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Harnessing Native Hawaiian Knowledge for 21st-Century Challenges: Q&A with Lahela Williams

Few people in the world of community development got their start as early in life as Lahela Williams, a 2019 Rubinger Fellow who serves as the deputy director for Hawaiian Community Assets. Williams was barely a teen when she joined the board of her homestead association, a group that promoted safety, education and other quality-of-life issues for the Native community where she grew up on the island of O’ahu. That first job helped lay the foundation of a career dedicated to nurturing Hawaiian community leadership, as well as financial and personal empowerment for her fellow islanders.

How did you get involved with community development at such a young age?

It was really my mother’s doing. In Hawaii, we have a matriarchal culture, and I come from a long line of very strong Native women—my great-grandmother was a community advocate and so was my grandmother, and my mom had been doing community advocacy around housing and native Hawaiians my entire life. I grew up following her to meetings. It was inevitable that I or one of my siblings would go down this path. My first position was as secretary for our homestead association—I was the only one with computer skills amongst a bunch of kupuna or elders.

What kinds of issues were important to you then?

There were a lot, but probably the biggest was safety. This was the ‘90s, and the [meth] epidemic was unfortunately alive and well in Hawaii at the time. We did a lot of community clean-ups—that was one of the strategies to help combat drugs in our community. We also worked with the Department of Hawaiian Homelands and our local Weed and Seed office to address some of the homes that we knew were dealing drugs.

A long lineage of community advocates: Williams, second from left, with her grandmother (far left), great-grandmother and mother (far right).
A long lineage of community advocates: Williams, second from left, with her grandmother (far left), great-grandmother and mother (far right).

Where did that work lead you?

I graduated from high school when I turned 16 and was offered a job at The Council for Native Hawaiian Advancement, where my mother was working and where I’d done my community service hours to get my diploma. While I was there, I learned more about Hawaiian sovereignty and self-governance and all of these federal programs that were available to Native Hawaiians.

I came back home to my tiny community after that to run an afterschool literacy program. Having seen all those national opportunities made me really understand how deep the community’s literacy and health and education needs were. And I now had the broader lens that all of these other things were possible.

Was there a point when you realized that financial empowerment and housing counseling was a serious need for Native Hawaiians?

Yes. In 2011, I made my way to Hawaiian Community Assets, where I work today [HCA is a HUD-approved CDFI that supports financial stability for low- and moderate-income communities, with an emphasis on Native Hawaiians]. What initially attracted me was their culturally relevant, place-based financial literacy curriculum, Kahua Waiwai, which is basically a Native Hawaiian model for economic self-sufficiency.

I knew it was possible to have parents and their children in the same room talking about finance and to create a culture where people are more confident and comfortable discussing it.

I started out there doing intake with families, most of whom were in the shelter system, and delivering financial literacy workshops. I didn’t immediately see the connection between the advocacy work I did in my youth with my mom, and the housing counseling and pre-purchase work of HCA. But I really started to understand that this organization was created to do exactly what I found to be my passion in my youth—capacity building and serving the Hawaiian people and my local community.

You pioneered a model for doing intergenerational financial literacy and housing counseling—parents and children together.

The vision of HCA’s founders was to educate and prepare the entire family to embark on this journey of home ownership. HCA had been doing that work in the pre-purchase and home-buying process and I expanded that into general personal finance.

When I came to HCA, the first financial literacy workshops I delivered were to adults. And it didn’t make sense to me. Finance is a taboo conversation in traditional Hawaiian culture, and it was taboo in our greater household, but my mother and I talked about money, and she kept me aware and helped to educate me about these things.

I knew it was possible to have parents and their children in the same room talking about finance and to create a culture where people are more confident and comfortable discussing it. So, we piloted a set of workshops at the homeless shelters we were working in. It was really exciting. Kids got a kick out of it, and parents really appreciated it because their kids were understanding for the first time why they couldn’t just have the world. They were learning about prioritizing and why housing, food, transportation and school-related costs had to come before things like video games and private sports leagues, which are big in Hawaii.

Your project for the Rubinger Fellowship is putting together a leadership development and succession-planning guide for non-profits, drawing on Native Hawaiian practices of passing knowledge from one generation to another. What inspired you to do that?

I have been extremely fortunate to be part of an organization that has a real leadership development plan for junior staff, and to have an executive director who pushes me to do things I might not feel comfortable doing. But most non-profits don’t have the capacity and financial resources to do mentoring and succession planning. Sitting on two boards that recently underwent leadership transitions, I learned how painful it can be if there’s no plan in place. I wanted to help build tangible tools that groups can use to identify leadership development goals and create opportunities for staff to build capacity to achieve those goals.

When I was looking for resources, I really didn’t find any that were values-based. The practice of intergenerational knowledge sharing is part of teaching the next generation to be self-sufficient—it’s one of the strategies that Native Hawaiians have used to maintain their subsistence economy. I wanted to bring that value into the process.

Are those traditional knowledge-sharing practices still active forces in the community?

Yes and no. When Hawaii first became a state in 1959, my language and my culture were taboo. It wasn’t good to be Hawaiian in the 1950s, to the point where it was illegal to speak our language in school. It wasn’t taught, and you couldn’t speak it or you’d be reprimanded. In that whole process, very core pieces of our culture and traditions were at risk of being lost. A lot of our healing practices, storytelling—all these traditional components were at risk of becoming extinct, just like our population. We went from being two million people in the 1700s to less than 40,000 by 1920.

Williams with staff and leaders of the Hawaiian homestead association where she began her career.
Williams with staff and leaders of the Hawaiian homestead association where she began her career.

I think that as our society changed, the practice of passing knowledge from one generation to the next wasn’t completely lost, it was just practiced in these tiny enclaves for the very real purpose of trying to preserve what was left. The society we live in today really celebrates formal institutional instruction. But I think there is an opportunity for the traditional way of knowledge sharing and there is a market for it. Not everyone is an institutional learner. My goal is to shine a light on this practice, to make sure it is recognized and becomes more popular.

How is the Rubinger Fellowship helping with that?

It has forced me to make a commitment to doing this. Because I didn’t have the time or resources before, it was the first thing that I’d put on the back burner. The fellowship also gave me this network of other fellows to have these open conversations with, and to enlist some help—I now have people helping me do research, and I can compensate them and I don’t have to freak out about it!

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