President Joe Biden appointed Ka’ai to lead his initiative on Asian Americans, Native Hawaiians and Pacific Islanders. She sat down with Civil Beat this week to talk about her work.

WASHINGTON — Krystal Ka‘ai’s identity is integral to what she does when she’s in Washington.

Ka‘ai is originally from Hawaii and has held a number of high-profile positions in the nation’s capital, including as the executive director of the Congressional Asian Pacific American Caucus. 

In 2021, she was appointed by President Joe Biden to lead the White House Initiative on Asian American, Native Hawaiians and Pacific Islanders. The initiative was first created by executive order in 1999 during the Clinton administration, but has been reimagined in recent years as Biden pushes to expand diversity, equity and inclusion in federal government. 

Ka‘ai is at the forefront of those efforts, at least when it comes to the AANHPI community. 

Krystal Ka’ai is the executive director of the White House Initiative on Asian Americans, Native Hawaiians and Pacific Islanders. (Submitted: WHIAANHPI)

She’s the first Native Hawaiian to be named as executive director of the White House’s AANHPI initiative. And she’ll be bringing her work back to the islands this week as top officials hold a series of discussions focused on AANHPI topics such as anti-Asian discrimination, data disaggregation, economic opportunities and immigration. 

On Thursday, the president’s Advisory Commission on Asian Americans, Native Hawaiians and Pacific Islanders is scheduled to hold a meeting in Honolulu to take public comment from the community. The meeting will be followed up by an economic summit Friday at the Hawaii State Capitol and will feature key leaders from the Biden administration.  

Ka‘ai sat down with Civil Beat at her offices in Washington, D.C., before flying to Hawaii. She talked about everything from her role advancing Biden’s agenda to her views on the recent Supreme Court ruling that effectively put an end to race-conscious admissions programs at colleges. 

She also discussed her own upbringing in Hawaii and how that’s influenced the way she approaches her job on a daily basis. 

“My mom is an immigrant from Japan and my dad is Native Hawaiian, who’s mixed with other things, too,” Ka‘ai said. “So that unique kind of perspective helps make sure that not only am I advocating for Native Hawaiian and Pacific Islanders who have very much not had a voice here in D.C. for a very long time, but I’m also able to understand some of the challenges that our Asian American communities face, especially our recent immigrant populations.”

The interview has been edited for length and clarity. 

Let’s start with the big picture. What is the White House Initiative on Asian American, Native Hawaiian and Pacific Islanders and why does it matter? 

This initiative has actually existed for over two decades, but it was more recently reauthorized by President Biden two years ago in May 2021. The core mission is to advance equity, justice and opportunity for the Asian American, Native Hawaiian and Pacific Islander community across the U.S. 

We do that in a number of ways that are outlined in the executive order. 

Unfortunately, what we often see here in Washington, D.C., is that if you don’t have a seat at the table when critical policy decisions and engagements and outreach are being done there’s a long history of so many communities being overlooked.

It’s everything from combating the rise in anti-Asian hate we saw throughout the pandemic to promoting things like data disaggregation for an extremely diverse population and language access given that about a third of this population is limited English proficient. 

It also looks at policy issues, like education equity, housing and economic development while making sure that the Asian American, Native Hawaiian, Pacific Islander community is included and that their unique voices and perspectives are integrated into the work that we are doing at the federal level. 

Some people, especially in Hawaii, may wonder why you would even need an initiative like this.

In a state where the AANHPI community is a majority of the population it doesn’t really seem like it would be necessary. But throughout the nation the latest census shows the Asian American, Native Hawaii, Pacific Islander population is about 7% of the total U.S. population. 

So it’s relatively small compared to the entirety of the United States, but rapidly growing.

Unfortunately, what we often see here in Washington, D.C., is that if you don’t have a seat at the table when critical policy decisions and engagements and outreach are being done there’s a long history of so many communities being overlooked.

So what specifically are you doing through this initiative that will have a direct effect on the people of Hawaii? 

A lot of what we do directly impacts the Asian American, Native Hawaiian, Pacific Islander communities back home, and that includes a better look at the data piece. I know that sounds really monotonous, but it’s so critical when we talk about our work to advance equity. 

If we can’t see where those inequities are in federal datasets that actually inform funding and policy decisions that’s a big challenge.

Unfortunately, throughout Covid so many of our Asian American, Native Hawaiian, Pacific Islander communities — and especially our Native Hawaiians and Pacific Islanders, including COFA populations — were not even registering at the federal level as facing really significant disparities whether we were talking about the health impacts of the Covid pandemic, in terms of really high infection and mortality rates amongst our Pacific Islander communities, or even the economic impacts.

