AALL Diversity & Inclusion Librarian of the Month Series (reprint from April 2021)

Please tell us about your role as the Access to Justice Coordinator for the Hawaiʻi State Judiciary. When was the role created? What are your primary responsibilities?

Jenny Silbiger
Jenny Silbiger

The story begins when I left the Hawaiʻi State Judiciary and worked for a short time as Branch Librarian at the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals—Honolulu Library.  That was a fabulous experience, but I also missed working directly with the public and our CJ’s vision of working with the community and what would become a mission of “Meaningful Access to Justice for All.”  When I returned to my State Law Librarian position with the Hawaiʻi Supreme Court Law Library (SCLL) in 2014, my colleague, who was performing some of the Judiciary’s Access to Justice (A2J) Coordinator duties (since approximately 2011), was retiring, and those responsibilities seemed a natural fit with the work to which SCLL was already dedicated: engaging with the public and assisting self-represented litigants.  

I find my A2J Coordinator role as a partnership to my State Law Librarian role because of the emphasis in serving the public and finding ways to ease access to the courts on civil matters.  Among my colleagues, we sometimes joke that public law librarians were providing access to justice before “access to justice” was a commonly used phrase.  And of course we were, because librarians, more often than not, get into this profession to help people and to solve informational puzzles.  And what a puzzle the law can be!  

My first project as A2J Coordinator was working in partnership with the Hawaiʻi State Public Library system, the Legal Aid Society of Hawaiʻi (LASH), and the Judiciary on a grant funded project to increase the number of interactive interviews for court forms (think turbo-tax for civil court forms).  The project expanded access to those forms via publicizing and training library branch managers on all islands, providing marketing materials such as bookmarks and posters with step-by-step guides on how to access the forms at all 50 branches, and being available on public library PCs available across the state.  Usage of these forms increased 300% that first year.  

Other A2J Coordinator duties include assisting and supporting our court Access to Justice Rooms and Self Help Centers state-wide—a partnership with LASH, the Hawaiʻi State Bar Association (HSBA), and the Judiciary, where volunteer attorneys provide free legal advice or information to the public on a limited basis. Because of the pandemic safety protocols shutting down physical building operations, we moved the Oʻahu Family Court Access to Justice Room (AKA “Lawyer in the Library”) to videoconference and/or teleconference via Zoom.  This program is a partnership between our Oʻahu Family Court Senior Judge’s chambers and the Family Law Section of the HSBA, and I currently serve as Zoom host and also support volunteer attorney and client communication pre and post session.  Since April 2020, we’ve held 24 sessions, including language interpreter support in Tagalog, Japanese, Korean, and Swahili, and we plan to continue via videoconference through the end of 2021.

More A2J responsibilities include serving internally on the Judiciary’s Committee on Innovation, Technology, and Self-Represented Litigants, as well as serving externally as a liaison between the Judiciary and community groups and projects.  These include the Hawaiʻi Access to Justice Commission, HSBA’s Committee on Delivering Legal Services to the Public, and the recent NCSC Justice for All strategic planning and implementation grants. The common denominator to all of these activities is supporting the general public in accessing the court system in civil matters.

Hawaiʻi has the highest population percentages of Asian American and Pacific Islanders in the United States.* Does this characteristic pose any unique challenges or opportunities that may not be present in other state judiciaries or law libraries?

I think this is a sensitive question given the rise of anti-Asian bullying and violence over the last year, especially with the recent deaths in San Francisco, Oakland, and the Atlanta shootings.  One of my midwestern colleagues asked what the climate is like here in Hawaiʻi, wondering if it’s different from the US Continent, and I can say for sure that my Asian American daughters have not heard the terms “chinese flu” or “kung flu” leveled at them at school.  At the time of this writing, just yesterday, three brave survivors of senseless anti-Asian attacks shared their stories from New York, Seattle, and Los Angeles, in the hopes to raise consciousness about violence perpetrated against Asian Americans, and in this context, my heart is so heavy, even while I live in a place that is innoculated from this type of profiling and violence.

One of the advantages of living and working in Hawaiʻi, and, as you mention—in the highest population percentages of AAPI and also percentages of folks who identify as biracial/multiracial out of all the states—isn’t limited to recognizing my peers and neighbors who mirror my ethnic background.  AAPI and multiracial folks are represented in positions of leadership throughout state government as well as in our private sector.  This includes our Governor, State Senate President, State Speaker of the House, our Kauaʻi County Mayor, within our Judiciary with two of our five Supreme Court Justices of Asian descent—of note, Justice Nakayama was the first Asian American woman to be appointed to a state Supreme Court nationwide—and our Intermediate Court of Appeals Chief Judge, and from what I understand at least half as AAPI, biracial or multiracial among our Circuit, Family, and District court judges.  

Looking outside government and into Hawaiʻi’s private sector, two of the four “big banks” are led by CEOs of Asian descent and AAPI representation is also seen in the CEO of our sole electricity provider, Hawaiian Electric, that has a 125 year history (and powers 95% of the islands).  The list could go on, from large to medium to small businesses, from school leadership in the primary, secondary, and higher education levels—of note, our William S. Richardson School of Law at the University of Hawaiʻi was founded by and is the namesake of our revered Native Hawaiian and Asian American former Chief Justice, the first of his name and the only Native Hawaiian Chief Justice since King Kamehameha III.  All this said, yes, there is an advantage to this climate where AAPI race and ethnicity are an accepted part of our community—not a hindrance nor a honed target as has become over the last year on the US continent.  My law library is staffed 85% non-white—a reflection of our island diversity.

