Benetick Maddison is the Executive Director of Marshallese Educational Initiative (MEI), which works to promote the cultural, intellectual, and historical awareness of the Marshallese people and facilitate intercultural dialogue to foster positive social change. This is part of a series of interviews in which you can get to know the grants given under the 2022 Equity Rises Request for Proposals and the people behind all the work.
Question 1: Tell us about your work! What kind of goals do you have? What are you excited about?
I have been working with the Marshallese Educational Initiative since 2014 and was recently promoted as Executive Director of the organization. Some of my goals are to educate as many people as possible about the ongoing consequences of nuclear weapons testing on the Marshallese people and to push for more educational and cultural programs to help my community increase their educational attainment levels. I also want all Marshallese youth living in the United States to be fluent in our language and to know our traditional culture and history. I am excited to have the opportunity to participate in national and international events, especially at the United Nations, and to work more closely with officials. But, I am also excited to help lead programming that will serve my community here in Arkansas and the greater region.
Question 2: How do you measure progress?
I measure progress by making a difference on a day-by-day basis. The work I do to raise awareness of our nuclear testing legacy and climate change is challenging, especially in our organization’s politically conservative area of the United States, where the majority is very much pro-military and climate and nuclear indifferent. But, we have made a difference. I am bolstered by our youth and how they want to learn their culture and be more active in their community and become advocates. I am also honored to have been invited to participate in national and international conferences where a Marshallese voice can be heard.
Question 3: Who or what inspired you to pursue this line of work?
The community is my motivator. The Marshallese community is a close-knit culture that embraces the values of love, respect, kindness, and togetherness. These cultural values have shaped the person I am today, and I enjoy serving my people, speaking up for them, and doing whatever I can to help.
Question 4: What’s one thing about the nuclear legacy of the Marshall Islands that you wish people knew or would talk about more often?
It is difficult to narrow it down to one thing that I wish people knew about the nuclear legacy. I suppose the most important thing to know is that its consequences are ongoing. It is not a static historical event that simply ended in 1958 when the last tests were conducted in the Marshall Islands. It is one thing for people to know the facts about the testing, but it is even important that non-Marshallese people develop empathy for the Marshallese people and understand what they continue to experience as a result of the legacy. Only then will they be motivated to push their government officials to recognize the legacy and mainstream nuclear history as US history, and know not only what happened to my community, but to all indigenous communities, atomic veterans, and downwinders. There is so much that remains classified that should be made available. Everyone needs to know that it’s not just about the use of nuclear weapons during wartime, it’s also about the production and testing that continues to have a lasting impact, especially on marginalized people.
Question 5: What's the most interesting or memorable project you've gotten involved with in your career?
There are quite a few, but one of the most memorable is my work with the Marshallese Youth Academy. This is a program that teaches Marshallese high schoolers and college students about Marshallese culture, history, and language since these are not taught in US classrooms. It is vital that Marshallese youth know their history and culture and become advocates for nuclear and environmental justice. This is why I am so excited about our Equity Rises project, because we will be able to reach more youth.
Question 6: How can someone best support your work?
We are so grateful to Ploughshares for supporting us with the Equity Rises grant. This is the first grant our organization has received to raise awareness about our nuclear legacy and to lift Marshallese and Pacific youth voices. As a nonprofit, you always can always utilize more funding, and for our organization, being at the crossroads of the South and Midwest is a tough place to be to gain supporters for our work in this area. That said, it would be beneficial for us to have supporters and organizations amplify our voices by interviews such as this and center not only Marshallese, but other indigenous and youth voices in their own advocacy efforts.
Question 7: How has COVID impacted the work that you do?
Our Marshallese and other NHPI communities were one, if not the hardest hit ethnic group in the United States. When the pandemic hit, we had to pivot away from our educational and advocacy work to solely respond to the pandemic. We delivered healthy foods to community members in quarantine, helped with housing, utility, and funeral expenses, and continue to raise awareness about the importance of vaccination and to advocate for health equity. Because the Marshallese community was disproportionately affected by the pandemic, it brought to the forefront so many inequities that my community and other PI and Indigenous communities face. We were aware of these, but now other communities are more informed. Still, more work needs to be done to ensure that people understand why our community was so affected by the pandemic. We want the conversation about health equity to continue, but we want people to understand that nuclear and environmental justice are also vital because these issues are all interlinked.