HomeAsian AmericansKrystal Ka'ai brings a Native Hawaiian voice to the White House

Krystal Ka’ai brings a Native Hawaiian voice to the White House

By Zachary FR Anderson, AsAmNews Contributor

In a year that has heightened the visibility of the Asian American and NHPI community, Native Hawaiians and Pacific Islanders continue to be overlooked.

Despite only making up 0.5 percent of the US population, NHPIs also hold the record for the highest COVID-19 infection rates of any other racial group.

“Because this is such a small population, you oftentimes don’t hear about how devastating an impact COVID-19 has had on the NHPI community,” said Krystal Ka’ai, the executive director of the White House Initiative on Asian Americans, Native Hawaiians and Pacific Islanders (WHIAANHPI).

Ka’ai spoke exclusively to AsAmNews about her journey to lead that initiative.

Originally created in 1999 by President Bill Clinton, the WHIAANHPI has been the leading federal agency in addressing the concerns of AA/NHPI communities. Since then, succeeding presidents have issued similar executive orders to re-establish the initiative and update its objectives. On Thursday, the Department of Health & Human Services announced the official relaunching of WHIAANHPI.

RELATED: AAPI leaders applaud White House Initiative on Asian Americans, Native Hawaiians and Pacific Islanders (WHIAANHPI).

Under Ka’ai, the current iteration is the first to distinguish Native Hawaiians apart from Pacific Islanders and is the first to be led by someone of Native Hawaiian descent.

“When I applied for the position, it was a really competitive pool,” said Ka’ai.

But as a result of fervent advocacy by Native Hawaiian and Pacific Islander organizers and leaders, Ka’ai quickly rose to the top until being appointed by President Biden.

“We are excited to have such a brilliant, passionate, and committed Native Hawaiian in Krystal Kaai representing our community’s voice in the White House,” Kuhio Lewis, the president and CEO of the Council for Native Hawaiian Advancement, said to AsAmNews. “She’s a beacon of hope – a sign that the future of our people is in amazing and capable hands with our next generation of leaders.”

As the daughter of a Native Hawaiian father and an immigrant mother from Japan, Ka’ai was raised in a place where AA/NHPIs are not only the majority but also active participants in each level of local and state government.

“Having both indigenous and immigrant roots has really shaped my perspective in terms of the work that I’ve done throughout my career,” said Ka’ai.

However, when she left Hawaii to attend Lehigh University in Pennsylvania, she was often the only AA/NHPI and person of color in her classes.

“There were a lot of assumptions people had based on the way I looked,” said Ka’ai. “I think that was a real eye-opening experience for me.”

After graduating, she worked for the Office of Hawaiian Affairs, a state agency that advocates for the Native Hawaiian community.

She also worked at the National Japanese American Memorial Foundation, a Washington-based nonprofit dedicated to educating and raising awareness about the history and stories of the incarceration of Japanese Americans during World War II.

But it was during legislative visits and lobbying trips to the Capitol that Ka’ai become fascinated with the legislative process. She left her full-time job in 2011 to take an internship with the office of then Hawaii Senator Daniel Akaka, the chair of the Senate committee which has jurisdiction over Native Hawaiian issues.

Soon after, she applied for a position with the Congressional Asian Pacific American Caucus (CAPAC) and was hired after the end of her internship. Two years later, she became CAPAC’s executive director–– and the first person of NHPI descent in that role.

When she first started working for the caucus, there were only a dozen AA/NHPI members in Congress. Today, there are twenty-one, the highest number of members in this country’s history.

“I counted on Krystal for years of leadership and advocacy, and it was thanks to her hard work that CAPAC has continued to grow in size and influence,” said Congresswoman Judy Chu of California, who chaired the caucus during Ka’ai’s tenure. “There’s no better example of that impact than the Biden Administration’s focus on AA/NHPI issues since their first week in office.”

As CAPAC director, Ka’ai was instrumental in fostering the passage of the COVID-19 Hate Crimes Act which she considers one of her proudest moments during her career at the Capitol.

Photo by Sydney Walsh for AsAmNews, Graphic by Rhiannon Koh, AsAmNews

“For the first time, we were being seen as a community that had been overlooked for so long,” she said.

After the COVID-19 Hate Crimes Act was signed into law, Ka’ai was tapped by the Biden administration to be executive director of the WHIAANHPI.

In addition to prior objectives that have guided every iteration of the initiative for the past two decades, under Ka’ai’s leadership it will also specifically address concerns that affect Pacific communities both in the US mainland and Hawaii as well as in the US’s Pacific territories.

“Pacific Islanders would really like their own platform and people to talk about the issues they face,” said Howard Ou of the White House Office of Public Engagement. “To be more thoughtful and inclusive, we’ve been engaged in committing to this as well.”

The WHIAANHPI also wants to address other concerns including, for the first time in the Initiative’s history, climate change which poses a great threat to Hawaii and the Pacific territories.

In Micronesia, the region that includes Guam and the Northern Mariana Islands, the rate of sea-level rise is two to three times the national average. Some scientists predict that most of the islands and coral atolls in the region will be uninhabitable by 2030.

Ka’ai says active discussions are underway with members of Congress from those territories to send more federal funds to these overlooked and underserved communities.

“It is no small matter that Director Ka’ai’s work to bring to the table leaders, experts and advocates across a broad spectrum of issues, and to ensure that Guam and Pacific peoples always have a seat at the table, has resulted in the Congress and the country addressing territorial legacy issues that have gone unresolved for generations,” said Delegate Michael San Nicholas who represents Guam in Congress.

According to Ka’ai, the WHIAANHPI’s broad mandate has allowed it to tackle these specific policy objectives in collaboration with other members of its interagency working group.

“We want to ensure that people know they don’t have to call someone [thousands of miles] away to get an answer for something,” said Ka’ai. “They have people they can reach out to whether it’s in Saipan, Guam, or Hawaii.”

Recently, the WHIAANHPI held a virtual roundtable discussion for Region Nine which serves the West Coast, Hawaii, and Pacific territories. To make the information more accessible for those who want to take an active part in addressing the concerns of their communities, it was translated into several languages including Chamorro and Samoan.

Photo by Sydney Walsh for AsAmNews. Graphic by Rhiannon Koh, AsAmNews

“The most important thing is to think of how [young NH/PIs] can do more to be a voice for their community…” said Ka’ai. “The key thing I want people to take away is that you don’t have to pursue a career in public service or be in Washington DC to make a difference. You can do that at the local level and through your local networks. There are so many ways you can make a difference.”

(Correction: An earlier version of this story incorrectly stated the origin of the name change for WHIAANHPI. We apologize for the error.)

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