Capacity Building and People Empowerment


Capacity Building and People Empowerment in Hawaii:

Lessons from the Academe and the Grassroots


By Aurelio Solver Agcaoili


(Talk delivered at the Rotary Club of Honolulu Sunset, Waikiki Yacht Club,

June 21, 2012, 6:00 PM)



I wish to thank Ms Jane Ferreira of the Hawaii Computer Training Solutions for this invitation.


When she asked me if I could and speak before you, I had second thoughts if I would fit the kind of a speaker you would need for your regular gathering.


I also wish to thank the current president Paul Jurcsak and the incoming president Beth Hoban, for allowing me to join you tonight.


Except for Jane, you do not know from Eve and yet you have welcomed me into your fold.


Mahalo for this wonderful opportunity of being with you tonight.


I have another reason for coming over, and this is a case of a déjà vu.


A long time ago, in a faraway place called the Ilocos, in the northern part of the Philippines, the Rotary Club of Laoag City held an essay-writing contest for high school students.


I joined that contest and talked about the importance of the Rotary’s four-way test in community building and in people empowerment, and luckily, I won a prize.


Thus inaugurated my illusion that I could write an essay—and thanks to you, Rotarians.


My coming over thus, is my way of paying back the honor that Rotary International gave me so many years ago, when I was younger, and when I was still looking at the world with the eyes of an idealistic young person.


I have since grown from those years of idealism, and I have since left my hometown to dwell in other places, other worlds, and other communities.


I have since left Ilocos, that part of the Philippines that I know the way I know the back of my hand, and have moved on to partake of the promise of the good life in other worlds other than the narrow world of my youth.


When I googled your Rotary Club of Honolulu Sunset, I was reminded of the universal motto you have, a capsule of the four-way test: ‘service above self.’


I think of this motto all the time.


And I think about the route that I have taken to come to Honolulu shores.


Indeed it is the same route that my people, so many of the peoples of the Philippines, have taken to come to eke out a life here in the United States and in Hawaii.


My life as an immigrant has parallelisms in these stories of Ilokano immigrants—or perhaps many immigrants.


These stories are world unto their own, and these worlds bespeak of struggle and hope, of vision and communion, of sacrifice and finding a life even in faraway places such as Hawaii.


I am an immigrant in Hawaii twice removed.


First, I immigrated to California, and then when I was called to serve the Ilokano community in Hawaii, I came over to take up the challenge of running a heritage program at the University of Hawaii.


I refer to the Ilokano Program of this university, the only one of its kind in the world.


This year, we have celebrated the 40th anniversary of its founding and we can only reminisce what has happened during these last forty years.


But with this reminiscence comes the task of envisioning what we want done in the next forty years, hence, our goal now is to strategize what we can do beginning this year, and ending in 2052.


It is a long shot, indeed.


By that time, most of us at the Ilokano instructional faculty shall have gone to the beyond.


But we are hopeful that with a 40-year vision, we can confidently lay down the groundwork for an academic and heritage program at the university that is serious with what education is all about, with what heritage is all about, and with what civic duties are all about even in the diaspora, and more so because of it.


Let me take you back to the connection between our Ilokano people, the very people where I come from, and the long history of Hawaii, and partly of the United States.


The Ilocos is that long strip of land that meanders through the West Pacific Sea, or otherwise known as China Sea.


The Ilocos land is a barren. Hardly is there a life there.


Its terrain is one of sand, rock, silt, and depression that can only promise some life for garlic, tobacco, corn and rice, enough of the staple food that could guarantee some modicum of life to its people, but not the kind of life one imagines in an ideal country marked by fairness and equality.


Otherwise, every Ilokano must call it quits with the Ilocos.


Which was what happened with this long story of Ilokanos coming over to Hawaii during the plantation days, from 1906 until 1946, officially.


But the coming over of Ilocos because of immigration rules on family unification, that process in which Ilocano citizens of the United States can petition their immediate family members to come and join them to the US, did not stop in 1946.


It continued, and until today, we have a Philippine Consular data, one we can trust, that tells us that about 5000 people of the Philippines are coming over to Hawaii each year.


Of this number, between 85 and 90 percent at Ilokanos coming straight from the Ilocos, or from places where most Ilokanos go in that country.


