Overtime at the Park

Images by John Hook

On a school day morning, Innocenta Sound-Kikku sorts plastic chairs and follows up on paperwork in a two room apartment converted into a vibrant community center at the back of Hawai‘i’s largest public housing complex, Kuhio Park Terrace. “Auntie Inno,” as the kids call her, was the first female police officer in Saipan, an investigator, and the head of the island’s D.A.R.E. program before moving to Hawai‘i in 2007. The day I’m visiting, she’s far out of uniform, in a hand-sewn dress that could be described as neon orange. As vice chair of the Micronesian Health Advisory Council, one of many advocacy groups within the diverse Micronesian community in Hawai‘i, she serves a variety of functions: educator, translator, anti-violence advocate, community organizer. She uses her phone and laptop to show me a video from the weekend, of children performing nomwisefe, the Chuukese moon dance. Each of them takes a turn standing and performing, having a ball.

“When I moved here, I knew that if I was having a tough time navigating the system, the victims I was trying to help and their kids were in really bad shape,” Sound-Kikku remembers. “I also knew that I needed to work from within the system to make change, that not by turning away but by going back into the culture we could solve issues.”

“Women stop battles,” Sound-Kikku tells me flatly. Micronesia, being as patriarchal as the rest of the Pacific, was historically gender biased during war. She’s in the process of working with students on a play about Lein Apinamw, a woman who, according to Sound-Kikku’s version, was influential in a battle between the chiefs of Lukunor and Ettal. In her retelling, on the beach of Lukunor, a fierce battle was underway between the warriors of rival islands, the endpoint of years of tribal conflict. During the melee, Apinamw stormed through the battlefield, disarming men and ending bloodshed due to the patriarchal necessity of peace in the presence of women. She confronted the chief of Ettal: “If you want the island, you can have it,” she said. “Killing must stop.” So they took the island, Sound-Kikku says with a smile. “She took the chief as her husband, and the people from both islands lived in peace. Of course there’s another version of the story, but it doesn’t serve my purposes.”

kpt11The recent success of keeping the diaspora of Micronesian communities healthy and in receipt of basic services is attributed to the diligent work done by Micronesians themselves, repurposing their surroundings and their stories for a new home.

The Micronesian experience in Hawai‘i can be traced to the hubris of war. Modern historians say the Cold War led to the dispersal and relocation of humanity as vast as that of World War II. In the proxy wars in Asia and the Middle East during the latter half of the 20th century, millions were killed or displaced. In the Pacific, where allied powers tested nuclear devices in a fear-induced era that shaped a generation, the effects are still being accounted for. According to the Nuclear Claims Tribunal, a bilateral agreement between the Marshall Islands and the United States, the United States conducted 67 nuclear weapons tests in the Marshall Islands from 1946 to 1958. These tests included the “Castle Bravo” detonation of a 15-megaton hydrogen bomb on Bikini Atoll in 1954, the largest the United States has ever conducted. This discussion is far from over. Last year, the Marshall Islands filed suit against the United States for these grievances in The Hague.

With their islands now radioactive centers, many Micronesians boarded planes headed for the United States. Most found themselves in Hawai‘i, brought by cultural ties to the sea. This move overseas has also been largely spurred by the Compact of Free Association (COFA), signed in 1986 by the United States and two newly independent Pacific Island nations: the Federated States of Micronesia, which includes Chuuk, Kosrae, Pohnpei, and Yap; and the Republic of the Marshall Islands. As a result of the COFA, citizens of these nations are able to travel to and live in the United States as non-citizens, but legal residents. This includes the ability to work and receive medical benefits. In exchange, they are required to pay local, state, and federal taxes with all the ordinary rights and duties of citizens. A similar compact was signed in 1994 with the Republic of Palau. It is estimated that more than 20 percent of the populations of these nations have emigrated over the last two decades.

