The Civil Beat Editorial Board Interview: EWC President Suzanne Vares-Lum - Honolulu Civil Beat


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Civil Beat Editorial Board

The members of The Civil Beat Editorial Board are Chad Blair, Patti Epler, Nathan Eagle, Lee Cataluna, Kim Gamel and John Hill. Opinions expressed by the editorial board reflect the group’s consensus view. Not all members may participate in every interview or essay. Chad Blair, the Politics and Opinion Editor, can be reached at cblair@civilbeat.org.


Editor’s note: The Civil Beat Editorial Board and reporters on Thursday spoke with the new East-West Center president, Suzanne Vares-Lum. The center, founded in 1960 and located in Manoa, aims to promote better relations and understanding among the people and nations of the United States, Asia and the Pacific through study, research and dialogue. Vares-Lum began with sharing her vision for the center.

Suzanne Vares-Lum: My vision is that the East-West Center will be that go-to place, that place where people need to talk about these critical issues that we’re facing in the region, particularly climate change, governance, food, water insecurity. Even now, more natural disasters occur in this region than any other place, and we’ve seen that with Tonga. How do we respond when we’re sitting all of us together in the center of this vast blue continent? And what does that mean for us as we respond to natural disasters and as we see the climate changing for those who are on small atolls? Our brothers and sisters throughout the region definitely feel it more than others.

And as we see the rising role of the People’s Republic of China and how that impacts the region and the relationships that are there, what role can the East-West Center play in helping to bridge understanding and opportunities? How you address the challenges that come up in terms of historical grievances and claims? And not just the responses to natural disasters that are occurring or instability that we see in Burma or we see along the border of India and China, but Russia’s eastern military district and their Pacific presence that we’ve seen much more assertively here.

There are a lot of organizations that deal with all of the geopolitical issues, but all of the other nontraditional security issues that really need to be talked about are in terms of equity and countries’ governance, trade, diversifying economies, education, the next generation of leaders. How do we bring in equitable access to technologies as we’re leveraging it?  Not everybody has equal access, so there are so many opportunities.

Created in 1960, the East-West Center has graduated tens of thousands of alumni over the decades. Flickr: Dan Ramarch

I was excited to see the role that (the center) has been playing in terms of the U.S. National Climate Assessment — the East-West Center’s analysis and research went into that assessment, as well as the new partnership with Hawaii Green Growth to promote sustainable development for Hawaii and the Pacific. As we look at those long-term goals on sustainability, ways in which we grow food, localization of all that, it’s really exciting.

Also, the role of the Pacific Islands Development Program in the Pacific. When we look at the leaders and bringing them together it’s a great opportunity to bridge, to talk about the issues that are most important. And I could say pretty confidently that climate change for all of them is universal because rising sea levels, the impact on fish, the protein around the fisheries and, as those are challenged elsewhere, people are coming into their own exclusive economic zones or territorial waters.

This is the go-to place for thought leaders for Asia-Pacific issues, a place where we can talk about serious issues.

We’ve had students here — we’ve had in the past the king of Tonga planting a tree here. So our connection to Tonga in Hawaii and in the Pacific is significant. But we saw that we have alumni — there’s 68,000 alumni. How can the East-West Center bring out the voices of Tonga, the large diaspora that lives outside — many in Hawaii and California, about 61,000 that live outside of Tonga — to be heard and those alumni go into action? There is a relief fundraising platform that our alumni have put up.

I want to mention one thing that I think (is important) for the future as we look at why Asia matters for America and why America matters for Asia, why the Pacific matters for America, and why we matter for the Pacific. I think those are very important. There are studies and analyses that look at the educational exchanges that we’ve seen in various countries throughout the region and also economic exchanges, trade, future opportunities for information sharing, how we look at partnering cities throughout the United States and here in Hawaii. I’d like to bring that visibility, that this is the go-to place for thought leaders for those issues, a place where we can talk about serious issues.

Why do you think more people aren’t going to the East-West Center when so much is focused on what’s happening in the Pacific-Asia region right now? You mentioned Tonga, China. My sense is that you’ve got Tim Brown talking about Covid, and that’s great. He’s an amazing resource. But why has the center struggled to elevate its profile to be the go-to institution?

