Gratitude. This word crosses my mind several times a day. And at night, as I fall asleep, I list all that I am grateful for: family, friends, shared experiences, challenges, comforts and the possibilities that tomorrow bring. Gratitude.
Like most everyone, I have experienced hardships and challenges in my life. But I am mindful that many people do not have access to support or resources to get them through those difficult times. I recognize the constructed inequities and inequalities of our corporatocracy; and this awareness drives my commitment to social justice. Whether I serve the community as an activist, editorialist, policymaker, advocate or philanthropist - my wellspring is a deep sense of gratitude.
My paternal great-grandparents left Japan to work in the sugar cane plantations of Kauai. My grandmother, Florence Onishi met my grandfather, Robert Iwamoto, at Tip-Top Restaurant, where she was working as a cashier. Robert and Florence used their family cars to start a taxi company, which eventually expanded to a tour company and a rental-car company. My father Robert Jr. began working for the family business in high school as a car washer. Eventually their collective efforts became known as Roberts Hawaii.
On my maternal grandparents’ side, the family left Japan to grow cantaloupe and other produce in Imperial Valley, California. During World War II, my mother and her family were forced into internment camps in Poston, Arizona. My uncles were released from the internment camp to enlist in the military to serve the United States of America. Eventually the entire family was released and they returned to their farm. When my mother was in high school, she contributed to the family business by taking care of all the bookkeeping.
On May 25, 1968, my mother boarded a chartered plane from Honolulu to Lihue, Kauai to attend a private party hosted by Grace Guslander to celebrate the expansion of her Coco Palms Resort. My mother was eight-months pregnant with me. In the middle of the party, she went into labor and by the next day I had arrived. Mrs. Guslander visited with a bouquet of flowers, a card, and a request to name me “Coco” after herinternationally award-winning hotel.
When I was in the fifth grade, I delivered the local newspaper in my Waialae Iki neighborhood. It was hard work delivering papers on my bike on that steep ridge. Around this time, I joined my mother as a volunteer at the Red Cross. I stuffed envelopes, filed and did whatever was needed. Later, I worked as a candy striper at Kapiolani Women & Children’s Hospital.
As a teen, I also worked for the family company in various entry-level positions. I washed rental cars, took reservations for Roberts activities, and served beverages on the Alii Kai Catamaran. Both my parents grew up contributing to their respective families’ businesses. This was the work ethic they knew and expected from their children.
Against the advice I would give young people today, I applied to only one college, the Fashion Institute of Technology (FIT) in New York City. I was accepted and moved. There, I found some of the most loving friendships that I still celebrate today.
After I earned my associate's degree at FIT, I moved to San Francisco to escape the cold winters of New York. There, I worked in retail and lived paycheck to paycheck in a converted apartment hotel in the Tenderloin. I soon realized that I needed to go back to school and get a bachelor's degree. I remembered how much I enjoyed the required English literature course at FIT, so I enrolled in the Creative Writing Program at San Francisco State University.
After I graduated in 1990 with my Bachelor of Arts, I worked as an au pair in Barcelona, briefly returned home, and then moved back to New York City.
The next six years in New York City were exhilarating. In addition to working, I volunteered at a community center and became more aware of social injustice.
At the community center, I helped young people build leadership skills. Some of the teenagers were homeless. Some of them were homeless because they had been kicked out of their homes when their parents learned they were gay. One 16-year-old boy I met told me that his father put a gun to his head and told him to get out of their house. His mother quietly slipped him a $100 bill for bus fare out of their small town.
I realized that I had a very supportive life compared to some. I continue to be surprised when I witness or encounter bigotry. We should all expect to be valued for our work ethic, skill sets, and contributions to our families and communities.
From my work with youth, I became more aware of oppression and how the law was often used as a tool to further bigotry and oppression. I realized that I had more to learn. I applied to law school.
Just before I was to start law school in New Mexico, my mother had a massive stroke back home in Hawaii. She was left with a severe brain injury. I decided to defer law school, return home, and help her. It was a challenging year for both of us, but I have never grown more in such a short period of time.
I was 26 years old and my mother’s primary caregiver. I thought to myself, “This is what it must be like to be a single parent.” She rehabilitated to the point where she could attend day care, which gave me time to volunteer at the Hawaii State Court of Appeals. There, I honed my research and writing skills in anticipation for law school.
After that transformative year, one of my brothers and his family moved into my mother’s home to care for her. I moved to Albuquerque, New Mexico and started law school. By the time I completed the three-year graduate program, my mother had several more strokes and was being cared for at the Maunalani Nursing Home.
I decided to move back to Hawaii and enjoy as much of her as I could. My mother had enough cognition and physical strength to laugh, enjoy food, and attend events. My mother was stronger than any of us had imagined and she lived 10 years beyond her physician’s initial prognosis.
I began to feel settled back in Hawaii and became a licensed therapeutic foster parent. I thought about the homeless children in New York City and how they were abused, neglected and kicked out of their homes for just being who they were. I wanted to help young people in Hawaii who were in the same situation. I provided a home, love, and support for foster kids. I attended IEP meetings, parent-teacher meetings, and extracurricular activities.
I learned that my kids and many others needed an advocate in the education system. I attended some BOE meetings and got involved in the local public schools to support my children. It didn’t take long for me to realize that the Hawaii Board of Education needed some fresh perspective, innovative leadership, and someone to act as a voice for the children. This helped to inform my decision to run for Board of Education, Oahu-at-Large. I've had the honor and responsibility of serving on the Hawai`i State Board of Education from 2006 - 2011.