President's Sister Advocates In DC for Peace, Justice

 President Obama's maternal half-sister shared her strategies Aug. 14 for educating communities to promote peace and resist oppression.maya_soetoro_ng

In a rare speech for her in the nation's capital, Dr. Maya Soetoro-Ng delivered an eloquent and otherwise effective discourse to a receptive audience at the Democratic-oriented Center for American Progress. She is shown at right in my photo after her lecture while she signed Ladder to the Moon, a children's book she wrote in 2011.

She was introduced as a "world-renowned peace advocate." She is a native of Indonesia born to the same mother as the president. She now teaches as an assistant professor of education at the University of Hawaii's campus at Manoa.

During her lecture the day before her 43rd birthday, she focused first on strategies to fight sex trafficking in India and in other Asian nations. She closed by suggesting more general tips to keep projects sustainable.

"An important part of service is not just to get kids to do good things," she said, "but to make them think how they have been transformed." That kind of self-awareness, she said, instills long-term commitment to civic projects.

Her talk provides a change from our usual fare here at Justice Integrity Project and in my book this summer scrutinizing her brother, among other politicians. That work has resulted in such recent columns as President's Spy Study Plan Prompts Protest and the book Presidential Puppetry: Obama, Romney and Their Masters. I am not alone. The New York Daily News ran a story Aug. 14 headlined, Oliver Stone blasts Obama as a 'snake,' throws support behind Edward Snowden.

The investigator's task is partly to expose what's hidden. But we should also explore the overall environment, with an appreciation of the world that most people see and enjoy. Otherwise any findings of potential irregularities may prove disconnected from the public's interest.

In this instance, Soetoro-Ng connected effectively with her audience, much like then-Sen. Barack Obama did when I attended his first presidential campaign event in the Washington capital region. That introduction to the future president occurred in March 2007 at the home of my friend Reed Hundt, the first Federal Communications Commission chairman during the Clinton administration. Obama gave remarks well-suited to that occasion. Understandably enough, the candidate was somewhat formal in tone (more so than his sister this week) as he started his long journey to the White House.

His sister is a decade younger. She is pursuing a career that resembles parts of those of her brother and their mother, who is best known by her maiden name, Stanley Ann Dunham. The scholarly and spiritual Dunham met and married her two husbands, Barack Obama, Sr., and Lolo Soetoro, in the 1960s at the University of Hawaii. The university awarded her undergraduate, master's, and doctoral degrees in the field of cultural anthropology.

Stanley Ann DunhamAnn Dunham, right, and Barack Jr. followed Soetoro to Indonesia after a coup overthrew the nationalist leader Sukarno, who was a socialist who infuriated some United States officials during the Cold War by nationalizing industries and leading the world's "non-aligned" nations.

Maya Soetoro was born in 1970, and named for the poet Maya Angelou. She lived briefly in Indonesia with her brother, Barack, who returned to Hawaii in 1971 to live primarily with his grandparents while attending the exclusive prep school Punahou School.

Maya Soetoro later reunited with her brother when their mother returned to Hawaii following separation from Lolo Soetoro, who later divorced, remarried and died at a young age.

Maya Soetoro returned to Indonesia with her mother, was home-schooled, and attended Jakarta International School from 1981 to 1984 before returning to Hawaii to attended Punahou.

She went on to graduate from Barnard College in 1993, obtain a doctorate in comparative international education from the University of Hawaii, teach in New York, Indonesian, and Hawaiian schools, and marry in 2003 a fellow academic, Dr. Konrad Ng, a Canadian-born U.S. citizen who is an assistant professor at the University of Hawaii's Academy of Creative Media.

Ann Dunham Surviving the OddsIn early 2007, Maya Soetoro-Ng, mother of two daughters, wrote a novelistic children's book, Ladder to the Moon, which presents some of her mother's spiritual ideas in storybook form. The book title is from the 1958 Georgia O'Keeffe painting, which was depicted on a postcard the author received from her mother, who died in 1995. She wrote the book while living in her brother's Chicago home and assisting during the early stages of his presidential campaign.

