Senator Suzanne Chun Oakland: Champion
If there is one word the Hawaii Deaf community uses to describe Hawaii Senator Suzanne Chun Oakland, it is this: Champion. After deciding not to seek re-election, the 2017 session will mark the first time in 26 years that the state legislature will be without the Champion affectionately known as “Susie.”
Chun Oakland’s relationship with the Deaf community is a special one. It can be traced back to her time as a student at Lanikila Elementary School, where she befriended the late Regina Goo. Although Chun Oakland did not know it at the time, Goo was Deaf and often struggled to understand what was being said.
“I remember noticing that sometimes Regina wouldn’t understand things being said,” Chun Oakland recalled. “I always did what I could to help her have access – she was a dear friend to me.”
The split-second willingness to go out of her way to help others embodies the type of person Suzanne Chun Oakland is.
In her years at the Hawaii State Capitol, Chun Oakland developed a reputation based on her staunch advocacy of Hawaii’s underserved and marginalized populations. Starting with the Keiki Caucus, which she co-founded in 1991 alongside former State Rep. Dennis Arakaki, Chun Oakland went on to either chair or serve as a member of over one hundred caucuses, task forces, working groups, advisory committees, and boards. One in particular – the Deaf and Blind Task Force (DBTF) – carries great significance to many within the Deaf community.
Chun Oakland said she created the DBTF because she noticed both the Deaf and the Blind communities were advocating for issues that overlapped. She also noted that neither community was working directly together, and that those with vision loss were making more headway in terms of access and programming.
“It was an opportunity for both communities to work together and organize at the legislative level,” Chun Oakland explained. “For eleven consecutive years there has been legislation from [the DBTF], and that’s something I’m very proud of.”
The Senator lists the Comprehensive Service Center (CSC) for Persons who are Deaf, Hard-of-Hearing, and Deafblind, and the Language Equality and Acquisition for Deaf-Kids (LEAD-K) bill among the DBTF accomplishments she is most proud of. Not all of the DBTF’s goals have been accomplished, however. Chun Oakland wishes more was done in terms of legislation involving improved insurance coverage for hearing aids.
Chun Oakland also wants to see more members of the Deaf community in positions of leadership, something she believes will better enable the community to organize. Above all, she urges the community to continue its “never give up” attitude in pursuit of a more inclusive world for people who are Deaf.
Chun Okaland’s last day in office will be Election Day — November 8, 2016. Despite deciding not to seek re-election, she would not rule out an eventual return to public office.
“Once you get into politics, you never get out,” Chun Oakland said with a smile. “That’s why my mother didn’t want me to run for office to begin with.”
In the meantime, Chun Oakland sees herself continuing to champion the community by being involved in various projects. “After all, we cannot lean on government for each challenge we face,” she said.
Her ideas include establishing a community endowment fund using the model of Hawaiian Legacy Hardwoods, where native trees are planted for children as long-term investments.
Chun Oakland also plans to spend time on community capacity building efforts through social entrepreneurship. She recently visited Malaysia, where she had the opportunity to meet one hundred social entrepreneurs.
“I saw some very special projects involving social entrepreneurs with disabilities,” Chun Oakland said. “We would love to see more of the same types of projects for communities in Hawaii, including for persons who are Deaf and hard of hearing.”
When asked whether there’s anything she would like to say to the Deaf community, Chun Oakland paused, and then was overcome with emotion.
“The Deaf community is a part of my family,” Chun Oakland said. “I’ve grown so much by being involved.”
Despite no longer donning the role of legislator, Hawaii’s Deaf community can expect one constant to remain when it comes to Suzanne Chun Oakland: She’s our Champion.