If you could bring to mind one word to capture our collective response to the COVID-19 pandemic, what would it be? For me, that word is resolve.
Resolve, determination, a collective will to survive and thrive.
As a small credit union on a remote island in the Pacific (Hawaii is the most isolated land mass on earth), our community has trusted us to steer them through crises, from horrific flooding in 2018 to COVID-19, a mere two years later.
The COVID crisis—this great reset—has revealed systematic vulnerabilities in our food supply chain and shown racial, gender and economic inequality in stark relief. No one, in any income bracket, as we undergo mass vaccination, can profess immunity. It has touched us all.
This is an inflection moment. A time for change. In Hawaii, it means a turn toward regenerative tourism. Globally, I believe it presents a true coming of age for the credit union movement.
Kauai can serve as a model for this change. There is a tradition here called Hukilau. We pool our resources for the good of the island. No one is left behind. Founded in 1947, our small credit union embraces the Hukilau tradition. Our interdependency breeds a fearless spirit grounded in a heartfelt love for the land—and a communal sense of responsibility to care for it.
Like economist Kate Raworth, I believe economies should be designed to thrive — and allow us all to thrive with it—rather than focused solely on growth. The pandemic has proven this to be true, especially in the Hawaiian Islands. We need to use local ingenuity to meet local challenges. A notable example is our partnership with Common Ground, a vertically integrated food innovation centre that supports farming along with incubator, accelerator and distribution programs for local food entrepreneurs.
I can offer many examples of successful small business pivots on Kauai over the past year. Fifth and sixth generation businesses that have stayed open, competing with online goliaths. Businesses with a deep sense of kuleana (responsibility) for employees and future generations. New businesses, scaling up and committed to the sustainable use of finite resources.
I believe the emergent societal change runs even deeper.
In times of crisis, priorities can be overwhelming, but challenges lead to greater clarity of purpose. In the past year, we have fed over 1,200 households, provided over $5.6 million in rent relief and funded over 650 Kauai businesses. Many are women-owned businesses and through “school at work” options for local families, we’ve enabled parents to maintain their childcare obligations while coming to work every day. Banking with KGEFCU strengthens the social fabric of our island, sustains our economic independence and empowers our families with financial freedom. We show up and take care of our community in a way no one else does.
More than a local banking solution, we function as a “cultural commons.” In 2020, COVID became the driver for new programs such as “Pau Hana with a Purpose” (an after-work business get together giving local business owners an opportunity to talk candidly about their issues) and “Music with Aloha,” a series of Facebook Live events we sponsored to showcase local musicians and give people at home some welcome entertainment.
The opening of our Kilauea Branch in September is emblematic of our mission to strengthen the social fabric of the island. We live the mantra — “of Kauai, for Kauai, dedicated to those who build, teach, protect and care for our island” — celebrating the artists, musicians, farms, chefs, ranchers and business owners that comprise our community. Artist Maxine Longoria created a 30-foot wall mural in the branch depicting 12 deeply resonant scenes and stories of Kauai, embellished with the handprints of local keiki (children). Such installations become legacy, enjoyed by future generations. Various historical artifacts are on display, shared with us by the Kauai Museum. It has always been about the community, 100%.
Our December confirmation as a Community Development Financial Institution (CDFI) — Kauai’s first — opens up access to a lifeline of U.S. Treasury funds that will recirculate in the local economy and provide jobs. The economic relevance of CDFIs is unquestionable. CDFI credit unions consistently outperform their peers in growth, earnings, and services and manage more than $70 billion in combined assets across 46 states. CDFI partner Inclusiv has reported that CDFIs leverage $12 in private equity for every $1 of public investment capital.
We thus have at our disposal a powerful model for economic growth with the potential to heal this divided nation and create a more sustainable economy, putting people over profit.
My challenge to you is to find the resolve. Know that you have the tools to create equitable change. Know that the moment of preparedness is at hand — our members, our funders, a new generation of millennial thinkers and the majority of human beings on this planet desire change. Social entrepreneurship is the backbone of this change.