With this migration, Micronesian kids found themselves in the parks and basketball courts of urban Honolulu, and at Kuhio Park Terrace, KPT for short, with unfortunate timing. Built in the mid-1960s, with more than 700 units, KPT remains the largest public housing project in the Pacific. For non-residents of the neighborhood during the 1990s, KPT was a forbidden zone, an ominous set of towers in the heart of Kalihi, an area known for stabbings, drug usage, graffiti that was definitely not “urban art,” and the setting off of fire and car alarms (as if anyone wanted to re-steal a busted Saturn). It was the butt of local poverty jokes that do not bear repeating. For residents, the place was the site of abandonment. The Hawai‘i Housing Authority tried to defer management to the military. Kalihi Stream was off-limits for sensible residents. We can blame the media for exacerbating the issue. From the 1970s through the early 2000s, the nightly news often replayed stories of intersecting poverty and violence; advocates awaited the assailant’s mug shot while thinking, please don’t be a Pacific Islander brother in a Bob Marley shirt. The B building was especially notorious. Its main entrance guided people to permanently malfunctioning elevators and was often cluttered with human debris. Shopping carts, trash, and the smell of decades of ripe humanity welcomed thousands to their homes.

Public housing such as Kuhio Park Terrace is not unique to Hawai‘i, but an American way of dealing with poverty. It started with high hopes in the President Lyndon B. Johnson-era war on poverty, with the soaring rhetoric of LBJ’s political aide Sargent Shriver discussing American need and how to make life easier for the poorest among us (when it was still politically feasible to call people poor). Decades later, the war on poverty was largely abandoned. In its place, poor people across the nation fought actual wars abroad; battled trickle-down economics and lasting segregation at home; and were left with indelible scars across the United States. By the mid-1990s, KPT had much in common with the housing projects of Jordan Downs in Los Angeles or Queensbridge Houses in Long Island. One can almost reminisce of the era: Queensbridge, the largest housing project in America, became famous through the lyrics of 1994 album Illmatic by the up-and-coming hip-hop artist Nas. Golden-age hip-hop could have been transposed to the Pacific if only slightly altered with local vernacular: the ravages of urban poverty, the gang rivalries, the drugs. A methamphetamine crisis was all over the news, and law enforcement was cracking down hard. All this at the time when Hawai‘i’s land value was skyrocketing due to foreign investment and middle-class families were spreading into the repurposed sugar fields of central O‘ahu.

Then, in 1996, welfare reform in Congress cut funding to a wide range of healthcare programs for non-citizens, including Medicaid benefits for all but pregnant women and children. Hawai‘i chose to continue providing state-funded Medicaid to those below federal poverty level on its own dime (it is usually jointly funded between state and federal governments) to suddenly unqualified COFA migrants, which meant that Hawai‘i assumed the burden of most of the atonement for the Cold War in the Pacific. According to some estimates, by 2007, over $90 million was spent annually in uncompensated social, education, heath care, and legal costs. In 2009, the Micronesian community was singled out by the administration of then-Governor Linda Lingle for further cuts in healthcare, which resulted in a new, minimal plan called Basic Health Hawaii in 2010 that essentially barred an unhealthy population from preventative care with a possible cascade of terrible consequences. (After a lawsuit against the shift, COFA residents were provided access to state-funded Medicaid again at the beginning of 2011.) “But there was no communication to the community,” Sound-Kikku remembers. “There were basically no interpreter services, and we had to get organized.” The Micronesian diaspora, spurred by nuclear fallout and lack of opportunity, landed on the shores of widening economic inequality.

That’s where basketball came in. Honolulu’s public parks, largely abandoned by Americanized local kids unless for organized sports, have become the de facto community centers of the local Micronesian diaspora, and basketball is the game of choice. On any given rainless night, parks in Pearl City, Makiki, Kalihi, and Waipahu host mini tournaments with guys who, given another foot in height, could probably walk onto the current L.A. Lakers roster. “I used to think they called it the ‘All Mike’ because of a guy named Mike,” Sound-Kikku recalls wkpt03ith a laugh of the tournament she and her husband helped to create. “But it comes from the Pacific Games—that’s what some of the teams were called in the ’70s, short for Micronesians.” Since its inception in 1963, the Pacific Games, like the Olympics, occur every four years, with 22 nations currently participating. New Caledonia dominates. It is not uncommon for French Polynesia or one of the islands to host hundreds of young visiting athletes and their families. Inspired by the Pacific Games, the inaugural All Mike Men’s Basketball Tournament in 2009 on O‘ahu was, essentially, a community organizing strategy. Twenty teams participated at the tournament held in the arena at the Neal Blaisdell Center (which will host the 2015 L.A. Lakers training camp) in central Honolulu. Between games, service providers spoke of health issues. A few years in, a female volleyball league was created. Last year, the organizers added a youth track and field competition.

