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Reimagining Education in the 21st Century- Aloha ‘Āina (Love the Land)

Herb Lee, Jr., is the Executive Director of the Pacific American Foundation (PAF) and a Native Hawaiian that has led multiple, highly successful youth leadership programs, career planning and development, environmental education and culture-based curriculum projects including the award winning “ Kāhea Loko and the Aloha ‘Āina” projects. His programs have trained over 3,500 teachers and benefited over 70,000 students throughout Hawaii, spanning grade levels K-12. PAF has been recognized as one of the leading non-profits in the development and training of rigorous culture-based education programs for both Native Hawaiians and non-Hawaiian students.

Herb Lee, Jr.

Herb Lee, Jr. is being honored as a Cesar E. Chavez Champion of Change.

Twenty years ago, I took on the responsibility to preserve and restore a 400-year-old ancient Hawaiian fishpond called Waikalua Loko. As a child, I grew up in the area and never knew the pond existed. I did not know a lot about fishponds, but I was overcome by a feeling to mālama or care for this place.

I recalled my Hawaiian grandmother who had passed away some 30 years prior about the lessons and depth of Aloha that she lived and tried to teach us. I remembered the sacrifices my parents made to send us to good schools so that we could have a better education than they did. 

As Hawaii changed and became a state, so did we. As I got older, I felt a deeper calling to understand the ways of old, the connection to place, to people, the culture and the richness that was uniquely Hawaii.

The restoration of the pond became both a physical and spiritual journey of understanding and awakening that I only began to comprehend. Many others were equally drawn to this place for reasons unknown but have been gratefully accepted. They have become mentors, teachers, stewards and most of all family. 

One day, a teacher from a local high school asked to bring her class to the pond as an extended “community classroom.” In an effort to make her science lessons more relevant, she was hopeful that a more “hands on” experience would do the trick. The transformation we witnessed inspired us to pursue innovative opportunities to reach more students in the community.

In 2000, the Waikalua Loko Fishpond Preservation Society partnered with the Pacific American Foundation (PAF), a non-profit 501(c)(3) organization to embark on a journey that would evolve into the Aloha ‘Āina framework built on relationships, relevance and rigor.

By 2005 through 2011, PAF received numerous awards and recognition by the Native Hawaiian Educational Council, the Hawaii Department of Education and the Hawaii Historic Foundation for its work in developing a “new model” for culture-based education, preservation and stewardship of the environment in Hawaii.  Since then PAF has had numerous opportunities to expand its curriculum development to Hawaii’s coral reef systems, other ahupua’a throughout the state, the Island of Kahoolawe, the science of tsunamis, and sea level rise.

Why education? In the 21st century, one’s level of educational attainment is directly proportional to good health, career advancement, employability, and stewardship of both individual and collective resources (community) in the places we choose to live. Further, Hawaii’s unique and isolated geographic conditions have provided the native and indigenous Hawaiian people of the islands with a rich cultural and sustainable method of living that is unmatched throughout the world. Thus the merging of traditional knowledge that is still practiced today with 21st century skills has catalyzed a new and rediscovered formula for how we teach children in the modern age.

To date PAF has developed (1) over 200 partners throughout Hawaii, the Pacific and the U.S. continent to support its success and mission; (2) enrolled over 21,000 students in its career planning system; (3) trained over 3,500 teachers statewide; (4) have over 70,000 students, parents, teachers and community members learn and steward the fishpond; and (5) provided fiscal sponsorship services for 12 community organizations.

As we approach each new school year, we hope to continue to learn from each other to give teachers, students, families and communities the tools and resources they need to be successful.

Herb Lee, Jr. is the Executive Director of the Pacific American Foundation located in Kāne’ohe, Hawaii, a non-profit dedicated to improving the lives of Pacific Americans.