Chad Blair: Why Micronesian Students Are Fighting in Hawaii
When I was a graduate student at UH Manoa in the 1990s, I once asked a professor if all the studies produced in academia mattered much in the “real world.”
does anyone read them Do they have influence?
The professor paused, turned his gaze to me, and then explained in detail to me and my classmates that the work of scholars outside of the ivory towers actually makes a difference, and not just in an obscure diary unread by the masses.
I was reflecting on this episode when two UH professors handed me a 20-page research paper that was due to be published online later this month. It is entitled Racism and Discrimination against Micronesian Students in Hawaii and was produced by the Hawaii Scholars for Education and Social Justice.
The new report focuses on concerns about the “educational achievements, experiences, and issues” that Micronesian students encounter in the Hawaii public school system, particularly at the K-12 level.
The report refers to the three Micronesian countries that are part of the Pact of Free Association with the US. Residents of the Republic of Palau, the Republic of the Marshall Islands, and the Federated States of Micronesia are permitted by treaty to live and work in the United States indefinitely without a visa.
Among the results are the following:
- Between 2013 and 2018, only 50% of Micronesian students who entered ninth grade four years earlier graduated from high school.
- 43% dropped out before graduation, compared to the state-wide graduation rate of 86%.
- The Ministry of Education has an insufficient number of qualified English teachers and bilingual school assistants.
- Open racism and stereotypes in schools “may have contributed” to students giving up and dropping out of school.
- Reports indicate that racial stereotypes come not only from other students, but also from school officials and teachers.
- Some Micronesian families have reported feeling that students were effectively being “forced out” of schools.
Racism and systemic inequalities are the primary reasons for the Micronesians’ experience in Hawaii’s public schools.
The report’s conclusions will not surprise readers of Civil Beat, which has given and continues to give much attention to the Greater Pacific and the residents of Palau, the Marshalls and the FSM.
Your developing story is important to all of us in Hawaii.
A key takeaway from the research report is the importance of the role of grassroots organizations in helping Micronesians make their way through Hawaii’s sometimes Byzantine health, education, and social service systems. To name just two: The Marshallese Community Organization of Hawaii and Chuuk Me Nessor (Chuukese Language and Cultural School).
Importantly, the research brief also includes policy recommendations, including these:
- Legislators should support improving language access for the state of Hawaii.
- The DOE must address inequalities between students who are subject to disciplinary action.
- UH should develop college recruitment activities targeting students from the COFA nations in public middle and high schools.
- The Honolulu Police Department must end its practice of racial profiling of COFA citizens.
The research letter concludes with this statement: “Finally, while not a policy recommendation, the HSESJ strongly encourages the people of Hawaii to reaffirm their commitment to living in a multicultural society by promoting the values of aloha, equality, inclusion and social… Justice extends to these the COFA community. This individual and collective initiative can begin by not spreading ‘Micronesian’ jokes and racial slurs and promoting a sense of aloha for COFA citizens in Hawaii.”
Context is key
What’s also helpful about the research summary is that it provides the historical and cultural context to help the people of Hawaii better understand the Micronesians—and perhaps make them more hospitable.
For example, I guess many of us didn’t know or didn’t appreciate that there are at least 18 different languages and many dialects among the three COFA nations. Clothing, cultural and political structures and religions differ between the island groups.
The people of Micronesia also experienced more than a century of colonial rule under Spanish, German, Japanese, and Americans. “The Spanish brought Catholicism and the Germans brought Protestantism, both of which remain strong in various archipelagos,” explains the report, citing FX Hezel’s work.
The region’s history is also ancient, as it was probably settled by people from Southeast Asia around 40,000 years ago.
The HSESJ is a voluntary nonprofit organization of Hawaiian researchers formed four years ago to conduct, review, and disseminate research related to education and social justice in the islands.
I spoke to two of the members who are also co-authors of the research report (the others are Katherine T. Ratliffe and Margary Martin). Both stressed the importance of understanding that their work takes place within a framework of systemic racism.
Jonathan Y. Okamura, a professor emeritus of ethnic studies at UH Manoa, said the framework is formed by what he calls “relevant dimensions” that are “pretty obvious in Hawaii” — specifically, discriminatory politics, racial stereotypes, and socioeconomic inequalities.
“And we can see them working together to keep COFA citizens in this very oppressed status that they have,” he explained.
Brook Chapman de Sousa, an associate professor in the university’s Department of Teacher Education, Elementary Education and Multilingual Learning, agrees. And she shares Okamura’s desire for the work to—well, have an impact.
“This work has been a long time coming, and I hope it could generate awareness or system-wide change,” she said.
But progress in improving educational levels for Micronesians in Hawaii has been slow.
Okamura pointed out that in the fall of 2021 there were only 25 Micronesian students at Manoa, a campus of nearly 11,000 students. And de Sousa said there was only one pre-service Micronesian teacher candidate at the College of Education in the fall of 2021, when nearly 2,000 students were enrolled.
“We know that a diverse faculty benefits all students, especially our culturally and linguistically diverse students,” she said. “Having more teachers from Micronesia will benefit all of our students, especially those from Micronesia.”
The key, she said, is more government funding, for example for bilingual education. And Okamura says the authors of the research report would be happy to make themselves available to speak with the various government agencies and the legislature about implementing their recommendations.
The tremendous challenges facing COFA students in Hawaii will not go away. The killing of Iremamber Sykap by three Honolulu police officers last year and the subsequent dismissal of her murder charges by the grand jury and court angered Micronesians and their supporters, who felt justice had not been served. At the same time, emboldened critics of Micronesian immigration argue that immigrant groups need to better assimilate and obey US laws.
And so the work goes on – in universities, in government, in communities and in journalism.