A 14-year-old nonprofit wants every woman and girl in Hawaii to be safe, healthy, financially secure and empowered to reach their fullest potential.

We’re not there yet. Consider:

  • The wage gap between men and women for comparable jobs in Hawaii is getting wider, not narrower. If women were paid the same as men, the increase in earnings among all working women in Hawaii would total $2.4 billion.
  • Bullying is a big problem for female high school students. Nearly one in five were bullied on school property within the past year. Approximately one in six experienced electronic bullying. One in eleven skipped school because they felt unsafe there.
  • Nearly three of ten Hawaii women 18 years or older have experienced unwanted sexual contact. Approximately one in seven have been raped and/or stalked. One in eight have been sexually coerced.

These disturbing statistics were among the findings of “The Status of Women in Hawaii,” a research study commissioned by the Women’s Fund of Hawaii and conducted by The Institute for Women’s Policy Research in 2017. The report is available in pdf form on womensfundhawaii.org.

Not all of the findings were negative and, aside from the widening wage gap, there were few surprises.

“We wanted to know which areas we should focus on and pay attention to,” said Women’s Fund of Hawaii Executive Director Leela Bilmes Goldstein. “It confirmed what we knew.”

The Women’s Fund of Hawaii has been focusing on issues affecting Hawaii women and girls since it became a 501(c)(3) nonprofit in 2005. It traces its beginnings back to 1989 when Jane Renfro Smith, CEO of the Hawaii Community Foundation, created a fund within the foundation dedicated to women.

Smith saw the need to expand financial resources permanently dedicated to women and girls on the premise that, by narrowing the gender gap, women’s equality would lead to social progress.

Smith’s premise still holds true today. In her current best-seller, “The Moment of Lift: How Empowering Women Changes the World,” Melinda Gates makes the same argument 30 years later, on a worldwide scale.

But progress has been slow. The “Status of Women in the States” reports that the wage gap ratio in Hawaii dipped from 83.4 percent in 2004 to 81.0 percent in 2015. That means that women on average are paid 81 cents for every dollar paid to men for comparable jobs.

The Women’s Fund does not directly provide services to women and girls. It’s a grant-making organization that raises money and shares it with other nonprofits and projects. In its first 14 years, it has awarded almost $1 million to more than 200 grantees.

And, as the data suggests, it also commissions research to identify the critical issues affecting women and girls.

As its executive director, Goldstein works out of a small Kakaako office with Margie Welch, her administrative coordinator. A 13-member board oversees policy decisions.

The Women’s Fund hopes to achieve its $120,000 grant-making goal this year by soliciting prospective donors and holding two events – the “Greased Lightning Bowling Ball” and “Tea and Champagne.” It issues grants twice a year, in the Spring and Fall, and already has made gifts to a dozen organizations.

“We set a pretty aggressive goal,” Goldstein said. “We hope to make it.”

She said the Women’s Fund is one of the few organizations that invite community members to participate in choosing the grant recipients. The grants are limited to $5,000, and I asked Goldstein whether a gift of that size can make a difference for an organization. Yes, she said, offering several examples.

One organization used the money to buy bus passes for older homeless women. A woman who was living under a viaduct used the pass to begin visiting a doctor and other sources of medical and financial help. She eventually moved into her own apartment and her climb out of homelessness began with a bus pass.

Another organization used the money to launch an animal husbandry program called Goats in the Garden at the Women’s Community Correctional Center, using a small herd of goats as teaching tools and to maintain the underbrush around the prison grounds.

The Women’s Fund has also joined with two other nonprofits – the American Association of University Women Honolulu branch and Ceeds of Peace – in a pilot program to identify gaps in the education system’s ability to develop women leaders, especially Pacific Islanders and Native Hawaiians.

Called Girls Talk Back, the program brought together 14 young women ranging in age from 13 to 18 for six weeks of workshops in Windward Oahu this past summer. Participants learned leadership skills that enabled them to design action plans to tackle community issues that matter to them. With help from their mentors, the young women are making their action plans come alive.

Like many nonprofit executives, Goldstein did not start out with that career path in mind.

She was born in Thailand into a royal family dating back to the 19th century. Her great great grandfather was King Mongkut of Siam, also known as King Rama IV, whom Westerners perhaps know best as the “king” in the Broadway musical and motion picture “The King and I.” She says she has no royal title.

Goldstein moved to the U.S. with her family when she was a small child and attended kindergarten in California. After moving to Hawaii she attended public schools for three years before enrolling at Punahou School, where she graduated. She went on to earn three degrees at the University of California Berkeley, including a bachelor’s in French and a doctorate in linguistics.

After living in France for several years and consulting with a number of leading technology companies in California, she moved with her young family back to Hawaii and returned to her alma mater, joining Punahou’s development and advancement team. She also took up jewelry design, launching her own company, LK Atelier.

Her experience in fund raising led her to the Women’s Fund of Hawaii as a contract employee, which quickly led to her current position as its executive director. I asked her why she took the job.

“Social justice is really important to me,” she said. “Everyone deserves a chance. What they do with that chance is up to them. It’s all about justice.”

What lies ahead for the Women’s Fund of Hawaii? Goldstein says she would like to work with elected officials to raise the state’s minimum wage, establish paid family leave, and of course narrow that gender wage gap. She also wants the Women’s Fund to grow financially.

“I would like to get 30 applications each year and say yes to nearly all of them,” she says.

Contact Leela Bilmes Goldstein at leela@womensfundhawaii.org.

In this monthly feature, former newspaper editor and columnist Jim George visits with organizations that make up Hawaii’s not-for-profit community. He can be reached at jamesrgeorge@hawaii.rr.com.

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