Maya Soetoro-Ng’s Big Ideas for Education Reform

Maya Soetoro-Ng’s Big Ideas for Education Reform

Maya Soetoro-Ng’s Big Ideas for Education Reform

Like her brother, President Obama, Soetoro-Ng wants to revamp school systems and broaden test-focused curriculums.


Maya Soetoro-Ng pulls up to the pastel-painted Children’s Discovery Center, a science and culture space one block off the ocean in downtown Honolulu. The bumper on her beat-up red Mazda hatchback is festooned with political slogans, including a frayed Women for Obama sticker; the back seat is occupied by Maya’s two young daughters. The younger is Savita, a feisty 2-year-old. The older is Suhaila, 6 and tall for her age; she’s wearing a Girl Scout uniform, with a rainbow-colored peace symbol ironed onto the blue vest. The 40-year-old Maya is wearing jeans and an untucked blue shirt; her long black hair hangs loose. She looks every bit the earth mother.

Maya and the girls go into the center and head off to a side area on the ground floor, under banners adorned with the words Explore! Discover! Imagine! Dream!, to a recently opened exhibit on refugee children around the world. Maya, who has sat on the community advisory council of the center for the past few years, and her colleagues worked hard to put this exhibit and its accompanying workshops together, and they hope the hands-on activities will inspire a sense of empathy in the young visitors. Kids can build makeshift hovels with wood and canvas; they can pretend to cook over an unlit fireplace; they can even play with toys that refugee children have built out of scraps of paper, plastic bottles and twigs. The girls chant an adapted version of the Scouts’ pledge in which the line about “following authority” has been replaced by one about “seeking truth and justice.”

Today one of the other mothers, whose parents fled from Pol Pot’s Cambodia, is going to talk for a few minutes. But first Maya introduces the notions of courage and bravery. She asks the girls what images come to mind when they think of these things. “Fighting a dragon,” one answers. Maya laughs and effortlessly segues into a conversation about war, droughts, exile.

After the Cambodian mother’s presentation, the group goes over to a world map showing refugee hot spots. Maya talks about the Middle East, Afghanistan, Iraq; she veers into a wide-ranging conversation about colonialism that touches on resource wars, battles for imperial dominance and the 500-year-old Treaty of Tordesillas, which divided the New World between the Spaniards and the Portuguese.

It’s a startlingly ambitious discussion to have with 6-year-olds. But Maya gets away with it by continually drawing in her little charges with questions. She speaks about complex topics, but she doesn’t talk down to the girls. Instead, she takes them along with her, seeing how far they’ll go, probing to get them to ask—and answer—increasingly tough questions. She is, it soon becomes apparent, a natural educator. Her voice would be identifiable in any crowd; it is gentle yet powerful, very husky. Friends and colleagues routinely mention it as one of her signature traits.

* * *

To the wider world, Maya Soetoro-Ng is better known as President Barack Obama’s sister. A modest, private person, she has been thrust into the spotlight by the whirlwind of events that put her older brother in the White House. And though she did not seek out fame, she is making use of it to promote her educational values. These days, Maya explains, “I have more of an opportunity to use my voice.”

Like her brother, Maya has a strong sense of timing and a powerful ability to blend her personal story into a larger narrative in a way that inspires audiences to get involved. Despite her initial reticence, she is seizing the podium in hopes that others will share her aspirations for revamping school systems and broadening test-oriented curriculums.

In April Candlewick Press is publishing her first book, Ladder to the Moon, a hope-filled children’s story in which Maya’s deceased mother, Stanley Ann Dunham, takes Suhaila on a journey to the moon, where she learns to help others and embrace diversity. The illustrations, by Yuyi Morales, are gorgeous, almost Chagall-like in their dreamy defiance of gravity. The numbers are impressive, too: an initial print run of 200,000 and a $250,000 marketing budget, according to the publicity materials. Maya’s book tour will take her to ten major cities around the country, where she plans to launch discussions about not only the book and its themes but also new visions for what education can and should be.

By any measure, Maya is one of Hawaii’s most innovative educators, with an ambition to transform the state’s troubled school system into a world leader. In federal education rankings, Hawaii’s primary and middle schoolers consistently score lower than the national average. (At the height of the recent financial collapse, Hawaii went to a four-day school week for several months, leaving working parents to scramble for childcare and generating a rolling series of protests.) But Maya aspires to do far more than improve test scores. She envisions a network of schools that produce students who don’t just test well but also interact well with one another and with their community.

The hands-on pedagogical methods that animate this vision, on full display at the Children’s Discovery Center, have informed Maya’s work since she began teaching in the 1990s. Her first post, after completing a master’s degree in secondary education at New York University, was at The Learning Project, an experimental school on New York City’s Lower East Side. “We did things like take the kids to museums on Saturdays,” Maya says. “I took them to Museo del Barrio, the New-York Historical Society, the Asia Society, the Museum of Natural History, the Guggenheim, the Frick gallery. What worked best is, it was a real community school. The idea is to restore schools to their communities. The school ought to be considered a cornerstone, a pillar of the community. Instead it’s become very peripheral. There’s no reason why it has to be.”

