Image: courtesy OHA

Kamana‘opono Crabbe, OHA’s new CEO, does some heavy lifting--and numbers crunching

Rather than the Office of Hawaiian Affairs’ new chief executive officer, Kamanaopono Crabbe prefers to call himself OHA’s kapouhana (a metaphor for the central posts of a house). “It’s more aligned with how we’re trying to infuse culture into our organizational structure,” he explains during a phone interview. Drafted from within the agency to replace longtime administrator Clyde Namuo in January 2012, Crabbe, 48, is a Kamehameha Schools graduate with a doctorate in psychology. Before coming to OHA in 2009 to run the research department, he was a clinical psychologist at the Waianae Comprehensive Health Center.

When he arrived at OHA, Crabbe says, he discovered that he had to build the research department from nothing. There was no in-house data. “How does an agency measure its work and justify spending without data?,” he asks. It took him two years.

“Long story short, we figured it out,” he says. “We cracked the code.” After tediously collecting and cross-tabbing economic, health, housing, educational and cultural data from other state and federal agencies, and from non-profit service providers supported by OHA, Crabbe reports that OHA now has baseline figures against which it can measure outcomes. He found that, “We’re a little bit better educated than we were in 2000, our median family income is slightly increasing, but still the disparities in education, health and housing remaind.” The goal: to evaluate “systemic change in our strategic priority areas” by 2018.

But it’s an inexact science. For example, Crabbe says, “Culture is a major priority for us, and we have specific strategic results we’d like to see, things like increased achievement and self-esteem. There’s a lot of funding for cultural services and programs–language, hula, kupuna, daycare, agriculture, fishponds, values–but it’s not assessed. “What inspires keiki to focus, to take pride?” Crabbe asks. “Is it the ‘oli or is it the hula itself? Is it the structure and discipline? Or is it the relationship to the kumu?”

With an annual budget of $40 million, a staff of 150, and a mandate to better the conditions of Hawaiians, OHA’s most “impactful” services are two-fold, Crabbe says. The first is the $13.5 million a year disbursed in funding and making grants to small businesses, Hawaiian immersion charter schools and literacy programs, cultural entities, health programs and others.

Second, is its public policy advocacy,OHA regularly reviews relevant legislation and development proposals, and issues opinions. In the case of the controversial Hoopili project in west Oahu, for example, OHA declared that it “fundamentally cannot support” the urbanization of the “best and most highly protected agricultural land on this island.” In 2010, OHA uncovered pervasive anomalies in the state criminal justice system regarding punishments meted out to Hawaiians versus other groups, prompting creation of a task force on the issue.

In a recent interview published in the agency’s Ka Wai Ola O OHA newspaper, Crabbe talked about strengthening ties with the powerful and wealthy “alii trusts”–Kamehameha Schools, The Queenʻs Health Systems, Queen Liluokalani Trust, and the Lunalilo Trust–but, given that OHA has been wishfully saying that for 32 years, what’s different now?

“With OHA’s focus, direction and new leadership at the board level,” Crabbe says, “I think there’s now a real willingness among the executive leaders at both OHA and the alii trusts to leverage our resources together and strengthen the Hawaiian community.”

Lastly, Crabbe denies a charge made by OHA board of trustees candidate Walter Ritte (see cover story, next page) that OHA will become a developer as a result of its juicy Kakaako land deal with the state. Kapouhana or no, Crabbe says he will rely on consultants and a few new hires to guide OHA through the title transfer, master planning and permitting for the parcels, a rigamarole that won’t be complete, he says, until OHA’s 2014-2015 fiscal biennium.