Last March, the White House chose 10 people in the U.S. to receive the Cesar Chavez Champion of Change award in Washington, D.C. Lee was one of those few recognized for committing himself to improving the lives of people in his community and accomplishing extraordinary feats that empower and inspire others.
Lee’s work with Castle Complex began in earnest in 1998, when then-Castle High science teacher Sheila Cyboron approached him, seeking help for her 11th- and 12th-graders, most of whom were native Hawaiian and at risk for failing academically.
Nine months after Lee developed curriculum based at Kaneohe’s
Waikalua Loko Fishpond for Cyboron’s 75 students, they had transformed from
- reluctant to motivational learners;
- unattached to engaged;
- emotionally disconnected to connected to their community.
The fishpond offers tangible lessons in science, technology, engineering, math, social studies and history. Lee calls Hawaii’s 400-year-old fishponds with their deceptively simple-looking rock walls “the pyramids of Hawaii,” comparing the highly skilled engineering feat behind the rock formations to those of Egypt. The walls have no mortar yet they’ve withstood ocean waves and currents.
“Herb has a way of encouraging people around him to feel that they are so much better than they are,” said Cyboron, a Windward District peer mentor teacher. “He’s a giving, people-oriented guy who inspires others to do more than they thought they could.”
In 2011, the Pacific American Foundation, where Lee serves as executive director, was selected as the anchor agency for Castle Complex’s
Redesign Initiative. Lee’s expertise in developing curriculum statewide is seen as critical for redesigning Complex-wide lessons outside of classrooms and creating partnerships with Hawaii’s community. At PAF, which promotes place-based education, he has assembled his dream team: curriculum writers, master teachers, scientists, kupuna and researchers.
There, Lee oversees more than 12 educational programs ranging from cultural conservation/land management techniques and teacher training to preparing students for careers in underwater robotics.
"No one has a bigger heart than Herb; he selflessly and generously gives time, energy, wisdom and resources to help Kaneohe’s youth,” said Redesign Director Susan Young.
Lee's interest in Hawaiiana stems in part from his heritage: Hawaiian, French, Chinese and Portuguese. The motivation that drives him is physical: that moment of connection that he sees in students' faces. “It's 'the look' that comes from the wonderment of learning,” he said.
To further his cause, the former "best dressed"-named graduate of Damien High has secured $25 million in grants through the years, including funding from the U.S. DOE, Environmental Protection Agency, and National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. He was named a Maurice J. Sullivan Fellow of the Hawaii Rotary Youth Foundation and received a Historic Preservation Commendation from the Historic Hawaii Foundation. He is the director of AKAMAI Foundation, a community-development financial institution, and former president of Lee's Communications.
Garnering attention isn't new to the husband of 26 years and father of a college sophomore. Ukulele player Herb "Kawaipiolani" Lee has recorded five Hawaiian-music albums, composed dozens of songs and performed worldwide. His trio, Hawaii Loa, played at Waikiki's Moana Hotel for 11 years; now it entertains at Haleiwa Joe's.
He describes himself as a person of faith and began serving as a deacon at his church three years ago. "I always try to see the good in people," Lee said. "It's my nature." One thing, however, that challenges him in his nonprofit work is "people who take advantage," he said.
In education, a concern is that "a lot of teachers and students are disconnected with the land and culture," Lee stated. "The solution for global sustainability lies in connecting to place and understanding the relevance of traditional knowledge and 21st-century science."
Born and raised on Oahu, Lee earned a master's degree in political science, and bachelor's degrees in psychology and political science from U.H.-Manoa.