Touching on themes of Asian American leadership, the immigrant experience, and women’s role in positions of power, the opening session of LibLearnX featured a thoughtful and often personal discussion between US Senator Mazie K. Hirono (D-Hawaii) and ALA President Patricia “Patty” M. Wong.
Both women represent important firsts for the organizations they represent. Hirono is the first female senator to represent Hawaii and the only first-generation immigrant to serve in the Senate; she was born in Japan and came to the US with her mother when she was 8 years old. Wong is the first Asian American president of ALA.
Hirono spoke of her memoir Heart of Fire: An Immigrant Daughter’s Story (Viking, 2021), which traces her life from her earliest days in Hawaii to her five decades of public service.
Wong noted that she and Hirono share much in common, especially their connections to and appreciation for Hawaii.
“I don’t take for granted how unique Hawaii is in our appreciation for other cultures,” said Hirono. “The food, the people, the practices, all of that—that is unique. And the more I experience so much of the divisiveness in our country and, in my view, the lack of appreciation for diversity, the more I’m very grateful that I represent Hawaii. I can’t think of a better state for my mother to have brought her children to begin a new life.”
Another point of convergence for the women is around reading.
“Books are a huge part of my life. Reading is a huge part of my life,” said Hirono. “And, in fact, I credit my librarian and elementary school, Ms. Petrie, with awakening my love of reading. In fact, when I interview people who want to work for me, I ask them if they like to read. And if they like to read, I ask what do they read. It tells me a lot. One of the things that I have connected is that reading is one of the ways someone becomes a better writer. And there are a lot of people who don’t read very much. They may have the degrees, but they don’t read, and so they think that good writing consists of using big words and, in my view, empty rhetoric. Those do not impress me at all.”
Wong asked Hirono about book challenges, which, as ALA’s Office for Intellectual Freedom notes, are spiking across the country. “Many of my colleagues are faced with legislation that’s popping up everywhere, focusing on critical race theory and banning materials that actually support equity, diversity, and inclusion. And it’s very troubling to us,” said Wong.
“I am just as troubled as you all are regarding this huge push to ban what’s described as a teaching of critical race theory,” said Hirono. “The racism that has manifested in things like the Chinese Exclusion Act [and] the internment of 120,000 Japanese Americans in World War II, those are all parts of our history that are really important and should be taught.”
As they wrapped their conversation, Hirono offered some word of inspiration and hope. “I’m going to keep on doing my part to speak up and encourage everyone to have a say. You know, we all need to embrace, in my view, and do what we can as individuals to make a difference. That doesn’t mean everyone should run for office. That’s not everyone’s cup of tea. But as Martin Luther King Jr. said, we can all be great if we define greatness as doing something that will make someone else’s life a little better.”