When Patrick Woo-Ching founded Voices of Pacific Island Nations in 2015, he did so by asking himself the question, “If not me, who else?” What Patrick felt he had an obligation to address was the lack of academic achievement among Pacific Islander students in public schools here in Washington state. Patrick says he became aware of a significant achievement gap back in the 90’s when he was doing research as an undergrad at the University of Washington. Years later, when he decided to go back to school to get his master’s in public administration, he revisited the issue and found that the achievement gap still existed – the student population grew, but progress had flatlined or in some cases worsened. When digging into Washington Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction (OSPI) data, he found huge disparities in performance, attendance, and disciplinary rates among Pacific Islander students. This alarming data motivated him to establish VOPIN to provide high-quality and culturally responsive educational services and resources. His goal was to achieve educational equity, close the academic and opportunity gaps, and serve as a bridge to develop stronger relationships between schools, students, their parents, and all stakeholders.
In addressing the educational crisis in the Pacific Islander community, culture and arts would be front and center. VOPIN says that islanders are, “…most proud of their identity expressed through their culture and arts. Through the centuries, their learning style has been hands-on, learning by doing. Our values define the way we act, individually and collectively. They guide our work and the way we work. Values shape our culture and reflect what’s important to us. Our faith, values, culture and arts have and will remain the fabric of our society.” It’s these values and a strong cultural connection that led to the start of an annual celebration of Pacific Islander arts and culture. In 2019, VOPIN held their inaugural celebration, highlighting the history the Samoan Ava ceremony with the participation of middle and high school students. Patrick says this event was an opportunity for the students to learn the history of the ceremony, dress in traditional costumes, and participate in that hands-on learning style that is so important to the Pacific Islander community. The event was a resounding success with the community looking forward to the 2020 celebration that would center the Hawaiian Islands and the history of the Hula. Then, COVID hit. The pandemic derailed the celebration, left the organization with a lack resources and funding, exposed a digital divide that made it difficult to implement virtual programming, and brought to light the socio-economic issues that exist in the Pacific Islander community – socio-economic issues that Patrick says manifest in low academic achievement for their students.
While navigating the financial challenges of COVID, Patrick was thrilled to learn that VOPIN was awarded CARES Act dollars through the Washington State Arts Commission (ArtsWA), in partnership with Washington Department of Commerce and with the support of the governor’s Office of Financial Management. This grant was especially helpful because as Patrick says, “We didn’t have any money…it really helps us to be able to provide services and activities for our students to keep them engaged.” Patrick says grant application processes can be difficult, but the application for the grants through ArtsWA was “right-on.” He credits ArtsWA for streamlining the application process, asking good questions that focused on the work of the organizations, and using accessible language that they could understand. With the help of CARES Act dollars, Patrick looks forward to adding to his staff so that VOPIN can adequately serve Pacific Islander youth in Kitsap County and beyond. Now that Washington state is reopening, he also looks forward to rescheduling the annual cultural celebration.