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Wayfinding through the Storm - Excerpt

Wayfinding through the Storm

Over 150 voices—young students, venerable alumni, movers and shakers, average folk, novice and seasoned teachers, Native Hawaiians, kama‘aina and fresh faces from abroad—share their experiences of the 1990s Bishop Estate controversy. This is the human story of a crisis that erupted at Kamehameha Schools in the 1990s and came close to destroying a historic educational community. Wayfinding through the Storm tells the story of ordinary decent people who looked deep inside themselves and found the moral courage to risk everything, to come together and stand up for what they believed in: to speak truth to power.

by Gavan Daws

My name is on the title page of Wayfinding through the Storm. But the book properly belongs to those who are collectively named there: Nā Leo O Kamehameha—the voices of Kamehameha.

Wayfinding through the Storm exists to tell the human story of a crisis that erupted at Kamehameha Schools in the 1990s and came close to destroying a historic educational community, one of the great institutions of Hawai‘i.

The book chronicles what it was like for the people of Kamehameha to labor for years under a regime that ruled by the abuse of power; what triggered the crisis; the devastation it caused and how the Schools ultimately managed to survive and come through.

The tale is told in the voices of Kamehameha. These voices fill the book. They are the book. On every page of Wayfinding through the Storm are words spoken by people who lived through the crisis years: words of confusion, pain, grief, fear—a descent into the depths of despair. Then, under the most extreme pressure, this despair transformed itself, in individual after individual, into a determination to resist, to organize and to go on resisting, no matter what the cost, in the faith and hope that the good and the right could be restored at Kamehameha.

Fundamentally, Wayfinding through the Storm tells the story of ordinary decent people who looked deep inside themselves and found the moral courage to risk everything, to come together and stand up for what they believed in: to speak truth to power. They fought the good fight, and, against all odds, they prevailed. It was a great struggle. It called upon every ounce of strength in “the better angels of human nature.”

The story is an inspiring one—worth recording, worth holding in memory, worth telling and retelling. It carries lessons for life.

* * *

Written history often comes out on the page sounding remote, dry, abstract. That was not the way the crisis years were lived at Kamehameha. Those were terrible times.

Things happened at Kamehameha Schools—and to the people of Kamehameha—that were so wrong as to be unbelievable. The Schools had had a long and honorable life as an educational community with an invaluable social mission: to serve Hawaiian children. But now—a mass termination of staff, 170 in a single sweep of the scythe. Parents rousted by campus security. Teachers and staff threatened with interrogation and lie detector tests. Anonymous phone threats at home, rumors of phones being tapped on campus. Spy cameras. Clandestine informants and blacklists. Distrust everywhere, escalating to paranoia, poisoning the atmosphere, so that education could not live and breathe freely. The crisis at Kamehameha threatened the death of good teaching and good learning.

The human cost was heavy, professionally and personally: careers stalled, some of them derailed, relationships ruptured, families split, children damaged.

The severity of the strain showed up medically, body and soul: high blood pressure, heart conditions, raging psychosomatic rashes, a bleeding ulcer, medications for stress, sleepless nights, nightmares, sudden weeping, uncontrollable vomiting fits following forced attendance at ghastly meetings.

The festering crisis erupted as well in language: malignant cancer, slippery bonefish, Nazi, Gestapo, CIA, a loaded gun on the table, heads are gonna roll, diabolic, satanic, instrument of the devil. The most extreme words burst out at—of all places—a Hawaiian funeral in Honolulu, where, in the midst of reverent Christian mourning, a Hawaiian teacher from Kamehameha was cursed with death, in Hawaiian, by a top-level Hawaiian administrator.

What did deathly curses and a reign of terror have to do with the proper education of Hawaiian children? The crisis amounted to a corruption and perversion of the historic mission of Kamehameha Schools. Beyond that, it was a grievous offense against Hawaiian values, against civility, against community, against human decency. Looking back over the entire historical record of Hawai‘i in the second half of the 20th century, this crisis is the darkest of stains on the page.

* * *

How could it have happened? The ’90s, the most disastrous decade in Kamehameha’s history, should have been the best of times.

