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Community Partner Spotlight: Marshallese Educational Initiative

This Spring, the Cisneros Center is partnering with several nonprofit organizations and Tyson Foods to offer workplace education to immigrant and migrant workers at the Randall Rd. Plant. This novel program allows workers to access services that help them improve their lives and increase their independence. Marshallese Educational Initiative is one of the fantastic organizations participating in the Workplace Education Program. Read our interview with April Brown, co-founder of Marshallese Educational Initiative.

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What's the history of the Marshallese Educational Initiative?

We were established in July 2013. We were co-founded by myself - I’m a history professor at NorthWest Arkansas Community College - and Dr. Jessica Schwartz, who is now in the musicology department at UCLA. She gave a talk at my college and we began working on an oral history project. We were going around the Marshallese community to find out if conducting such a project was ok. While we were doing that, we were continually asked if we could help their kids stay in school, find scholarships for college, and assist in challenges to healthcare access. We realized there were a lot of issues and challenges facing the community that went beyond this project, so we decided to start a nonprofit to broaden the scope of educational outreach.

What's the mission of the Marshallese Educational Initiative?

Our mission is still humanities-based: to promote the history and culture of the Marshallese people and facilitate intercultural dialogue between the Marshallese and the non-Marshallese to foster positive social change. We have several projects that are ongoing that do just that, including the Marshallese Oral History Project. Just after MEI was established, we received a grant from the Arkansas Humanities Council/National Endowment for the Humanities to conduct the first phase of the project. Our team interviewed 50 Marshallese community members, mostly elders, and have plans to interview more. Ultimately, we want to create a digital humanities database that holds oral histories, songs, photographs and documents. That's a time-consuming and expensive project and we'll need funding and several years to put it together, but it will be a tremendous resource.

We’re also really involved in educational attainment. From ESL classes all the way to getting students to enroll in college and, ultimately, get them to graduate school or medical school. Right now there are only about 30 Marshallese students in college. That's in all of the local colleges. There are, in Springdale alone, about 8,000 Marshallese. We want this number to increase and make sure the students are successful once they get there. We're working closely with the Manit (Culture) Club, made up of Marshallese college students, to help with enrollment paperwork and financial aid and sharing the various options, career-wise, that are available, but it's also working with families. Many parents want their children to go to college, but the attainment level is so low among the adult population, few know how to help their children be successful. So there's a lot of outreach to be done this fall. We plan to work with the families - have real conversations about challenges and goals - and then work with them to find a plan.

We also work a lot to promote global issues like climate change and its impact on the islands, as well as nuclear testing and its legacy. We held a major event at the Clinton Presidential Library in 2014 to commemorate the sixtieth anniversary of the Castle Bravo test in 1954 - the largest test conducted by the US that rained down fallout on the Marshallese population. We’re also working with other organizations like REACH-MI and CANN to put on an event in Salem, Oregon in late May to educate about the nuclear testing. There will be a workshop with some of the younger students about how to share this info with their peers.

In addition to the education process, I see MEI as a facilitator. Everyone at MEI is either an educator or Marshallese or both. There are a lot of organizations that conduct outreach to the Marshallese and want to work with the Marshallese. To me, it seems like some of the organizations have a one size fits all approach. There's a large Hispanic population and I think many use strategies that have been successful with those communities. The Marshallese culture is very unique, comparatively speaking, and I think sometimes when these organizations don't meet their objectives, they blame the Marshallese community for a lack of interest, when in many cases their methodology was just off.

What are some things you think some Arkansans may not know about Marshallese culture?

The Marshallese do things together and togetherness - ippan doon - is very ingrained in the culture. I think we are used to seeing people act in a very individualized or competitive way, but for the most part, the Marshallese aren't like that. Some may see that as a lack of initiative, but it’s not. They want to do things together and decide together and sometimes that process takes time.

It plays itself out with students. We know that students, a lot of times, in class won’t raise their hand to answer questions. Part of it is a fear that if they answer a question incorrectly then it not only reflects on them but on their entire Marshallese community as well. That’s a lot of pressure. Also, family is extremely important. If a relative is in the hospital, for example, the entire family goes to be with them and that trumps work and school obligations.

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