The implication of this is that each year, there are about 4500 Ilokanos coming to Hawaii alone, which is probably one of the reasons why during the 2010 census of Hawaii, the Filipino population has overtaken the Japanese population during the last 10 years, with the 2000 census as the base year.


There are other factors, of course, and one of them is that the average children of a Filipino family is about 3, while the rest of the population has tipped to zero, like the Japanese.


Now let us do the maths: with 90 percent of the Philippine population in Hawaii of Ilokano descent, we have a demographic clue here: that about 9 of every 10 Filipinos you meet on the road are probably Ilokanos, or of Ilokano descent.


This is an easy demographic fact, and it gives you a clue to how you can conduct business in Hawaii, with that sensitivity to market demographics, and that need to translate into segments this population so we can identify our potential clients and consumers.


But that is not the end of the story.


This is the icing of what invisible tragedy there is in Hawaii that has yet to be responded to with honesty and clarity of purpose.


There are other hard facts that make our work of capacity building and people empowerment, harder that the claims of Filipino politicians who are aspiring for our votes.


Let me start with an anecdote here, an incident that led me to the doorstep of Ms Jane Ferreira, which became the step for my coming over to be with you tonight.


Ms Ferreira’s company is involved with the training of adults Ilokanos in computer concepts and basic skills.


Ms Ferreira’s company required that the trainer knows Ilokano and would know how to deliver the computer concepts in Ilokano.


I understand this was the requirement of the potential trainees who are mature Ilokanos; they asked that the instruction be done in Ilokano.


It could not have been a problem, given the number of Ilokanos in Hawaii, many of them native speakers, and many of them skilled in the basics of computer technology.


Her company came up with a call for an instructor, got hold of some public school teachers; one public school teacher committed but had to withdraw for some reasons.


Her company’s call went around again, into the loop of a handful of public Ilokano teachers, until it finally landed on my lap, with one faculty saying that this training could not go on if I did not come in. 


One faculty who was interested, and who teaches Ilokano at a public school, was so overwhelmed by the demand of the training.


How could she, she said, translate the technological concepts in English so that she could get to the heart of the matter, and indeed, transfer the skills to the adults who would like to learn?


That was not easy indeed, even if we say that native speakers of any language would have an advantage over those who are not.


The prospect of adults getting to learn computer technology in Ilokano is indeed a difficult task—and an equally difficult test. It is a first—and my first as well.


But why is this so?


We can look into the symptomatology of the whole incident.


One, native speaking ability of any language in the diaspora, as all Ilokanos virtually are, does not guarantee the ability to use it in the workforce, or in a professional situation.


Two, many of the Ilokanos of Hawaii have become products of the same homogenizing sub-culture imposed by a dominant culture, that of molding everyone into the substance-and-form of Manhattan, New York, Boston, and San Francisco.


Three, as a result of number two, every Ilokano that sets food in Hawaii must stop being Ilokanos as soon as they get to the Honolulu International Airport.


There is a popular statement among Ilokanos to prove this issue: ‘Addaka ditoy Hawaiien.’


Or:  you are already in Hawaii. Why bother becoming Ilokano? Why carry over that baggage of being Ilokano?


Four, resulting from number 2 and number 3, we have developed an attitude of self-hatred, and that attitude must be reinforced by the fact that as soon as you set foot in an American soil, you must begin to act like an American, speak like an American, dress up like an American, eat like an American.


The question of who is an American here, of course, is ambiguous to the Ilokano.  


Resulting from these series of performances at ‘acting like an American’, we have developed a whole bunch of Ilokanos, and Filipinos by extension, who are veritably fakes, and they are fakes because they unable to navigate and dwell in two worlds of which they truly are residents.


For indeed, the tragedy is in the forgetting—a forgetting that is systematic, automatic, imposed, and naturalized.


It is not natural, but it is naturalized.


And most Ilokano confuse the two—that the naturalized is natural, and the natural is the same as the naturalized.


Which leads you to an understanding of how much tribalism there is in some of the Ilokano communities, particularly among those whose dream is to be come ‘totally American’, with the meaning of total here as the complete rejection of who they are and their negation of the dynamic of their becoming.


The question here is existential as it is pragmatic.