The Schools, which dated from 1887, were entering their second century of educating Hawaiian children, in accordance with the will of the founding benefactor, Princess Bernice Pauahi Bishop. A Hawaiian high chief, an ali‘i nui, she was directly descended from Kamehameha the Great, the warrior chief who founded the unified Hawaiian kingdom early in the 19th century.

Under Pauahi’s will, the royal lands that she had inherited—hundreds of thousands of acres—formed the basis of a charitable trust, known as Bishop Estate, administered by a board of trustees, with the income to be dedicated solely to serving the Schools. This was Pauahi’s legacy.

By the mid-to-late ’80s, all the signs were good for Kamehameha—never better. Bishop Estate had grown spectacularly in wealth, becoming the biggest private charitable trust not only in Hawai‘i, not only in the United States, but in the world—worth billions of dollars. The estate was the flagship Hawaiian institution, and it was a supremely powerful financial engine for Kamehameha, the flagship school for Hawaiian children. Coming into the ’90s, both the estate and the Schools were more Hawaiian than they had ever been. For the first time in the history of Bishop Estate, all five members of the board of trustees were Hawaiian. At Kamehameha, for the first time in history, the president was a Hawaiian, and not only a Hawaiian but a proud alumnus who was a living embodiment of the vision of Princess Pauahi.

At the same time, in the broader community, a Hawaiian presence was more prominent than ever. For the first time in history, the elected governor of the state of Hawai‘i was a Hawaiian. For the first time, the chief justice of the Supreme Court of the state of Hawai‘i was a Hawaiian. And statewide, Hawaiian ethnic identity had never been stronger, both culturally and politically. This was the product of a movement, broad-ranging and deep-running, that went by the name of the Hawaiian Renaissance. It dated from the 1970s, and year by year, decade by decade, it kept gaining strength.

One of the important concepts of the renaissance was “wayfinding.” It came from the spectacular voyages of the oceangoing Hawaiian canoe Hōkūle‘a, which was navigated across thousands of miles of the Pacific according to traditional principles and techniques—a great and valuable accomplishment, drawing on the past to inspire cultural pride in the present. Wayfinding became a metaphor for the Hawaiian future.

So—important trend lines for Hawaiians were up. Bishop Estate and Kamehameha Schools were flourishing. Great things were predicted, and were expected. Instead, within a matter of just a few years, the all-Hawaiian board of trustees came close to bringing the estate to ruin with behavior that was worse than bad, that went beyond all bounds. Dubious schemes, hatched behind doors in the boardroom, erupted one after the other in public scandals—ethical, moral, sexual, financial, political, legal, crossing the line into indictable crime.

And the trustees’ toxic leadership of Bishop Estate poisoned life at Kamehameha Schools.

* * *

Money is the root of all evil. That age-old saying fits what happened at Bishop Estate. The estate had come to be worth billions of dollars. The trustees were each being paid close to a million a year. The boardroom was at the very center of wealth and power in Hawai‘i. Corruption followed the money.

The list of corrupt practices and reprehensible behavior at Bishop Estate was long. It started with the cheap and nasty—abuse of estate credit cards, padding of travel expenses, commandeering of estate staff and resources for trustees’ private purposes and private gain. It spread into business, with trustees profiting personally from investment decisions that they made for the estate—conflict of interest, a legal offense under trust law. It expanded in scale to cronyism—jobs for the boys, non-bid contracts awarded to the “right” people, up to millions of dollars. And it spread into politics—money and influence passed back and forth, under the table, illegal political contributions.

A few years into the ’90s, there was definitely something rotten at Bishop Estate. But nobody in authority was saying so. The Probate Court judge was not saying so. The State Legislature was not saying so. The governor was not saying so. The attorney general was not saying so. The Bar Association, representing the legal profession, was not saying so. The media—the Honolulu dailies and the TV news—were not saying so in any significant way. And the people who worked at Bishop Estate and Kamehameha Schools were not saying so, at least not out loud.

* * *

Systems produce situations. Situations lead to individual choices being made. What were the choices for individuals at the estate and the Schools?

Buy into the system—because there were benefits: inside information, preferential treatment, promotion, perks. Or recognize that there were things that were badly wrong, but make a conscious decision to see no evil, hear no evil, speak no evil: just be a good soldier—meaning, at Bishop Estate, be a good secretary or office manager; at Kamehameha, be a good classroom teacher or administrator. Do your job conscientiously. Or just be a time server, do a day’s work for a day’s pay, and don’t take any heed of what is happening higher up. Live your own life—that is enough. Who is to say that anything more should be asked of you?

