Carolyn Kiyota was recognized Thursday night in Washington, DC, as one of "25 Women of Triumph" by Women Work!, a national nonprofit organization.

Kiyota encourages
women to take charge
of their lives

Carolyn Kiyota

>> Job: Attorney
>> Recognition: Honored Thursday night as a Woman of Triumph at a gala dinner in Washington, D.C. The dinner was held by Women Work! The National Network for Women's Employment.
>> Struggle: Went from an abusive relationship to life on her own with a small child. She turned her life around through the single-parent and displaced homemaker program at Kapiolani Community College.

What is your story?

I married very young. I married at 19 and I married a man who I really didn't know and found myself in a situation -- a physically abusive, verbally abusive husband who was also a drug user and an alcoholic. Somehow I felt it was my obligation to make it work, having been raised in a very traditional Japanese family, so I tried very hard. I got pregnant and had a baby the second year of my marriage and it just got worse. I realized at that point if I didn't get out of the situation, my daughter would also learn to supplicate herself to an abusive man or a drug-abusing man, and I felt I needed to get out to show her there's a way out. That you don't have to stay there. And so I went back to school. Before I went back to school, I had bills to pay. I had a baby. I found myself for a short period receiving public assistance, but it was so demeaning and degrading. The stigma attached to it was terrible. Eventually I got tired of working the minimum-wage jobs and being afraid what I was going to do if I lost my job. So I went back to school.

What was the displaced homemaker program at Kapiolani Community College like?

I didn't know anything about financial aid and they held my hand through the process initially, helped me fill out the forms. Because of that I was able to afford to go to school. At the time, Cathy Wehrman was the counselor for the program and she gave guidance on vocational goals, time management, things like that, and helped me make a plan. I eventually went to work for the program for a short while as a peer counselor.

Have you met many other abused women?

Every day. There's so many women that are living life basically day to day, trying to put together money in a go-nowhere job with children to support, and it's programs like these that can really make the difference. Just the moral support that's there is enough to get you on the path. There's also money available to help pay for books, tuition and I believe now they may have money for child care. Big obstacles are self-esteem issues and getting people over fear of failing, which prevents people from trying. The first time you look at a financial aid form, it's overwhelming.

What is your advice?

The main thing that I talk about is to get organized. To develop a plan, and that baby steps are perfectly acceptable. You'll find yourself in a different circumstance. Every little step matters, no matter how small. For instance, just going to pick up catalogs for college courses, maybe meeting with a college counselor to lay out a plan that may not happen for a year, but at least you can lay out a plan. Connecting with other women in the same situation so that you know what you're hoping or wishing you can do is entirely possible. It can be as simple as picking up a course catalog and making that first step. It can also be about changing your circumstance at home, which is a big step actually if you're in an abusive situation. Seeking out help -- it can be that small.

What's your life like today?

I have to say I've gone out on my own and I have a small solo law practice and I am again struggling, but it's a struggle I've done before. If I take the small steps again, I can become finally comfortable again. I'm remarried. I've just become a grandmother for the first time. I'm in control of my day every day. I go into work every day. I enjoy my work. I think it's a great sense of freedom that I have now to do the work I want to do as opposed to doing someone else's work. I did work for a firm five years, but I really felt I needed to get out on my own. I think that's a really important issue for women, to control what their own days are like.

What type of law do you practice?

Primarily today I concentrate in workers compensation law. I represent injured workers in the claims office. So my goal is to keep my clients employed, productive and -- if they can't go back to work -- to get them a new job through vocational training. You try to help to keep them employed, to keep working. Finding work is meaningful and it gives you a sense of pride. I'm not saying that lower paying jobs can't give a person a sense of pride, but in order for you to truly be happy with your life's work, you need something more. You need to be skilled and have an education to make decisions and know what's out there for yourself, have alternatives available.

How has your daughter fared through the experience?

You know, when she was little she spent a lot of time with baby-sitters, but once she got older she knew Kapiolani Community College and the University of Hawaii campus very well. She went to school with me often. By the time I had become an attorney she had already gone off to the mainland to go to school.

What are your current concerns about women's issues?

The programs like the one I went through are in such danger now with the political environment in Washington, D.C., and across the country. It seems that they're taking the approach of trying to make people more dependent, such as the marriage act that the Bush administration is trying to push. It seems that it's a throwback. We need to really watch the cuts that are going to be happening to these programs and keep them funded.

Inside Hawaii Inc. is a conversation with a member of the Hawaii business community who has changed jobs, been elected to a board or been recognized for accomplishments. Send questions and comments to


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