Rob Parsons

Sister act

Barack Obama's sister discusses family, hope and inspiration

by Rob Parsons

September 25, 2008

Hawaiian Commercial & Sugar employees listen to testimony at a meeting of the Commission for Water Resource Management.

Maya Soetoro-Ng is a local Oahu girl, a schoolteacher and the mother of a four-year-old girl, Suhaila. Oh yeah, and her older brother is Barack Obama.

Obama and Soetoro-Ng, who are nine years apart, grew up together in Hawaii, where he attended Punahou School. They recently spent time together when Obama took a campaign timeout on Oahu, seeing his grandmother, playing golf, taking his two daughters to the beach, body-surfing and generally slowing down after a grueling eighteen months on the trail.

Soetoro-Ng, who will be on Maui for two rallies on Saturday, September 27, spoke to me by phone as she was in transit to Honolulu Airport last Friday, on her way to a Hilo political event with Andy Winer, Hawaii State Director of the Obama for President campaign.

"Barack was so happy to be here," she said. "He had such a good time being in Hawaii. He saw Grandmom, took the kids to the ocean and saw a monk seal up in Mokuleia. He did one rally to thank the people of Hawaii for their support."

Soetoro-Ng has been married for six years to Konrad Ng, a teacher in the University of Hawaii's new film school and a Chinese-Canadian who just gained his U.S. citizenship. "The joke was, our family wasn't diverse enough already," she laughed.

Soetoro-Ng teaches at La Pietra School for Girls, where she offers instruction in World Cultures to ninth graders, eleventh grade U.S. History and an elective called Peacemakers and Non-Violence for grades 9-12. She will soon take leave for the school's second quarter this fall to join her brother's campaign in visiting as many swing states as possible before November 4.

"Others changed their schedules and sacrificed to make this possible," she said. "I'm so grateful to the school and my colleagues."

Maui Time Weekly: What was it like growing up in Hawaii with your older brother?

Maya Soetoro-Ng: Reflecting back as an adult, Barack was a much better sibling than I realized. He was quite young when he took over raising us [her and their mother] in many ways. He helped me with academic, art and intellectual pursuits. He gave me lots of great books to read. He took me around the country to look at colleges and reviewed all my applications. He helped me heal after the loss of my father, and our mother. Barack pushed me to expand my own boundaries and level of comfort. I believe he helped me to become a better version of myself than I would have been without him.

MTW: How has it been for you with your brother running for president, and stepping into the role of helping with the campaign?

MS: It's been amazing. Very illuminating. It has allowed me to articulate why political participation matters to me. It's something that I've tried to foster in my students, but I'm not sure I believed my own voice fully matters as much as I told my kids. So, now I'm getting all that love and respect for my brother transferred to me. It's marvelous that people are doing so much. Colorado [where she attended the Democratic Convention] really impressed me. We're ushering in a new era of participation. Democracy is looking like it should-more inclusive, and with strong grassroots efforts.

MTW: As a teacher, what fixes do you believe are needed for our education system?

MS: I did a lot of constituency outreach while I was on the Mainland. I believe Barack will focus on the unpopularity of "No Child Left Behind" and take away the high-stakes testing component so that assessments will become more well-rounded. He'll make early education a priority. The early investment pays great dividends later. Teachers and principals will get more mentorship. He wants to create learning academies to share best practices, and inter-disciplinary learning with parent, teachers and administrators.

MTW: What do you hope to accomplish with the upcoming rallies on Maui and how can Obama supporters help with the campaign?

MS: I know we want to take advantage of the Hawaii connections to the West Coast, especially Nevada and California. Many people have family and friends there. We want people to continue to share stories, to communicate with neighbors, friends and co-workers. The present poll numbers show more than 60 percent support [for Obama] in Hawaii. But we can't be complacent. We need to turn out even more Obama supporters. We want people who are inspired by Barack's ideas and campaign to share their enthusiasm, to engage others in meaningful discussion of a vision for positive change.