Tadia Rice, nominated by Honolulu Mayor Rick Blangiardi, has a diverse and colorful resume far from the norm on the ethics board.

Tadia Rice jokes that she’s lived long enough to have five careers. 

She’s been an anti-apartheid activist, a singer, a nonprofit executive, an advocate for female prisoners, a filmmaker and a radio host, to name a few. 

Rice is also a consultant whose resume reflects clients as varied as the late performer Prince and the secretive U.S. National Security Agency. She knew the late Nelson Mandela, the legendary South African president. She’s even been knighted, though not by British royalty. The honor was bestowed by a family of charities called the Order of St. John.

Now, Rice is up for a new role. Mayor Rick Blangiardi has nominated her to join the Honolulu Ethics Commission. If confirmed by the Honolulu City Council, Rice will join a group charged with promoting ethical conduct in city government, investigating ethics complaints and issuing opinions. 

Tadia Rice stands in her apartment in front of a wall of memorabilia.
Tadia Rice is Mayor Rick Blangiardi’s pick for the Honolulu Ethics Commission. (David Croxford/Civil Beat/2023)

“If we don’t again inculcate in citizenship what ethics means, we get what we vote for,” Rice said.

The group of six volunteers – Rice would be the seventh – is currently made up of mostly attorneys. There are three former judges, a lawyer in private practice, a mediator with a Ph.D. and a retired foreign service officer. The members oversee a staff of nearly a dozen attorneys, investigators and support employees. 

If confirmed, Rice said she will bring a different perspective to the board. 

“I’m not Pacific Club,” she said. “I’m not Bishop Street.” 

But Rice does have some prominent people in her corner. 

Retired Maj. Gen. Suzy Vares-Lum, who is the president of the East-West Center, met Rice in 2017 as they were both accepting a prestigious award: the Ellis Island Medal of Honor. Other honorees that year included Pakistani education advocate Malala Yousafzai and American astronaut Buzz Aldrin. 

“She has a definite passion, real care and concern for elevating the voices of those who are marginalized and not heard,” Vares-Lum said. 

Former Office of Hawaiian Affairs CEO Sylvia Hussey endorsed Rice in a letter to the City Council.

And Yvonne Chaka Chaka, an iconic South African singer and songwriter often referred to as the Princess of Africa, considers Rice a sister. 

In a Zoom interview, Chaka Chaka described her friend as a go-getter with a strong moral compass who has connected with people from all walks of life.  

“She’s an amazing woman,” the performer said. “You could not have chosen a better person.”

‘Strong Sense Of Justice’

Rice, 75, was born in Phoenix but grew up in Washington, D.C. 

The daughter of a factory worker and a housewife, Rice said she grew up poor, which motivated her to live a better life. 

As a Black teenager during the Civil Rights era, Rice said she experienced two pivotal moments. 

For one, she became a member of the Baha’i faith, which aligned with her values. The religion teaches that women and men are equal, there should be no prejudice and there should be spiritual solutions to economic problems, Rice said. 

Tadia Rice in the LA Times (Newspapers.com/1995)
Tadia Rice was featured in the LA Times after she served as an election observer in South Africa’s 1994 election. She still has a ballot from that race. (Newspapers.com/1995)

She also learned about apartheid in South Africa. That set her on a journey of activism that continues to this day, she said. 

“I was very driven by the idea of equity, justice, parity, not just gender, but everything – fat people, Black people, purple people, people who don’t speak English, people who were bent over, it didn’t matter,” she said. “People were people. And so the oneness of humanity is what drove the rest of my life, combined with a very strong sense of justice.” 

After high school, she said she attended Prescott College in Arizona and worked for years at Xerox and General Electric doing sales and client management, respectively. 

By her 30s, Rice said she was a single mom traveling extensively throughout the African continent, where she befriended political organizers in South Africa and what is now Namibia. 

In 1994, Rice was an international observer for South Africa’s first election in which citizens of all races could vote. The election marked the end of apartheid and resulted in Nelson Mandela becoming the country’s first Black president.  

Rice ended up staying for Mandela’s inauguration and made friends with newly installed government officials, she said. Rice said she was even with Mandela on New Year’s Eve 1999 when he visited the Robben Island prison cell where he had spent 18 years. Mandela’s foundation was not able to verify this, but Rice insists it’s true.

“Nothing would surprise me if someone said: ‘Oh, you’re making this up’,” she said with a laugh. “No, I’m not.” 

Displayed on a shelf in Tadia Rice's apartment are photos showing her with President Obama and Nelson Mandela
Rice knew Nelson Mandela, the iconic South African anti-apartheid activist and president. (David Croxford/Civil Beat/2023)

Since then, Rice has held numerous positions, including running Chaka Chaka’s public relations and charitable foundation.

And for the last 15 years, Rice has lived in Hawaii.

Throughout the last decade, she has volunteered in the Women’s Community Correctional Facility on Oahu, running an expressive arts program for incarcerated women. Inspired by the women’s stories, she filmed a documentary about them called “Beyond Bars: Prison Women Speak.” It won Rice a Best First Time Filmmaker award from Cannes International Shorts, an online film contest.

Rice also worked a stint as the CEO of the Hawaii Academy of Recording Arts (which closed during the coronavirus pandemic), and runs a weekly radio show focused on women. She’s also been involved with several community groups including the Kailua Hawaiian Civic Club.

Meanwhile, Rice has paid attention to the goings-on in the community, including the infamous Kealoha scandal. Ex-prosecutor Katherine Kealoha and her husband, former police chief Louis Kealoha, are now in prison following a saga that began when they framed an innocent man for stealing their mailbox. The story unfolded with a side of sex, drugs and bank fraud, and all of it “drove me up a wall,” Rice said.

“I’ve watched corruption reveal itself, especially within law enforcement,” she said. “I realize that injustice is more prevalent than justice.” 

She’s hoping she can be a force for good on the Ethics Commission. 

“That is very much part of aloha,” she said. “We have to enact our beliefs and translate them into deeds that reflect equality, equity, parity, good governance, fair and transparent operations … When a society doesn’t have morals, it will collapse on itself. It will implode.”

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