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Obama's Sister Has Big Ideas for Education Reform

Like her brother, President Obama, Soetoro-Ng wants to revamp school systems and broaden test-focused curriculums

The following article first appeared in the Nation Magazine.  For more great content from the Nation, sign up for their email newsletters here.

Maya Soetoro-Ng pulls up to the pastel-painted Children’s Discovery Center, a science and culture space one block off the ocean in downtown Honolulu. The bumper on her beat-up red Mazda hatchback is festooned with political slogans, including a frayed Women for Obama sticker; the back seat is occupied by Maya’s two young daughters. The younger is Savita, a feisty 2-year-old. The older is Suhaila, 6 and tall for her age; she’s wearing a Girl Scout uniform, with a rainbow-colored peace symbol ironed onto the blue vest. The 40-year-old Maya is wearing jeans and an untucked blue shirt; her long black hair hangs loose. She looks every bit the earth mother.

Maya and the girls go into the center and head off to a side area on the ground floor, under banners adorned with the words Explore! Discover! Imagine! Dream! , to a recently opened exhibit on refugee children around the world. Maya, who has sat on the community advisory council of the center for the past few years, and her colleagues worked hard to put this exhibit and its accompanying workshops together, and they hope the hands-on activities will inspire a sense of empathy in the young visitors. Kids can build makeshift hovels with wood and canvas; they can pretend to cook over an unlit fireplace; they can even play with toys that refugee children have built out of scraps of paper, plastic bottles and twigs. The girls chant an adapted version of the Scouts’ pledge in which the line about “following authority” has been replaced by one about “seeking truth and justice.”

Today one of the other mothers, whose parents fled from Pol Pot’s Cambodia, is going to talk for a few minutes. But first Maya introduces the notions of courage and bravery. She asks the girls what images come to mind when they think of these things. “Fighting a dragon,” one answers. Maya laughs and effortlessly segues into a conversation about war, droughts, exile.

After the Cambodian mother’s presentation, the group goes over to a world map showing refugee hot spots. Maya talks about the Middle East, Afghanistan, Iraq; she veers into a wide-ranging conversation about colonialism that touches on resource wars, battles for imperial dominance and the 500-year-old Treaty of Tordesillas, which divided the New World between the Spaniards and the Portuguese.

It’s a startlingly ambitious discussion to have with 6-year-olds. But Maya gets away with it by continually drawing in her little charges with questions. She speaks about complex topics, but she doesn’t talk down to the girls. Instead, she takes them along with her, seeing how far they’ll go, probing to get them to ask—and answer—increasingly tough questions. She is, it soon becomes apparent, a natural educator. Her voice would be identifiable in any crowd; it is gentle yet powerful, very husky. Friends and colleagues routinely mention it as one of her signature traits.

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To the wider world, Maya Soetoro-Ng is better known as President Barack Obama’s sister. A modest, private person, she has been thrust into the spotlight by the whirlwind of events that put her older brother in the White House. And though she did not seek out fame, she is making use of it to promote her educational values. These days, Maya explains, “I have more of an opportunity to use my voice.”

Like her brother, Maya has a strong sense of timing and a powerful ability to blend her personal story into a larger narrative in a way that inspires audiences to get involved. Despite her initial reticence, she is seizing the podium in hopes that others will share her aspirations for revamping school systems and broadening test-oriented curriculums.

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