100 years

Hawai‘i Community Foundation
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We sat down with Justina Acevedo-Cross to learn about her path to HCF, her work to support young children in Hawai‘i, and where she’s seeing traction.

Justina Acevedo-Cross

Q: Aloha, Justina! What do you do at Hawaiʻi Community Foundation?

A: My job title is program director. What that means is that I help support our young kids and families in the state through the initiative work I'm leading at HCF, through Promising Minds. One of the special things about HCF is that we have a bit of a bird's-eye view of many different programs and resources and policies throughout Hawaiʻi, and then I get to figure out how to connect the dots and support that work to move forward. One tool we have is grant making, but another big role we often play is in convening partners and leveraging existing resources and funding.

Q: How did you come to HCF?

A: My very first introduction to HCF was as a scholarship recipient, right out of high school! I'm one of four girls in my family who were all in college at the same time, so it was a big stretch for my family to cover tuition. That scholarship award helped me through four years of college.

After that, it took a bit of time to circle back around. I spent a good chunk of my professional career in California, working in the philanthropy sector at the David and Lucile Packard Foundation, but I always knew I wanted to return home to Hawaiʻi. When I came back, I landed at Hawaiʻi Community Foundation, around January of 2018. It was so great, because HCF really helped me reconnect with this place where I had grown up, but I hadn't really been a professional here. It's been a learning curve, but just such a great way to get to know the community here again.

Q: You have a background in education and early learning—what led you to that career path?

A: I come from a family of educators. And so, I guess, instead of resisting, I joined the movement. Really, though, I wasn't that focused on education work until I did my graduate degree program in public policy. I was doing work in community economic development, things like micro finance and micro lending programs in the U.S., and the education aspect kind of snuck in there, because it turns out that education is always a pillar in community economic development. And then I got even more experience in early care and learning policy when I got the opportunity to do a fellowship program at the David and Lucile Packard Foundation. And it all kind of led me here to where I am today, working with Promising Minds.

I was joking a little bit about how I come from a family of educators. But, in a lot of ways, that has been a value that has been carried down, from my parents and my grandparents, down to me—that education can be a game changer. So, for me to be able to work in this space, it really aligns with my values.

Q: What was the genesis of the Promising Minds initiative?

A: Even as I joined Hawaiʻi Community Foundation, there was this interest in understanding what young people need to thrive and grow. New research was coming out about the effects of adversity and toxic stress on early childhood, below the age of 6, and so there was a realization that this would be an important area to focus on to make an impact in Hawaiʻi.

There was also this recognition that caring for and supporting young children shouldn’t only happen in clinical settings or medical settings. The places where families are can be some of the most transformative spaces. If you work with people in home-visiting programs, if you work with people in childcare settings, these things with daily, weekly contact with families, it can be really powerful to have these workers knowing how to recognize issues and make referrals in those environments.

Q: What are a few steps Hawaiʻi needs to take to achieve a cohesive, well-functioning early care system for children?

A: We're trying to improve both the education and health systems, because both are really important, and families have a lot of interactions with both. Right now, these two systems are very separate or siloed from each other. If there was a common system of shared data, it would make things so much better.

Also, a lot of times, there's a wait-and-see approach to treatment because we don’t currently have enough specialized clinical providers that we can refer young patients to, for example like a licensed social worker with specialized infant/early childhood behavioral health experience, or a child psychologist. Part of the goal of Promising Minds is to address this real workforce shortage we have.

Another thing is that sometimes treatment at that age is … a lot of it can be done through what are more like brief interventions, or things that wouldn't be in a typical category of treatment. As you can imagine, it's very hard to diagnose babies and toddlers with something, and yet they're at this critical development period where addressing issues early could have huge benefits in a lot of arenas: school, even down the road in your adult work life.

Q: How can people reading this help out with this effort?

A: One thing I like to share is that we all can play a positive role in the lives of young kids around us. There's something called Positive Childhood Experiences, or PCEs, basically a list of really simple actions that have been vetted and tested, so we actually know that they make a difference. Things like having a caring adult in your life who takes a real interest in you. Any one of us could be that caring adult role. You probably have someone in your family, or in your immediate circle of friends, with kids age 6 or younger—just think of one thing you could do to reach out to them to help them have a better day.

Q: What's your favorite part of working for HCF?

A: It sounds so generic and cheesy, but I love my coworkers. They’re such interesting people to work with, and so smart. It’s great being part of a team doing really good work; it makes you feel like you're getting lifted up or boosted somehow. Also, at the end of the day, it's so important to be with an organization that aligns with my own personal values, and HCF is definitely that.

Q: What do you like to do in your spare time?

A: Realistically, chase my 3-year-old and 6-year-old around the house. I do love paddleboarding! I don't get out on the water enough, but that’s my happy place, to be out paddling on the water. I've been trying to learn to play the ʻukulele, too, although I think my 6-year-old is going to be better than me at that soon.

This conversation took place in April 2022.