Irene Maun is originally from the Marshall Islands, descended from a Micronesian royal family. Like many Marshallese, she and her family have struggled with chronic illness due to the lasting impacts of U.S. nuclear testing and colonialism in their tiny island home. In the wake of war and weapons testing, US troops and corporations flooded the islands with processed foods. The most popular and iconic of these is Hormel Foods’ SPAM, which has been linked to obesity and other chronic diseases across the region. Irene eventually moved to Dubuque, Iowa, temporarily leaving her small children and accompanying her diabetic husband to secure medical treatment for him in the U.S. She now helps other Pacific Islanders navigate healthcare as a leader at the Pacific Islander Health Project, including many who work at a Hormel meat packing plant in Dubuque. Learn more about the project and support it’s parent organization, Crescent Community Health Center.
COVID hit the Marshallese community especially hard, including Irene and her family. The pandemic spread rapidly among packing plant workers and their families due to existing medical conditions, crowded living arrangements, and unsafe work environments. The pandemic could have been even more devastating without the resources of Crescent and its staff. For years, Irene has also for more federal support, advocating to restore Medicaid coverage for Marshallese in the U.S., a promise made to compensate for nuclear impacts. This lobbying was finally successful in December 2020, as part of COVID-relief legislation.
Read more about the Marshallese community in Dubuque (in English or Marshallese) through some of the story collections online. The Facing Project published a 2017 collection of local stories, including Irene’s: Facing Diversity: Marshallese Stories. In 2020, The Community Foundation of Greater Dubuque gathered stories of diversity in Dubuque, promoting understanding and solidarity in the midst of the pandemic: #AllofUsDubuque.
This episode features a clip from the video performance, “Anointed,” by Marshallese poet, climate activist, and educator Kathy Jetñil-Kijiner. The project was supported through a collaboration with filmmaker Dan Lin, Pacific Resources for Learning (PREL), and the Okeanos Foundation. Visit www.kathyjetnilkijiner.com to read more of her poetry and watch more of her videos.