Congratulations, Ilima Intermediate STEM teacher Sarah “Mili” Milianta-Laffin!

Hawaii’s ongoing stay-at-home turned safer-at-home orders due to the coronavirus pandemic haven’t stopped Ilima Intermediate STEM teacher Sarah “Mili” Milianta-Laffin from doing everything she can to support her students and her community during this difficult time.

Recognizing the gap in distance learning among students, she’s working with educators and community groups to deploy Wifi on Wheels, a bus that provides internet access for families in remote and underserved areas.

“We’re all worried about those kids right now that we might not be connecting with,” she said. “Connectivity’s been an issue for a while, and hopefully this crisis is acknowledging that connectivity is a human right, and I’m hoping we don’t actually go back to normal, but we build something better and stronger for our kids at the end of this.”

Milianta-Laffin also utilized two 3-D printers she acquired for her school’s STEM lab through a Hawaii State Department of Education Innovation Grant to fill a critical need during the pandemic: printing personal protective equipment, or PPE, for first responders and health care workers.

“Myself and a bunch of other public school teachers have gotten together and made almost 4,000 masks for Hawaii Pacific Health because we want to keep our health care providers safe so that they can keep us safe,” she said. Hawaii Pacific Health has hospitals and clinics on four islands throughout the state.

This type of passion and drive to action prompted HSTA’s Human and Civil Rights Committee to select Milianta-Laffin as its 2020 Pono Award recipient, a nomination approved by the HSTA Board of Directors. The announcement was shared publicly before more than a thousand members during HSTA’s first-ever State of Our Union broadcast Saturday morning.

HSTA’s Pono Award recognizes a member who is a passionate social justice advocate, and whose work engages fellow educators, parents, and the community. While the committee selected Milianta-Laffin before the coronavirus became widespread, her recent actions continue to reflect qualities that impressed and inspired the committee.

“There’s so much that you do, it’s incredible,” HCR Committee Chair Jodi Kunimitsu, a math teacher at Maui High School, told Milianta-Laffin in a video interview. “We’re so lucky that we have teachers like you to help us.”

HSTA President Corey Rosenlee said, “Mili represents the best of what teachers have to offer. She wants to bring out the best in her students while transforming education for all keiki. With her boundless energy, I know she will achieve both goals.”

Milianta-Laffin has been the faculty sponsor for the Rainbow Royales, Ilima Intermediate’s gender and sexuality alliance (GSA), since 2018. Over the past two years, her students have championed issues of equity and inclusion on campus, at neighborhood board meetings, and at the Hawaii State Capitol. They recently worked with state Rep. Amy Perruso (D, Wahiawa, Whitmore Village, Launani Valley), a fellow educator and former HSTA secretary-treasurer, on House Bill 2430, which would require public secondary school campuses to provide free feminine hygiene products to its students.

The students’ accomplishments are gaining national attention. The Rainbow Royales were recently named 2020 GSA of the Year by GLSEN, a national organization that promotes safe and inclusive schools for all students, regardless of sexual orientation, gender identity, and gender expression. A virtual awards ceremony will be streamed Tuesday, May 19, on GLSEN’s website. “I’m so proud of the kids. They inspire me with their strength and advocacy,” said Milianta-Laffin.

Milianta-Laffin serves on the GLSEN Hawaii Board and became a national GLSEN-certified trainer to present professional development on LGBTQ+ inclusive practices to all K–12 teachers. She is also a founding member of Prism’s Hawaii chapter, a coalition of Teach for America alumni leaders, staff, teachers, and community members working to support LGBTQ+ students and educators.

Her social justice efforts won’t stop there. Milianta-Laffin says there’s much more ground to cover.

“I tend to say I’m a scrappy Title I public school kid turned scrappy Title I public school teacher. We know hungry kids can’t learn. Let’s feed them. Hot kids can’t learn. Let’s get those ACs going. If kids are embarrassed to wear dirty uniforms on campus, let’s get a campus laundry. It’s just the work teachers do,” Milianta-Laffin said.

Title I is a federal program that provides funds to schools and school districts serving high numbers of economically disadvantaged children. Title IX protects people from discrimination based on sex in education programs or activities that receive federal financial assistance.

“I’m really passionate about issues of gender equity and equality. When we think about it, we have Title IX and Title IX was passed by icon Congresswoman Patsy Mink in 1979, but from my classroom at Ilima Intermediate, I can see the largest high school in the state, Campbell High School, that still doesn’t have girls locker rooms, so we still need to work on those issues,” she said.

“Also, I’m a STEM lab teacher, and we’ve really worked hard to get more girls passionate about STEM and STEAM education, but the STEAM Academy at Campbell High School is 98-percent male,” she added. “That tells me we still have a lot of work to do. So how are we as educators pushing back against the gendered stereotypes with which we were raised?”

Watch Milianta-Laffin’s full interview with Kunimitsu here.