Maya took this conviction to heart, becoming a mentor and visible presence in the community. On weekends she performed slam poetry at the fabled Nuyorican Cafe and hung out at Dojo’s and the other cheap restaurants catering to the Village’s young crowd. And she helped students on their “lots and lots” project, converting abandoned neighborhood real estate into community gardens.

“There was more compassion and whole child learning than in most places,” she recalls of The Learning Project. “The school probably should have fought for higher academic expectations. But it was a very kind place, a very sweet space.”

* * *

After Maya moved back to Honolulu—to complete a PhD and care for her and Barack’s aging grandmother, Madelyn (known to Barack as Toot and to Maya as Tutu), as well as to experience, once again, the tropical Pacific environs she loves—The Learning Project closed down. But, she feels, she took its best methods home with her. And almost a decade later, she is implementing its vision in numerous educational and community projects around the lush island of Oahu.

Until recently, Maya earned her living as a high school teacher at La Pietra, a girls’ school, where she would give her graduating students trees to plant, a gentle reminder of their place within the wider web of life. A few years ago, however, she joined the faculty of the East-West Center, which is affiliated with, though institutionally separate from, the University of Hawaii; she also began working at the university. In addition to teaching, she has been developing far-ranging peace studies and climate change curriculums. She has helped organize large conferences and workshops at which high-ranking climate change scientists and teachers have met to discuss strategies for sparking young children’s interest in this pressing environmental issue. And she has traveled extensively—to Japan, China and elsewhere—promoting global peace studies.

Maya’s colleague Carole Petersen, who runs the Matsunaga Institute (a peace studies institute at the university, created in honor of the late Hawaii Senator Spark Matsunaga), says the goal of this curriculum work is to produce “globally engaged students,” meaning those who “are not just thinking about their own personal problems or even local problems” after they graduate.

Another colleague, Kerrie Urosevich, argues that the peace studies curriculum encourages a holistic approach to problem solving. It broadens into discussions of public health and economic issues, she explains, “putting peace into action, making sure it’s something that shifts systems. You have to go deep; it has to be collaborative.”

In the curriculums Maya develops, students are taught about traditions regarding land use, sustainability and healthy eating. (Hawaii, which has the highest per capita consumption of Spam in the United States, is bedeviled by high obesity rates among its low-income populations.) They are encouraged to develop community service projects and to enact them in Honolulu and the surrounding towns and villages.

Salaried work is only part of Maya’s commitment to education reform. Building on the experimental Learning Project’s legacy from her Big Apple days, she recently co-founded a group called Our Public School to get children more involved in community work and local residents more involved in the schools. Kids explore farms in the hills outside Honolulu; they work with the elderly, lead environmental cleanups and so on.

Mark Wolf, a young video producer who works with Our Public School filming innovative schooling methods around Hawaii, says the program is designed to create a virtuous circle in which students’ involvement in community projects serves as an incentive to keep them in school until they graduate.

Sitting in a funky old restaurant several blocks inland from the fabled Waikiki Beach, eating a traditional Hawaiian lunch of poi, shredded pork, soup and salmon salsa, Wolf details Maya’s commitment to a package of educational reforms that the organization originally called the Twenty-One Pillars for a Quality Education—a possibly inadvertent nod to T.E. Lawrence’s Seven Pillars of Wisdom or, more prosaically, a marketing ploy intended to highlight a new educational philosophy for the twenty-first century. Among the more interesting pillars are pillar one, “global cultural and geographic literacy” (translation: know one’s place in the world); pillar six, emphasize “both the universal and the unique”; pillar thirteen, “provide tools for pursuing peace, conflict resolution, and mediation”; pillar eighteen, nurture “democratic skills and expectations”; and pillar twenty, encourage the teaching of sustainable agricultural practices and food security.

More recently, Our Public School has replaced the pillars with the state’s “general learner outcome” guidelines for students in its publicity materials. But the original pillars still provide the group with a pedagogical frame on which to build.

“Even if you’re going to be firmly entrenched in your perspective,” Maya announces, “let that be only after you have heard a lot of different perspectives.” Students, in her vision of education, should have to defend their particular understanding of the truth rather than simply parroting received wisdom. She mentions the Indonesian phrase cuci mata, which roughly translates as “to wash the eyes.” It means, she explains, that you should try to see things from a fresh point of view.

As if that’s not enough, Maya is also involved with an after-school program for middle-schoolers called After-School All-Stars, a branch of which recently opened in Honolulu. “We found with all these cuts in the public school system, a lot of our arts and physical education and music programs were being cut,” explains executive director Dawn Dunbar. The All-Stars program “helps to fill the void.” In addition to academic work, the youngsters are also coaxed toward more community engagement. “We had a group go to the Shriners hospital and visit the kids. The kids we serve come from very underprivileged, low-income areas; and to see them interact with their community and give back is very rewarding.”

