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Empowerment Economics in the Native Hawaiian Context

Report cover with 3 generations of native Hawaiians

“The Western tool of hoarding dollars and of building financial strength is not the endgame – that is not the reason we seek to build wealth. We build it for the Native endgame: to spend it on and to invest it in Native goals, to achieve language revitalization, to attract our Native youths and immerse them in Native cultural values that will serve them to be economically self-sufficient, and to set a foundation for Native Hawai’ian wellbeing…” 

- Robin Puanani Danner of Kaua'i, Sovereign Councils of the Hawai’ian Homelands Assembly


Within our lifetimes, the gap between the richest families in the U.S. and those living in poverty has grown increasingly wide. In 2013, the wealthiest families held twelve times the wealth of middle class families. Meanwhile, the poorest 10% of U.S. families have zero or negative wealth. This wealth inequality reflects the struggle of families to survive on low incomes, increasing job instability, and limited access to benefits and products that protect and build their wealth. Families of color experience the most entrenched and profound disparities. Practitioners, policymakers, funders, and community advocates are increasingly looking to community-driven innovations to target the root causes of the racial wealth gap – particularly through financial capability programming.

The roots of today’s racial wealth gap stretch back to the birth of this nation. History also shows us the great strength, resiliency, and creativity of communities who survived extreme adversity and exclusion and “made a way out of no way.” But, an inherent challenge to understanding the racial wealth gap experiences of different racial/ethnic groups is that rigid U.S. Census racial data categories do not necessarily align with how groups self-identify or account for the fluid and multifaceted nature of identity. Broad racial data categories and inconsistent classification of groups often generate misleading data that mask significant wealth building barriers faced by indigenous/Native peoples, Native Hawaiians, and Asian Pacific Islanders (API).

This case study demonstrates how one organization, Hawai'ian Community Assets (HCA), worked closely with its members and partners to build wealth in Native Hawai'ian communities through financial capability programming. Because Native Hawai'ians uniquely straddle both indigenous and API identities, this case study offers rare insight into the unique factors that may prevent or facilitate wealth building in these communities. While the Native Hawai'ian experience does not speak for all Native peoples or API, this study fills a gap in research by shedding light on a group whose strengths and struggles are uniquely reflective of both indigenous histories and API experiences. Each region and ethnic group has a unique asset story shaped by people and place. This study illustrates the strong need for continued data disaggregation and rigorous qualitative and quantitative research into the mechanisms that protect and build wealth in Native and API communities.

With support from the AARP, JPMorgan Chase, and the Kellogg Foundation, the authors introduce a new financial capability framework, “Empowerment Economics,” and identify promising innovations and potential future directions in financial capability practice and policy. We hope the following findings can inform the design, implementation and evaluation of future financial capability programs and lead to additional much-needed studies in partnership with indigenous and API communities.

Report Findings: HCA Promising Practices

Researchers demonstrate how HCA and their Kahua Waiwai financial capability program lead to a wide range of positive outcomes at the individual, family, and community levels. Through Kahua Waiwai, participants connect with concepts of resource management and cultivation that are rooted in Native Hawai'ian history and culture, and apply these concepts to manage and cultivate their wealth in our current economy. Families gain knowledge and tools that increase their financial security and broaden their perspective about what is possible, getting closer to achieving goals such as debt reduction, higher education, homeownership, entrepreneurship, and more. Through intergenerational dialogue and learning, the Native Hawai'ian community collectively builds wealth and power, while increasing their ability to set a foundation for, and determine, their future.

HCA’s curriculum, Kahua Waiwai, incorporates the following innovative and promising practices:

  • Blending personal finance with cultural values from communities of color

Cultural values help inform our actions. Participants in financial capability programs adopt financial capability concepts if they can draw connections between their cultural values and the purpose behind and/or benefits of learned wealth-building strategies.

  • Offering financial tools and education through shame-free dialogue

Talking about money, especially family financial struggles, often evokes emotions and vulnerability. Program participants can engage with financial concepts and discussion of family finances in a safe and supportive environment with peers who can directly relate to their own experiences.

  • Integrating multigenerational programming and intergenerational learning

The kind of learning that stays with us often organically comes from our social and family networks. Program participants invited to participate in financial capability programming with their families may find the learning environment to be more accessible, motivating, and meaningful.

  • Utilizing a community-embedded approach

Families may be wary of financial institutions that they are unfamiliar with or from past negative experiences. Community-based organizations with established relationships and a trusted reputation are more likely to successfully reach and recruit participants who may benefit the most from financial capability programming.

Empowerment Economics: A New Framework

 Diagram illustrative the 3 aspects of empowerment economics

The authors introduce the term “empowerment economics” to categorize this process and expand upon current approaches to financial capability. Empowerment economics is a culturally rooted approach to financial capability and asset building that reflects a community’s ancestral cultural values and sociopolitical history with wealth. Empowerment economics, the intersection between financial capability and culturally relevant and multigenerational programming, is an asset development framework that seeks to build wealth and power. On the surface, what HCA offers to families is a classic financial capability program. But digging deeper into their approach, we found the seeds of empowerment economics in how these services and educational opportunities are designed, implemented in the community, and spread across generations. Innovations at these intersections represent exciting directions for transformative policy, practice and philanthropy.

Native Hawaiian families, community advocates, and financial capability practitioners offer powerful insights into a vision for economic systems where communities can survive and thrive, and how the asset building field could better meet the needs of underserved populations.

Based on report findings, the authors recommend the following policies and practices that could lay the foundation for a Native Hawai'ian economic development and policy framework:

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