By Judith T. Won Pat
The following is the text of a speech made by the Speaker of the Guam Legislature during the women’s conference held recently on Tinian.
OFTENTIMES people think that politics is a man’s world. But in our islands, and in our Chamorro culture, our women have always been at the center of power. According to several accounts, in ancient times no decision was made final without the approval of a woman. No battle was waged, no journey embarked on without a woman’s support. When our men would come back from fishing, the best of their catch was offered to the highest ranking woman. Thus, it is no surprise that so many of our women assume high political positions in our island governments. Today, I want to talk with you about what drives us as Chamorro women leaders, and I want to share what motivates the decisions I make as the Speaker of the Guam Legislature.
Chamorro women have always been credited for keeping our culture and language alive. We have a great sense of responsibility and we are entrusted with upholding the values of our people, ensuring that all members of our community are provided for, and protecting the most vulnerable members of society, especially the very old and the very young. Thus, when we make decisions, we do not make them in haste. We are careful, calculated, and thoughtful. We think like women.
In preparing for this presentation, I realized that all of the words describing my decision-making process begin with the letter L — I look, listen, lend, learn, and love. Let me explain. And I’d like to use an example of an issue I had to decide on that soon your community will be faced with — the military build-up.
I am aware that the Draft Environmental Impact Statement on the military’s plans for training in Tinian and Pagan will be released. On Guam, we have gone through two very major Environmental Impact Statements since 2010 concerning the military build-up, and I learned many lessons about leadership in the process.
Our community has been divided about the build-up. The popular perception has been that the build-up would result in economic growth and jobs, both of which our island needs. However, it would also result in unnatural population growth, which would strain our infrastructure and increase the demand for public services. There are also concerns about the build-up negatively impacting our environment and our culture. One of the most contentious issues has been the need for a place for the Marines’ Live Fire Training Range Complex. The areas that were selected as preferred alternatives — first Pagat and now Litekyan — are important cultural sites with latte villages and ancestral remains. As a leader, I had to decide my position on the build-up and it was not easy.
First I had to look at the situation from all angles and perspectives. I had to read all necessary documents, conduct additional research, compare the situation with similar situations in other places, and look to our history for answers. I wanted to understand as much as I could about what was being planned and how it would impact us. I knew that the plan to move the Marines to Guam was intended to lessen the presence of the Marines in Okinawa, so I went to Okinawa to see their situation for myself. I saw a community that was frustrated. Thousands of Okinawans have been protesting the Marines’ presence in their island, particularly since 1995, when three Marines kidnapped a 12-year-old girl and raped her. I had to ask myself, “is this what I want for my community?”
Then I had to listen. What were the people in my community saying? I had to listen to everyone. I started by listening to the women. I invited a group of women leaders to meet and discuss the buildup, and they had valid concerns about the impacts on children; the amount of money it would cost our government to host so many new people without any commitment from the federal government for funding outside the fence; the impacts on our culture and the possibility that as Chamorro people, we would become a minority in our island; among other concerns. We continued to meet regularly and became active in public meetings about the build-up. Eventually we formed a group called Fuetsan Famalao’an, meaning the Strength of Women.
I started to lend my own thoughts. Then more I got to know, the more I expressed concern. I became vocal about the need to put Guam first. I stressed the importance of protecting our cultural sites. I asked questions. I gave testimonies at the public hearings about the need to resolve our issues with the federal government, like self-determination, war reparations, compact-impact reimbursements, contamination of our lands and water, land-takings and so forth. I was heavily criticized and deemed anti-military, but as a woman, I would not back down. I was armed with knowledge and I had a duty to be a voice for my people and my culture.
I learned and I grew tremendously, and what was most surprising was that the people I learned the most from, were my own children. They were at the forefront of the movement to save the ancient village of Pagat from being used as firing range. My children and the youth of our island inspired and rejuvenated me in moments when I felt helpless. I also realized that although the business people were given a lot of space to express their support of the build-up in local media outlets, they were not actually reading the draft EIS documents. Those who were the most informed in our community were the youth. They took apart that 10,000-plus page document and disseminated the information to the community. They challenged us, as leaders, to do more. And some of us heeded their call, because we were so inspired by their energy. I offered them my office space to have meetings and I did what I could in the Legislature to also spread information. I hosted public briefings in which the government agencies were asked to review the EIS and report to us on how it would impact their operations and the island. As a result of the community efforts combined, more than 10,000 comments were made on the EIS, which the Navy said is unheard of in most EIS commenting periods.
I also learned from my mistakes. Every day I would ask myself, “What could I have done better?” And I used that as my motivation to make better choices the next day. On a deeper level, as islands who share the same culture, I invite you to look at Guam and the path we have taken and ask yourselves, is this what you want for Tinian or Pagan? We have to learn from each other, because no matter what political lines divide us, we are all one family of Chamorro people.
This leads to my final point, which is that I am always driven by a deep sense of love. Everything I do as a leader, I do from a place of love — love for my family, love for my island, love for my ancestors, and love for our future generations. When you are driven by love, no amount of criticism can stop you from your purpose. Nothing will stand in your way.
Here in the CNMI, you have more political power than we do on Guam because you are a commonwealth. If you do not want Pagan to be bombed, for example, you can say no.
Your conference is focused on “making it happen,” which is a very important message for women. We have the power to make things happen, but we have to believe and trust in that power. We have to remember our role as women in our culture and envision the role we want our daughters and their daughters to play in the future. Then we have to make it happen.