Soetoro-Ng campaigns for education

By Sydney Berger, Daily Staff Reporter
Published March 23, 2012

Those in search of secrets about President Barack Obama won’t get them from his half-sister, Maya Soetoro-Ng. Instead, she delivered a lecture regarding the future of multi-cultural education.

Soetoro-Ng delivered a lecture titled “Education for Peace and Global Awareness” at the Michigan Union last night in honor of Asian Pacific Islander month, during which she emphasized the importance of equipping children with the ability to understand multiculturalism, language and personal identity.

The lecture marked Soetoro-Ng’s second visit to the University as she campaigns to transform education. Her first trip was in 1986, when she visited the University with Obama.

During the lecture, she focused on changing expectations in education, which is a central goal of her non-profit organization, Our Public School.

In an interview after the event, Soetoro-Ng encouraged students to take an active role in world events and causes they believe in.

“You don’t have to wait for anyone to tell you that your voice is valuable or that it matters,” she said. “There are so many open spaces for dialogue and for action … I want all young people to raise their voices. I think it would be a great idea — bring on the cacophony.”

Soetoro-Ng said during her speech that few Americans she met while on the campaign trail for her brother during the 2008 presidential election took an active interest in the country’s public education system.

“People who had kids in the public schools or who were teachers … those were the only folks who were actively engaged in the discussion about what public schools and public education should be, what should happen in the classroom, and how policies should be impacted,” she said. “I want to make sure that we remind ourselves that these schools belong to all of us.”

Soetoro-Ng works with schools and teachers to remedy the disconnect between teachers and students that she said hinders learning initiatives. She added that young teachers can become “overwhelmed” and resort to lecturing students instead of allowing them to learn through experience and culture.

“The additive approach of bringing in people and names in events in the margins in the textbooks, that is not enough,” Soetoro-Ng said.

She urged students and educators to examine information from more than one perspective and include students’ personal identities in the learning process, noting that her mixed ethnic background taught her the importance of flexible cultural expectations.

“The notion that culture never changes, and that identity never changes — that what existed 30 years ago is the same as what exists today — is not the case,” she said. “We need to be able to negotiate the truths that exist today.”

Soetoro-Ng implements her ideas through a peace education course she teaches in Hawaii. She said these classes have helped her identify obstacles facing education, such as a lack of cultural awareness among teachers.

She said many of the teachers who attended her multicultural education classes could not fill out more than half of a world map.

“This is a problem,” she said. “There are so many parallels between what happens over there and what happens over here.”

She added that children often struggle to think beyond their most pressing and immediate realities and part of building global competence, multiculturalism and peace education is to help students find their voice.

She encouraged others to engage in conversations with young people about their experiences and make them aware of their surroundings.

“You don’t show (children) high levels of violence, but you can certainly begin to talk to them about what to do afterwards, how to rebuild their own power, how they can help each other,” Soetoro-Ng said.

LSA sophomore Katie McGraw said she heard Obama speak at the University in January, and she attended Soetoro-Ng’s lecture because she was interested to hear what his half-sister had to say.

“I don’t honestly know a lot about the topic but I figured I would kind of come and learn more and learn her philosophy,” McGraw said.

LSA sophomore Sophie Boudreau also said she attended the event to learn more about Obama’s family.

“It was perfect because I just finished reading (Obama’s) book, ‘Dreams From My Father’, which talks about Maya, so I thought it would be a perfect opportunity to tie an event into what I’m studying,” Boudreau said.