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Amy Agbayani sits at a table in Max’s Restaurant, a Filipino diner in Iwilei, waiting for a Filipino Community Center meeting to start to discuss its upcoming fundraiser.
In front of her are a cluster of papers: data on the underrepresentation of Filipinos in higher education, testimony on a bill at the Legislature, a speech she gave at a naturalization ceremony last year. She’s explaining why it’s important to ensure access to education for everyone.
“It’s a disservice not to educate the COFA community, the Filipino community, the African American community, the white community,” she says, adding that immigrants are especially vulnerable because they don’t vote. “We bring resources to this community, we actually grow the community, we pay taxes, we do work that others don’t want.”
This year Agbayani, 76, helped secure $600,000 for the University of Hawaii to expand its programming and outreach to Filipino students. She plans to return to the Legislature next year to ask for money for a new nonprofit law center for low-income immigrants where she serves on the board.
This is Agbayani’s idea of retirement.
Agbayani isn’t a politician and she’s not in the media often.
But she’s well-known among both political leaders and Hawaii’s Filipino community as a fierce advocate whose life’s work has improved access to higher education for immigrants. Her behind-the-scenes decades of advocacy helped change local civil rights laws and policies and establish the Hawaii Civil Rights Commission and the University of Hawaii’s Office of Multicultural Student Services.
“Manang Amy is our Rosa Parks,” a student told the Fil-Am Courier in an article honoring Agbayani’s retirement. “Manang,” is a Filipino term of endearment honoring a sister or elder woman.
Her retirement was so significant that it was the Filipino newspaper’s cover story in January 2017. Local organizations bought up multiple pages of advertisements praising Agbayani’s contributions.
Her popularity contrasts with her experience when she first came to Hawaii in 1964.
“I was a nobody,” she says. “The (school) superintendent never used to return my calls.”
She quickly realized in order to get anything done, she had to work within the political system.
She was friends with the late Hawaii Congresswoman Patsy Mink, staying at her apartment when Agbayani testified in Congress in 1975. She became a campaign manager for former Rep. Dennis Arakaki for two decades. She got to know former Gov. Ben Cayetano before he ran for office when he attended discussions of opponents of the Ferdinand Marcos regime in Philippines. He later appointed her to the Judicial Selection Committee. She also befriended former Gov. Neil Abercrombie before he became a politician.
“I introduced Neil Abercrombie to his wife, I helped him get his first apartment,” Agbayani says. “He was a freshman in the Legislature when they tried to cut my program so I just called him up and he screamed at the dean.”
Former Gov. John Waihee says Agbayani’s advocacy on behalf of a Filipino job candidate who was denied the position because of his accent is partly why he helped create the state Civil Rights Commission and appointed her as its first chairwoman.
“She became really the symbol of civil rights in the State of Hawaii,” he recalls. “She can be very charming when she’s telling you that you’re messing up.”
“She’s one of those many unsung heroes in our state that don’t get the recognition that they should have,” he said.
The daughter of a schoolteacher and a diplomat, Agbayani grew up living in Australia and Bangkok before returning to the Philippines for college. She got a fellowship to the East-West Center and moved to Hawaii for college.
She wrote her dissertation on the U.S. civil rights movement and protested against the Vietnam War in 1968 in a sit-in at Bachman Hall, the University of Hawaii’s president’s office.
Or as Agbayani likes to say: “I illegally occupied Bachman Hall and then later on I legally occupied Bachman Hall.”
She didn’t know much about Hawaii’s history when she arrived or that there was a big and growing Filipino community.
But she later realized her arrival coincided with a 1965 immigration law change that led to the influx of Filipino immigrants. She was working in Kalihi when she and her friends noticed Filipino kids were getting bullied and that many who didn’t speak English well weren’t getting a good education.
“It never occurred to me to ever be a second class citizen but I was seeing Filipinos being treated as second-class citizens,” she said.
Agbayani says she and her friends all came from economically privileged backgrounds and were married to haoles with PhDs. They were in a position to help, but it wasn’t easy at first.
First they had to get funding for Operation Manong, the first iteration of the university’s diversity outreach program, which sought to get college students to mentor immigrant children. The program later expanded to encourage children from underrepresented communities to seek higher education and support them when they got there. Sometimes advocating was more adversarial — she and other Filipino educators threatened to sue the Hawaii Department of Education when the agency didn’t apply for funding for bilingual education.
“We really had to deal with policy and make changes in the public schools to make sure DOE (Department of Education) didn’t blame the kids all the time,” Agbayani says. The department’s attitude was, the “immigrant kid has to change their behavior,” Agbayani recalls.
Decades later, Operation Manang has become the university’s Office of Multicultural Student Services, which now includes multiple programs aimed at helping underserved kids and encouraging them to go to college. The program has supported many students who went on to prominent positions in the state and beyond.
Councilman Joey Manahan, who worked under Agbayani when he was in college as a tutor in Operation Manong, credits Agbayani with helping him get his first job at the Legislature.
“As an immigrant myself coming from the Philippines, growing up under a dictatorship, you can imagine what my idea of government was,” he said. He says Agbayani helped teach him, “Government can be used for good.”
He says politicians still listen to Agbayani because she’s so well-respected.
“When she comes around to testify for something, there’s a certain sense of gravitas or weight that’s put on the issue,” he says. “Just her presence sometimes in a committee or a council meeting, certainly it does a lot for any piece of legislation that she may be advocating for.”
But Agbayani’s biggest fans are the numerous students who felt supported by her over the decades.
“If it wasn’t for Manang Amy I don’t know where I would be,” says Marie Guillermo, a second-generation Filipino immigrant. Guillermo says it wasn’t until she participated in Operation Manong programs that she started to feel pride in her cultural identity.
Danicole Ramos says Agbayani’s encouragement inspired him to apply to law school.
“She has opened the door for Filipinos like myself to pursue higher education, to fulfill our ancestors’ wildest dreams,” he said. “For our parents and grandparents it seemed like such a hard thing to do.”
But now, he says, “When a Filipino child says they want to go to college they can do that because she’s opened the door to do that.”
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