I would say in the past two years, having been in Indo-Pacific Command, that really people have come to realize that there are serious challenges and opportunities in this region. It’s almost been despite what’s happening in Europe or in the Middle East. That’s where our attention was as a nation. Right now, I believe we are shifting back, and it’s a realization that there are opportunities and challenges that must be addressed and everyone is shifting and focusing. So at any time, more than ever, now is the time.

Suzanne Vares-Lum East-West Center Editorial Board
Suzanne Vares-Lum of the East-West Center spoke to the Civil Beat Editorial Board on Thursday about her vision as the new president of the institution. Screenshot/2022

I think what we need is a strategic plan with all of our stakeholders looking at what is most important and how we need to ensure that we are relevant, the dialogue that we have to have. My focus over the next six months is developing those strategic priorities that will guide us on those top issues that are impacting people — I have my own vision in terms of climate and the Pacific islands — and how we can leverage diversifying economies for both the region and the United States and Hawaii.

Asia matters for America in Washington, D.C. Being here in Hawaii, we are the perfect location in Hawaii — bringing in those values, why we matter for Hawaii, but also for the rest of the United States. I see elevating this idea. We have to look at innovative ways to leverage the technologies that we’ve learned during Covid-19 — that we can reach more people through these technical means, that we need to establish more partnerships.

And once we’re done with the strategic plan, it is really going on a very deliberate roadshow that shares with people what it is that we’re doing and the opportunities that we can play here and the special place of Hawaii, the values that we bring of inclusivity.

People will come to the center if they know that their voice can be heard and that they’re trusted.

This idea is really elevating the idea of aloha, right? This place where we can respect one another. People will come if they know that their voice can be heard and that they’re trusted, respected and that we attract those decision-makers. It’s going to be definitely a concerted effort and an intentional, deliberate effort after we have that strategic plan to pinpoint the key stakeholders and elevate the role and understanding and share that through very strategic communications.

How do you elevate? Well, Google now wants to partner with us in the arts. Are there other institutions around the United States and throughout the region that could partner with us? I believe that when we don’t talk then we create issues and problems and people create their own narratives about what is happening or what we believe we really need to do, to leverage this place. Once we open up, I’m hopeful that we could use these amazing places. And I think highlighting (that) there is a sense of a calm spirit that this place in Manoa offers.

Obama at East-West Center
Former President Barack Obama spoke at the East-West Center in Honolulu in 2019. Pool Photo by Cindy Ellen Russell/2016

Look at the history of President Obama and his parents and his sister Maya, who met her husband here. There are a lot of neat stories that you hear, amazing stories, how it’s changed people’s lives. And we have to share those stories and allow people to realize the art of the possible (even in) the most difficult situation — whether it’s permanent or overlapping claims of territorial disputes — that you know that when we’re talking, when we’re looking at facts, we’re setting up a community of people in the Indo-Pacific to talk about it. We could have a different outcome.

When is the strategic plan due? Sounds like it’s an ambitious project.

It is. My personal goal is in the next six months to have a foundational plan. And that would allow the other branch plans on various areas to be fleshed out. But those would outline the priorities for the center and our priority issue areas. Because if you focus on everything, you really focus on nothing, right? What are those things that are unique that the East-West Center is postured to do? Climate comes to mind for me. The Pacific islands programs come to mind, of course, all of our Asian partners throughout the region. And that’s what we’re going to talk about. We need to engage all of our stakeholders.

Did I hear you say that you’re looking at a roadshow, taking it out on the road to elevate the profile? So there will be a campaign behind this team to get you out there in front of folks like us?

Yes.

How is your funding? If I remember, it’s somewhere in the ballpark of $16 million to $17 million a year under some past administrations in Congress. How’s that looking right now, at least in terms of federal support?

In fiscal year 2021 it was $19.7 million. All of our congressional delegation, Sens. Hirono and Schatz, Reps. Case and Kahele — all are very, very supportive of the center. Our congressional delegations have been extraordinary because they see it throughout history and the power in what this place has done and what it can do in the future, working with the Washington, D.C. office. Part of that road show is sharing with other key locations across the United States (and) congressional leaders to understand how important this is. And I think they do. But what role can the East-West Center play in that, I think, is where I need to help educate.

We have to look at innovative ways to leverage the technologies that we’ve learned about during Covid-19.

I had an opportunity several years ago to present (to) the Pacific Island Caucus in Congress, a bipartisan caucus that looks at how important the Pacific is. I think many people don’t fully understand it across the nation, and I think we play a special role in helping to do that.