At the workaday level, the system itself kept people quiet. Bishop Estate and Kamehameha Schools between them had thousands of employees—working people with families, rent to pay or mortgage payments to meet; many of them Hawaiian, with children, and many of them hoping that their children would get to go to Kamehameha. All of them depended on a paycheck from Bishop Estate, and all of them served at the pleasure of the Bishop Estate trustees. If they were moved to want to speak up, what would it cost them? Would it be worth risking their job? Their children’s prospects?

Complicating everything was the question of loyalty—a big word in Hawai‘i, especially for Hawaiians. Bishop Estate was the great Hawaiian institution. All the trustees were Hawaiian. They had been given the authority to lead. Surely they would lead well. How could they not?—they were understood to be guided by the revered memory of Princess Pauahi, and they constantly invoked her name. Would criticizing them be disloyal to her? The trustees said so, all the time.

* * *

One of the amazing things about the way Bishop Estate was run was that in an organization of that size, a multibillion-dollar business, there were no specific written job descriptions for trustees. [Michael] Chun, the Schools’ president, had a job description. [Lokelani] Lindsey, the education trustee, did not. She could do what she liked at Kamehameha. And she did.

Lindsey’s personality was her philosophy, and she had the personality of a tyrant. She saw herself as all-powerful, the center of the universe. She issued dictatorial commands and demanded instant obedience. She craved attention and surrounded herself with an entourage of sycophants and informants. If anything displeased her, she threw raging temper tantrums. And educationally, she was ignorant and arrogant. She invaded classrooms and terrorized teachers.

She abused them and insulted their professional competence. All across campus, she disrupted and derailed programs. She was a disaster. She was uncontrollable, and the rest of the majority trustees made no effort to control her. They put the care of Kamehameha Schools—the legacy of Princess Pauahi—in the hands of Lokelani Lindsey and left it there.

History by its nature is complex and tangled. But if any one person could be singled out as being decisive in bringing on the crisis at Kamehameha, it was Lokelani Lindsey.

* * *

Lindsey was appointed a trustee in 1993. By 1997, the situation she had created at Kamehameha went from difficult to disturbing to appalling to intolerable—beyond intolerable.

It was not going to be changed from the top down. If there was going to be change, it would have to start from the bottom up, meaning with the teachers.

In the spring of 1997, two teachers called a meeting of faculty. If any one event could be singled out as marking the beginning of the open collective struggle of resistance and reform, this was it.

The meeting was just a meeting, not a protest demonstration. The teachers were cautioned by their administrative superior against organizing it. They went on with the meeting anyway. Only a couple of dozen teachers took the risk of coming—only about 10 percent of the faculty. A second meeting was held, and a third. The initial two teachers became four, and the number of faculty and staff willing to take the risk grew, to some dozens, still an indecisive minority.

This was a start—but a start to what? All they had was a name: Nā Kumu, the teachers—which expressed their belief in their work and a belief in Kamehameha as a worthwhile educational community, dedicated to serving Pauahi’s vision for Hawaiian children.

They had no resources. Against the might of the trustees, they looked impotent. In reaction, they developed a working philosophy that was diametrically opposed to the way Lindsey and the majority trustees operated: servant leadership—consensus-driven, humble, prayerful. These were the unlikely weapons of powerlessness.

At the same time that Nā Kumu was forming on campus, a group of alumni, small in number but strong in their sense that things at Kamehameha could not go on as they were, began to meet. They called themselves Nā Pua O Ke Ali‘i Pauahi—the flowers, or the children, of Princess Pauahi.

Nā Pua decided that there should be—must be—a public demonstration. This was historic. Hawaiians had taken to the streets before on Bishop Estate matters—but always in support of the estate. To march against the estate, or, more exactly, against the trustees, was a total reversal, a real head-turner. It would force attention to be paid.

The Nā Pua march of May 15, 1997, was spectacular. It started at Pauahi’s tomb in Nu‘uanu valley and ended at the headquarters of Bishop Estate at Kawaiaha‘o Plaza. It drew big crowds, stopped traffic and dominated the news for days.

