Outgoing Chief Advocate Sterling Wong was invited to use my column to write about his 20 years at OHA.
By Sterling Kini Wong
I joined the OHA family in the fall of 2002. It was my final year at UH Mānoa. My advisor recommended that I pursue my required internship at a place that would connect my two majors, journalism and Hawaiian studies. He recommended OHA’s Public Information Office.
I wasn’t an impressive student. I was more interested in the beach than the classroom. I once complained to my Hawaiian language professor that the “D” she gave me may jeopardize my financial aid from Kamehameha Schools. She responded indignantly, “I didn’t give you that grade, you earned it.” Tough but honest love, Kumu.
I didn’t have big aspirations for life after college. In some ways, college was the goal. At the time, I was on track to be the first member of the Hawaiian side of my family to earn a college degree. But the prospect of working in an office downtown rather than at a restaurant or in the loʻi was super intimidating. “Wait, I have to wear a belt?” I wasn’t ready for the adult/career thing yet.
But the OHAna took me in, cleaned me up and showed me how I could best use my talents to help our lāhui. Manu Boyd, my first boss, believed in me for some reason. He wanted me to write an article for publication. I thought he was crazy. Check it (I just did, lol): Ka Wai Ola, page 15, December 2002, “Innovative kalo cultivation course at Kanewai promotes traditional knowledge.” My byline was Sterling Kini Wong. I was still trying to figure out if my Hawaiian name was going to be reserved just for use by my family. (If someone calls out “Kini” today, I will first assume that a fashion designer is nearby.)
After graduation, Manu hired me as a staff writer. I would cover every Native Hawaiian issue for the next four years. This was a time when our Hawaiian institutions were beset by lawsuits. Under the banner of “color blindness,” conservatives were trying to tear down programs focusing on the needs of our people. I began to see the shortcomings of objective journalism. Sometimes, one side is just wrong. I no longer wanted to report. I wanted to advocate.
OHA gave me that opportunity. For the next nine years, I wrote letters, testified in hearings and stood in protest lines trying to persuade our government leaders to deliver justice to our people. I had great mentors at OHA: Heidi Kai Guth, Esther Kiaaina, Jobie Masagatani, Breann Nuuhiwa. And I was privileged to guide a host of young Native Hawaiian advocates whose abilities far surpassed my own.
I could just drop names for the rest of this article. You see, for all the great work I did at OHA and the amazing opportunities the office provided me, what I will always cherish most about my time at the agency is its people, the OHAna. The number of brilliant and dedicated Kānaka who have worked at OHA is countless. What OHA is and represents will always attract the best talent in our community. But it’s not just fancy degrees and long résumés that make the OHAna special.
It’s the warmth of like-minded people, regardless of job title, working towards the same mission. It’s the we’re-all-in-this-together camaraderie.
It’s the Tane Wailehua Moshers of the agency, who, in the most loving way possible whispered to an out-of-place-looking intern with his baggy pants falling down on his first day, “hey brother, next time you come in, you should wear a belt.”