You’re comfortable, at least for now, saying that the federal funding seems pretty secure because, as you know, there have been cuts proposed in the past.

I think so. I could see where, right now (with) the geopolitical climate, that we look at all ways to ensure that we are communicating, we are discussing, we are researching, we’re educating and building leaders. I think all of Congress understands how very important the Indo-Pacific (is). It took several years, I think, before people realized that (there are) significant challenges that are being presented as we look at the role of the People’s Republic of China in the region.

Federal money — I’m guessing that’s your largest revenue source, but you also receive donations from (alumni) along with corporations and nonprofits. Is that correct?

Absolutely. The alumni network has 53 chapters, 68,000 alumni, and they are an amazing resource. And there are also donors who just believe in the mission of the building and understanding the arts program or education.

They actually help to fund a lot of the students who come here. There are 385 students from 48 countries and 77 different disciplines and fields of study. And many of the donors out there have been so generous to fund the graduate students to go to the university, participate in the East-West Center fellowship programs. We couldn’t do it without those donors. I need to continue to commit to continuous engagement and sharing with them. The students being educated and coming out with a degree, those will be the future leaders in their various respective countries, including here in Hawaii and across the United States.

Outgoing EWC President Richard Vuylsteke presented Vares-Lum with a lauhala mat that Kahu Kordell Kekoa (at far right) said symbolizes responsibility for a community woven together from many strands, "as well as a place where people can sit together to build a better world." EWC Board of Governors Chairman James Scott is also pictured for the inauguration, which took place Jan. 10.
Outgoing EWC President Richard Vuylsteke presented Vares-Lum with a lauhala mat that Kahu Kordell Kekoa (far right) said symbolizes responsibility for a community woven together from many strands, “as well as a place where people can sit together to build a better world.” EWC Board of Governors Chairman James Scott is also pictured for the inauguration, which took place Jan. 10. Courtesy: EWC/2022

Part of that student mix of multicultural students has to be an element. A lot of them are from Asia and the Pacific (who want) to understand America and Hawaii, and we need to have an equal amount of students in there. There have been wonderful donors who have outlined even Native Hawaiian students, increasing that number so that they can understand the values that Hawaii offers — the Native Hawaiian culture and the idea of pono dialogue, positive dialogue, laulima — working together — building ohana through aloha. It’s presented in a special way here, in a special place. I think that’s important also across the United States, having a good representation of students who show the diversity of America.

I think during your inauguration there was lauhala mat that was presented to you.

Yes, yes.

A symbolic gift which, if I interpreted correctly, has to do with weaving together ideas and so forth.

That’s exactly right. And I talked about the piko, the center, right where you start, in the middle of the mat. And really, if the East-West Center is the place of dialogue, this can be a piko for weaving together ideas and understanding to create something that’s complete. A lauhala mat in Hawaii, you sit on it to get together to gather. I thought it’s a wonderful representation of what this place is, and it reflects the unique culture of Hawaii and the Pacific islands.

I don’t recall (past presidents) Charles Morrison and Richard Vuylsteke ever using the words lauhala and piko and so forth. You are the first female president of the center, the first Native Hawaiian. It sounds like this is very central to who you are and your plans for the center.

It is, integrating with the other amazing cultures that are all around us and bringing this about, because we are in this place and I think place means a lot. And at the same time, there’s a complexity here because it is also representing our nation, which is hard to do when you have everything from the South, the East Coast, the Midwest, the West Coast. So because we’re in this place, it is part of the fabric of America. And yet it has its own unique (characteristics) in that it we have the Native Hawaiian indigenous voice that needs to be heard as well.

And I meant no disrespect to Charles Morrison and Richard Vuylsteke, who I’ve interviewed.

No, they’re wonderful. They bring a whole host of different things. And that’s the beauty of this place, right? I’ve learned from Charles, I’ve learned from Richard. I’ve taken all the things, all their years of experience throughout the region. I just have a different approach, and I think that’s the beauty of this place.