“Micronesians love church and sports,” says Dr. Sheldon Riklon, a family medicine practitioner and lecturer at the John A. Burns School of Medicine. “These are the ways we’re trying to educate people and keep them healthy. … That basketball tournament is our main avenue to the community.” Born on Kwajalein Atoll and raised in Majuro, Riklon was educated in Hawai‘i and went home to assist with patients affected by radiation and to teach visiting resident doctors. Like many in the community he serves, he came back to Hawai‘i in 2008 with his family to provide a better education for his kids. In 2010, Riklon and his colleagues published an article in the Hawaii Medical Journal titled “The Compact Impact in Hawaii: Focus on Health Care.” Its authors wrote that “The U.S. federal government does not take full responsibility for the adverse economic consequences to Hawai‘i due to COFA implementation,” and that “[t]he lack of health and education infrastructure in the COFA nations, as well as the unique language, culture, political, and economic development of the region have contributed to the adverse elements of the Compact Impact.”

“We have negative connotations. The general public thinks we get handouts and deplete resources,” Riklon says. “But in reality, we more than pay our share in taxes [through sales, income, and property], we serve in the military, we contribute.”

Contributions or not, this year, as a result of the Affordable Care Act, also known as Obamacare, the state changed the insurance plan for all COFA adults who are not disabled, blind, or aged (children and pregnant women continue to have access to Medicaid). All able-bodied adults must now apply through the state’s health connector, an online insurance marketplace, for federally subsidized healthcare or go uninsured (they no longer qualify for state-funded Medicaid). It also means that such COFA residents will likely pay more out-of-pocket expenses, which range from $5 to $20 for doctor visits to thousands for more expensive procedures—further exacerbating a community that struggles to make ends meet. Advocates continue to work through language and cultural barriers to maintain services. If this were a basketball game between the Micronesian community and the state, teams have been playing well into overtime. Sports may not be a metaphor for all of life, but certain aspects, say tenacity, or teamwork, or the transparency of the rules, are certainly applicable to the experience of organizing a community. In sport, the way the world works can almost seem fair, with the most dedicated or talented or strongest emerging victorious. And if your team doesn’t win, at least you know how it happened.

kpt12
In 2013, Kuhio Park Terrace
was finally fixed, backed by a public-private partnership and a $135 million investment that completely altered the towers. The new developers even gussied up the name, calling the building The Towers at Kuhio Park. Of course, everyone still calls it KPT; calling it by the sanctioned name would only result in head scratching by the uncles out front. Kalihi Stream now boasts a series of massive murals by local artists from the neighborhood. The methamphetamine crisis, which began in the 1990s in Hawai‘i and swamped KPT, crested years ago, having receded to the occasional sad case. Much of the work outside of capital investment was done by Kokua Kalihi Valley, a nonprofit dedicated to providing comprehensive health services. That basketball games are played here without worry of violence is a generational victory.

In the South Pacific, the U.S. military continues to play its war games. The compacts with Micronesia, the Marshall Islands, and the Republic of Palau were not completely benevolent: They gave the military wide control over swaths of ocean, including the expanded Ronald Reagan Ballistic Missile Defense Test Site on Kwajalein Atoll, another post in the U.S. military’s vast Pacific Command network. The compacts had other effects. The three countries agreed to waive their sovereign rights to create militaries, and young men and women have signed up in droves for American deployments. Throughout the Afghanistan and Iraqi campaigns, the recruiting stations in Micronesia have had the highest per capita enrollment, continuing the young people’s exodus from their home islands.

Back in Room 105, Sound-Kikku’s computer stops cooperating. “Some of these kids are the worst,” she says with a laugh when her laptop stalls out. “They’re always taking pictures, that’s why this thing is slow. How many times we had to tell our son Junior, enough selfie already. But they’re good kids, and we want them to be active. Sports is what we do. … Our kids play a lot, and at least we know where to find them.” One can see the community organizer’s gears turning in her head. “In Utah, I’ve heard of people using the kava talks to discuss domestic violence. Maybe we’ll try that. I’d rather they do that than drink alcohol.” She puts back the chairs, readying the room for the deluge of kids who will return home in a few short hours. “We are stronger as a community, and we see ourselves within that community. We all pass the ball.”