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New East-West Center president brings Hawaiian values to complex Asia-Pacific challenges

east west center uh manoa
Sophia McCullough
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Hawaii Public Radio

For over 60 years, the nonprofit East-West Center has followed its mission of promoting understanding between peoples of the United States, Asia and the Pacific.

With the start of 2022, the center welcomed Suzanne Vares-Lum as its new president. The first woman and Native Hawaiian to hold the position, she grew up in Hawaiʻi, graduating from ʻAiea High School and the University of Hawaiʻi.

EWC Suzanne Vares-Lum
East-West Center
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East-West Center President Suzanne Vares-Lum

She reached the rank of major general in the U.S. Army, and spent time traveling throughout the Asia-Pacific region, gaining an understanding of key players and issues. During her 34-year military career, she advised senior officials at the U.S. Indo-Pacific Command, which oversees military operations throughout the region.

She just took over from now-former East-West Center President Richard Vuylsteke. HPR’s Scott Kim spoke with Vares-Lum about her plans for her tenure.

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SCOTT KIM: First of all, what made you decide to seek the position of president of the East-West Center?

SUZANNE VARES-LUM: Being from Hawaiʻi, born and raised here, and my ancestors coming from this region, for me, it was a perfect fit in terms of growing up understanding of this place, understanding how important Hawaiʻi is in the role of building bridges throughout this region. Also, having served the last five and a half years at Indo-Pacific Command and working with allies, partners throughout the region, on key critical issues that affect all of us in the region, I felt this is an area where I'm passionate about and I'm very excited about it. So I'm really honored to have this opportunity. And that's why I put my name in the hat. This being my home, this region, my home, I think it's a good fit for me.

This has become such a hot spot for major political issues — conflict over the South China Sea, climate change that threatens low-lying island nations. What role do you feel the East-West Center can play in addressing these issues and others facing the region?

The East-West Center is a perfect place and not only because of where it's located, but Hawaiʻi offers a lot of culture and values and approaches that we can use to solve some very complex regional challenges that you mentioned in terms of rising sea level, illegal unregulated fishing, issues of government, health care, especially now with COVID-19, and education and economic diversity — all these issues that we all face together. I think our approach, Hawaiʻi definitely provides that connection.

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Philippine Coast Guard via AP
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In this April 27, 2021, photo provided by the Philippine Coast Guard, its personnel patrol beside ships said to be Chinese militia vessels at Sabina Shoal in the South China Sea.

Do you believe the East-West Center has lived up to its vision and guiding principles to date? Are there areas that you feel need to be improved?

I'm looking forward to building on the already great leaders who are there, I thank Dr. Richard Vuylsteke for bringing it to the point that it is — and we can always build upon it. I'm looking forward to integrating Hawaiian values, some of our approaches, into the way in which we connect people and bring people together. I'm also looking at different ways that we can engage with other new strategic partners throughout the region.

You are the first Native Hawaiian to hold this position. What do you mean by wanting to make Native Hawaiian culture a part of the East-West Center?

I think in Hawaiʻi there is a unique mix that happens here. You know, my own personal background being Native Hawaiian, Chinese, Portuguese, Japanese, Tahitian, English, and having all of the different ethnic mixes of friends and family, we have shown that in Hawaiʻi we can live harmoniously together — and that having the spirit of aloha, compassionate care and concern for one another, to engage in a manner that's pono, or good and balanced, to bring all of our hands together, laulima. And I'm not saying that these values are unique only to Hawaiʻi. But I think that we bring a unique connection. We mirror those ideas or values that really transcend culture. But this unique place and space and the way that we approach very difficult issues — I think that's where I mean bringing in those types of values and approaches in the way that we discuss difficult issues.

Not only is that part of our culture, but we're literally in the middle of East and West. So we're on a metaphorical bridge as well. Is that how you see the East-West Center?

Absolutely. I see it as a definite metaphorical bridge, to building multicultural community with common values that we all want to prosper, to have peace. Through those things that we all value, that's education, research, transparency, building up our youth, next generation of leaders. And what's really exciting is that we do have over 70,000 alumni from dozens of countries across the region, who already have benefited from the East-West Center program since 1960. So I'm excited about bringing into this picture the alumni, bringing youth leaders, so not only just having high-level dialogue, but bringing in the new ideas, and new approaches of youth throughout the region and bringing them together — that the East-West Center can be that safe, neutral space to talk about these difficult issues, but also develop actionable research and ways forward to attack or address some of these issues.

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Jason Oxenham/Pool Photo via AP
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National flags for the Pacific Islands Forum on display on the tiny Pacific nation of Nauru on Sept. 3, 2018. (Jason Oxenham/Pool Photo via AP)

If you could pick just three topics that are at the top of your priority list, what would they be?

I think right now we are facing COVID-19. That is right now. And yet, everyone has addressed this problem differently, has made various efforts to share lessons learned and ways that we can approach it. But you know, in the Pacific island nations where it's the largest body of water, the most isolated with thousands of islands and atolls, you know, it has hit them hard in terms of not only health care wise, but in terms of their economies as a result of being isolated. So I think that's one of the areas that I know is at the forefront of everyone's mind is health care. And this pandemic that has affected the economy. And the other one, of course, is rising sea level within the Pacific island nations and around the globe — and how its impact will be towards resources like water, or food security, and how it impacts migration, that can affect an impact crisis and conflict. With more natural disasters that occur in this region than any other place in the world, this is a key issue to discuss, and how we could mitigate its impact with all the great ideas that are out there and how could we share that, what are things that we could do together? Doing this in isolation is never a good idea. So coming together at a place that's safe, where we can share and we can connect, to come up with actionable solutions is really ideal.

When people look back on your tenure years from now, what would you ideally like your legacy to be? What would you want people to say about your tenure?

I would like people to think of the East-West Center as a state-of-the-art, world-class center for inclusive Asia-Pacific engagement that advances just, peaceful, prosperous communities on the principles of common humanity, respect and interconnectivity — a place that's neutral, unbiased, where we can advance our community prosperity together.

A shorter version of this interview aired on HPR-1 on Jan. 7, 2022.

Scott Kim is a news editor at Hawaiʻi Public Radio. Contact him at skim@hawaiipublicradio.org.
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