Maya Soetoro-Ng

DURING OUR EXCLUSIVE INTERVIEW with the president of the United States’ sister, Maya Soetoro-Ng, two things were made very apparent: Fluidity of expression must be a family trait and, there is a direct link between our children, their education and our future. Devoted to hitting milestones in a system known for taking baby steps, Soetoro-Ng has stepped to the plate not just in Hawaii, but around the world.

Armed with an eloquent nature and sharp wit, she (and fellow Hawaii-based educational activists) aim to make Hawaii a model of global education-a far cry from the declining standards we’ve watched unravel – here on the world’s most-isolated land mass.

What follows are excerpts from our one-on-one interview with Soetoro-Ng just after her return from an extended stay in Washington, D.C. (yes, she spent a portion of it bunking in the White House), where her husband Konrad completed a term as “Visiting Scholar” with the Smithsonian Asian Pacific American Program. Together with their children (Suhalia and Savita; more on the origin of their names later), the “Extended First Family” took in museums at our nation’s capital, studied every room at her brother’s new address and finalized Soetoro-Ng’s first children’s book.

Soetoro-Ng, who worked as a U.s. History teacher for more than 15 years, found the strong sense of history within the White House awe-inspiring:“Each room contains a portfolio telling of the history of all of the furnishings, the paintings, fixtures and the like – so it’s similar to staying in a museum,” she explains. “D.C. was great. I really enjoyed the parks and the incredible museums, most of which are free. I admire the idea that museums belong to everyone … that people may not necessarily have money but are entitled to share in the culture that museums provide.”

Soetoro-Ng has Indonesian family roots in the majapahit Dynasty, a pre-Islamic Hindu dynasty in Java. Her family ties are among her biggest life influences; this is reflected in her soon-to-be-released children’s book, Ladder to the moon: “My mother (Ann Dunham, noted cultural anthropologist) was an admirer of the moon,” Soetoro-Ng begins. “When the moon was especially beautiful, she used to wake us up in the middle of the night to marvel at it. Years later, she sent me a postcard depicting artist Georgia O’Keeffe’s painting titled Ladder to the Moon, which shows a wooden ladder suspended in the deep blue sky. In the background are the pitch-black outline of faraway mountains and a pearl-colored half moon.

“Just before my daughter was born I found a box that my mother had labeled ‘For Maya’s Children.’ Inside were my childhood toys – many of which were from my mother’s world travels. I named my daughter Suhaila – Sanskrit for the glow around the moon – in honor of my mom. (Her other daughter Savita’s name means “the sun” in Sanskrit). When (Suhaila) was 2 years old, I began showing her the toys of my childhood and telling her about her ‘Grandma Annie.'”

Locally, soetoro-Ng supports peace-building efforts as an adjunct of the matsunaga Peace Institute, as well as glenn Paige’s Center for global Nonkilling. she also is publishing A Peace education guidebook for parents and educators to expand the horizon of community-led educational efforts. the book, which chronicles a class she taught at Honolulu’s La Pietra school for girls, draws insight from organizations (including global majority) that advocate non-violent conflict resolution and mediation. “My aim with the course at La Pietra, and with this book, is to help students to not be mere bystanders in the adventure of life, but to gain the moral courage required to be activists for their fellow human beings.”

Furthermore, Soetoro-Ng started a national program in Hawaii that is ultimately aimed at bringing about changes to the U.s. educational system: “We call it ‘Our Public School,’ which is deliberately singular to emphasize that this is one umbrella that we’re all under. We envision a new paradigm of learning where we all share equally in the collective accountability for making our public schools better.”

She continues with the goals of its mission: “However, what we need now in the 21st century is very different from the reality of the 20th century. We need an understanding of sustainability and environmental stewardship – not just the desire for it, but also the practices. We need multilingualism and a strong understanding of global cultures; we need new media literacy, and science that pushes against the frontiers of visible and known.”

Soetoro-Ng hopes that those who read this article will be inspired to get involved locally in order to contribute to a shifting of consciousness nationally. “We’ve begun this process here in Hawaii by researching schools especially successful with innovative programs in all disciplines, including language-immersion programs, organic farming, climate-change education and more, and we have created short films for each program connecting the very best practices of Hawaii with action charts, lesson plans and webinars.”

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