The measure is partially in response to challenges facing Micronesian and other Pacific Islander students in Hawaii.

A bill at the Legislature would create a new position at the state Department of Human Services to coordinate services specifically to support Pacific Islander youth. 

House Bill 438 would set aside an unspecified amount of money to hire a full-time permanent employee for the next two years. Rep. Sonny Ganaden introduced the bill along with 21 other House lawmakers and the support of the Filipino Caucus.

Ganaden said his decision to introduce the bill was informed by his work with Pacific Islander youth at K-VIBE, a program through Kokua Kalihi Valley Comprehensive Health Services, and through conversations with the East-West Center’s Pacific Islands Development Program.

Representative Sonny Ganaden speaks during the Red Hill Fuel Tank rally held at the Capitol.
Rep. Sonny Ganaden hopes his bill will help Pacific Islander youth. (Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2022)

“I intentionally didn’t drop a bill that was another task force,” he said. While working at the organization that teaches kids about how to ride and fix bikes, Ganaden saw firsthand how they need more support.

“We have some programs that are operating statewide but they have intermittent funding, it’s tough to staff them, and there’s a lack of coordination between those programs, the community itself, sometimes, and the DOE,” Ganaden said.

He sees the Pacific youth services coordinator position as a role that could help organizations like the Kalihi Valley Instructional Bike Exchange find the funding, staffing and other resources they need to be successful.

“I think to think of these kids as Micronesian instead of just as local kids who need services is racist,” he added. “When you spend time with them you know that they’re just local girls, local boys, they just come from a different place. But they’re being raised here, they’re being raised by our community and I think poorly, right now.”

Ongoing Efforts

Ganaden said in addition to his personal experience working with kids, he thinks the bill is necessary because of the myriad statistics showing the struggles of Pacific youth, which reflect common challenges facing immigrant youth.

“It’s the story of many of our parents and grandparents,” he said.

He reviewed Department of Education data that showed as far back as 2016, high school students who identified as Micronesian were nearly three times more likely to fail English classes than the average Hawaii student.

Failing English grades nearly doubled for all high schoolers during the pandemic, and the racial disparity persisted. In the 2020-2021 school year, more than 20% of Hawaii high schoolers failed English, but that included nearly half of all Micronesian students.  

Annie Kalama, assistant superintendent for the Office of Student Support Services, said the state has been working to help Pacific Islander youth. She noted more than a third of Micronesian youth speak limited English, and the state has been implementing training for all teachers to work with students with limited English proficiency.

“When you spend time with them you know that they’re just local girls, local boys, they just come from a different place.” — Rep. Sonny Ganaden

So far, about 30% of all public school teachers have completed the training, she said, which was slowed down by the coronavirus pandemic.

The state is also rolling out a new summer six-week academy to amplify its existing summer learning programs and recently hired someone at the state to oversee a team of bilingual, bicultural, school-home assistants who help conduct outreach with parents.

Part of the department’s budget ask this year is to hire more such assistants. The agency also posted a new community engagement role that it hopes to fill this year.

“We do recognize the urgency,” she said of addressing the disparities. “We are urgently trying to work on it.”


The Department of Human Services’ Office of Youth Services plans to support the bill, agency spokeswoman Amanda Stevens said.

She said that the agency will request a position “to coordinate programs prioritizing marginalized youth who are at-risk and involved in the juvenile justice system.” She added that the agency will also request $150,000 to bring back its Youth Services Directory, which was axed nearly two years ago amidst pandemic budget cuts.

But in order to get the measure passed, first Ganaden will need to get the measure through the Health and Human Services Committee. Then he would need to convince the money chairs that the position is worth funding amid all of the state’s other priorities.

Josie Howard, who leads the social service organization We Are Oceania that serves Hawaii’s Micronesian community, said the effectiveness of the position will come down to who is hired.

She recently got a call from a state employee whose job includes outreach to the Micronesian community but who wasn’t familiar with the community and wanted Howard’s help in making connections.

That happens often with Howard, who said We Are Oceania has been bombarded by public agencies seeking help. Howard wishes the departments would hire people from the Micronesian community, and questions if the coordinator position would be effective if the state doesn’t do so.

“They have to know the culture, they have to know the people, otherwise it’s just another waste of money,” she said.

Howard was impressed during a visit to Arkansas by how that state hired Marshallese staffers to work with the Marshallese community.

She thinks more communication with the Micronesian community is needed to ensure funding priorities are in line with what the community wants and needs.

Rona Mangayayam, youth services coordinator at Kokua Kalihi Valley Comprehensive Health Services, likes the idea of a new youth services position. However, she hopes that anyone chosen for the position would not only help coordinate resources but also advocate on their behalf.

She expressed concern that there’s dominant negative narrative about young Pacific youth in Hawaii.

“This is an opportunity for us to see the youth, that they have promise and they have gifts,” Mangayayam said.

Civil Beat’s community health coverage is supported by the Atherton Family Foundation, Swayne Family Fund of Hawaii Community Foundation, the Cooke Foundation and Papa Ola Lokahi.

Civil Beat’s education reporting is supported by a grant from Chamberlin Family Philanthropy.

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