By Scott Kroeker
Casually ask somebody what they know about Micronesia and most likely you’ll either get a blank stare or a vague description of some strange islands out there in the vast Pacific Ocean.
But probe and you’ll also hear stories, especially from social service providers in Hawai‘i, about the increasing number of Micronesians residing in the Islands and how too many are homeless, struggling in school, getting in trouble with the law, overcrowding and abusing public housing, suffering from poor health, and increasingly costing the state more and more of our tax dollars.
A conference organized by the Center for Pacific Islands Studies at the University of Hawai‘i which I recently attended was groundbreaking in that it sought to illuminate the diversity of the Micronesian immigrant experience — not in the usual way academic conferences do (i.e., convening a group of respected, learned, and well-meaning scholars who gravely discuss the results of their research on the issue) — but by turning the podium over to Micronesians and carefully listening to their stories.
The Micronesian Voices in Hawai‘i conference, which convened at the beginning of April in the East-West Center’s conference facilities, exposed everyone who attended to a wide range of voices from the various Micronesian countries. While the speakers from the Federated States of Micronesia, the Republic of the Marshall Islands, and the Republic of Palau presented lucid descriptions of the problems being faced by Micronesians in Hawai‘i—problems similar to what every new immigrant group faces in adjusting to life in a new place—what was especially powerful about the conference is that the standing room only crowd heard directly from many people who are actively working towards solutions to these problems.
The keynote speaker on day one, Dr. Hilda Heine from the Marshall Islands, also highlighted many valuable contributions Micronesians are making to Hawai‘i, which is rarely discussed in the context of Compact impact payment demands (see below for some resources about the Compact of Free Association between the U.S. and the three Micronesian countries).
Not only did people gain a better sense of why Micronesians are coming here in greater numbers but they also saw a dynamic and intelligent immigrant population who are active agents working against all odds to make life better for themselves and their communities. This helps to destroy the negative stereotype many hold of Micronesians as passive recipients of the largesse of the State or, in the case of Marshallese, still suffering health impacts from nuclear testing, helpless victims of past wrongs by the U.S. government.
Another milestone was the way the event connected the academic community with the public—both the Micronesian and social service communities. It was remarked that never before had anyone seen an entire panel of Micronesians, let alone Micronesian woman, at any academic conference. Rarely has their been an opportunity for the social service agencies to interact with Micronesians who are not their clients.
One of the tangible outcomes of the conference was a large number of recommendations for how all can work better together to solve the problems being faced by Micronesians in Hawai‘i. But for me the conference was about so much more than policy recommendations. It was about exactly what the East-West Center strives to do: build an Asia Pacific Community “by serving as a vigorous hub for cooperative research, education, and dialogue on critical issues of common concern.”
Compact Of Free Association, As Amended, Between The Government Of The United States Of America And The Government Of The Republic Of The Marshall Islands
Scott Kroeker is the JCC Project Officer in the EWC Pacific Islands Development Program.