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Talk Story with Puanani Burgess, Community Developer

photo: Kevin Blitz

Puanani Burgess is a respected Native Hawaiian facilitator and consultant in community development. Her fingerprints are most prominent on the Waianae Coast where she help found the Waianae Coast Community Alternative Development Corp. after community talks about the Ko Olina development. Burgess sat down with us to explain the need to rethink our community challenges and solutions, and the power of seeing things in a different, more personal light.

Community-Based Development

One of the first projects that I started to work with here [Waianae Coast] was called the opelu project, and it was based on the opelu [scad mackerel] fishing style of Milolii on the Big Island. In that process, the opelu fisher family knew where fish naturally congregate called the koa. The family would go out and feed that koa day after day, and when the fish were ready, when they were ripe, then the fish would feed the family. That reciprocity became the core of community-based development. It's a relationship between yourself and nature and everything else that you work with and live with in the community. When we began to think about community development, we had to think about what was good for the whole community not just the human beings.

Guts on the Table

I do a process called building the "beloved community" and, in it, there's an exercise I call "guts on the table." That exercise is built on the notion that, in Hawaiian tradition, the place that we think deepest and best is below the piko (navel). This process asks you to tell three stories. First to tell the stories of all of your names, because [that's] the way we introduce ourselves. ... It's in the story of all of our names that we tell the story of where we come from and who we are and what we do and why we were named. A second is to tell the story of your community, however you experience community. For some people, community is a relationship with other humans. It's my church, my family. But for some people, community is a place where you live. "I come from Waianae, I come from Nanakuli." It's that relationship that really shapes who they are and what they feel is important. The third story I ask to tell is the story of your gift, and that usually is the most difficult.

Gift-Based Economy

I did [the "guts on the table" exercise] with a group of 11th and 12th graders in Waianae High School and we went around in a circle and we came to this young boy. ... When it came time to tell the stories of gifts, he said,"What gifts? What kind of gift do you think I get? I stay in this freaking special-ed class, I get hard time reading, I cannot do that math, why you make me shame for asking me that kind of question?" ... Two weeks later, I saw him at Tamura's store. ... He sees me and he throws his arms open and says, "Auntie, I've been thinking about you, you know? Two weeks I've been thinking, what's my gift? ... Well, I cannot read too good and I can't do that math stuff, but Auntie, when I go in the water, I can call the fish, and the fish come every time. Every time I can put food on my family table."

When I talk to teachers and principals, I ask them, What would this boy's life have been like if this economy was gift-based? If the school was gift-based, what would his life be like? That's the question we ask in community development. What is the gift of the community? What is the gift of the neighborhood, of the family, of the people who live on this beach? What are their gifts and is there a way that we begin to plan those gifts at the center of the world? It's those kinds of questions that really drive me and create the opportunity for discussion.

Identifying Gifts

A lot of data books contain all the data about things that aren't working. Teenage pregnancies, the amount of drug abuse, divorce rates, all of the things that are negative about people in a community. It's very difficult to build something strong out of all of that weakness. What balances that is if you begin to help people like that boy see that he has the strength, he has a gift from which he can build a life. It's upon that identification and acknowledgement that I think the most positive and powerful development can happen. How we do that in a variety of ways is the key to community development. I think it comes with identifying that. Not me identifying it for you, but you identifying it for yourself. My job is to ask the question.


A lot of what I do is facilitate discussions, facilitate people being able to work together. The field is called, for me, conflict transformation, so it's helping people see each other differently. ... If they see each other differently, maybe they can perceive the issues differently, and out of that perhaps resolution can happen. But if I see the same way and I see the conflict the same way, we will just offer the same ways of resolving it that didn't work before.

Waianae Rising

I think Waianae is probably one of the most active places you will ever see. There are so many organizations that are doing a lot of social service work and there are more and more that are doing community planning and community development. ... I think seeing more of that kind of development happening, which is designed by community, which is run by community boards, will benefit the people here.

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Mar 26, 2013 10:35 pm
 Posted by  Subbian

Touching narrations of community building that are simple to adopt...

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