Members of the Hawaii National Guard and Department of Health staff offered on-site Covid-19 testing at public housing complexes like Puuwai Momi in Aiea in an effort to reach Pacific Islander populations. (Eleni Gill/Civil Beat/2020)

We were not being seen as an underserved population.

A big part of the work that we’re doing is to push for that data collection, and not just in the context of Covid, but across the board when looking at educational disparities, health disparities and economic impacts.

During Covid, Hawaii was the only state that was disaggregating Pacific Islander data so we were looking at Samoan, Tongan and Chamorro communities.

​​Most of the United States does not do that and so we were not even registering. They’re not even collecting separate Native Hawaiian and Pacific Islander data. We were invisible.

Again, going back to the work we do, it’s really to educate and elevate the specific needs and concerns of our communities that would, quite frankly, not have much of a voice here in Washington, D.C., otherwise.

The Biden administration seems to have made this initiative a priority. So how would you say this administration’s iteration compares to prior administrations, including that of former President Donald Trump? 

The biggest difference is that under this administration the initiative has the broadest scope that it’s ever had. It also explicitly includes Native Hawaiians in the name of the initiative for the first time. Under prior administrations it was just the White House Initiative on Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders. 

Under this administration, there’s been a really intentional push to be inclusive of Native Hawaiians while also recognizing the unique challenges that that community faces that are different from some of our other Pacific Islander groups. 

Just these past two weeks, I know Interior Secretary (Deb) Haaland was in Hawaii and (Housing and Urban Development) Secretary Marcia Fudge is there at the moment. 

So there’s been a lot of senior level engagement from federal officials who are going out to Hawaii not just to see how federal dollars are being used through a number of landmark pieces of legislation that were passed, like the Inflation Reduction Act, the American Rescue Plan and the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law, but also to learn more about how to better engage with our Native Hawaiian communities. 

Vice President Kamala Harris speaks to AANHPI members of the Biden administration in May. (Submitted: WHIAANHPI)

Under the Trump administration, the scope of this initiative was very limited. It focused predominantly on economic development and opportunity and so it was housed at the Department of Commerce. 

Now we focus on that plus over a dozen other issues that range from, as I mentioned, health and educational equity to climate justice. 

It’s a much broader scope and because of that we’ve actually been able to do a lot more to bring to bear this whole-of-government approach to advancing equity, rather than just focusing on one issue and one specific population. 

I was shocked at how for so many federal employees who have been here for decades this is actually a new phenomenon. It didn’t even happen under the Obama administration to this extent, this really intentional focus on making sure our policies are inclusive, that our workforce is diverse and inclusive, and that the populations that we serve and that we are engaging reflect the true diversity of America.

Do you have a good example of that direct engagement between the Biden administration and the Native Hawaiian community that you can point to? Yes, for the first time ever at the Department of Interior they have a senior adviser to the secretary on Native Hawaiian affairs. 

That position has never existed before Summer Sylva, and she’s actually going to be with us later this week. She’ll be speaking about some of the work that the Department of Interior is doing to create a Native Hawaiian consultation policy.

That’s just one example. Another is just earlier this year in February during Mahina Olelo Hawaii (Hawaiian language month) the White House worked with a number of our counterparts, including the White House Council on Native American Affairs, to do a virtual engagement with the Native Hawaiian community on the Biden-Harris administration’s 10 year Native language revitalization plan. And so those are just a few examples.

Summer Sylva, an attorney from Waimanalo, is a senior adviser to the secretary of the U.S. Interior Department. (Interior Department photo)

Again, it’s very unprecedented the amount of outreach and also the volume of outreach to the Native Hawaiian community to make sure that they are included and that their voices are incorporated into the decisions that are being made here. 

There were so many decades where Native Hawaiians were not really consulted in this process, and so I think it’s been very welcomed to have that sort of engagement from the federal government on issues that will directly impact Native Hawaiian populations in the state.

Of course, you’re the first Native Hawaiian to lead the initiative as the executive director. How have your background and experiences influenced the work that you’re doing with the initiative?

I think my personal experiences have very much contributed to the work that I’ve done throughout my career. 

The entire reason I’m here is actually through opportunities I’ve had at the state level. I was in the Office of Hawaiian Affairs, Washington, D.C., bureau. I worked for U.S. Sen. Dan Akaka. 

And those experiences have been very formative to the work that I do in terms of advocating for our Asian American, Native Hawaiian, Pacific Islander communities back in the state of Hawaii as well. Also my personal upbringing. 

I am Native Hawaiian, but I’m also Japanese American. My mom is an immigrant from Japan and my dad is Native Hawaiian, who’s mixed with other things, too. 