Simultaneous to AAPI representation in our community and leadership, I would be remiss to leave out that Hawaiʻi, while sometimes referred to as “the melting pot,” is not a racism-free paradise.  While it is a beautiful, loving place, as I’ve written about here, this melting-pot narrative is challenged by how the plantation labor/lifestyle that was brought to the islands in the early 1800s laid the groundwork for the development of structural racism as well as the continued marginalization of Native Hawaiians.  Primary sources tell us that the sugar plantations were modeled after the pre-Civil War U.S. plantations in the South and that racial segregation was part of that development.  (To learn more, please see Pau Hana by Ronald Takaki.)  This historical fact strikes a dissonant chord of unfairness and racial bias that quietly and overtly challenges that melting-pot theory—something that deserves acknowledgement and attention in our complicated world of today.

I suppose then, the “challenge” that you asked about regarding living in the highest percentage of AAPI representation in the nation is that we must continually confront the melting pot narrative.  We can and do need to think about what steps we take in our personal workspaces and communities to ensure perspectives stay open about dismantling systemic racism.


Hawaiʻi has the highest population percentages of Asian American and Pacific Islanders in the United States.* As a member of AALL’s Inclusion, Diversity, and Equity Awareness Special Committee, how does this fact inform your unique perspective?

I am thankful for living in a place for the last 24 years where my face is reflected in those around me, in a community where AAPI, biracial, and multi-racial represent the majority of the population.  Having grown up as 1 of 4 Asian American kids in my predominantly white and Black world back then, the difference is profound.  And, while my childhood home was considered my “home,” like many other AAPI living in the U.S., I felt in between, neither belonging here nor there (and being a transracial adoptee invites a whole host of complex nuances—another discussion altogether).  

In Hawaiʻi, I’m grateful that I don’t have to worry about my daughters being bullied or teased for being Asian, but at the same time, I also recognize that I am a guest on the land where I reside (a belonging and a not-belonging), and continually acknowledge with respect the indigenous people now known as Kānaka Maoli, or Native Hawaiians, who, with their knowledge and expertise, cultivated and sustained this land for generations and today, continue to face challenges that other AAPI do not.  

So yes, all of this informs my perspective in AALL’s IDEA Committee work, as we review and analyze the responses to the member survey that was sent out earlier this year.  I see some of my experiences reflected there and at the same time, understand that I live in a place where AAPI, biracial/multiracial representation is part of living, like breathing air. Yet, systemic racism exists here as well as on the mainland, and that is something that we all continue to grapple with.  I keep this in mind as the Committee comes together to think about recommendations to the Board around equity, diversity, and inclusion.  This is a marathon, not a race, and while I am not the fastest nor really that talented of a runner, I am dedicated to running it, and am thankful to run alongside my colleagus, friends, and family.

Do you have any advice for librarians working to build a more diverse, equitable, and inclusive environment in their libraries and in AALL?

One of the things that has come up for me, whether in support and working with our AALL IDEA Committee or from our recent GLL-SIS program Systemic Racisim, Implicit Bias, & Privilege:  Cultivating Changes in our Workspaces and Communities, is that we can take steps, small or large, in our workspaces and communities and make a difference.

For example, I’ve signed up for ihollaback.org’s bystander intervention training—they have one for street harassment as well as applied to the workplace.  My signing up and attending one or two trainings will not solve inclusion challenges in the world, instead, it’s simply a small, personal action toward learning, as I also contemplate bringing this training to my staff.

Further, taking steps to recognize where we are within our position in the hierarchy of our organizations (in our ʻsystem’), and figuring out what is within our reach in terms of working towards our inclusion goal can be helpful.  Are you at “the top” and you can do the hiring and/or set the leadership vision around equity awareness?  Are you in middle management and mentoring (and maybe also hiring)?  Are you an outreach librarian in charge of educational programming and/or training?  Are you a technical services librarian in charge of collection development?  Are you a solo librarian or in a smaller organization, with your hands in every ring (which can be both an advantage and a disadvantage when introducing new concepts, programs, ideas—I was once a solo librarian, so I feel you 100%)?  What can we do, big or small, in our personal workspaces?  These same questions can be asked as related to our respective involvement, identities, and positions within AALL.

Our GLL webinar speaker, Toussaint Romain, mentioned that one of his mentors worked as a student activist alongside MLK, Jr. during the civil rights movement.  This mentor advised Toussaint to not take on some huge, giant project, but simply identify and then do “one small thing,” because all he did back then was carry a clipboard and sign people up to vote.  His one small thing—a clipboard and a list.  Yet what a difference that has made.** 

So to end my D&I interview, I hope you might take this away:  it’s okay to be a little unsure, to even be afraid, when it comes to envisioning what we can do to challenge long-held beliefs and the overwhelming problems related to racism, diversity and inclusion.  Let’s take the time to think about where we are and the context within which we work, and then please know, there is no action too small when it comes to pushing the envelope for dismantling systemic racism and implicit bias and creating a more inclusive work environment.  We can make a difference, and one small step can lead to making a bigger impact than you might imagine.


**(Mentor Julian Bond went on to serve in Georgia’s House and then Senate.  He also helped found the Southern Poverty Law Center and served as Chairman for the NAACP.  Quite big steps, but he started out with that simple clipboard.)