The University of Hawaii Foundation is in the latter stages of forming an endowment fund that would honor the late Stanley Ann Dunham, President Barack Obama’s mother.
Fundraising is just beginning for the endowment, which has not yet been formally announced.
The UH Foundation and its partner in the endeavor, the East-West Center, plan to do so early next year, said Geoffrey White, chairman of UH’s Anthropology Department and co-chairman of the endowment steering committee.
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The fund uses the name Ann Dunham Soetoro, which she adopted after marrying her second husband, Lolo Soetoro. She also used the name professionally during years of anthropology studies.
Obama was Dunham’s first child, born in Hawaii to her and Barack Obama Sr., a student from Kenya. Dunham died in 1995.
Her second child and Obama’s half-sister, Maya Soetoro-Ng, said in an interview Tuesday that her mother would have been moved to know that her work in the field of applied anthropology was being honored.
"I, in her stead, feel touched and gratified that this is a time when perhaps some of her goals can be realized, perhaps by others in her name," said Soetoro-Ng, the endowment’s honorary chair.
Dunham received a bachelor’s degree in math, and a master’s and doctorate in anthropology from UH.
During her travels to Indonesia and other parts of Asia, she worked with nongovernmental groups focused on women and poverty, and established microcredit programs in Indonesia and Pakistan.
According to the UH Foundation, Dunham concluded after years of studies in Indonesia that the roots of poverty there did not lay with the poor, and that cultural differences were responsible for the gap between less-developed countries and the industrialized West.
Her book, "Surviving against the Odds: Village Industry in Indonesia," centers on the metalworking industries in the Javanese village of Kajar and contends that rice cultivation was not the only viable economic activity in rural Southeast Asia, according to a description by its publisher, Duke University Press.
"Obviously, this is an anthropologist who many of us would not know about if it were not for her son being elected president," White said Tuesday.
"On the other hand, this is an opportunity to do the kind of thing we ought to do more often … and that is bring recognition to work which is very valued and yet often not given the kind of recognition it deserves," White added.
White said he and officials from UH and the UH Foundation began discussing an endowment last year. After some preliminary work, Soetoro-Ng was contacted, and she signed on.
There was no contact with the president or the White House until the project was well under way, and then Soetoro-Ng talked to Obama about it, White said.
"We kind of made a decision not to in any way connect this with politics or the presidency," White said. Obama "has given his own voice of support, but it’s been a low-key, background voice of support."
Soetoro-Ng said her brother has made a modest contribution to the fund and is honored his mother is being recognized. But, she noted, "He has a lot of other things to do."
Soetoro-Ng spent much of last year in Washington. But she has since returned to Hawaii and is teaching at UH and working as an education specialist at the East-West Center.
The endowment will support a professorship in the UH Anthropology Department that will focus on research and teaching on Southeast Asia. Such chairs generally require an endowment of as much as $3 million, White said.
It also will finance one or more graduate fellowships for students studying anthropology or other social sciences. That program will be managed in conjunction with the East-West Center.
Terance Bigalke, the center’s director of education and co-chairman of the fund’s steering committee, said he’s not sure how much money will be needed to establish the fellowships, but hopes at least partial awards can be offered in its first years.