Jacqui Hoover knew almost everyone in the restaurant. She glided in wearing a green, navy and white dress with sunglasses, carrying an air of importance. She discreetly pointed to tables around the room, telling me who everyone was and how she knew them. One of her colleagues, a man named Ross, even came over to say hello.
Although Hoover is a Native Hawaiian supporter of TMT, she sees no reason why these aspects of her identity can’t exist in the same sphere. Despite her role as a mover and shaker in the charge to engineer TMT, she maintains a philosophy that it is not the Hawaiian way to allow families and friends to become polarized by civic disagreements. It was Hoover who taught me the meaning behind aloha.
Aloha is more than a simple greeting—when broken down, it translates to “presence of breath” or “breath of life,” meaning that when you wish someone aloha, you are wishing them a breath of life. When Hoover said she has great aloha for those with a different perspective than her own, it was an offering of peace and vitality. Because that, she said, is the true Hawaiian way.
Over the course of her career, Hoover has occupied many leadership positions. She worked as a systems engineer for Natural Energy Laboratory up until 2005, when she had the opportunity to serve as president of the Hawai'i Leeward Planning Conference, which advocates for right-minded community planning and civic advancement. The Hawai'i Island Economic Deveopment Board was founded in 1984, ten years after the Hawai'i Leeward Planning Conference, when forward-thinking business people wanted to figure out how to diversify, strengthen and stabilize Hawai'i island’s economy. Since 2008, Hoover has been the executive director and COO of this development board.
Being from Waimea, she grew up with the observatories around Mauna Kea as well as the Canadian, French and Hawaiian telescope headquarters.
“Before I even got to the Economic Development Board, I was already part of the conversation,” she said. “Fast forward, when I got to the board, they had already started collaborating with Thirty Meter Telescope to help integrate it into the longer term economic diversity on our island.”
With her systems engineering and science background, Hoover saw TMT as a phenomenal opportunity for science and research education.
“As Native Hawaiians, we are scientists. We always have been,” she said.
Being a Native Hawaiian supporter of TMT is a concept that is often misunderstood. After Hoover came out early as an advocate, some people accused her of betraying her people and her culture.
“Just to put it right out there, I firmly believe that there were some wrongs done in the past,” she said. “And those need to be reconciled. But as a Native Hawaiian, I find myself definitely wanting to reconcile the past and present. How do I do that without sacrificing the future?”
Hoover said she has great aloha and empathy for individuals who have a different perspective than hers, and she does understand their perspective as well.
“But I also believe wholeheartedly that different perspectives are just that — different is different,” she said. “Not right. Not wrong. Just different.
“There are people who strongly believe we need sovereignty, and I think some of that got entangled in the TMT debate,” she said. “There are also people who consider Mauna Kea to be sacred.”
However, she believes there is a difference between sacred and spiritual. Being raised Catholic, in a multi-ethnicity family that has Native Hawaiian and Navajo roots, she said that this perspective has really helped her.
Hoover attends family luaus with relatives and friends who have different stances on TMT. Some of them work in the observatories or for the mountain management group. Some are in law enforcement. There’s a mix of those who support and oppose the telescope. She has family pictures where she can be seen wearing her Imiloa TMT shirt, and someone two spots down from her is wearing an A’ole TMT shirt. But they figured out how to make it work.
For the most part, she thinks that people have chosen the pono path, which more or less translates to doing the righteous thing. But she said there are others who are so emotional and so personal that they can't let it go. She has even heard of families that have become estranged from each other because of that.
“That is the saddest, the biggest violation in my mind to our culture and our tradition,” she said. “That you could not come to find some common ground, even if it was just to say, ‘I'm leaving my ōpala, my rubbish, outside the door, and coming together with my family, in honor of my ancestors, my kupuna.’ Our common ground is that we all come from the same lineal descendants.”
After the waitress, Gabriella, set down our food, Hoover added: "We live on an island and we're surrounded by water — why would we burn bridges?"
Because so many families have lived on the island for generations, something Hoover said many of them understand is that it takes a village to raise a child, and they are all a part of that village. A few years ago, she found some young students who should have been in school. She knew three of the four of them through their families, so she made sure that they all made it to school.
One of them asked her: “Aunty, you’re not going to tell my mom, are you?”
