In today’s female-forward society, pageantry often gets a bad rap. People make assumptions that pageants are demeaning, derogatory, outdated and superficial. I’ve heard all the negative stereotypes, but I would argue that in today’s culture, pageants are more relevant and necessary than ever because they inspire young women to become the best versions of themselves.
As the reigning and first-ever African American Miss Hawaii USA during a year that saw the COVID-19 pandemic, souring race relations, riots and police shootings happening all in the backdrop of a divisive presidential election, I knew I had a responsibility to respond to the political and racial unrest with grace, poise and — most importantly — tangible action.
After learning Hawaii was 1 of only 4 states that had yet to recognize Juneteenth – the day commemorating the official end of slavery in the US – I launched Hawaii for Juneteenth, a grassroots organizationwith the goal of lobbying the Hawaii State Legislature to propose and pass legislation establishing Juneteenth as a permanent holiday in Hawaii.
There were times during my effort when it felt like people discredited my intelligence simply because I was a “beauty queen” and dismissed me as a result. Yet there were also times when my title opened up doors to meet with high-level individuals who could aid my efforts to implement positive change. I often found many people were pleasantly surprised by my professionalism, determination, and adaptability to uncharted territory – all skills I had gained through pageantry and specifically, the Miss Universe Organization.
I had very little knowledge of the legislative process prior to launching Hawaii for Juneteenth, but I quickly learned to navigate the system and use it to my advantage.
In just one year, the Hawaii for Juneteenth coalition grew to a collection of elected officials, businesses, nonprofits and advocacy groups, including: the Anti-Defamation League, ACLU, the Democratic Party of Hawai’i, the Honolulu NAACP, University of Hawaii as well as the majority of Maui, Hawaiʻi, Kauaʻi and Honolulu County Council members. Together, we helped pass a resolution recognizing Juneteenth as a Day of Remembrance in Maul County. I advocated, I lobbied, I used my social media influence to rally support and make the legislative process fun and accessible to my followers. When our bill was scheduled for hearing or approaching a deadline, those followers turned into activists as they called and emailed legislators’ offices and urged them to support our bill and vote “Yes” on Juneteenth.
On Wednesday, June 16th, just 3 days before Juneteenth 2021, I stood next to the Governor of Hawaii as he signed our Juneteenth bill into law, officially establishing Juneteenth as a Day of Remembrance and Observance. I felt an enormous amount of joy and pride as I watched a historic moment unfold before my eyes. Who would have thought, a 25-year-old beauty queen could make this kind of impact? I did.
If I had to boil all my lessons from pageantry down to one statement it would be this: Women, when empowered and courageous, are capable of leading a movement and changing the world. It has been my pleasure to lead my state through this history-making change. My next task – helping other young women see that they too can break the rules and change the world.