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As we look to HACBED’s 30th Anniversary, Vice President of the board, Miwa Tamanaha, lifts up our longest-tenured board member, Jason Okuhama. Jason has served as President of the HACBED board for over two decades.


HACBED President of the Board, Jason Okuhama (left) and Bob Agres (right)

I was in grade school when HACBED was founded – the work, philosophy, network and values of HACBED have given so much to me – professionally, in my community, and in my personal life journey. As a “next gen” Board member at HACBED,  I have come to know Jason as a leader who is intensely humble, loyal, practical, and clear in his vision. 

One of the practices of HACBED that I value deeply, is “holding the thread” – a practice perhaps best held by this William Stafford poem, a favorite of Aunty Puanani Burgess (another HACBED founder). 

 

Mahalo, Jason, for holding the thread.

There’s a thread you follow. It goes among

things that change. But it doesn’t change.

People wonder about what you are pursuing.

You have to explain about the thread.

But it is hard for others to see.

While you hold it you can’t get lost.

Tragedies happen; people get hurt

or die; and you suffer and get old.

Nothing you do can stop time’s unfolding.

You don’t ever let go of the thread.

-William Stafford

I sat down with Jason over zoom in March 2022 to ask about his journey with HACBED and his vision for its future. Below please find an edited transcription of our conversation.

Q: Where were you born? Where did you grow up?

I was born in Honolulu, at Queen's Hospital and my youngest years were in ʻAiea. My father is Okinawan from upcountry Maui, and my mother is Filipino from ʻAiea. This area, where the stadium is now, at that time was lower-income, made up of former military housing – public housing, apartments, bomb shelters to play in. Early years, my father worked down under (Kwajalein Atoll) for a couple of years while my mom raised 4 children.  When I was 6 years old, our family moved to Waimea, in 1964. We spent about a year there while my dad worked at the Mauna Kea Beach Hotel. This was a really impactful time in my life, I was really shaped by the place, the physical location–for example, memories of spending the summer down at the beach at Puakō. 

A year later, when I was 7, we moved back to ʻAiea. Life in ʻAiea was nothing unusual – Dad was in a trade, it was a middle-class life. I was in JPO, played in the band, and sang in the school chorus.  

In 1971, when I was 12, we moved to Hilo, where my dad started a sheet metal company. I was in intermediate, and got involved in Boys Club – sports were a big thing. On Oʻahu, there were lots of kids and not many teams. But in Hilo, I enrolled in the Boyʻs Club, and that model is “everyone plays.” It made the transition easier for me.  

In 1973, my mother passed away. I was 14. I was very close to her and losing her was definitely a turning point – it was losing a guiding light, a path you would have been on. My dad was working all the time. I wasn’t getting in a ton of trouble, but I was partying more. And yet, there was a web of things that were also there that helped ground me – activities and opportunities at school (Hilo High), volunteer work, friends, sports. I graduated in 1976 and went on to the University of Hawai’i. 

Q. What in your growing up do you think influenced your thinking and work today? 

Growing up being poor. I mean, I didn’t think of it as being poor. We just were poor. We just didnʻt have money. My dad was a tradesperson, so that allowed him to move up financially. But when he opened his company, it put a big strain on the family financially. And moving to another island was another kind of financial pressure. He initially struggled as a small business owner and it impacted my mother a lot. 

I see how money is vital to the well-being of people, families, communities… and ironically, I also don’t believe money is important. It’s not what drives me. At what cost do you make money? A cost to others? To yourself?  

The core value that drives me, is mutuality. Mutuality shapes everything I do. I can make a living, help get needed capital to local businesses here in Hawai’i without being brutal, without charging excessive rates and fees. I make a living, and my clients are happy. When we are in balance, when all of our needs are equitably met, we are all better off, together.

Q. How did you come to HACBED? 

I started in banking at Hawaii National Bank in 1985, then with First Hawaiian Bank in Waimea. I moved back to Honolulu in 1990 to work for the state in DBEDT, running a loan program in the business services division. Bob Agres was in the Community-based Economic Development (CBED) position at the time, and I got to know Bob pretty well. He was doing his M.A. at the time and I helped him with the financial pieces of his final graduate project. In the mid-90s, I began working for Bank of America (B of A) in the Community Development Division. Before they were taken over by Nation’s Bank, B of A valued diversity within the company and was investing a lot of money into funding conferences and dialogue in Hawai’i, in which Bob and I were involved together.

In 1999, Bob approached me about HACBED, and I attended a retreat he convened late that year. I started at HACBED in 2000. I was heavily involved as a volunteer – it was an exciting time. Bob asked me to serve on the Board, and I said, “yes.” I’ve been with HACBED ever since.

(L-R) Stacy Sproat-Beck, Amy Luersen, Akoni Akana, Stacy Helm Crivello, Norm Baker, Jason Okuhama

Q. What significant things do you think HACBED has achieved in the last 20 years? What are you proud of?

I am proud of the community connection – the way that HACBED nurtures non-profits, getting them to the next level, helping them to do the things they want and need in their respective communities. It stems from a key gift – HACBED has always been a great listener, listening to community and not telling anyone what they should/need to do. HACBED never tells people whatʻs best for them, rather, they listen, and listen well. They never force anything that folks donʻt want for themselves. That is why we are where we are. We are respected because we have taken time to build trust, and deeply. The network that HACBED established early on was unbelievable – it is a network that has continued to build up over years.

I’m proud of the space that HACBED has given for Bob Agres’ leadership over its first decade especially–Bob is a unique and special person. I’ve never met anyone quite like Bob; he is so incredibly unselfish, and giving of himself and his gifts. In the same vein, I’m proud of the staff that have come through HACBED, including our current Executive Director, Brent Kakesako. So many people who have come through HACBED, continue to surround HACBED. I’ve never been surrounded by so many educated, smart people – who are so dedicated to community work. I mean, they could be making plenty of money in other kinds of work, but they are truly committed to what they do. 

All of this keeps me at HACBED. How can you not be inspired by what goes on, the work we do, the people who lift it up – how can you not find joy in being in that, and in fostering that? 

Q. What do you hope for HACBED and community economic development in Hawaiʻi into the future? 

My hope for HACBED is that we continue in our mission, and that we are bold in our efforts to help communities get what they need, to do what they want to do. I hope we grow boldly to take on the work that needs to get done. 

For example, I do loans, and there is so much out there, it’s overwhelming. There is so much money out there for the taking. But organizations, families, need help and need capacity to do the paperwork, get the financing and funding that they need. Without that, the community doesn’t benefit. Without intervention, people who may not have the best intentions but who can do the paperwork will get those resources instead. 

For me, I hope to leave the world better place, in whatever way I can do. Being involved in HACBED, helps me to do that. 

In celebration of this milestone anniversary, HACBED ʻohana, I invite you to join me in giving (whatever you are moved, or able to contribute) to this movement.

Donate to HACBED
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Learn more about HACBED's journey from our 25th anniversary celebration!
In the spirit of HACBEDʻs long history of gathering our people, HACBED will be holding a small gathering to look back and vision forward for its 30th Anniversary. Due to health and safety considerations, the gathering is being kept to a small number of folks. In this context, if you are interested to learn more and potentially attend, please reach out to our Executive Director, Brent Kakesako, at bkakesako@hacbed.org.
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