." Additionally, she contributed to a survey research project through the UK Department of Dietetics and Human Nutrition in the College of Agriculture, Food and Environment that explores how the COVID-19 pandemic has impacted college students’ psychosocial health, formal and informal support utilization, employment, food insecurity, and social behaviors, which was published by the Georgia Journal of College Student Affairs. She is also part of the Chellgren Student Fellowship program at UK.
“The people at the University of Kentucky have been instrumental in both my academic and advocacy efforts — going out of their way to help a student they may not have known,” she said. “The faculty I have had the pleasure of working with have gone out of their way to empower my pursuits in the field of research, nonprofit work and advocacy. Without these individuals, I would not be where I am today.”
But when asked, Yokokura said, she’s most proud of her awareness and prevention work surrounding sexual assault.
“My passion for this realm stems from my personal experiences with these topics,” she explained. “My understanding of the shame, loneliness and lasting effects evoked my need to advocate.”
Recently, Yokokura’s efforts consisted of researching the prevalence of these experiences and testifying about her own experience in support of HB 288.
“Rep. Tipton proposed HB 288, a bill related to educator misconduct. After discussing this bill with Kentucky Youth Advocates, an advocacy organization where I am a practicum student at, I had the opportunity to meet with Rep. Tipton and was invited to testify on this bill.”
Yokokura understands that change isn’t made within the confinements of comfort, so she embraced her apprehensions and shared her story — hoping it would resonate with others, and it did.
“I am most proud of this advocacy effort, because HB 288 not only passed the House Education Committee, but the full House of Representatives as well,” she said. “I am honored to have been able to tell my story to help aid the safety of Kentucky’s students.”
What does it mean to be a changemaker? By definition, it is someone who is taking creative action to solve social injustices.
In every sense of the word, Yokokura is a changemaker.
Now, she is encouraging fellow students to take advantage of opportunities to be the change they want to see in the world.
“No matter who you are or what you are studying, your voice and efforts will be impactful,” Yokokura said. “Lastly, self-care is so important. Take time for yourself and recharge. This is something I am still learning, but it truly makes a difference in my ability to lead advocacy work and become the change I dream of.”
As the state’s flagship, land-grant institution, the University of Kentucky exists to advance the Commonwealth. We do that by preparing the next generation of leaders — placing students at the heart of everything we do — and transforming the lives of Kentuckians through education, research and creative work, service and health care. We pride ourselves on being a catalyst for breakthroughs and a force for healing, a place where ingenuity unfolds. It's all made possible by our people — visionaries, disruptors and pioneers — who make up 200 academic programs, a $476.5 million research and development enterprise and a world-class medical center, all on one campus.
In 2022, UK was ranked by Forbes as one of the “Best Employers for New Grads” and named a “Diversity Champion” by INSIGHT into Diversity, a testament to our commitment to advance Kentucky and create a community of belonging for everyone. While our mission looks different in many ways than it did in 1865, the vision of service to our Commonwealth and the world remains the same. We are the University for Kentucky.