There are pros and cons to writing about people and institutions you know fairly well. The pro is that you have a better view of the action from a closer seat. The con is that you know you’re going to see these people again, and they may not like what you had to say.

I’ve known Kamana‘opono Crabbe for well over a decade. We were in graduate school at the same time (he in the Ph.D. program for Psychology and me in the Ph.D. program for American Studies). We ran in similar circles and were both in the same scholarship/leadership program.

I’ve always known him to be an incredibly talented academic and exceptionally skilled at dealing with issues related to Hawaiian families and Hawaiian health. Prior to moving to OHA as its research director in 2009, he was at the Waianae Coast Comprehensive Health Center, where he served as a successful licensed psychologist and director of training.

Ka Pouhana Kamanaopono Crabbe during OHA meeting listens to public testify during public meeting.
Kamana’opono Crabbe has been working for the Office of Hawaiian Affairs since 2009. Cory Lum/Civil Beat

I hadn’t known him to be an administrator, so I found his rise at OHA intriguing. I want to say that I was incredibly fond of OHA’s previous administrator, Clyde Namu‘o, who came to OHA from the Judiciary, where he had been an extremely successful administrator.

I always felt that the ideal combination would have included both Crabbe, who brought a strong cultural background and tremendous gravitas to OHA’s leadership, with Namu‘o, who remains an exceptional administrator as CEO of the Polynesian Voyaging Society.

Yet, OHA has always seemed to lack the ability to innovate in a manner that draws upon its team’s strengths.

Crabbe always needed a strong administrator behind him and, with all due respect to the many fine people who rotated through in the role, he never quite found that person to fill the chief operating office role. This was best evidenced by the fact that during his seven years as chief executive officer, there were four different COOs.

Response to his departure has been extreme on both sides. His allies are lamenting the loss, while opponents are celebrating the news.

The trustees should hire a CEO who will surround himself or herself with strong, smart people.

It’s an unfortunate end of his tenure at OHA, as I think he was finally beginning to settle into the role. He is a smart, important leader in the Hawaiian community, and he comes from a solid political background. It seems to me that he struggled, significantly, to align who he has always been culturally and politically with an institution that is ultimately quite confining and limited.

OHA is not an easy place for beneficiaries and it is not an easy place to work. It has all the challenges of a state agency with the added political challenges of the Hawaiian community. And we are not an easy community.

As someone who has worked in this community for nearly 20 years, there are a few things I’ve learned (often the incredibly hard way) and would urge the trustees to consider as they select a new CEO:

First and foremost, they need to define and then manage, expectations between themselves and the CEO. What does that relationship look like? Who does what, and what are the boundaries of those relationships?

They need to increase transparency in both the administration and the board of trustees. I ali’i nōke ali’i i ke — a chief is a chief because of the people. Just because OHA is a state agency does not mean it cannot be led as a Hawaiian government. The people must be put first. Always.

OHA has some of the most dedicated staff I have ever seen. These people get raided, assaulted, yelled at, threatened, investigated, you name it. And they continue to show up to do their jobs, simply because they want to give back to the Hawaiian people. That is incredible. Empower them to do their jobs to the best of their abilities, because they are passionate about what they do.

The trustees should hire a CEO who will surround himself or herself with strong, smart people. The only reason I have ever succeeded in life is because I have constantly surrounded myself with people who are smarter than I am and willing to tell me “no.” I have the most incredible team on Earth around me. I would happily step in front of a car for any of them. I appreciate all of them. I am lucky to have them. They keep me in line. Find a CEO who is going to create a team like that.

Finally, and this is for everyone, we all need to get behind OHA. Yes, the institution is not perfect. The frustration with OHA can be maddening, but we all need OHA to succeed.

Because as Hawaiians, we are all OHA.

OHA is not the board of trustees. It is not the CEO. It is not the staff. It is all of us – we, the beneficiaries. And while, yes, OHA has a huge obligation to build bridges to the Hawaiian community; we as the Hawaiian community have the challenging obligation to walk over those bridges once they are built.

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About the Author

  • Trisha Kehaulani Watson
    Trisha Kehaulani Watson is a Kaimuki resident, small business owner, and bibliophile. She holds a Ph.D. in American Studies from the University of Hawaii and J.D. from the William S. Richardson School of Law. She writes about environmental issues, cultural resource management, and the intersection between culture and politics. Opinions are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Civil Beat's views. You can follow or contact her on Twitter at @hehawaiiau.