At heart, Wolf says, Maya is a facilitator—someone who “organizes well and works with public causes and connects people to each other. She’s connecting the dots.” Carole Petersen at the Matsunaga Institute describes her in similar terms, calling her a “connector,” someone who gives “that little extra push to make things happen.”

As a result, Wolf adds, even though his friend and mentor does not revel in all the attention strangers lavish on her these days, she is “instinctually a public presence.”

* * *

And yet, unlike many presidential siblings—Jimmy Carter’s ne’er-do-well brother, Billy, for example, or Richard Nixon’s brother Donald, who took dubious loans from politically connected businessmen—Maya isn’t trying to cash in on the fact that her brother is in the White House. She doesn’t readily name-drop or pull rank. When strangers stop her in restaurants to talk about Obama or the state of the country, to ask if she can garner a presidential autograph for them or to snap a photo with her, she grows visibly uncomfortable, although she makes a point to be generous with her time. (Friends have observed her being accosted by groupies, people who figure that the closest they’ll ever get to Barack Obama is through a photograph with the commander in chief’s sister.) She laughs when she tells of how long-lost Indonesian acquaintances or people who once worked with her mother in rural Indonesia contact her and ask for money, assuming she lives in a palace or owns vast tracts of land or numerous factories. In fact, much of her work is with poor, disempowered communities, and she and her husband, Conrad, recently decided to sell some stocks she inherited in part to help pay the dental bills for a root canal.

There’s something quintessentially democratic about the normality of her living situation, a reaffirmation that power is not supposed to reside in bloodlines in America. “She’s one degree away from the president of the United States,” observes her friend Patricia Halagao. “Yet she just seems so normal and grounded.” When Maya visits friends with children, she often brings bags of hand-me-downs to share among the kids.

Another friend, University of Hawaii professor Robert Perkinson, goes one step further. In some ways, he says, Maya is financially worse off because of her newfound fame; now she has to keep up with people who have all their life’s needs catered to. “You’re playing at this world-class level where people have drivers and expense accounts,” Perkinson explains. “But you don’t have any of these resources.”

Maya’s family lives in a small apartment building behind a gas station off one of Honolulu’s main freeways, not far from Punahou, the premier school that she and her brother attended after the family returned from Indonesia. There is no obvious White House paraphernalia in her home—no photos, no gaudy mementos. There isn’t even a snapshot in the living room of Maya and Barack, or a casual portrait of the two children with their mother or grandparents. Tucked away inside a kitchen cupboard is a glass vase with an inscription letting viewers know it dates to the 2009 inauguration—but that’s about the sum of it.

“I’m proud of him,” Maya explains. “I love him and have a bunch of T-shirts. My friend takes old muumuus and turns them into other things, so I gave her a whole bunch of Obama T-shirts and said, ‘Make me an Obama pillow that’s really comfortable, and we can sit on it on the floor.’” Maya says she loves some of the art that emerged from the campaign, “but it’s not like I have an enormous space” to put it on display. Besides, she adds, “I prefer to fill my apartment with things that remind me of my childhood, or places that I can no longer visit. I see my brother on a regular basis, so I don’t have the need for photos.” Instead, she says, she fills her walls with paintings (such as the Balinese landscape that dominates one living room wall, acquired by her grandmother on her travels to visit Stanley Ann abroad) and decorates her mantelpiece with sculptures—including one of the Hindu monkey-king Hanuman—and other artwork she has picked up on her global wanderings. In a corner of her dining room lies a cloth bag emblazoned with a Thomas Jefferson quote: “I cannot live without books.”

When she speaks on the phone with Barack these days, they have an unspoken agreement: she won’t press him on policy matters or even tell him whether she agrees or disagrees with specific decisions—though he will sometimes ask her about her views on education issues. But if he wants to vent about his hard day’s work, she’ll lend an ear to her exhausted brother. After all, she says, her eyes suddenly teary as she contemplates the public criticism that her brother faces every day, “he’s a good man, and I believe in him. It [the presidency] is a much harder job than I realized on some level. And to try to think about your constituency, the people you’re trying to serve—you’re not allowed to be yourself in some way. You can’t just think about what you believe. I think it’d be dreadful.”

Though Maya and her brother are clearly very different, her home offers a glimpse of the world from which the president emerged. Shaped by their mother’s powerful moral vision of what a worthy life looks like, Maya and Barack both embarked on careers in their 20s that put them on the ground, helping to reshape and empower communities. In her low-key way, Maya, like the president, is putting herself center stage. She is always on the go, always juggling commitments. And as a result, she is frequently late for meetings—“like a herd of turtles in a cloud of peanut butter,” as their mother used to say when they were kids.

It’s a tiring life, but one that suits Maya’s personality well. She has always had a yen to make an impact, and she’s doing just that. “I like the idea of energizing critical thinking, getting students to wrestle with really challenging ideas and to confront their own simplistic assumptions about the world,” she says. “That’s the way you grow. You build a muscle by tearing it. The idea is to get us to challenge our assumptions, and to be startled by our own revelations and reflections. We use education as a tool for thinking about identity, our place in the world and community. I like education for service, getting children to think about how they can use hearts and minds and hands to engage and improve their community.”

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