We do not deal here with identity alone, or our sense of being.


We ought to confront the fact that in an experience of exile, that identity is not a given, but is a work-in-progress marked by the constancy of becoming, the constancy of confronting the essential truths of the day-to-day.


That constant becoming is a continuing questioning of what that sense of being offers, including its organic limitation.


You are Ilokano certainly, but you are also American, and thus, this leads you to issues of fusion, to boundaries that are porous, and to civics that are grounded on the deeper ideas and ideals about how to become human and humane.


As Ilokanos, we fail a lot in this area.


So many of us still dwell in that tribe we brought to Hawaii, which is a tragic condition.


In some campaign events, for instance, we hear arguments by some people about voting for this and that Filipino candidate for the reason that he or she is Filipino.


The reasoning is skewed. It is not here-not-there.


We have a long way to go in civics and citizenship—and the contradictions are there, the confusions included.


Somewhere, our sense of the political—the building of community—is grounded on our failure to empower our people.


Our reasoning is delicate, but gossamer: it is confused and confusing.


This leas us to what needs to be done, to what we do at the university, and to what we need to do as a community.


Our Ilokano Program at the university is the only one in the world, the only degree-granting program in the United States.


For 40 years we have served both our local and international communities, and for the same length of time, two things have marked our work: resistance and insistence.


Let me explain.


Resistance, because we see that there is a need to serve our marginalized communities by starting from what they do, what they are able to put on the table, and what they can offer to make our larger community richer.


Insistence, because we see to it that the fundamentals of education—one that is emancipatory—are always on the side of the marginalized.


This is our translation of your Rotarian motto of  ‘service above self.’


When I came to Honolulu in 2006 from Los Angeles to take on the job at the university, I started an international group of cultural advocates at the service of what we term emancipatory education.


Teaching in the public schools marked my work in Los Angeles.


Likewise, directing a teaching training program for immigrant teachers, and doing journalism supplemented my commitment and passion to do something for our people.


In Los Angeles, I have seen what it takes to be an immigrant.


Capable Filipino teachers are not given the chance to teach because they do not have the license to teach, because they have yet to have their degrees credentialed, or because they have that uniquely Filipino accent that they need to lose.


When I came to Hawaii, I realized that the California facts I gathered as both a public school teacher and as a journalist are present also in Hawaii.


A long-time journalist for one of the papers confirmed to me that her investigation of the equal employment opportunity issues in the state yielded a number indicating that most of these discriminated in the workplace are Filipinos—all because of their Filipino accent.


Now we see the context why most of the Ilokano students and parents start their program of systematic negation of their Ilokanoness as soon as they set foot at the Honolulu International Airport.


From that airport, they inaugurate a new sense of themselves, the sense of speaking like an American, because speaking like an American will lead them to opportunities, to jobs, to economic possibilities.


In short, to the American Dream, for which reason they came over to Hawaii from their remote villages in the Ilocos some 7,000 miles away.


Given all these contradictions, how are we faring in the academe?


Sadly, not a lot.


Most of our Ilokano students, as soon as they finish high school, if at all they finish high school, will go straight to the labor force.


They would find work, whatever kind of work there is.


The challenge is for them to start helping out giving their share in paying for the mortgage, the number one problem of many of the Ilokano families.


Only about 11 percent of the student population of the University of Hawaii system are Filipinos.


Less than 2 percent of the entire faculty of the university is of Philippine descent.


Except for one or two lower-level administrators, there is none in the entire university system that could provide modeling for our young.


The question here is one of symbols, and the power in these symbols.


We simply do not have them.


After 107 years of presence in Hawaii, the Ilokano and the Filipinos are not here yet.


We have grown contended with the crumbs, and our understanding of the American Dream is this: the appropriation of the crumbs.


I have written about these things in the newspaper that I wrote for and self-styled Philippine leaders have rebuked me, saying that we have given this state a governor, some members of the justice system, and some members of the state legislators.


That is their proof of us having come to Hawaii—of having been around.


That is my proof that we have not yet come to this country and partake of its promise of social justice, fairness, and democracy.


This leads us to our work in the Philippines.


One of the huge problems we have in the Philippines is a form of education that is both colonial and neocolonial.


