Earlier this year Native Hawaiians welcomed word from Washington D.C., that President Joe Biden would restore the White House Initiative on Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders. The initiative previously existed under former President Barack Obama’s administration, but lost key support during the Trump administration.
Last month, there was an additional reason for Hawaiʻi to celebrate when the President also announced that one of Hawaiʻi’s own, Krystal Kaʻai, had been appointed to lead the White House Initiative.
Kaʻai’s appointment was widely backed by the Hawaiian community and was not a surprise to those who know her as a tireless advocate who has long dedicated herself to serving the Asian American and Pacific Islander (AAPI) community.
Office of Hawaiian Affairs Trustees Carmen “Hulu” Lindsey and Kaleihikina Akaka both wrote letters to the White House in support of Kaʻai’s appointment.
Noting Kaʻai’s intelligence, initiative and work ethic Lindsey wrote, “She has also honed her abilities to hear the needs of the AAPI community, to translate those needs into policy and program proposals, and to skillfully navigate these initiatives through the legislative and administrative bureaucracies to bring them to fruition.”
Akaka described Kaʻai as “eminently qualified,” and went on to say that “Her tireless commitment to advocating on behalf of Asian Americans, Native Hawaiians and Pacific Islanders, her deep ties to the broader community, and ability to effect change at the highest levels of government truly make her the best candidate for this position.”
Kaʻai, a 2006 Kamehameha Schools Kapālama graduate, was always a standout in school. Longtime friend, classmate, and current State Rep. Pat Branco remembers her talent and intelligence. The two were in orchestra and on the speech and debate team together at Kamehameha.
“I have known Krystal since intermediate school and over the years I have seen her continued commitment to the Asian American, Native Hawaiian, and Pacific Islander community,” said Branco.
“From her time at OHA researching the diplomatic history of Hawaiʻi to her work on the Hill [Washington, D.C.], Krystal has long been a valuable and powerful voice for our lāhui and for the entire AANHPI community.”
Branco notes that Kaʻai has spent the last decade building an impressive resume.
After finishing college on the East Coast, she started her career with the National Japanese Memorial Foundation before moving to the Office of Hawaiian Affairs, D.C. Bureau, where she served as a research and legislative fellow, during which time she led an important project on the diplomatic history of the islands.
With her talent and passion obvious to everyone who worked with her, in 2011, Kaʻai moved to the organization that would become her home for the next decade: the Congressional Asian Pacific American Caucus (CAPAC).
First founded in 1994, CAPAC, a non-partisan and bi-cameral caucus, works to promote the wellbeing of the Asian American and Pacific Islander community.
Kaʻai, who started with the caucus as an assistant coordinator in 2011 and steadily worked her way to the executive director position by 2013, has led the organization through some politically challenging years, as discrimination, racist rhetoric, and violence have recently increased against Asian Americans.
Her work certainly got the attention of Washington.
Kaʻai was present in the East Room of the White House, along with Rep. Kai Kahele and Sen. Mazie Hirono, when President Biden recently signed the COVID-19 Hate Crimes Act into law. The legislation, which was introduced by Rep. Grace Meng and Hirono, targets the alarming increase in race-based violence that has emerged during the pandemic.
Rep. Kahele speaks highly of Kaʻai’s work in Washington. “Krystal has proven herself to be a valuable advocate for communities, especially the AANHPI community,” he says. “This is an important time in the United States, and we need advocates like Krystal at the table, in the White House, making sure our issues are heard and addressed.”
Kahele, the first Native Hawaiian elected to Congress since the late Sen. Daniel Akaka, notes that there is a growing number of young Native Hawaiians assuming leadership positions in D.C.
“It’s an incredible time for Hawaiians in Washington,” said Kahele in a recent interview. “Those of us who grew up seeing the leadership of people like Sen. Inouye and Sen. Akaka know we have the challenge of living up to those incredible legacies, and I look forward to working with Krystal and others to take on this challenge.”
Other young Hawaiian leaders, like Branco, share Kahele’s excitement, both on the future of Native Hawaiians in government and on Kaʻai’s appointment.
“President Biden could not have made a better appointment. From Hawai‘i to Washington, we have a new generation of Hawaiian leaders committed to making sure the future of our islands and country is bright, just, and sustainable.”