Monday, March 2, 2009

True Hero Ah Quon

Ted Trimmer photo: Surfer's view. Click to enlarge

March 1, 2009

Honolulu Advertiser

McElrath's legacy lives on; Social activist's friends and family celebrate her long life, many accomplishments

By Michael Tsai, Advertiser Staff Writer

More than 400 family, friends, colleagues and admirers turned out yesterday to celebrate the life of Ah Quon McElrath, the social activist and former ILWU social worker whose lifelong crusade for social justice helped shape Hawai'i's social, political and economic landscape.
McElrath died Dec. 11. She was 92.

The crowd included representation from the various communities touched by McElrath's work, including union leaders, longshoremen, educators, artists, hospital administrators, social workers and students.
The gathering at the ILWU headquarters on Atkinson Drive followed a simple and appropriate dictate — "Don't mourn, organize" — and speakers shared both personal remembrances and urgent calls to take up McElrath's work.
"Her love for people informed her politics," said close friend Claire Shimabukuro, executive director for Meals on Wheels, "and her politics informed her love of people."

In a nod to McElrath's love of music, the celebration also included several musical performances, none more stirring than the one by McElrath's 91-year-old "kid brother" Ah Nee Leong, who sang an a cappella rendition of "The Impossible Dream," its message of unabashed idealism and fortitude drawing appreciative nods from the crowd.
"I think she would have been secretly happy to hear all these people say how wonderful she was," said Gail Long, McElrath's eldest daughter.

McElrath was the second-youngest of seven children born ( in 1915, Cloudia) to Chinese immigrants. Her father died when she was 5, and McElrath and her siblings supplemented the meager family income by picking kiawe beans and bone to sell to fertilizer companies.

McElrath's drive to educate herself and her strident commitment to social justice were formulated early — often during
pivotal moments in contemporary Hawaiian history.
As Shimabukuro recounted, McElrath became interested in Shakespeare because of a fellow McKinley student, Myles Fukunaga, whose execution for the kidnap and murder of the son of a Hawaiian Trust Co. executive remains one of the most controversial decisions in local memory.
Later, as McElrath once told The Advertiser, she would read accounts of the Massie affair, an even more sensational case involving the murder of a local rape suspect that drew sharp divisions between locals, the military and Mainlanders, to her plantation neighbors under lamplight, seething at what she saw as unequal applications of justice.

McElrath's evolving political views were sharpened by her association with union leader Jack Hall and ILWU information director Bob McElrath, whom she married in 1941.
Ah Quon McElrath began her career as a social worker, and organized an industrial association that won raises for professional and clerical work. With her husband, she later helped to establish the ILWU in Hawai'i, uniting sugar and dock workers of different ethnicities in an effort to leverage higher wages and better working conditions.

Focused on justice
McElrath's socialist beliefs and willingness to challenge the local power structure made her and her associates easy targets in the post-World War II anti-communist hysteria, but McElrath could not be swayed from her convictions, said Leong, her brother.
"She went through a period where there was a lot of animosity, but she withstood all of it," he said.

McElrath's pursuit of social justice would lead her to champion a variety of causes over the next half-century, from racial equality (she left a graduate program at the University of Michigan to join the civil rights movement in the South), to physician-assisted suicide, to universal healthcare.

As yesterday's speakers emphasized, McElrath's influence was equally widespread.

She helped pave the way for health maintenance organizations like Kaiser Permanente to enter the local market, lobbied in support of the landmark Pre-Paid Health Care Act of 1974, and fought for dental benefits for children of longshore workers, leading to the establishment of the Hawai'i Dental Service.

McElrath also served eight years as a University of Hawai'i regent, earning a reputation as a strong advocate for faculty and students.
Kaiser Permanente President Janet Leong recalled meeting the fiery McElrath shortly after she arrived in Hawai'i.
"It probably took her two minutes to take me down," she said, laughing. "I felt like a 6-year-old with my Chinese grandma lecturing my on how to be an honorable person."
Janet Leong said she quickly came to appreciate McElrath as "a pioneer, visionary, truth-teller and friend."

Retired ILWU President Eddie Lapa recalled McElrath as a deceptively good athlete — they swam together three times a week — and a fearless leader who once got a disgruntled plantation worker wielding a machete to "be cool" and go back to work.
"AQ is my idol," he said.

'most radical person'

The Rev. Cloudia Charters was working to educate at-risk communities about HIV infection when she and McElrath first met.
"(McElrath) understood stigma and exclusion," Charters said. "When she spoke up or spoke out, it was not about her own anger or her own issues, she was speaking for a deep place that was very pono. And she was always the most radical person in the room."

Like many of yesterday's speakers, fellow activist Jory Watland encouraged those in the crowd to work together to fill the void left by McElrath, and to help make her goal of universal healthcare in Hawai'i — a cause she continued to advocate in her final days — a reality.
Watland worked closely with McElrath in many social justice initiatives over the past four decades, as founding members of Health Care for All Hawai'i, a grassroots organization that supports universal healthcare.
Yesterday, Watland urged audience members to lend their support to Senate Bill 424, which would ensure healthcare for all Hawai'i residents. The bill is scheduled for public hearing on Wednesday.
"She was one of the brightest, most committed, most focused people I've ever known," Watland said. "She never talked about 'I.' I don't think she even knew there was a first pronoun of 'I.' It was always what 'we' were going to do."

The formal program ended, appropriately enough, with a video of McElrath herself, taken at a Hawai'i Peoples Fund dinner a month before her death. In it, she calls for the assembled crowd to reach out to one other person and recruit them to work for social justice.

"In order that we celebrate all of our lives, next year, the following year, the years after that, we must work together," McElrath said on the video, her voice still clear and forceful. "Divided, we will fall. United, we can move ahead."