When Ellen Somekawa was a child, her mother told her to study hard at school because "Education is the one thing they can never take away from you."

The girl found the advice more upsetting than inspiring.

Who was this sinister they? And why did they want to take her stuff?

Somekawa later found out, by accident, that her parents actually did have everything taken from them - evicted from their homes and forced into internment camps with 110,000 other Japanese in America during World War II.

The discovery taught her: You can lose your rights in a moment, so if you want to keep them, you'd better speak up.

Somekawa hasn't stopped shouting since.

Now, after nearly 20 years as executive director of Asian Americans United, one of Philadelphia's loudest and most dynamic advocacy groups, she's leaving to become head of FACTS charter school.

It will be a short walk from one job to the next - Asian Americans United founded the school a decade ago and maintains its office there.

"It's a job I've been learning how to do for the past 18 years," Somekawa said. "It's still pushing forward the questions that AAU raises: How do we serve all students well? What are schools for?"

FACTS, formally the Folk Arts Cultural Treasures School, is a 477-student K-8 institution built on diversity and traditional arts, created specifically to meet the needs of Asian immigrant and refugee students.

Its leadership structure gives policy and mission powers to Somekawa, as executive director, and teaching and learning responsibilities to the principal.

Somekawa takes over at a moment when the Philadelphia School District is strained to breaking, its leadership is short millions of dollars it needs to run the schools, and it is at war with its teachers after abruptly canceling their labor contract last week.

That upheaval impacts charter schools that depend on the district for funding and support.

"If there's less money, there's less money for everybody," said Ed Nakawatase, the civil rights leader who heads FACTS's governing board and co-chairs the Asian Americans United board.

Somekawa has made Asian Americans United a dominant voice of the Asian community on most every topic of public importance, leading movements against gambling casinos, creating youth leadership programs, and transforming the annual Mid-Autumn Festival into a premiere cultural event that draws 5,000 people to Chinatown.

Asian Americans United helped defeat plans to build a Phillies stadium in Chinatown North and backed Asian youths who were attacked at South Philadelphia High School in 2009. It helped monitor the district's subsequent civil rights settlement with the U.S. government.

In conversation, Somekawa, 59, often refers to "the struggle," a term that seems left over from labor-organizing movements of the 1930s. To her, though, the struggle is a real and ongoing endeavor, a continuum in which oppressed people fight for equality and justice.

"Working with youth, the community, the elders, that's what she cares about," said Neeta Patel, a longtime Asian Americans United worker and leader. "She feels, if she doesn't do it, who will?"

Philadelphia's Asian population has doubled in 20 years, from 43,522 in 1990 to 96,405 in 2010, growing from 2.7 percent to 6.3 percent of the city. Those figures hide wide diversity. The category of Asian includes people from at least 10 different nations with distinct languages and customs.

The trick for Asian Americans United is to represent them all, to create a true pan-Asian coalition around issues of education and civil rights.

"I think AAU is often known as a leader in 'No,' as in, 'No to a stadium in Chinatown,'" said Sookyung Oh, an AFSCME union analyst who worked part-time at Asian Americans United in college. "I think AAU is a place that says yes, that says what we need is a community garden, what we need is good schools, what we need is for Philadelphia to recognize that Chinatown is more than a tourist destination."

Based in Washington, Oh roots for Asian Americans United from a distance - and it needs the good will, with its funding reliably unreliable.

Asian Americans United's 2009 revenue of $181,338 jumped to $304,352 in 2010, fell to $280,375 in 2011, then dropped 37 percent to $177,774 in 2012, as government grants and other contributions shrank, according to federal tax records. Finding consistent income ranks among the challenges - so far unsolvable - that face Somekawa's successor, to be chosen after a formal search.

At FACTS, Somekawa takes over an established school that still feels new and experimental.

The school is 68 percent Asian, 20 percent African American, 4 percent Hispanic, and 2 percent white. Eight out of 10 students are economically disadvantaged. One out of five is learning to speak English. Thirteen percent are in special education.

Despite those challenges, FACTS scored 88 on the state's 100-point scale, according to Pennsylvania education data. In tests, 84 percent of students scored proficient or advanced in math, and 78 percent met standards in reading.

That didn't happen by accident, and won't continue without effort - a big reason why Somekawa was hired, Nakawatase said.

"She has a very strong sense of the vision, the animating vision, of the school," he said, "from when it was not even a structure but an idea."

When she decided to try out for the cheerleading squad in 10th grade, Kathy Bergman-Baer recalled, she knew that her friend, Ellie, would consider it shallow and pointless.

Ellie wasn't interested in cheerleading. She was interested in ending the Vietnam War.

In the staid, nearly all-white Minneapolis suburb of Wayzata, Somekawa was the girl who wore a black armband to classes at Wayzata High.

She earned top grades. But while other kids cheered at football games and jockeyed for popularity, Somekawa marched in protests and skipped the senior prom.

"She had her own views," Bergman-Baer said.

Bergman-Baer was 8 when her family bought a home on Ridgeview Drive, where Carl and Mari Somekawa were raising Ellie and her older brother, Roger.

The Somekawas were the only Asian family on the block.

Carl Somekawa, an accountant, labored in his garden on the weekends. His wife helped out at his office and tended the children. Their house was immaculate.

They never spoke a word to their children of what they considered a shameful secret.

At the outbreak of World War II, Carl Somekawa was the college-age son of a general-store owner in Portland, Ore. He and his family were sent to the Minidoka War Relocation Center in the high desert of Idaho. High-school student Mari Kawanami and her parents were taken 1,400 miles from their home in San Jose, Calif., to the Heart Mountain camp in Wyoming.

Mari earned her diploma while imprisoned.

An early-release program by chance brought both to Minneapolis, where some Japanese were being resettled. They met at a Methodist church event and married in 1947.

When Ellie Somekawa was 15, someone at a Japanese American Citizens League dinner handed her a leaflet. It explained how Japanese had been locked up by a government that saw them as potential traitors.

Somekawa was shocked. And she realized, in a moment of clarity so profound it remains with her still, that society possessed a specific view of a whole group of people - her people. That it treated them differently based on their race, and that the treatment was unjust.

Given half a chance, Somekawa will expound on the glories of her home state - its lakes, its forests - and tirelessly defend its frozen winters.

She came here in 1983 to advance her education, earning a master's degree in history at the University of Pennsylvania. Five years later, she joined Asian Americans United as a summer staffer and in 1996 became its fourth director.

Today she lives in the city's Olney section with her husband, artist and teacher Eric Joselyn, and their children, 16-year-old Tai and 13-year-old Chi.

For a long time, rumors of her imminent departure to Minnesota swirled once a year, as regular as snow. Now it's plain she's staying put.

"The excellence of FACTS can be measured in standard metrics," Somekawa said. "But the thing that's so precious about it is it's a school that's doing things differently."