The recent volcanic eruption in Tonga was obviously demonstrative or illustrative of the vulnerability of Pacific nations. Notwithstanding, there’s been an increased interest in the region, as you said, with China’s growing influence. You see it with the fallout in Tonga. New Zealand and Australia were very quick or as quick as possible, given the communication breakdown there, to respond, but the U.S. seems to have been rather quiet. I understand that USAID (the United States Agency for International Development) is taking the lead in the U.S. relief effort with $100,000. So I’m just wondering if you could tell me your thoughts on how this aligns with that apparent focus geopolitically, or refocus towards the Pacific, as concerns with China continue.

So one of the things for the East-West Center, right away our team went out and reached out to our Tongan alumni, and that’s what the center has done. We all gathered for the Pacific Island Development Program, seeing how we can help and also to highlight our web of the voices, the Tongan voices. But in terms of New Zealand and Australia, the U.S. response for natural disasters is providing support so that New Zealand has the lead. But USAID for the U.S. response abroad, it really came from the American embassy in Samoa.

When you look at U.S. forces in terms of who has led on certain areas, because of proximity and distance, it’s New Zealand, really, in terms of Tonga. And they certainly have been wonderful with their ships to provide desalination, aerial assessment.

But you’re right, in terms of our strategic communication, on how important that is. I think we at the East-West Center can also help to show how important Tonga is. This is a long haul, it’s a long road. The immediate response right now is the water, which New Zealand and Australia has provided and looking at how to recover communications.

Tonga Geological Services recorded early eruptions of the Hunga Tonga Hunga Ha’apai volcano. While relief efforts are led by neighbors New Zealand and Australia, the EWC and the U.S. are also involved. Tonga Geological Services/2022

Where I think we can help is in terms of highlighting some of those needs throughout the country, as Tonga is a very critical and an important partner in the long-term economic recovery. The University of Hawaii actually is helping them by providing training (to) 36 inhabited islands of the 170 they have — like emergency response professionals who came here for a program at the University of Hawaii. All of the islands have someone who was trained.

The other thing that East-West Center brings is understanding. We saw very tragically the three deaths, but we didn’t see more because while they do not have a system that tells them about it — they don’t have a loudspeaker system to warn of tsunamis — but they do have a very extensive network that we understand here in Polynesia and all of the Pacific. That network of the chief, the women, the untitled men who take care or malama the elderly. Certain places that are more urban, certain places across the world where you don’t have that kind of structure, you wouldn’t know this, (that someone) is left alone or uncle is left alone or someone is sick. They all know in their communities because they have tight networks and they’ve had to do that. And I think that’s something that the world can learn from, that maybe we can help share — how do you build resilient communities and how do we learn from that one time?

And that’s where the East-West Center can come in and show they’re not just victims, but they’re a place that can show us lessons learned on how is it that you had a very small fatality rate that people know right away the signs early on that — water recedes, you hear the explosion, that means what’s going to come next. So it’s all of that training and education that they’ve invested in the community structure that’s tight, that allowed them to have lower casualty rates, but then (there are) long term investment and remittances.

I know throughout the Pacific it is a place where you listen, you take the time to understand.

And speaking of the U.S., 100,000 is the population of the Kingdom of Tonga, but about 61,000 live in the United States. It means those remittances come from the United States. So while it may not be the voice always of the government, it’s the voice of the people — the Americans who are Tongan, who have come to the United States for better opportunity and have done an extraordinary thing like my dear friend, who is the first female Tongan pilot of Hawaiian Airlines. Those remittances that go back to Tonga are a significant part of the economic ecosystem that the United States has in this region. And that’s something that’s not often accounted for.

That’s a significant amount of funding that, long term, will happen because as they’ve got it — the ash and its economic impact on all of the crops, future water, all of that. What is that going to mean for the future sustainability of their economy and migration and movement with families? And in New Zealand, Hawaii and the United States, they’ve made amazing contributions to and become Americans. It’s kind of a complex piece that I don’t think a lot of people think about — the U.S. contribution to Tonga.

Of course, it’s true that it’s going to be a very long term effort and they have done well to keep the number of fatalities down. Unfortunately, the three, it’s a terrible situation for the families, but what role can East-West Center perhaps take? What can happen in the future to deal with these disasters, which we know there will be more of — perhaps not volcanic eruptions, but we know that there will be inundation. We know that there will be more cyclones. How can the East-West Center facilitate an increase in capacity between the allies and the southern nations themselves?

