U.S. Sen. Mazie Hirono, D-Hawaii, spoke with University of Michigan students at the Michigan Union Friday night. The event was co-hosted by the Michigan-Hawaii Student Association (MIHI) and the Asian Pacific American Law Students Association.
In an interview with The Michigan Daily, LSA sophomore Ellie Omori-Sampson, founding member of MIHI, said their main goal for the event is to promote Hawaiian representation at the University of Michigan. She said she feels Pacific Islanders are underrepresented within Asian American and Pacific Islander communities.
“Even in ‘AAPI,’ ‘PI’ is very much underrepresented in AAPI spaces on campus, which I’ve noticed,” Omori-Sampson said. “So bringing a senator from Hawaii who is Asian American, who is fighting to promote the representation of Pacific Islander people as well … puts something in (the audience’s) brains about being aware of Hawaii, being aware of AAPI groups.”
Hirono began by discussing her career as an elected official, which began in the Hawaii State Senate in 1981. When elected to the U.S. Senate in 2012, she was the first Asian American female senator and the only immigrant serving in the Senate, having moved from Japan at age eight.
Hirono said throughout her legislative career, she has learned the importance of perseverance when fighting for the causes that matter most. Hirono pointed to the stalled Voting Rights Act and the overturning of Roe v. Wade as examples of why people need to continue to “show up.”
“Half the battle is showing up,” Hirono said. “By ‘showing up’ I don’t mean just physically showing up for things but staying the course. Because the battles we thought we had won don’t stay won, so eternal vigilance is required.”
In an interview with The Daily after the event, Hirono urged young people to vote in the upcoming Nov. 8 general election, especially with a constitutional amendment to protect abortion access on the ballot in Michigan.
“Democracy is at stake, especially for the young women,” Hirono said. “They have fewer rights than their mothers and even their grandmothers — that should motivate them to one: get really angry about it, and then, (two:) do something. Right now, the ‘something’ they can do is to vote.”
Hirono said her initial political awakening was participating in protests against the Vietnam War.
“I was not one of the leaders of the anti-war movement, but (protesting) was enough for me to question, for the first time ever, what our government was doing,” Hirono said. “I became friends with other politically active people …, and so we all kind of decided that we needed to do more to get seats at the table.”
Hirono also spoke about some of the Senate’s most recent legislative accomplishments. She pointed to the passage of the COVID-19 Hate Crimes Act in May 2021, which she introduced alongside Rep. Grace Meng, D-N.Y., as well as the recent Inflation Reduction Act. Hirono recalled her experience of negotiating this bill with the crowd.
“We are on the floor of the Senate for 24 hours, which means nobody goes to sleep or anything, and the Republicans have all these amendments,” Hirono said. “At the end of (that) we got a really good bill — not a perfect bill but a really good bill that will help families and our communities.”
Amy Stillman, director of the Native American Studies Program at the University, asked Hirono how to stay hopeful as an educator in the face of legislation limiting what can be taught in school. Hirono encouraged Stillman and teachers across the country to be persistent in teaching what they feel is important.
“Continue to teach what you’re teaching — the true history of our people — the Chinese Exclusion Act, the internment of the Japanese Americans, the Muslim ban,” Hirono said.
Stillman told The Daily after the event she feels encouraged by Hirono’s willingness to address these issues and call out misinformation.
“It heartens me to know that she understands,” Stillman said. “She’s … willing to talk about the lying and the disinformation going on and how much hypocrisy is going on in Washington.”
Daily Staff Reporter Samantha Rich can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org