A Proud Defiance Of Stereotyping

Stephen Mabir

Stephen Mabir. Photo courtesy Hawaii Foodbank

Last week I talked about damaging stereotypes, using specific examples of NBA sensation Jeremy Lin and the “DebbieSpendItNow” political ad that’s been denounced by so many. The focus was on the challenges we of Asian descent have to make ourselves heard and to make it clear that we find such bigotry unacceptable.

The lessons apply to all who find themselves judged as a race or a group. We have no shortage of stereotyping here in Hawaii.

This week I’d like to introduce you to a young local man, Stephen Mabir. Stephen is 25 and a high school dropout. He’s of Samoan descent. He and his single mother Terisa live with his brother and sisters in Palolo Valley Housing. They are Hawaii Foodbank recipients and receive Section 8 housing assistance from the state.

It would be so easy to apply a stereotype or two to them, wouldn’t it?

Please don’t.

Stephen, you see, has pride, ambition and an unshakable desire to help his community. He is willing to work hard to pull himself and his family up, and he sees it as his responsibility to help others do the same.

Stephen earned his GED and has entered the Pacific Studies program at Kapiolani Community College. He knows education will be his ticket to a better life. He’s not an academic, but he’s a good learner. He’s articulate and passionate about what he wants for himself, his family and for all the kids growing up in “at risk” circumstances. The key, he believes, is to work within these communities to instill pride, hope, vision and a sense of responsibility.

One small example of that is the way he works with the Hawaii Foodbank in managing food distribution.

“Sometimes we take things for granted. Foodbank is not a granted. This is not something that you just get. It takes a lot of volunteers working with Foodbank, working with our resident services. And so I try to remind people that you also need to give. Serve. Volunteer. Clean up.”

His efforts are paying off. “Everyone has been able to step up a little more,” he says.

Stephen chose Pacific Studies because “I feel as if we’ve lost our focus sometimes in Hawaii.”

He’s talking about Hawaiians, Samoans, Tongans, Micronesians and all other groups that he says need to find a cohesive voice and power.

“The Pacific is what unites us,” he says. “It shouldn’t separate us.”

His message to all of us today? The safety net that we all contribute to is working to propel him toward his goals.

“We’ve had family setbacks, but I’ve been given opportunities to gain skills. I’ve had mentors, stipends and part-time work. We have a lot of things available to us. There’s no excuse for not making it.”

It’s been tough, though. Stephen’s mom moved them to Palolo in 1996 when Stephen was in the fourth grade. Terisa, a single parent, was working full time while at the same time studying for her citizenship. Sometimes, Stephen says, “We’d do all the basics, take care of our rent, but many times in between we didn’t have enough for food.”

Stephen says a turning point for him was when his grandmother died.

“Seeing that she was a woman who was not in debt to anyone, she was able to survive in this world without depending on anyone, I thought, if she can do that, why can’t we?”

Make no mistake, Stephen is grateful for what they’ve received, but he’s determined to get his mother and siblings out of the system for good. They’ve almost succeeded a couple of times.

“We’ve been able to get off of food stamps and welfare over the years, but recently because of setbacks we got back on. So just to get off, to me, it shows that we’re doing our part. I don’t want to be pointed to as one of those people who receives this and doesn’t do anything. And really, we haven’t, but it’s heavy on my mind.”

Stephen had to take this semester off from school because of family responsibilities, but he plans to go back as soon as he can. Moving forward, he says, is the only way up and out.

“If you linger in that space of blaming and finger-pointing, nothing gets done,” he says. “There’s no excuses, really.”

As for those stereotypes that have been flung at him occasionally, Stephen refuses to let that bring him down.

“For the most part it motivates me,” he says. “Getting over and getting past it is just something you need to do.”

Stephen would be first to tell you: Don’t put me in a box. Don’t write off my family. We believe in the American dream, just like you.