The Pacific Voices Program;
A cultural education
How one afterschool program aims to instill cultural values in Kalihi kids
By: Mara Mahoney
23 March 2019
At 3:30 p.m. on a windy Tuesday afternoon in Kalihi valley, five kids in their classroom lay spread out on the straw mat with books in front of them, unaffected by the adverse weather conditions outside.
Their eyes shift constantly between the pages of their books to the door as if waiting for someone.
The object of their anticipation is a woman, and when she finally walks through the door, the kids leap from their seated positions and cry out, “Mama Ino! Mama Ino!” as they envelop her in a group hug.
Mama Ino also answers to the name Innocenta Sound-Kikku. Originally from the island of Chuuk, she was the first female police officer in Saipan and the head of the island’s Department of Accountability, Research & Evaluation (D.A.R.E.) prior to moving to Hawai‘i in 2007.
A well respected community leader in Hawai’i, Sound-Kikku plays many roles – advocate, storyteller, interpreter and teacher to name a few. In room 105, she plays the role of aunty.
Located in a converted two room apartment at the back wing of Hawai‘i’s largest public housing complex, Kuhio Park Terrace, is the Pacific Voices project, which serves as an example of how Pacific Island communities in the diaspora are repurposing their surroundings and their stories for a new home. The program, supported by Kokua Kalihi Valley (KKV) and co-founded by Sound-Kikku, aims to perpetuate cultural art forms and history through afterschool programming, performances and team sports. The location was an important factor when establishing the program.
Kalihi, named from a Hawai’ian word meaning ‘the edge,’ is an ancient place full of histories, struggles and strengths. It is the ancestral home of gods and sacred mountains, a gateway of hope for so many immigrants who come to Hawai’i from the Pacific and Asia. But now those same groups struggle to cope with poverty and colonization.
“I don’t like to call them at-risk kids cause that’s what they call kids in this area,” she said.
“But they’re not at risk. They just need somebody to take them under their wings and believe in them and help them, push them forward to achieve whatever.”
The space is named Pacific Voices because it is open to all Pacific Islanders, especially those living in the Kalihi area, said Sound-Kikku.
“Kids that come into this space varies from all over the Pacific,” said Sound-Kikku. “At one point we had Laotian and Filipinos. It’s really a safe space for the kids to come in and learn.”
While the project is open to all, whether it be kids wanting to learn or aunties and uncles in the community wanting to share their stories and culture, there is a focus on Micronesian youth—specifically Chuukese kids.
“Majority of kids in this area are actually Chuukese,” said Sound-Kikku. “So majority of the kids that come here are Chuukese even though it’s open to everybody else. And I think they're the ones who need it most and the ones most discriminated against when they go to different places. At least here it’s a safe space for them.”
Back wing of the Kuhio Park Towers
According to economic and health statistics and a pervasively negative reputation in Hawaii, Kalihi is destined to fail. The Pacific Voices project aims to re-establish those ancient connections and show the new generation a different way.
“Pacific Voices started as an after school program because the aunties were letting me know that they’re kind of worried that there’s no space for their children to go to and learn their tradition and cultures,” said Sound-Kikku. “So in 2010 I did a survey just in Kalihi to figure out the needs. And out of that survey many of them really expressed that they really wanted a space they can send their kids cause they’re really worried that they’re disconnected from their culture.”
According to Sound-Kikku, this disconnect is also what leads kids down the wrong path.
Following study hall is the “aloha circle,” during which the kids introduce themselves and an ancestor, where they are from and how they are feeling. According to Sound-Kikku, the aloha circle helps ground the children.
“Knowing that in the circle they are physically there but there ancestors are also around them to ground them in everything they do is important,” said Sound-Kikku.
After that they break into an activity, whether it’s Chuukese language vocabulary or learning a new chant or dance. This is followed by free time and then finally snack time.
The program’s curriculum, created by Sound-Kikku, is based on the Chuukese language and culture. The children recite the four protocols which are based on respect for a creator, respect for the land, respect for the ocean and respect for each other.
The program begins with study hall at 3:30 p.m. Kids either complete their homework or spend time reading. One of the aims of the project is to encourage mentorship between the children so often the older ones will play the role of big brother or sister and help the younger kids with their reading assignments.
Big brother Jake teaching helping of the kids read
The kids learning a new chant
Study hall with the kids
Kids introducing themselves during Aloha Circle
Like any non-profit organization, Pacific Voices has its fair share of challenges. When the project first started in 2014, Sound-Kikku said there were over 80 kids. But due to a lack of assistance, she is now only able to take around 20.
“Because I am the only one who runs this program I depended a lot on the volunteer programs to come in like the TANF [Temporary Assistance for Needy Families] program to help out,” said Sound-Kikku. “But then there was a change in the law that somehow kind of stopped those TANF programs from happening in this area. I don't have that many volunteers anymore so I just stick with at least 20 kids.”
Funding is another major issue. While the project receives support from KKV and outside donations, it is not enough.
“I like to change up their snacks and I can’t really afford to do that,” said Sound-Kikku. “A lot of grants don’t offer funding for snacks and usually when that happens it’s like out of our own pockets, out of my own pocket.”
Additionally, she has to find people willing to offer their cars to transport the kids for field trips, she said.
Despite those obstacles, her hope is that more programs like Pacific Voices will be established.
“I think this program is a need and that it needs to be duplicated in many areas that our community live,” said Sound Kikku. “Not just for my Chuukese community but for every Pacific Islander community. It’s very important that we stay connected to our own indigenous ways and not forget who we are and our identity.”
Kids performing the stick dance. Photo courtesy of Innocenta Sound-Kikku