I think outside of the traditional research, education, bringing students to educate leaders (at the center), it is a convening place to talk about how they can partner better together, developing new partnerships with institutions as we look at climate change and those institutions. I think also the Pacific Islands Conference of Leaders, I have no doubt this will be a topic. I am certain that this is going to be a topic that we can discuss, what’s the way forward and how the East-West Center can help. The key place is the Pacific Island Development Program.

I’d like to tap into your extensive experience, including your experience in the military. When you talk about U.S. relations in the Pacific and with these islands and even with Hawaii, what kind of role could the military play in facilitating friendlier relations with the U.S. when we talk about the U.S. vying for influence with China?

That’s a great question. We talk about this place, the East-West Center, being a convening place with a special location and feeling. I know that there has been a concerted effort to participate in some dialogues on key issues that are land — they call it the kahoahoa (mediation) process which is a co-creation process. I had been a part of that process previously to talk about building trust and understanding both ways. So that when we talk about place, (there) is this understanding for our Department of Defense, understanding the place that they’re at and connecting with it. And there has been pretty good progress in that area (but) there’s more to be done, much more to be done, especially given the light of the recent situation. So I think highlighting those successes in that process will take time, it takes investment in time.

U.S. Navy Maj. Gen. Suzy Vares-Lum, U.S. Indo-Pacific Command mobilization assistant to the commander, speaks during Pacific Air Forces’ first Women’s, Peace, and Security (WPS) symposium, hosted from Joint Base Pearl Harbor-Hickam, Hawaii, March 31, 2021. Vares-Lum provided remarks about operationalizing WPS in the defense sector. (U.S. Air Force photo by Tech. Sgt. Nick Wilson)
Then U.S. Army Maj. Gen. Suzy Vares-Lum in March speaking at Joint Base Pearl Harbor-Hickam. She says the military’s role in the region is not always fully understood. Courtesy: Pacific Air Forces Public Affairs/2021

I think that the process that’s rooted in Native Hawaiian values — that hooponopono (to make right), that kahoahoa process — is something that we could also teach the region. And there are probably similar type of dialogue processes. And I know throughout the Pacific (it) is a place where you listen, you take the time to understand. And I think that is something that I know is here, just from my experience in the DOD — I can’t speak for them anymore and I don’t want to do that — but I have seen it in action in the past.

To follow up on your military experience — 34 years, a retired Army major general, family members who have served as well. I’m sure there are many assets that come with your military background and your current position. Some people did raise an eyebrow when you were hired and said, “Gee, is that a good idea for a research and education facility to have someone with a military background?” You’ve seen the anger toward the Navy over Red Hill. You saw how upset people were with a false missile test that was coming from North Korea or wherever. I wonder if you might address that because there’s been a long history with the military. It’s integral to our culture, our society, our history. But there’s also some tensions — Pohakuloa and Makua (training facilities) and so forth. Could you address that?

Yes, I acknowledge that is definitely a concern for some. I think people think of the military sometimes in just a certain dimension and not (as a) very complex organization that has a whole diplomatic arm to it, that those who have served in the military certainly understand the cost of war and they understand the cost of conflict. I think once you realize what that cost is, that you see that.

What is critically important are the other elements of dialogue — discussion, understanding, transparency —  that are critically important if we want to avoid war, avoid conflict or crises. And I think I bring to the table some of that diplomatic dialogue. I’ve worked throughout the region and in bilateral dialogues. While they were military to military, they were often on these issues of humanitarian assistance. (Like the earlier question on Tonga.) How do we work together with New Zealand? How do we work together in an environment like that, whether it’s Malaysia, Kuala Lumpur, Indonesia, Bangladesh, Mongolia, Japan, Korea, Australia. There are dialogues talking about maritime domain awareness. How many countries have concerns, like Palau, about people coming into their territorial waters?

I think those are the kinds of skills I bring as well as organizational leadership, (the) strategic planning process.

And in addition to that is being from here. I think that understanding the culture of the region — which I feel really helped me while I was in the military to reach out to others in the region and be able to connect so that we can get to a place of dialogue and agreement on some of the activities.

Am I hearing you say in part that perhaps the military’s role is misunderstood and is seen through a narrow lens when in fact it’s much, much more, as you suggest?

