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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Thursday, May 28, 2009

Voices that toppled trustees

By Jerry Burris

History, they say, is written by the victors.

That is surely true of the new book "Wayfinding Through the Storm Speaking Truth to Power at Kamehameha Schools 1993-1999," out now through Watermark Publishing.

This is the story of the uproar that convulsed Kamehameha Schools, led to the ouster of the first all-Hawaiian board of trustees and changed forever the governance structure at the powerful landholding and educational institution. Edited by respected historian Gavan Daws, this is not your typical history.

Rather, it is an oral history, the words and thoughts of the faculty, students, parents, alumni and others who chose to stand against a powerful institution and its all-powerful leaders: the trustees. Against all odds, the uprising succeeded. That makes the victors, in this book they collectively call themselves Na Leo o Kamehameha, the ones who get to tell the story.

Drawn skillfully by Daws out of millions of words, oral history interviews and transcripts, the story infolds, so to speak, in real time, in the words of those who lived it.

It is anything but a balanced accounting of what happened during those dramatic days, as if balance is even possible when one of Hawai'i's historic and most powerful institutions was brought virtually to its knees. Largely missing in this version of the story are the words of the five trustees who make up the "bad guys" in this telling. Well, make it four trustees. Former trustee Oswald Stender, who openly encouraged the insurrection, comes off fairly well. And he is frequently heard from.

The other four Henry Peters, Richard "Dickie" Wong, Gerard Jervis and Lokelani Lindsey are largely mute in this accounting. They are quoted at times out of the official record, or from news accounts, but they are largely seen at a distance, malevelolent, manipulative, uncaring and ultimately dangerous to the good health of the estate and its education mission.

The ultimate metaphor here is the moment when a courageous crowd of alumni and others marched on the estate offices to demand reform from the trustees. Rather than meeting the crowd in an open, Hawaiian way, the trustees hid behind windows, looking down on the protesters while staff took their photos and wrote down names.

Daws acknowledges the absence of the trustees in his bruising introduction. "There are other stories from the crisis years that could be told," he writes. "In particular, it would be good to hear from each of the majority trustees. How would they assess their roles? How would they justify their disastrously damaging decisions and explain their staggering miscalculations? This would make interesting reading and would be valuable, as part of the historical record of Hawaii," Daws wrote.

So, if the trustee part of the story is missing, what you get is more than valuable. It is a starkly human story. The faculty, students, parents and others who stood up against the trustees did so at great risk, and they knew it. Wayfinding at times takes on the tone of a spy novel, with tales of bugged telephones, secret informants and verbal and physical threats.

And there is little subtlety here. The trustees come across as just short of pure evil. And by far the worst of them in this accounting was the "education" trustee, former Maui educator Lokelani Lindsey. Overbearing, out of her element, bullying, obstinant, Lindsey comes across in this accounting as, in Daws' words, "a disaster."

If anything, this book is an indictment of Lindsey, whose active involvement (the authors would say "meddling") was the proximate cause of the downfall of the trustees. Forget the self-dealing, the extravagant salaries, the political manipulation that was already well-known in the community.

All the dramatic moments are relived through the voices and emotions of the people on the front lines, the teachers, parents, students and others of the Kamehameha 'ohana.

This is, in short, a story of courage, emotional pain and a healing process which by any account is still under way.

Jerry Burris' blog is at www.honoluluadvertiser.com/section/featuredblogs.