Her reply was something she said is common in Hawai'i. She said: “No honey, you are going to tell your mom and she will call me by seven o’clock tonight to tell me she had this conversation with you.”
When she asked him later on if he had gotten in trouble, he said that his father dropped him off at his grandfather’s house to help out on the farm. His grandfather was disappointed, telling him that he brought shame to the family.
“And I was like: ‘Oh, I’ve been there,’” she laughed.
She said this child will always remember this more than he would had it been corporal punishment, and that this is how she and lots of others grew up. Everyone on the island helps to teach young people by example.
"We might be a big island, but we are a small community," she said.
She has two children of her own who are full grown. When they were little, Hoover informally adopted an eighteen-year-old girl she worked with after finding out that the girl was homeless and sleeping in her car between shifts.
She called her husband before bringing her home that day, and he said: “I fully support what your intentions are, and yes, she'll become part of our family.”
They had her live with them for a few years, and Hoover still sees her all the time.
As a Native Hawaiian, she said her kuleana is from the offshore waters of Waipi'o to the summit of Mauna Kea. She grew up understanding kuleana to be a responsibility born of privilege.
“So if I have the privilege to live here, then it's my kuleana to respect and take care of the land. I take care of the land, the resources, my neighbors and my ohana, my family.”
She describes herself as one of the lucky ones who got to come back to the island after going to school at St. Mary’s College of California and UC Berkeley. The pandemic, she said, has created something called “brain drain,” which refers to young people not coming back to the island after college because there are not enough opportunities. Lots of parents end up following their children when they go to college because they don’t see their children being able to come home.
With an economy dependent on the tourism industry, TMT is seen by many as an opportunity to diversify the opportunities available by investing in workforce development, education and STEM.
“When I joined the Economic Development Board, we had the privilege of working with TMT to establish what's called the THINK fund (The Hawai'i Island New Knowledge fund.)” she said. “TMT contributes a million dollars a year for scholarships, grants, etc. for Hawai'i Island students and educators.”
Another program on the island is called Journey Through the Universe. Every year, they welcome astronomers, astrophysicists, people from NASA, from JPL and from observatories across the world, and students on the island get a week of immersive STEM training.
“We are part of a group that is helping to frame the narrative so that our broader community has an understanding of the benefits and the hopes and aspirations that TMT and the astronomy sector bring to the island,” she said.
Hoover does not deny that there has been damage, including some environmental damage, “because science and environmental science is not static; you learn from past mistakes and so forth.”
There were four mercury spills between 1989 and 1998, which Hoover said were contained immediately and did not get into the groundwater.
“We've also been in a severe drought,” she said, “so climate change is involved. It's difficult because I want people to root in truth. And everyone's truth is their own fear. But some truths are based on nostalgia and false memory and false understanding.”
She posed the question earlier on: how do we reconcile the past with present without sacrificing the future?
“I'm fortunate because I get to be part of this ecosystem that really speaks to a larger ecosystem,” she said. “So we’re the micro to the macro. Kupuna Aunty Piahi Paki had this philosophy that the world will come to Hawai'i looking for peace, because Hawai'i has the key.”
That key, Paki said, is aloha.
“I'll get into an elevator in New York, and I'll say good morning. And then I'll say, ‘Oh, that's right. I forgot. I'm no longer home in the land of aloha.’” Hoover said. “It's kind of a way to remind myself where I come from, and whom and what I represent.”
When Gabriella came over, Hoover said in a hushed voice that she had a favor to ask. She asked her to please send our bill to Ross a few tables down, as a joke.
“Tell him it’s on him,” she said.
Laughing, Gabriella agreed and went to get the bill.
“Sometimes when I'm on the mainland,” she turned back to me, “I observe that business can translate to rudeness. But I think it's more lack of awareness in anything.”
We heard Ross’s laughter before we saw him. Hoover grinned and gave him a friendly wave. As plates were cleared from our table, we began to gather our things.
“I believe wholeheartedly, we should showcase who we are, where we are and who our neighbors are,” she said. “The produce that they have, the fish caught locally. The cabbage I just ate came from Hirabara Farms. It's all important to me that we remember this ecosystem that we live in.
“I believe wholeheartedly,” she continued, “that if we are going to say that we are from the land of aloha, we really need to represent the universe.”