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Shared struggles, shared strength: ʻŌpio grapple with identity and outmigration at convention

Nov. 21, 2023

Addis Belay KSK’25 didn’t know what to expect coming to her first Association of Hawaiian Civic Clubs Convention. As a student government member, she knew it would be a fantastic opportunity to see how other organizations prompt change in the community.

The Association of Hawaiian Civic Clubs Convention is an annual meeting of delegates from Hawaiian Civic Clubs worldwide. The convention’s agenda is usually centered on delegates' debates and deliberations regarding proposed resolutions, but for the first time, they also hosted a youth-led workshop.

Titled “Inquiring Minds of Today’s Youth,” KS Kapālama students participated in a roundtable discussion about Native Hawaiian identity and outmigration with ‘ōpio from the continental United States. The haumāna exemplified aloha and leadership in an often-tense conversation about leaving Hawaiʻi and how to stay connected to their culture.

“There was more openness than I expected,” Belay said. “I was happy that ʻōpio aren’t just being talked to but are invited to share.”

Of the 15 participants, about half of the young people at the workshop live in California or Oregon, attending the conference as members of their hometown’s club. And while they described efforts of creating broader Pacific Island communities and championing Hawaiian education on the continent, some teens shared that they struggled to stay connected to their roots in Hawaiʻi.

According to the latest U.S. Census report, 55% of about 680,000 Native Hawaiians live outside Hawaiʻi, with the greatest concentration living in Nevada, California and Washington. It is a troubling statistic for a lāhui so rooted in our ancestral ʻāina. Still, with a high cost of living and limited housing and job opportunities, outmigration from the islands has steadily increased.

Sitting opposite of each other, at first it seemed like the two groups had completely different perspectives on what it means to be Hawaiian– those who get to live in the richness of their culture versus those who must continually seek that connection.

That division quickly disappeared and as they started to share their stories, one commonality emerged: they all didn’t feel “Hawaiian enough”.

During that emotional conversation, Belay realized that it is a blessing for her to live in Hawaiʻi pae ʻāina and go to Kamehameha Schools. The high school junior revealed that she wasn’t in touch with her Hawaiian culture until she got into KS and sometimes, she takes that for granted.

“It is a privilege to be here in our homeland,” Belay said. “I think there needs to be more empathy from Hawaiians who live here for those who don’t because that is how we move forward.”

Star Woo KSK’25 said that even though their lifestyles varied, every one of them grappled with being secure in their Hawaiian identity. As she plans to go abroad for college, Woo knows the culture shock of moving away will impact her deeply. She was worried she wouldn’t find a community rooted in the same kanaka ʻōiwi traditions she had.

So, it was reassuring to meet the other teens in the room and see how they were creating their own communities of culture abroad.

“When I go away to college, it’s comforting to know there are little diasporas there that I can connect with my culture,” Woo said.

The warm embrace by KS haumāna of their continental counterparts did not go unnoticed. Ashlynn Mengel, a youth member of Ka ʻAha Lāhui O ʻOlekona Hawaiian Civic Club o Oregon a me SW Washington, said that she was equally surprised to find so much similarity amongst them and applauded how welcoming KS students were. Having grown up in Los Alamitos, California and only visiting her ancestral home on Hawaiʻi Island for childhood summers, she constantly looks for that link to who she is and where she’s from.

“Even though we live an ocean apart, we were still able to relate to each other,” Mengel said. “It makes you feel less alone.”

It was a positive, inspiring start to their convention week. Having a space where they could openly express themselves amongst people their own age made that session the most memorable. Belay described the atmosphere in the convention’s committee meetings as dissimilar to this, recounting an incident that flared up between civic clubs based in Hawaiʻi and those from the continent.

“There was clashing about what Hawaiians need and the feeling that we are two different groups of Hawaiians when in actuality, we are stronger together when we are unified,” Belay said.

Even though the experiences of those in the diaspora may differ from her own, Woo knows that does not make their insight any more or less important. She explained further that it is necessary to consider the lived experiences of all kanaka when formulating solutions meant to benefit Hawaiians.

“We should be finding solutions that help the whole lāhui because we are all fighting for the same goal: to perpetuate Native Hawaiian culture and help native people,” Woo said.

Belay also believes that the betterment of the lāhui is rooted in education. While she also plans to go away for college, she says people shouldn’t knock the value of staying home. She believes youth should go wherever they can to learn.

“I truly believe that a lāhui where everybody has access to the cultural and real-world teachings they need is a lāhui that thrives,” Belay said.

The invite for the KS Kapālama alakaʻi to attend the conference was the result of work by the KS government relations team.

“We believe Hawaiians should be more involved in leadership,” Palakiko Chandler, KS government relations specialist, said. “We invited ASKS to help them not just be more involved civically but to also think about careers in government and advocacy.”

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