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Joakim “Jojo” Peter grew up on an island that was home to about 500 people and had no electricity, spending his childhood fishing with his grandfather and listening to stories about his family history.
Years later, Peter became an author and a champion for social justice in Honolulu whose influence spanned the Pacific Ocean.
Peter died Monday in Honolulu. He was 54.
Peter dedicated his life to advocating for the rights of immigrants and people with disabilities. He was an educator, scholar and community organizer known for his hard work and humility.
He was also a former radio disc jockey with a great sense of humor who loved coffee and Zippy’s.
“Leave a message, or sing a song,” his voicemail greeting said.
Peter grew up on Etal, one of the Mortlock Islands in Chuuk State in the Federated States of Micronesia. He was known to fondly call the Mortlocks “the center of the universe.”
He attended Xavier High School, a Jesuit school in Weno, Chuuk. He earned a bachelor’s degree from the University of Guam, two master’s degrees in history and Pacific Island studies and a doctorate from the University of Hawaii in special education. Along the way, he inspired a generation of Pacific Island scholars and spent 15 years working at the College of Micronesia.
Peter co-founded numerous organizations to help the Micronesian community in Hawaii and beyond, including the one-stop center We Are Oceania; COFA-CAN, a local advocacy group; and COFA-CLAN, a national advocacy group. Most recently he worked at the educational nonprofit Pacific Resources for Education and Learning helping Micronesian families understand their rights.
Citizens of Palau, the Marshall Islands and the Federated States of Micronesia come to Hawaii through an agreement known as the Compact of Free Association, or COFA, which allows them to live and work freely in the U.S. and gives the U.S. military control over the Pacific nations’ airspace, land and surrounding waters.
But despite being long-term legal residents, COFA migrants lack access to many safety net programs including Medicaid, food stamps and federal disaster assistance.
With his appointment to the Hawaii Civil Rights Commission, Peter became the first citizen of a COFA nation to serve on any Hawaii state board or commission.
Peter’s nomination by Gov. David Ige prompted the Legislature to amend the law that by omission barred COFA citizens from serving on boards or commissions.
“Jojo Peter was a valuable member of the Hawaii Civil Rights Commission, and he will be missed,” Ige said through a spokeswoman Wednesday.
The governor plans to appoint another person to take Peter’s place on the commission, but many say his death creates a void that won’t be easily filled.
Josie Howard, who co-founded We Are Oceania with Peter, feels lost in his absence. She likened the emotion to canoes in Micronesia that have two posts and “without one of them, the canoe is not operable.”
“He has been the voice for Micronesians out here in Hawaii,” she said.
Larry Reigetal, a master navigator from Lamotrek, Yap who lives on Guam, says that now that Peter has passed into the realm of their ancestors, their shared cultural traditions dictate his name shouldn’t be spoken, let alone shared with the outside world.
But he thinks if he asked Peter about that, he would say, “‘Heck, man, do it!'”
Reigetal was one of Peter’s high school classmates and says speaking about Peter honors him by furthering his lifelong battle for social justice.
“He now becomes one more guiding star with our ancestors to sail by,” Reigetal said. “We will carry on their legacies of making a difference.”
Mary Hattori remembers the day when she nearly quit pursuing her doctoral degree. She walked out of a classroom and ran into Peter, who persuaded her not to give up.
“We need more Pacific Islanders, more Micronesians with advanced degrees,” she remembers him saying.
Hattori went on to become a professor at Chaminade University. She worked with Peter to give talks at local high schools to inspire Micronesians and collaborated with him on the annual Micronesian Festival. He was supposed to emcee the May 11 festival at Bishop Museum.
Hattori says Peter was driven to help those less fortunate than him.
Peter’s doctoral dissertation recounted the struggles of Chuukese families who sought health care in Hawaii for their disabled children.
Hattori says she is among a generation of scholars inspired by Peter.
James Viernes from the University of Hawaii’s Center for Pacific Island Studies is another. He says Peter had an ability to bridge cultural differences and garner respect both in Micronesia and in the U.S.
“Jojo was always thinking about his family, he was always thinking about his islands, he was always thinking about his region,” Viernes said. “The community and the region at large is in a massive state of mourning.”
Peter’s death has resonated on the mainland as well. Joe Enlet, the consulate general for the Federated States of Micronesia in Portland, says he and organizers in Hawaii, Oregon, Texas, California, Arizona and Arkansas almost cancelled their COFA-CLAN meeting this week but decided the best way to honor Peter would be to continue.
“It’s just so difficult to put into words the depth of his influence on people who are advocating and people who care about Micronesia and the Pacific Islands as a whole,” Enlet said.
He said Peter taught him to “think about the issues for Micronesians beyond the political arrangement that we have with the U.S. but to look at it as a human issue and what it means to the fabric of humanity.”
Peter spent his last weekend speaking at Civil Beat’s #BeingMicronesian event at the Honolulu Biennial, where he discussed militarism and colonialism in the Pacific.
“We are part of the community,” he told the audience. Despite efforts to isolate Micronesians or define them separately legislatively, “We are part of the community, so we do as much as we can to contribute.”
James Skouge, who co-wrote Peter’s autobiography, “Coconut Ratz & Kung Fu Cowboys: Tales of a Pacific Islander’s Childhood,” says Peter’s overarching philosophy was, “We are only strong in community.”
He would take TheBus from his home in the Mayor Wright public housing complex to homeless shelters to help Micronesians ineligible for Medicaid sign up for health insurance. Sometimes that meant waiting until there was an accessible seat available on the bus.
“He wasn’t ready to leave this world,” Skouge said. “He had lots of unfinished goals and dreams.”
According to Peter’s friends, those dreams included writing a book about Micronesian history told from the perspective of Micronesians; establishing a Micronesian charter school in Hawaii; going fishing on the reef in the Mortlock Islands; and spending one more night sleeping on the sand in Etal under the stars.
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