For our third spotlight highlighting people in the nuclear disarmament sphere, we are excited to feature Benetick Kabua Maddison, Executive Director of the Marshallese Educational Initiative, as well as an adviser to our youth initiative, Reverse the Trend. Through educational programming, MEI promotes the cultural, intellectual, and historical awareness of the Marshallese people and facilitates intercultural dialogue to foster positive social change (MEI ).
The interview was conducted March 6th, 2023, over Zoom.
Jefferson Sheng/NAPF: Tell us a bit about your childhood and high school years. What interested you back then?
Benetick Kabua Maddison: I was born in the Marshall Islands, and I moved here to the United States in 2001 with both of my parents and my siblings. I have lived in the U.S for 22 years now. Unfortunately, I have not gone back to the Marshall Islands since. Growing up in the Marshall, Islands, I remember a few things. Going to the ocean to fish with my grandfather on the weekends. I also remember doing a lot of stargazing outside, given that the Marshall Islands is a developing country, and so, we don’t have as much light pollution as we have here in the United States. Those are just some vivid memories that I have of growing up in the Marshall Islands.
Coming to the U.S. was a cultural shock. Coming to a new country, seeing big buildings, seeing so many people from different backgrounds speaking different languages, and experiencing different cultures. And so, growing up here in the U.S, earlier on, I want to say, I had this identity crisis that a lot of Marshallese youth tend to experience, because we are often wondering, you know, do I consider myself Marshallese? Or do I consider myself American, because we live here in the U.S. now? And so, I was really not well-versed in my identity, especially things like the nuclear legacy, for example; or, the Compact of Free Association, which is that agreement between the Marshall Islands and the United States, which allows Marshallese to migrate to the U.S. for employment, education, health, and other things that attract Marshallese to the U.S.
JS: Being aware of your background, going from high school to college, and now studying political science at Arkansas State, do you think your background had an impact on what you’re pursuing in college?
BKM: Yeah. You know, I’ve always wanted to go to college ever since I was young. I want to say, even back in elementary school, when I said to myself that I would like to one day enter the Marshallese political arena—becoming a lawmaker and hopefully get to run for the top position. Yeah, right now, I’m studying political science at Arkansas State University, working on my BA (Bachelor of Arts). It’s not just the desire to help my people, but it is also my background. I have family members that serve in the Marshallese government. My grandfather, who is now retired, used to serve as the Marshall Islands Ambassador to Japan and to Taiwan. And before that, he was the Chief Secretary of the Marshall Islands. I don’t know what the equivalent of that position is in the U.S, but it is a top position within the Marshallese cabinet. Also coming from a chiefly background, all of that, has motivated me to take this path of pursuing my political science degree. And of course, to give back to my community and be a voice, especially on these issues that, I think, is important for others to know.
JS: Something you alluded to, about growing up in the Marshall Islands, you said that you weren’t as conscious of the nuclear weapon issues then compared to when you came to the U.S. How did you become interested in nuclear weapon issues?
BKM: Well, I was 6 years old when I moved from the Marshall Islands to the U.S. Of course, as a kid, I didn’t know about the nuclear legacy. And it wasn’t until high school, my senior year, that I joined the Marshallese Education Initiative. That’s when I became more well-versed in the nuclear history and all of these systemic issues that are tied to health, the issue of migration, the issues of labor, that we are also seeing here in Arkansas. The reason why these issues all tie back to the nuclear legacy is because Marshallese are here in the U.S because of the nuclear testing program. It’s how our Compact of Free Association came about. And so, since 2014, I’ve been raising awareness, and I continue to learn about the legacy myself. It is a legacy that is filled with lies and secrecy. There is a lot of digging and I try to get out (what is hidden). We are digging for the truth, because for a very long time, we’ve been embracing the American narrative instead of actually saying, no, this is actually what happened based on the (now de-classified) documents that were released in the 90s, under the Clinton administration. Before that, the United States had said that only four atolls, or four locations on the Marshall Islands were impacted by radiation fallout. But documents released in the 90s show that the entire country was actually exposed to radiation.
In fact, April Brown, MEI’s Chief Operating Officer and I went to Washington DC, to the RMI embassy because the U.S had given them big filing boxes, maybe 20 or so, that had all these de-classified documents inside: However, one, they were not in order, and two, a lot of them were redacted, meaning, blacked out. So, you know, I think, for the next Compact, we deserve a compact that is based on trust, accountability, and transparency. In other words, there is no closure without full disclosure.
JS: Since becoming the Executive Director if MEI last August, what have you been working and can you share with us any highlights in your collaboration with RTT so far?
BKM: Honestly, ever since becoming the Executive Director, I’ve been doing a lot more raising of awareness. I was invited to the United Nations a couple of times to speak on issues of nuclear weapons and climate. And then of course, I was able to attend a Human Rights Council session back in October, where the Marshall Islands Mission in Geneva invited me to help them push for a resolution that was focused on technical support and capacity building so that the HRC could assess the nuclear legacy in the Marshall Islands from a human rights perspective. This year, they will be doing those assessments, and next year, they will be sharing their findings with the HRC.
Aside from attending these international meetings, we’ve also been hosting workshops with Marshallese youth, to talk about these issues that impact our country and our people, issues that are not talked about in their classes, and not mentioned in their history books. So, we are still doing a lot of raising awareness because it is important for the young generation to know, moving forward.
People often think that we just focus on nuclear issues, but we tell them that we do much more. We actually also help the community with rental assistance, utilities, their Medicaid applications. So, it’s not just nuclear issues, it’s a lot of other things that we help the community with. Because again, all these issues are interlinked, and are often tied back to the nuclear legacy.
JS: To that end, after becoming the Executive Director, among all the facet of things MEI is doing, is teaching what you are still most passionate about? Or is it going to conferences, shedding light on issues that are urgent right now.
BKM: I want to say both, because you want to make sure the Marshallese community, especially young people, is aware of their history and issues that are impacting the community. But on the other hand, you want non-Marshallese to know the same things. And so, it goes hand in hand. The other thing is, you know, we emphasize the importance of education in the community. We don’t want people to just view the Marshallese as victims. We want to be viewed as activists, people who are actually doing things to not only make a difference, but also make life better for ourselves, our families, and our communities. And so, I would say that I am very passionate about both.
JS: Is there anything else that you would like to add that we haven’t touched upon?
BKM: I think one other thing that we are really pushing for is to increase the retention rate in schools, especially at the college level. One day, we would like to see Marshallese scientists, and other experts conducting these studies so that we’re well aware of what is happening to us, well aware of the on-going impact that nuclear testing has on our community. But also, to, lift our families out of poverty. I think it was not the recent census, but the previous census that showed that 70% of the Marshallese here in Arkansas were living below the poverty line. And so, this is why we are pushing for people to graduate high school, and to go off to college or a trade school.