So that unique kind of perspective helps make sure that not only am I advocating for Native Hawaiian and Pacific Islanders who have very much not had a voice here in DC for a very long time, but I’m also able to understand some of the challenges that our Asian American communities face, especially our recent immigrant populations. 

A lot of the work that I do is personal when we’re talking about language access, or data disaggregation or how we are engaging with Native Hawaiian communities.

The lack of federal recognition for Native Hawaiians is an ongoing concern in Washington, and often requires Hawaii lawmakers to play defense when protecting federal programs and dollars that benefit the community. How has that played a role in the work that the initiative is undertaking?

Under the Obama administration they did actually create a pathway for Native Hawaiians should they choose to pursue federal recognition through the executive branch, and that door still remains open.

The federal government is not trying to direct the community to do one thing or another.

The ball is in the court of the community in terms of how they want to engage in this process.

Legally, without that federal status Native Hawaiians don’t have the same parity as other federally recognized Indigenous communities and so that does create limitations in terms of the types of programs and funding and opportunities that they are eligible for at the federal level.

So I think that’s just one of the things that we have to, at the federal government, be mindful of. What programs do Native Hawaiians qualify for and how can we make sure that for those programs and opportunities we are engaging them in a very intentional way?

How will the Supreme Court’s recent ruling on affirmative action in college admissions affect the work of the initiative moving forward?

This was a case we were monitoring very closely from its inception.

Where we stand is where the administration stands. The president and vice president, Education Secretary (Miguel) Cardona and the attorney general have all made it very clear the administration’s ongoing commitment to advancing equity.

A man holding Stop Asian Hate sign
The White House initiative seeks to combat ant-Asian bias and hate and ensure that all feel like Americans. (Getty Images/iStockphotos)

Right now, there are so many communities that are concerned about the future of a number of programs.

There are a number of actions that this administration is committed to looking at, including convening a higher education summit, and the president made clear that he is going to continue to encourage universities to look at ways to to be mindful of a number of different factors in the admissions process. 

We’re also seeing more come to light about legacy admissions with a lot of these elite institutions. 

A significant number of students are not being admitted, due to the fact that so many institutions hold about a third of their slots for legacy admissions and that doesn’t help Asian Americans, Native Hawaiians and Pacific Islanders, nor does it help other communities of color that just don’t have that history.

Overall, our initiative, in solidarity with the other White House initiatives for the Black, Hispanic, Native American communities, sees this as a loss and as a setback to decades of precedent and also to the progress that has been made. 

But we also very strongly believe and remain committed to ensuring that collectively our communities will not get pitted against each other and that we can just really work together to continue to advance opportunities for all Americans.

House Republicans led the charge to create a select committee to address competition concerns with China, which some, including U.S. Rep. Jill Tokuda, have warned could lead to increased xenophobia. What are your thoughts on the committee and what do you think can be done to allay some of those concerns?

Unfortunately, as tensions between the (People’s Republic of China) and the United States continue to rise we have seen just increasingly hostile rhetoric that is inflammatory. 

We saw it during Covid, but we see it now on any number of fronts and you’ve mentioned this committee that was created. 

The president has been very clear and he actually issued a presidential memorandum within his first week in office to condemn and combat racism, xenophobia and intolerance against the Asian American, Native Hawaiian, Pacific Islander community. 

Two and a half years ago we were at a very different time. We were seeing just really horrific hate crimes, unprovoked, and we are still unfortunately seeing some of those.  

A lot of that was due to inflammatory rhetoric around Covid, but also misconceptions about the virus. We see that continue to play out even now. So there’s still a lot of xenophobia.

In the president’s memorandum, he did actually direct all federal agencies to ensure that the language that they use, and also the work that they are doing, does not actively stoke xenophobia against the Asian American community.

Unfortunately, Asian Americans in particular, are still seen as perpetual foreigners in this country. There are many people who look at someone like me and would never think that I grew up here and I have Indigenous roots in this country. 

The average person cannot also distinguish between various Asian ethnic races. And so that’s why that rise in anti-Asian hate was something that really impacted not just Chinese Americans, but also just anyone who was East Asian appearing, ranging from Korean to Filipino and so many others. 

Again, that was something that folks in Hawaii did not feel as deeply impacted by, but it is something that we, even to this day as we traveled to other parts of the country, hear as one of the top concerns.

There’s that fear of the inflammatory rhetoric that’s led to actual, horrific hate crimes and incidents against our communities. 

The president has made it clear from the very beginning through the executive order to reestablish and reinvigorate the White House initiative that one of our key mandates was to address anti-Asian bias and hate, but also to promote inclusion and belonging of our communities so that we’re not just being reactive to addressing hate after it happens. 

The work we do is not just reactive. It’s really about how do we educate, how do we inform and how do we, at the end of the day, ensure that all Americans view us as American.

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