Richard Rodrigues on Hawaii People’s Fund

Richard Rodrigues knows that many people see Hawaii as “mythological” – a place where the climate and beauty of the land have the power to draw 20,000 tourists each day from all over the world.

Yet Rodrigues, Program Coordinator for the Hawaii People’s Fund, believes that mythology is a distraction. He says it gets in the way of the “real story” of Hawaii that too many people don’t know, or are “not paying attention to.”

Since 1972, the Hawaii People’s Fund has been working to tell that story through its grassroots social change grants. It operates as a partnership between activists and donors who “share a vision of a just, equitable, and sustainable society” – particularly as it affects Hawaii’s indigenous population, the Kanaka Maoli. Rodrigues says it’s the “untold story of the disparities between those with and without resources” that the Hawaii People’s Fund works to reveal.

For thousands of years, the Kanaka Maoli lived within a powerful culture, with their own customs. Yet as foreign settlers from other nations and military interests came in to dominate, Rodrigues says that people of Hawaii evolved “like any oppressed culture where people over time forget the story of oppression and take on the trappings of the oppressor.”

The broad categories of groups that Hawaii People’s Fund supports includes political organizing, environmental justice, peace and solidarity, economic justice, human and civil rights, and cultural activism. Grantees use tools such as community organizing, mobilization, education, research and cross-issue collaboration. Around 40 grants are awarded annually, totaling around $150,000.

In the last three years they have partnered with the Hawaii Community Foundation, which sometimes co-funds Hawaii People’s Fund grantees. They’re also a member of The Funding Exchange, a network of 16 public foundations that together grant nearly $15 million annually to grassroots organizations working for social, racial, economic and environmental justice.

Many Kanaka Maoli live in rural areas, and today many are poor. One organization funded through Hawaii People’s Fund is KAHEA: The Hawaiian Environmental Alliance, a network of activists addressing issues in Hawaii’s communities and ahupuaa (a geographic and cultural demarcation from the uppermost landforms to the outer reef).

KAHEA convenes key activists, kupuna (elders), practitioners and resource experts who together develop strategies and campaigns to effectively protect Hawaii’s fragile environment, resources and people.

Oahu residents are facing a situation where a proposed industrial park threatens to pollute the local water supply. KAHEA and its allies have been able to “create a safe space for community members to have a voice in the issue.” Rodrigues says that building capacity in these areas is important because Hawaii’s residents have grown accustomed to “the effects of degradation through pollution, industrial buildup, and military encroachment” since the overthrow of the Hawaiian Kingdom in 1893.

Grantees are encouraged to “talk about justice” and “draw the connections between issues and the disparities” in Hawaii that “go very deep,” says Rodrigues. Associated Animals is a unique grantee that produces “The Pinky Show,” a simple animated cartoon they use to illustrate complex issues, such as Hawai‘i’s “untold story.”

Rodrigues says he sees Hawaii People’s Fund in some ways as “different” than the typical Grassroots Grantmakers member organization – “yet we share many similar goals.”

Funding organizations to reveal the broader story of Kanaka Maoli struggles is important to Hawaii People’s Fund, and among its central areas of grantmaking. He says that “donors support us because they thrive on opportunities to help people build a future for Hawaii based on fairness, compassion and inclusion, critical within the larger context of social change.

“And we all thrive on the hope we hear from grantees.”


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