Hawaii honoree works to close inequality gap

Leela Bilmes Goldstein is one of USA TODAY’s Women of the Year, a recognition of women across the country who have made a significant impact. The annual program is a continuation of Women of the Century, a 2020 project that commemorated the 100th anniversary of women gaining the right to vote. Meet this year’s honorees at womenoftheyear.usatoday.com.

As a young girl in Thailand, Leela Bilmes Goldstein couldn’t help but notice a social divide.

Why do we live in this big house and my friend lives in a smaller one? Why do some people have to work but others don’t? Why aren’t men and women treated the same?

What Goldstein, now 54, later understood: She had an early passion for social and gender justice. But how to turn that passion into a full-time gig? As a child, she was full of questions about closing societal gaps. As an adult, she’s fighting for answers.

Now the executive director of the Women’s Fund of Hawaii, Goldstein, who moved to Hawaii at age 6, spends every day working for the betterment of women. For her efforts and leadership, she has been named USA TODAY’s Women of the Year honoree from Hawaii.

The Women’s Fund of Hawaii bills itself as the state’s “only foundation with a unique focus on women and girls.” Each year, the foundation does out more than $100,000 in grants to local organizations that support “innovative, grassroots programs that empower women and girls in Hawaii.” During the pandemic, when women were hit particularly hard economically, Goldstein and the Women’s Fund of Hawaii stepped in to help.

First they created an emergency fund that distributed more than $30,000 to 15 different local organizations. Then they awarded $60,000 in grants to local non-profit programs that “imagined a post-pandemic Hawaii where women thrived.”

Finally, the fund released a gender impact report that detailed how women in the islands were hurt most by the pandemic. The report spotlighted the unique economic collapse that Hawaii – which depends heavily on tourism and fills many of its hospitality jobs with immigrant women – found itself in. From August 2020 to March 2021, Hawaii had the nation’s highest unemployment rate among women.

Goldstein can’t remember a time when she wasn’t fighting for women. She thinks frequently about a quote from famed author Maya Angelou: “I am a feminist. I’ve been female for a long time now. It’d be stupid to not be on my own side.”

Leela Bilmes Goldstein, far right, celebrates her daughter Ollie (second from right)) at Ollie's high school graduation.  Also pictured are Leela's husband, Brian Goldstein, and their older daughter Malia.
Leela Bilmes Goldstein, far right, celebrates her daughter Ollie (second from right)) at Ollie’s high school graduation. Also pictured are Leela’s husband, Brian Goldstein, and their older daughter Malia.
Courtesy Leela Bilmes Goldstein
Who paved the way for you?

I am so fortunate and honored to be on the board of the Women’s Funding Network, and from being involved with that, I have met some women who I call “the big girls:” The former president and CEO of the Texas Women’s Foundation, Roslyn Dawson Thompson is just an incredible, non-nonsense woman. She’s super warm and friendly, gets things done, manages this organization that has a $36 million endowment, she’s served as a mentor to me. I really look up to her.

And then also The Women’s Foundation of Colorado is led by Lauren Casteel, a woman of color who says it like it is, she’s a go-getter, vivacious, so competent.

I don’t know how each of those women got so brilliant, but I want to be like them when I grow up.

What is your proudest moment?

It’s as a mom. When my oldest daughter, Ollie, got into the University of Oregon, she was so happy and I just felt so happy for her and proud of her that she’d worked really hard and got what she wanted.

With my second daughter, Malia, it wasn’t a moment but more than a time period, because she’s a 2020 high school graduate. With her de ella, it’s the resilience she’s exhibited that makes me proud.

Do you have a guiding principle or mantra?

Yes, it’s a quote. I love quotes! Desmond Tutu once said, “I’m not an optimist. I’m a prisoner of hope.”

To me that means that I believe in the positive, I believe in human potential. I believe in being in the moment even if it’s a difficult moment. You’re going to make it. I don’t generally dwell in anxiety – not to say I don’t have anxiety, but I dwell in a place of hope.

Hawaii is often associated with paradise, and we forget there are regular people there, working, living and struggling.  What do you want people to know about the women of Hawaii?

Item is often perceived as paradise, but it’s not paradise for everyone. It can be a struggle, for women especially. The people who are most likely to live in poverty here are single moms. Not single parents but single moms.

But what I think of with women in Hawaii, I think about that they’re strong, they’re proud, they’re wise, they’re gentle in their strength. They struggle. They love this place and they love the culture and they love their families. Communities thrive here because – or really, when – women do.

Leela Bilmes Goldstein
What I think of with women in Hawaii, I think about that they’re strong, they’re proud, they’re wise, they’re gentle in their strength. … Communities thrive here because—or really, when—women do.

What advice would you give your younger self?

Figure out what you love and then, let’s be real, figure out if you can make a living off it. And find a mentor!

Follow national correspondent Lindsay Schnell on Twitter at @Lindsay_Schnell



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