Hawaiʻi’s “Brain Drain”

In Maori culture, there is a term “ahi ka.” It denotes those who literally keep the home fires burning. Like Maori, Hawaiians have many opportunities to develop educationally and professionally, potentially helping the Hawaiian community, by going “abroad,” and thus not keeping the home fires burning. At Kamehameha, there’s a strong (though not always strongly stated) pressure for students to leave Hawaiʻi for college. When they stay on the “mainland,” having seen opportunities and begun building communities and networks, it is then considered a tragedy – a brain drain. Nolan Malone wrote what is certainly the definitive article on the topic: “MODERN HAWAIIAN MIGRATION: BRAIN DRAIN OR BRAIN GAIN?” in Hulili Journal, in which he finds “an educational brain drain and a home ownership brain gain. No significant effects exist for incomes. These ambiguous findings suggest that Hawaiian migration may be a dynamic part of broader life-course trajectories.”

And ambiguous is precisely what this trend is. The dichotomy between “on island” and “off island” Hawaiians suggests a sharp divide that may or may not exist. Kehaulani Kauanui has commented at length on this. I myself am a case in point: I was raised here, but not born. I spent 17 years off island, but those years certainly helped me get my position as Hawaiian history teacher at Kamehameha. And this is not an anomaly. Many Hawaiians return with experience it would be impossible to attain in Hawaiʻi after decades abroad. Maenette Benham, Dean of the Hawaiʻinuiakea School of Hawaiian Knowledge at UH Manoa, after brief teaching stint at Kamehameha, spent the bulk of her career at Michigan State.

On the other hand, it is very difficult to remain culturally connected while away (it’s difficult enough remaining culturally connected while here!) The documentary American Aloha, on mainland halau hula, addresses, and somewhat contests this idea (although some would interpret it as actually supporting it). The value of being an ahi ka, so to speak, is not always visible on a resume, but sometimes it is. There is a value in being here. Engagement on the grassroots level, where we’re told all struggles happen, is only possible for ahi ka. This fact is sometimes overridden in hiring by a tendency to think that people you donʻt know, who are from somewhere else (especially the “metropole”), must be of a higher caliber.

This dichotomy could become much more than just academic for Hawaiians when and if the Akaka Bill, or some version of it, continues to be viable (and signs are that it may). This is because part of the Federal equation for membership in tribal nations includes residence on the reservation and/or a cultural connection to the “tribe.” This puts Hawaiians in an untenable predicament: either build a career or be “Hawaiian” (Federally defined). For reference, I’m of the camp that doubts the validity of the Akaka Bill, which is not precisely the same as being opposed to it – more on that in a future post. On the ground it means Hawaiians could be doubly caught in the brain drain rift.

A fellow parent at my daughterʻs preschool once said something very insightful on the topic of the brain drain. He said that we never mourn the loss of our top athletes to higher levels such as pro sports as a sort of “brawn drain” – we recognize that in order to excel at certain careers, one must go to certain places. In this light, the “brain drain” idea seems flawed, with its assumption that because most careers exist here, so do most career opportunities.

We should stop judging the choices people make about how to spend their lives, especially in cases like this, in which the benefits and costs are so mixed.


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