For a multicultural country that has 171 languages, and thus, 171 cultures, there is only that official policy of legitimating two and only two languages: English and Tagalog, two languages that veritably the language of the political and economic center based in Manila.


We call this Manila hegemony, in much the same way that we can talk about Oahu hegemony when we talk about our public affairs in Hawaii.


Part of our work at the university is to take an active role in the campaign for multicultural education that recognizes the importance of the mother language, or the native language, as the instrument for life-long learning, and an instrument in bridging knowledge.


We have succeeded in this campaign, and for the last two years, pioneering schools all over the Philippines have initiated what they now call as mother language education.


The implication of this in the Ilocos where majority of the Philippine population of Hawaii comes from is that the Ilokano language will never again be an illegitimate and prohibited language of instruction in the Ilocos.


We must understand that the number of first language speakers of Ilokano in the Philippine alones is about 10 million, roughly ten times the population of Hawaii, and three times the population of Puerto Rico. 


We have not included speakers from abroad, second language speakers, and heritage speakers.


This leads us to what else are we doing in Hawaii.


In the public schools, two schools have succeeded in the incorporation of Ilokano as part of their world languages curriculum: Farrington High School and Waipahu High School.


The impact of this is that many of the students who have taken the Ilokano courses have found meaning in their lives as heritage and immigrant students, and have, on record, improved their academic performance.


Many of those who graduate form the high school Ilokano course come to the university and pursue the same passion for their heritage and culture, even as they pursue their acquiring professional skills.


The work that we do does not stop there.


We have an adult community language program.


This program partners with two civic groups in the campaign for Ilokano cultural literacy, in Hawaii, a form of literacy that we badly need.


Even a number of cause-oriented and non-profit organizations have realized the importance of language in and among immigrant communities.


Last year, we partnered with the Kokua Kalihi Valley Comprehensive Health Care Program and we launched the book of stories of Ilokano parents, the stories of how they have come to terms with their immigrant life even as they were raising their children as good citizens of this country.


In August, we hope to launch another book, this time an anthology of the writings of high school students of Waipahu.


These writings reflect about the complex experiences of Ilokano students as they grow up in Waipahu and try to make sense of their personal and public life.


The work to empower our people is a work that can only be done when we empower ourselves along with them.


People empowerment is about people, first and foremost, people in the raw, people in the day-to-day, people in the concrete.


These are the people we have around in Hawaii, most of them not visible, most of them having learned that their being invisible is something convenient and comforting.


But we to make our people understand that they are part of a bigger community, and that their duties to civic life are duties anchored on their being historically situated in Hawaii, and as bearers of heritage culture that is traceable back to their old Ilocos.


The work that we do in our the academe and in the community is one anchored on the very things that you at Rotary value so much: the question of truth, the question of fairness and justice, the question of goodwill and friendship, and the question of beneficence to the larger community of men and women all over the world.


Thank you so much—and good evening to all of you. 


2 thoughts on “Capacity Building and People Empowerment

  1. I think the message about arriving into these foreign shores as yourself — not some magically transformed chameleon — is all too important: we should expand the dialog to excoriate and discourage the fakery done mostly for short-term benefits while at the same time we should not lose sight of forging the requisite accompanying effort to create the environment to promote the basic idea that “Ilokanoness” is not such a repulsive cultural syndrome. We, Ilocanos, can not expect that to happen for us — those in position to make those decisions (some of them callous Ilocanos some of the time) could not care less. We, Ilocanos, acting together and on the same page have got to go out and get it or make it happen for ourselves. High school graduates forsaking college for the workforce seldom are able to rise to the level of authority that makes decisions for the majority. We’ve got to have a concerted effort to lure our young Ilocanos who have the smarts and leadership qualities to continue their education and fulfill more lofty educational and leadership goals to lead us out of the rut. I do not have a formula to execute this “plan of action”, but someone, some folks with a passion for this, definitely smarter and more resourceful than I am, are waiting in the wings. Some of ‘em probably require a little nudge to realize that they’re not out to prepare themselves for an uncertain future: THEY ARE HERE, AS A POET WROTE, TO “ACT IN THE LIVING PRESENT” TO CREATE THEIR FUTURE. I can only encourage them…

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