Lead For Hawai‘i Fellows Champion Change in Their Communities

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Lead For Hawaiʻi fellow Kuʻunahenani Keakealani is a lineal descendant working on a project called the Puʻuwaʻawaʻa Community Based Subsistence Forest Area. She has learned from her mentors how to do fence installation and management, transplanting of native plant species and ungulate management and data collection. (Photos courtesy of Lead For Hawaiʻi)

Eight young Big Island leaders are acting to drive change in their communities by taking part in a national service program that builds the next generation of leaders.

Since Lead For Hawai‘i began last summer, fellows have tackled some of the Big Island’s most pressing challenges, such as cultural and natural resource management, resiliency and disaster recovery and sustainable land planning. Lead For Hawai‘i is a Hawai‘i-based affiliate of Lead For America.

“We believe young leaders who are born and raised in our local communities are best equipped to solve Hawai‘i’s unique challenges,” said Alexis Ching, Lead For Hawai‘i co-director and Lead For America senior community partnerships manager, in a press release. “Lead For Hawai‘i recruits, trains and retains our most dynamic and innovative homegrown talent to solve old problems in new ways. In collaboration with government, nonprofits and private sector partners, our fellows create sustainable solutions informed by and aligned with Hawai‘i’s unique culture, heritage and history. Through our work, Lead For Hawai‘i seeks to change the narrative that says success requires leaving Hawai‘i.”

Lead For Hawai‘i fellow Kevin “Paka” Pakamiaiaea Davis, left, works on a project with Hawai‘i County planners.

Prior to becoming a Lead for Hawai‘i fellow, Kevin “Paka” Pakamiaiaea Davis just completed his master’s degree and was working in real estate. As a Native Hawaiian, Davis always planned to come back home after getting his education.


“The reason I pursued my master’s degree in sustainability and development was to be able to come home and contribute to creating a more sustainable future for our island, but there were no clear opportunities to bring my experiences back to Hawaiʻi,” said Davis in the press release. “Lead for Hawaiʻi presented the perfect opportunity for me to come home and continue learning, while applying knowledge gained during my undergraduate and graduate studies.”

Today, Davis is one of two community impact planner fellows working under Hawaiʻi County Planning Director Zendo Kern. In this role, he is focused on the county General Plan update, land use research and long-range planning. He is tasked with hearing from the community through a listening tour to create a project that serves and addresses a need in the community. He’s often thinking through large, complicated issues, such as climate change, affordable housing, preservation and resilient economic development, that can be difficult to deconstruct and simplify into meaningful action steps. He serves as a connector, building bridges between people and ideas in whatever spaces that he can.

“From my first day, I have been honored and humbled by the experiences I’ve been able to have in this fellowship role! I’ve been able to sit in and contribute to discussions with key leaders and change makers in our community,” Davis said. “I feel like this fellowship is constantly challenging me to grow and expand my capacity for leadership and service in our community. Whether it’s through intentional training and exercises or through my daily assignments, I can sense my kuleana to our community and the people I care deeply about. I thank God for presenting me the opportunity through Lead for Hawaiʻi to be working towards improving life in our community.”

For Kuʻunahenani Keakealani, the Lead for Hawai‘i fellowship program was an opportunity to connect with Puʻuwaʻawaʻa as a lineal descendant by working on the lands that are her ʻāina hānau (birthplace) while earning a paycheck. It also gave her the incredible opportunity to work alongside people with many years of experience in conservation.


As a Lead For Hawaiʻi fellow, Keakealani is playing an active part in a partnership between the Akaka Foundation for Tropical Forests, the state Department of Land and Natural Resource’s Division of Forestry and Wildlife and lineal descendants in a project called the Puʻuwaʻawaʻa Community Based Subsistence Forest Area. It is the first community-based subsistence forest area in the state.

While working alongside mentors Nehu Shaw, Katie Kamelamela and Kainana Francisco, Keakealani has learned different conservation techniques, strategies and methods of fieldwork, data management and native forest restoration planning. The group is currently in the first stages of preparation for future outplanting of thousands of native plant species.

“It is a privilege to step into my line of succession and later to pass the lamaku (torch) to the next in line. This project is something I’ve known about since I was young and now that I’m a young adult I am able to physically work the lands that give my ʻohana and myself life,” said Keakealani in the press release. “For me, working at Puʻuwaʻawaʻa is something I hold special to my heart because it is the land my grandfather has worked for generations. This is more about family tradition and continuation and certainly about the love we have for our ʻaina and forests of na puʻu.”

Recruitment for the 2022 cohort is underway, and Lead for Hawai‘i hopes the inaugural fellows’ work inspires others to join the next cohort of emerging leaders. Those interested in applying for the 2022 cohort have until April 15 to do so online.


In addition to serving in a paid, full-time role with a local nonprofit or government entity to address a critical community challenge, fellows begin their training with Lead For America’s Summer Institute in Washington, D.C., where they will learn about history, the most significant challenges facing the country today, how to build relationships across lines of difference and how to be an effective local leader in the community they call home.

The Kohala Center is one of the hosts for the 2021 cohort. According to the press release, Cheryl Ka’uhana Lupenui, president and CEO of The Kohala Center, appreciates the “the opportunity to invest in leadership for Hawai‘i, from Hawai‘i.”

Cindi Punihaole, director of the Kahalu‘u Bay Education Center for The Kohala Center, agrees.

“It is wonderful to see our young adults develop a sense of responsibility and embrace what is pono,” Punihaole said in the press release. “For they are our future and will become the movers and shakers of Hawaiʻi nei.”

For more information about Lead For America or the Hawaiʻi fellowship, click here or email [email protected].

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