Original story published by Kamehameha Schools on July 1, 2022, click here to read.

Eight young leaders from O‘ahu recently traveled to the Opportunity Youth Forum in San Francisco to connect with other young adults from historically oppressed communities, and to learn best practices that empower opportunity youth to thrive. A Kamehameha Schools grant helped make the trip possible.

The forum was founded in 2012 as a result of the Obama administration’s call to address the needs of the millions of opportunity youth – young people between the ages of 16 and 24 who are not employed or in school.

The Hawai‘i delegation to the three-day forum included participants and staff from opportunity youth-serving programs at the Kawailoa Youth and Family Wellness Center, including Kinai ‘EhaKupa ‘Aina (an initiative of Partners in Development Foundation), and Residential Youth Services & Empowerment (RYSE). These programs assist young adults who have experienced homelessness, been caught up in the criminal justice system, or confronted other adverse life circumstances.

This was the first time that any of the rising ‘ōiwi leaders had traveled off-island. They joined plenary sessions that delved into pressing topics such as workforce development and Black reparations; joined breakout sessions with leading experts and advocates; and participated in small-group workshops with other young people from across the nation.

One youth leader was surprised at the number of participants in their early 20s running community programs that help other youth. Hearing about their successes was inspirational and a motivation to step up, improve, and help other people. Days of cultural exchange and dialogue allowed delegates to learn from their peers, but also to reflect upon and share their strengths as ‘ōiwi leaders. “We can show them the mana, the love, the aloha, that Hawaiians have for everyone,” said Gabe Freitas, a youth navigator at RYSE.

The delegation from Kawailoa joined groups from seven indigenous communities involved in the work of the forum, which include Native American nations such as the Hopi, Pueblo and Sioux. Breakout sessions allowed youth to learn more about the lived experiences of other indigenous communities, and how they are addressing the toll of structural racism. Participants also visited San Francisco neighborhoods including Chinatown, the Latinx Mission district, and the LGBTQ+ Castro district.

The KS Strategy & Transformation Group and the Early Childhood Opportunity Fund provided financial support for the huaka‘i to the City by the Bay. “This is an example of what we mean when we commit to investing in the development of ʻōiwi leaders, especially those who have lived through trauma and a spectrum of adversity leading to discouragement, shame and loss of hope,” said Lauren Nahme, vice president of Strategy & Transformation. “We are inspired by the deep care, brilliance and desire to make a difference like Gabe and Mana with just a little bit of care, belief and investment from those around them.”

At the conclusion of the conference, Hawai‘i youth gathered to debrief their experience, and to reflect on what it meant to them. “From when I was born until I was 15 my only opportunity was to try and survive – I couldn’t focus on school, I couldn’t focus on friends, I could only focus on okay, when is my next meal,” said  Mana Morales, a natural farmer at Kupa ‘Āina. “At this conference people are asking…what is my plan in the next five years…and hearing that question almost every day has got me thinking about it, and now I know I can control my future.”

“I have the tools: I have a great support system, good friends, good family,” added Morales. “Now I’m just kind of ready to rocket ship and get things done.”