“When Henry Opukahaia, a Native Hawaiian, was traveling in New England in the 1800s, he was instrumental in inspiring the creation of the American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Missions of the United Church of Christ. It was this board that originally sent missionaries to Hawaii,” recounts Toni Bissen, executive director of the Pua Foundation.
In 1993, the UCC formally issued an Apology Resolution, which was recognized by the U.S. Congress, for the church’s part in the illegal overthrow of the Hawaiian monarchy 100 years earlier. The independent nonprofit Pua Foundation was formed in 1996 with seed money from the UCC, as a redress and reconciliation effort, Bissen says.
Pua in Hawaiian means to nurture or share nourishment, or to strengthen.
“The overrepresentation of Native Hawaiians in the criminal justice system is an example of a historical and community trauma,” explains the Niu Valley resident. “Our foundation focuses on these traumas – whether they be historical, community or individual – and then how to heal those traumas in order to go from trauma to transformation.”
Bissen, 53, was previously a staff attorney at both the Native Hawaiian Advisory Council and the Legal Aid Society of Hawaii. Her mother and her husband are both cancer survivors, so she knows firsthand about personal trauma. She became the foundation’s first executive director in 2000.
“Pua formed a pilot working group in 2007 at the Women’s Community Correctional Center to see what traumas led these women to become incarcerated, and how they could overcome those traumas,” she says. The women participated in spiritual and educational courses, substance abuse counseling and outdoor programs.
After the program ended in 2012, about 25 women who were part of the program’s peer-support team continued to advocate for prison reform through focus groups, peer support networking and pre-transition classes. Pua began a women’s transitional house in 2016 and a Waimanalo farming project in 2017.
“We focus on community organizing, capacity-building and training to bring about reconciliation,” Bissen points out. “Can prison be a place of healing? I have definitely seen miracles happen.
“People need three things for re-entry success: safe, clean, affordable housing; a livable wage; and healthy relationships.”
Pua has multiple community partners, including the YMCA, the Catholic Diocese of Honolulu, The Queen’s Medical Center and the Queen Liliuokalani Trust.
The nonprofit’s annual budget is about $329,000, with a full-time staff of four and one AmeriCorps VISTA worker. Its funding includes private and government grants, individual contributions, rental income, a small investment portfolio and product development, such as textbooks and DVDs.
“We chose to work first at the women’s facility because they are the nurturers, they give birth to the next generation. And it was an opportunity to work with a smaller population to see if it could be replicated in a larger context.
“The issue of incarceration is not just a Native Hawaiian issue – it’s a public health issue.”
Of the women who participated in the program and have since been released from WCCC, about 65 percent have stayed out of prison and done some “amazing work,” such as going to college and becoming gainfully employed.