Illustration by Shar Tuiasoa

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‘Ōlelo Hawai‘i, the Hawaiian language, has a way of doubling a word to produce another with a multitude of meanings. Waiwai, the Hawaiian word for wealth, has its roots in the abundance of wai, or water—access to streams and the sea in the Pacific has long been a source of power. Wai, the common term for freshwater, is even incorporated into the word for law, kānāwai. Waiwai, meaning wealth, can describe a person, a community, or a relationship.

I spent the summer reckoning with the relativity of wealth—the opportunities it can deliver or deny young people, how it can be defined beyond money. In Kalihi, I taught a civics course to high school students in Waiwai Health Fellowship program, which contextualizes the health of its youth fellows within the health of their families and the community. The program was developed by nonprofit Kokua Kalihi Valley, informed by writings of educators Paulo Freire and Michael D. James, to empower youth to advance their health by developing tools needed for the lives and professions of their choice. What my role meant in practice was teaching writing and storytelling workshops, sitting on a mat with the kids or working through assignments. Most of the students were from immigrant, minority, and Pacific Islander families that fall below the federal poverty line, whose public schools do not center their identities or experiences. We discussed mental health, nourishing eating habits, self-care, and self-respect.

As an adult, it’s easy to forget how wretched it was being a teenager, how even the popular kids cope with changing bodies and notions of self in a world that renders them powerless. Over the duration of the program, courses modeled sustainability, food and land sovereignty, and how to deconstruct cultural amnesia, which youth fellows did daily in “healing circles,” sharing their names, their homes, and ancestors they were bringing to the conversation. The circles were often awkward as hell for the kids.

But, when kids feel comfortable, it’s an almost magical experience to witness them develop. A girl who only spoke to her sister at the program’s start was reciting poetry at graduation. A boy who moved from the Philippine province of Ilocos Norte and could barely speak English a year ago finished the summer knowing the lyrics to songs on the radio. Most of the kids returned to school with loose ideas of what kind of lives they might lead if they work hard and get a bit of luck. I learned a new role, a version of an older brother—a “kuya” in Tagalog—more of a family guide than teacher. The kids showed me dance moves from video games and YouTube and helped me remember that nobody chooses the circumstances of their childhood. Yet, despite age or income, ability or illness, life is still made of innumerable choices. Like the land made fertile with streams, stories are the basis of wealth, overflowing with infinite possibilities.