It really is. I mean, when you think about the diversity of our DOD and the role that they play, a lot even throughout the Pacific where you see (engineers) helping to build capacity, new facilities, new buildings, helping to train people on some of these things that (were earlier) mentioned on disaster response and how do we quickly communicate? How do we organize ourselves in the region? “New Zealand, Australia, since you have large capacity, would you be able to help quickly? And then we’ll come to follow (up). We will support you, forces that are east of the international date line, you would have this.” So it’s sort of like, how do you (know) who can come to the table to help and respond in a place where there are more natural disasters than any other place in the world?

So that’s another thing the military can be involved in — helping with disaster relief.

Absolutely.

When Secretary Hillary Clinton was (in Honolulu in 2011 for APEC), she talked about a pivot to the Pacific Asia region under the Obama administration. She has spoken at the East-West Center, same with Senator John Kerry, the other secretary of state under Obama. And yet right now you see President Biden focused on Russia and Ukraine, even though President Biden has indicated that China has to be the priority. Even Senator Schatz just before your time (at the center) said, “We need to step up engagement in the Pacific,” and by “we” he means, I believe, the United States. How do we step up that engagement when Europe and Russia just aren’t going away, or the Middle East? And yet there’s China and its very powerful rise in the region, building islands, atolls, right?

Yes. I think because of what we are hearing right now, from my perspective, is the president responding to the actions (of others). But I think in terms of an organization, as a government, as a whole, I think there is, I feel, this shift and concerted effort towards (the Asia-Pacific), if you look at the budget and actions of funding certain resources for the region. And if you look at most of our think tanks throughout the nation focusing on this region and people within Congress and our senior leaders, as well as the president repeating some of the very things and issues that we’ve been trying to get them to understand.

I think his response right now is, you know, having 100,000 troops along the border in Ukraine. He’s addressing that, but I don’t think addressing — it’s sort of like Iran when there was tension in Iran. There was concern. Well, I think that putting out fires around the globe, I think we will always have simultaneity that will happen. So  that we have short-term immediate response and a long-term focus on the Indo-Pacific, I think, is clear. But I don’t think that people should mistake his response to a situation in Europe as his taking the eye off China or people in the region.

How has Covid impacted your operations? I believe your building is pretty much shut down to folks on the outside, with some exceptions, but it’s also included having some of your students stranded here and there.

Yeah, we have a lot of students here in the building from around the world and some were stranded here. The team fundraised money, partly to help those who weren’t able to go home. But a lot of the activities have turned virtual — introduction to new programs, new fellows, webinars. At the same time, as a result of that, we’ve been able to reach many, many more people and have a variety of guests that we may not have been able to get in the past. Nothing replaces being in-person, but we have adapted and changed as a result. There were 115,000 views of East-West Center events last year. So that’s huge. And then we’ve had to pivot (to a) digital transformation, right? And so that has been pretty extraordinary, I think.

To follow up on the question that led to the mention of Russia, regardless of the Ukraine situation, we seem to be seeing sort of an emerging — alliance is probably too strong — partnership between China and Russia. And there have been Russian ships recently spotted around Hawaii, right? Will the East-West Center (look) at shifting your focus to include Russia when you talk about China influence?

The other question was a follow up about Biden’s policy because, yes, I agree — right now, of course, he has to react to what’s happening with Ukraine. But generally, I think his Asia policy isn’t getting rave reviews. He seems a little bit unfocused. Is he? I wonder if you could talk about that in the context of the East-West Center.

That’s certainly a place that we definitely — as we’re examining the strategic plan, what are our priorities and our priority items — that certainly will be on the table in terms of how we do that. But the presence of Russia and even through our Pacific waters has actually been (happening for) a long time. It’s been happening a while. And of course, the appearance of China and Russia as partnering, (there is) a lot of research done on how deep that could really go. It’s to their advantage, I guess, because China and Russia really don’t have a lot of allies and partners like we do. So I think there is definitely a role, and how do we do that will be rolled out as we look at the strategic planning and what our priority areas are.

Secretary of State John Kerry gestures before addressing audience about the U.S. vision for Asia-Pacific engagement at the East-West Center in Honolulu, Hawaii. August 13, 2014. photograph by Cory Lum.
Then Secretary of State John Kerry at the East-West Center in Honolulu in 2014. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2014

Commenting on the president (and) what he’s thinking, I don’t know that I’m in a position to do that, but I feel like from the East-West Center, we have a lot of educating to do. That’s the response I have. When people are not aware of the opportunities that maybe we have, we have a role to show them the amazing opportunities. We have a responsibility to try our best to get the word to the highest levels of what we can do here. And I think if we do that, we might be in a different place.