Also, she assisted her mother's thesis advisor, Alice G. Dewey and co-editor Nancy I. Cooper, in publishing her mother's dissertation under the book title Surviving Against the Odds: Village Industry in Indonesia (Duke University Press, 2009), shown at left. She kindly autographed my copy of the book I bought several years ago with the inscription, "In celebration of peoples and stories that bridge worlds."

Her first major writing aside from her degree work thus appears to be the kind of family-focused topic that helped her older brother define himself in his first major writing effort, Dreams From My Father (Crown/Random House, 1995), an episodic, unfootnoted autobiography that cited composite characters in part. Soetoro-Ng similarly draws on autobiographical and novelization techniques. 

In 2009, she lived briefly with her husband in Washington following her brother's election. She has maintained a relatively low public profile aside from her teaching, books, and occasional speaking roles during her brother's 2008 and 2012 election campaigns. She and her husband have each worked at the University of Hawaii, where she has been an education specialist at the East-West Center and an assistant professor in the College of Education.

"Soetoro-Ng has often spoken warmly about her relationship with her older half-brother, which she says has remained strong even though they have often lived far apart," according to a New York Times profile. "As adults, they have often celebrated Christmas in Hawaii, and savor the time they spend with their families together."

Her talk Aug. 14 was a noon lunch at the Center for American Progress (CAP), located roughly four blocks from the White House in downtown Washington. It was in the same building where I ran a communications trade association as president/CEO until resuming journalism in 2008. The building houses the Washington offices of Reuters and several other news outlets or policy groups.

The center's prominence under the Obama presidency guarantees a steady flow of high-profile speakers and cutting-edge events.

This program began with a passionate, entertaining rap song by Omékongo Dibinga, a spoken-word artist who used his gifts to advocate against sex trafficking and abuse of women.  

CAP Senior Vice President Daniella Gibbs Leger introduced the topic: An estimated three million children are currently exploited in India's sex trade. The vast majority of trafficked women and girls usually come from the poorest, most disadvantaged backgrounds in India: the Dalits, Adivasi and other low-caste communities. Every day in India, 200 women and girls enter prostitution, and 80% of them do so against their will as victims of trafficking.

SukarnoSoetoro-Ng then urged an end to trafficking and the exploitation of women and children.

Year of Living Dangerously PosterShe began by praising "prophets, revolutionaries, and saints" but warned "don't be a martyr." Then, she highlighted successful strategies that international organizations are using to rescue, rehabilitate, and prevent trafficking.

She spoke briefly also about political disturbances she witnessed in Indonesia, which by her telling created street violence but apparently did not reach the visible carnage of the height of killing in the years soon after the 1965 replacement of Sukarno, left, with the pro-American Suharto. (Both leaders used just one name.) Estimates of killings range from 500,000 deaths to much higher, creating one of the largest genocides of the century. 

Indonesians descended from Malay and Chinese stock were often in conflict during her youth, she said. She added that her father was Malay, but she could see that Chinese "were scapegoated." She occasionally saw violent street disturbances from her window and felt "it was shocking" to see no news reports the next day because of censorship or self-censorship.

Soetoro's-NG's brief comments this week on the topic are notable in part because her brother rarely speaks of the events, which helped prompt the 1982 film "The Year of Living Dangerously" starring Mel Gibson and Sigourney Weaver that concludes with ex-patriates fleeing 1965 Indonesia as too violent.  

Christina Lagdameo, board president of the non-profit group, then joined in a dialogue on practical tips for rescuing victims of sex trafficking abuses and creating viable non-profit organizations to sustain the work. Proceeds from Ladder to the Moon sales went to Odanadi, which was founded in India by two journalists who wanted to provide a safe haven for sex trade victims. Since then it has "conducted nearly 60 brothel raids, and in the process brought 137 traffickers to justice."

Both speakers emphasized yoga, spiritual, and other creative ways for victims to find peace and tell their stories in powerful ways.

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