The crisis at Kamehameha was public now, and from then on it was never out of the headlines. Over the next months, there was more and more public discussion of the roots of the crisis at the Schools. Everything pointed to the Bishop Estate boardroom.

In August, an essay was published in the Honolulu Star-Bulletin, headlined “Broken Trust.” It was a bombshell—a fierce indictment of the majority trustees. The march had made this possible, and as with the march, there had never been anything like it.

“Broken Trust” carried great weight because it was signed by four senior Hawaiians, all of impeccable integrity and all with a lifetime of community service. Line those four up against the four majority trustees, compare the two groups for good character, for social conscience, for Hawaiianness, and it was no contest. The fifth name on “Broken Trust” was that of a University of Hawai‘i law professor whose specialty was trust law: more weight, more authority.

What started with the Nā Kumu meetings and the Nā Pua march developed irresistible impetus with the “Broken Trust” essay. Now it was not just a matter of reform at Kamehameha—it was regime change at Bishop Estate.

The attorney general finally moved. And—crucially—the Internal Revenue Service also moved. Bishop Estate, as a charitable trust, was basically tax-exempt. If it turned out that the trustees were flouting the law in the way they did business and presented their accounts, the IRS could take away the estate’s tax exemption—and that would spell disaster, not just on the business side, but for the Schools, which were the sole beneficiaries of Pauahi’s legacy.

In the end, the judge ordered Lindsey’s immediate removal. At Kamehameha, there was joyous celebration. Soon after, in other court actions, the remaining trustees were removed.

By the end of 1999—after years of turmoil, uncounted thousands of hours of distraction and millions upon millions of dollars that could have and should have been devoted to the Schools—the estate was under a new and reformed system of governance, and Kamehameha Schools could return to productive education, with a new openness to visions for the future of Hawaiian children in the 21st century.

For everyone at Kamehameha, faculty, staff and students, there were deep continuing questions to ponder, about duty, about responsibility, about right thinking and right action in the interests of the common good.

That is the story of Wayfinding through the Storm.

* * *

Wayfinding through the Storm, for its part, focuses on the crisis as it played out at Kamehameha Schools. That is its constant point of view, its dominant perspective. The whole purpose of the book is to get as close as possible to human experience at the Schools: what it was like to live through those times, when everything was at risk, when there were high-stakes individual moral choices to be made, under the heaviest of pressure, with no certainty that the right would prevail.

That is why Wayfinding through the Storm is done as oral history: the story is told by people who lived the story, in their own words. The heart and soul, the blood and bone of the book, is in the words of more than 200 interviews with Kamehameha faculty, staff, students, alumni, parents and friends.

The interviews were done soon enough after the crisis years for memories to be clear, and long enough afterwards for opinions and judgments to be mature and settled.

For many people, being invited to do the interview was emotional, disturbing. Some could not stop talking; some could not speak at all; some spoke and then were haunted by what they found themselves saying.

Once the interviews were transcribed, people were offered the opportunity to review their words, rephrasing if they wanted to, so that the permanent record would be as close as possible to the truth of their experience. Bottom line: in these interviews, people are saying what they mean, and meaning what they say. In total, their words add up to well over a million.

There were many more millions of spoken words that came from testimony and depositions taken during court cases that were heard during the crisis years. At one point, wrongdoing at Bishop Estate was crowding three courtrooms in Honolulu at the same time, trials running for months, with batteries of lawyers and long, long lists of witnesses. The transcripts of testimony and depositions piled up, rising to tens of thousands of pages, millions of words, all spoken under an oath to tell the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth.

There are also a good many words in the book that were spoken for the public record in newspaper and TV interviews. These have been transcribed verbatim.

* * *

The draft manuscript that I put together, and the graphics, were reviewed, extensively and intensively, by an editorial group at Kamehameha Schools made up of people who lived through the crisis, a number of them people who took a leading part in the movement for resistance and reform. They made decisions on the shape and structure of chapters, and on proportion, placement and emphasis. By protocol and process, the last word on the book was to be theirs.

This is right and proper. Just as the fundamental human truth of the experience of the crisis is theirs—blood, sweat and tears—so the final text of Wayfinding through the Storm is theirs.

Now let the voices of Kamehameha, Nā Leo O Kamehameha, speak for themselves.