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 were worth much in the “real world.”
Does anyone read them? Do they have an impact?
The professor paused, looked up at me, then explained in detail to me and my classmates how the work produced by academics is indeed making a difference outside of the ivory towers and not just staying in an obscure journal not read by the masses. .
I was thinking about this episode when two UH professors forwarded me a 20-page research dissertation that will be published online later this month. Titled “Racism and Discrimination Against Micronesian Students in Hawaii,” it was produced by the Hawaii Scholars for Education and Social Justice.
The new report focuses on concerns about the “educational attainment, experiences, and challenges” faced by Micronesian students in Hawaii’s 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 treaties with the United States. Residents of the Republic of Palau, the Republic of the Marshall Islands, and the Federated States of Micronesia are permitted under the treaty to live and work in the United States indefinitely without a visa.
Among the conclusions are the following:
- Between 2013 and 2018, only 50% of students in Micronesia who entered ninth grade four years earlier graduated from high school.
- 43% dropped out before graduating, compared to the state’s overall graduation rate of 86%.
- The Ministry of Education has an insufficient number of qualified English teachers and bilingual home helpers.
- Racism and stereotyping evident in schools “may have contributed” to student dropout and dropout.
- Reports indicate that racial stereotyping comes not just from other students, but also from school officials and teachers.
- Some families in Micronesia said they felt students were effectively being “kicked out” of schools.
The primary reasons for Micronesians’ experience in Hawaii’s public schools are systemic racism and inequality.
The report’s findings will come as no surprise to readers of Civil Beat, which has devoted and continues to devote much attention to the greater Pacific and the people of Palau, the Marshalls and the FSM.
Their evolutionary history is important to all of us in Hawaii.
A key lesson from the research note is the importance of the role of grassroots organizations in helping Micronesians navigate 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 note also identifies policy recommendations, including these:
- The Legislature should support improved language access for the State of Hawaii.
- The DOE must address disparities among students who are disciplined.
- UH should develop college recruitment activities that target students from COFA countries in public middle and high schools.
- The Honolulu Police Department must end its practice of racially profiling COFA citizens.
The research paper ends with this statement: “Finally, while not a policy recommendation, HSESJ strongly encourages Hawaiians to affirm their commitment to living in a multicultural society by extending the values of aloha, equality, inclusion and social justice to the COFA community. This individual and collective initiative can start 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 record is that it provides historical and cultural context to help Hawaiians better understand Micronesians — and perhaps become more welcoming to them.
I guess many of us didn’t know or appreciate, for example, that there are at least 18 distinct 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 over a century of colonial rule under the Spaniards, Germans, Japanese and Americans. “The Spaniards brought Catholicism, and the Germans brought Protestantism, both of which continue to have strong roots in different island groups,” the report explains, citing the work of FX Hezel.
The history of the region is also ancient, having probably been settled by people from Southeast Asia around 40,000 years ago.
The HSESJ is a voluntary, nonprofit organization of Hawaiian scholars that emerged four years ago to conduct, review, and disseminate research related to education and social justice on the islands.
I spoke to two of the members who are also co-authors of the research paper (the others are Katherine T. Ratliffe and Margary Martin). Both stressed the importance of understanding that their work was being done within a framework of systemic racism.
Jonathan Y. Okamura, professor emeritus of ethnic studies at UH Manoa, said this framework is formed by what he calls “relevant dimensions” that are “quite evident in Hawaii” – in particular, discriminatory policies, racist stereotypes and socio-economic inequalities.
“And we can see how they work together to keep COFA citizens in this very oppressed status that they have,” he explained.
Brook Chapman de Sousa, associate professor in the primary education and multilingual learning program at the university’s Teacher Education Institute, agrees. And she shares Okamura’s desire for the work to have – well, impact.
“This work has been going on for a long time, and I hope it can bring awareness or system-wide change,” she said.
But progress in improving the educational attainment of Micronesians in Hawaii has been slow.
Okamura pointed out that there were only 25 Micronesian undergraduate students at Manoa in fall 2021, a campus that has nearly 11,000 undergraduate students. And de Sousa said there was only one Micronesian teacher candidate in pre-service training at the College of Education in fall 2021, when enrollment was nearly 2,000 students.
“We know that having a diverse faculty population 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.”
Key to this, she said, is more state funding, such as for bilingual education. And Okamura says the authors of the research brief are happy to make themselves available to speak to various government agencies and the legislature about implementing their recommendations.
The enormous challenges facing COFA students in Hawaii are not going away. The murder of Iremamber Sykap by three Honolulu police officers last year and the grand jury and court’s dismissal of their murder charges shocked 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 abide by US laws.
And so the work continues – in universities, in government, in communities and in journalism.