Civil Beat is really trying to increase our coverage of the Pacific and the region here beyond Hawaii and try to understand how other island nations in particular might play some role or have some relevance for Hawaii and what we do. Do you have any thoughts on what the media could do or what we should be doing to help with this education process, educating people about not only the East-West Center? We’re definitely interested in expanding our coverage of the region and that involves the military as well as climate change.

The role of media in educating, I think, is fantastic (particularly for) groups that are concerned about these issues, about climate and about Indigenous peoples. I think the Pacific Islands Conference of Leaders doesn’t get highlighted enough, and (we’re) building up to that. Let’s say we know it’s going to be in the summer or shortly after. Highlighting those countries that people know — especially in Hawaii — when we talk about the Compacts of Free Association states, (when) we talk about Marshallese, the Micronesians, Palau. We could do some educating when we think about the way that that diaspora in Hawaii has been treated sometimes.

My father in 1962 was in the Army, and he went to all of those islands, the Marshall Islands. He passed away last year, but he spent two weeks at a time on all of these atolls around the Pacific. He was from Maui, so they did a Stars and Stripes article on him and I still have it. And they talked about here’s this Maui boy (who) gets thrown on all of these atolls across the Pacific. He wasn’t too excited. There was blue water. “Awesome. I see that in Maui.”

But what he said was, as a young man and even as he got older when he heard all of these things, people would say about, “Oh gosh, they’re pressuring our ER system, our health care system, we’re not getting paid back enough,” he said, “You know, if you look at people who lost their way of life, very community-based, I saw the care and concern they had for one another, how there was no such thing as an orphan. And people shared everything they had.”  (He knew) that we all have something to learn, whether it’s educators not understanding where they come from and how they’re put into this place — how do you integrate them into communities here?

But even just like (in) Tonga, we could learn about how these small communities actually help the resiliency of a place. We could learn that from Tonga. Just the power of the story and telling, because that’s how Pacific island peoples share, right? They tell stories like I tell my story, my dad, I tell the story and then make a highlight, and then I go to — as we build up to — “let me introduce you to Fiji and let me introduce you to Tonga. Let me introduce you to Vanuatu, who most people don’t even know much about it, or Papua New Guinea or Solomon Islands.” And we would help to educate Hawaii, but we could (also) educate the rest of the nation. We could be a part of that.

Any final point that you’d like to make?

Sure. I’m excited about also working with other organizations like the Polynesian Voyaging Society, which got its roots here. It’s really elevating the Festival of Pacific Arts and Culture that’s coming here in 2024 as we look at arts and culture. Art is a level playing field, a place in which we can communicate with one another without all of (this) geopolitical noise in the background. It is a place that we can try to come to a common understanding. So that’s why even the dialogue, research and education, the arts and cultural piece is critical, because there’s not many places that you can get that — and you can get that here.

Editor’s note: Politics and Opinion Editor Chad Blair was a 2018 EWC Jefferson Fellow.


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Civil Beat Editorial Board

The members of The Civil Beat Editorial Board are Chad Blair, Patti Epler, Nathan Eagle, Lee Cataluna, Kim Gamel and John Hill. Opinions expressed by the editorial board reflect the group’s consensus view. Not all members may participate in every interview or essay. Chad Blair, the Politics and Opinion Editor, can be reached at cblair@civilbeat.org.


Latest Comments (0)

Careful--I remember an EWC "roadshow" that resulted in big budget cuts.

regina · 8 months ago

Federal money — I’m guessing that’s your largest revenue source, but you also receive donations from (alumni) along with corporationsWe don't have to guess about the messaging, such as in educating, or possibly propagandizing, while appearing culturally relevant, in light of the fact the EWC is funded by the government/corporations and its president is a military careerist.Look over the article and count how many times the word, "help" was used. The EWC exists to help us think, or so it seems to me.Recently, there has been many CB articles on the increasing influence and expansion of Chinese influence in the Pacific, which this interview doesn't dwell on.For instance, in the Solomon Islands there have been violent riots and protests about the government's decision to side with Taiwan instead of China. There's evidence of gov. corruption profiting from geopolitical tension between the US and China.Why no questions about this important unfolding geopolitical development?

Joseppi · 8 months ago

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