We Are Oceania is a new organization whose mission is to advocate for and empower Native Pacific Islanders from the Micronesia region in Hawai‘i, which is conservatively estimated to be between 15,000 and 17,000 people. The organization held the grand opening of its Hālau Ola One-Stop Center at St. Elizabeth’s Episcopal Church on Friday, August 28, from 10 a.m. to noon with guest speakers including Josie Howard, Program Director of WAO, Esther Kiaʻaina, Assistant Secretary for Insular Areas at the U.S. Department of Interior, and Jan Dill, President of Partners in Development Foundation (PIDF).
The One-Stop Center is WAO’s first pilot project and will aid in the successful transition of Micronesians in Hawai‘i by serving as a central hub linking the various Micronesian communities, families and individuals with public services and other resources. In addition, the center will connect the Micronesian community with federal, state and county representatives and agencies to further advocacy and self- empowerment.
Currently open Tuesdays and Thursdays from 10 a.m. to noon, the center will expand hours of operation as the need for services grow. A warm line is available 24/7 at 754-7303.
“The Micronesia region faces many challenges such as U.S. militarization and weapons testing, loss of land from rising ocean levels, and lack of a sustainable, local food supply,” said WAO’s Program Director Josie Howard. “Limited options force many Micronesians to leave their home in search of a better life for themselves and their families. Many individuals and families legally come to Hawai‘i to seek proper medical treatment, a better education and other opportunities that are unavailable in their home community.”
Introductory services will focus on orienting newcomers from Micronesia to their new environment and supporting them with common ongoing challenges, including:
• Assistance with obtaining legal and necessary documents such as Social Security cards, State IDs, etc.• Education on Hawai‘i laws and policies/procedures (traffic, criminal, child welfare, education, etc.)• Pre-employment skills Housing rules and regulations• Resource referrals• Language translation and cross-cultural consulting• Parent training on Hawai‘i’s education system and requirements
WAO will continue to build a full spectrum of services that include acculturation training, mentorship of other Micronesian organizations and outreach back to the Micronesian governments, among others. By partnering with other Micronesian serving organizations, WAO will be able to effectively address the needs of the community by connecting and expanding on current services available.
The call for a one-stop resource center was voiced by nearly 300 people, including Micronesians, service providers and community leaders, at the Micronesian Voices Conference held in 2008 as part of a study by the University of Hawai‘i ’s Center for Pacific Island Studies. In 2014, the call for a center came up again when Assistant Secretary Esther Kiaʻaina toured Hawai‘i to gain input from Micronesians to identify their needs as part of the Compact of Free Association (COFA) between the U.S. and the Federated States of Micronesia, Republic of Marshall Islands and Republic of Palau.
Cultural differences between Micronesia and Hawai‘i in medical care, employment, education and laws, compounded by the unfamiliarity with navigating new systems and services, has led to many challenges for the local Micronesian population. They face homelessness, a lack of job readiness skills and high numbers of student truancy, children in child welfare services, and juvenile and adult incarcerations. “The Micronesian population in Hawai‘i is a diverse group of individuals from various ethnic and cultural backgrounds, including Chuukese, Marshallese, Palauan, Pohnpeian, Kosraean, Chamorro, Carolinean, Nauruan, Kiribatese and Yapese,” Howard said. “Many Hawai‘i residents’ unfamiliarity with Micronesia, its different cultures and its treaty with the United States has contributed to misunderstandings and discrimination towards Micronesian people. This can at times create additional barriers for Micronesian people to feeling included and becoming successful in their new community in Hawai‘i.”
Howard is of Chuukese descent and came to Hawai‘i in 1989 to attend the University of Hawai‘i at Hilo, where she earned a bachelor’s degree. (She would go on to earn a master’s in social work.) In 2001, she was recruited by the Department of Education to help teachers better connect with Micronesian students and their parents. She also cofounded the Micronesian Cultural Awareness Program and spearheaded the successful pilot program Imi Loa, a program of Goodwill Industries of Hawai‘i that was funded by the Department of Labor and Industrial Relations-Office of Community Services, which paired Micronesians looking for work with employers.
According to Howard, WAO’s long-term goal is to help Micronesian people and families become healthy and successful through self-sufficiency and inclusion in the local community as a whole. This can be accomplished through the sustainability of Micronesian organizations and by increasing communication and support between Hawai‘i and Micronesia, with the support of the United States Federal Government.
To learn more, visit We Are Oceania