Born and raised in Hawai`i, and a 1970 Kamehameha Schools graduate, Dee Jay Mailer stepped into the CEO position in 2004, leaving her former position as COO of the United Nations Global Fund to Fight AIDS, TB and Malaria. Her leadership has been characterized as focused on the mission, and emphasizing proaction as the best protection. Every decision at KS is weighed against five values: environment, education, economic, cultural and community. It’s not surprising then, that her reading choice embodied all.
Read the full interview, never before published, below.
What I’m Reading | Dee Jay Mailer
CEO Kamehameha Schools
Q&A with Christine Thomas
October 2007, Honolulu Advertiser
–What are you reading?
I just finished a book called “Three Cups of Tea: One Man’s Mission to Promote Peace . . . One School at a Time,” by Greg Mortenson and David Relin. It’s a nonfiction book and the reason why I picked it up is because the cover has three young Afghanistan girls reading, and they are really engrossed in their books. And I thought, my goodness, if we can fight terrorism by building schools in villages then I want to read that book.
It’s the story of Mortenson’s own life. … He was a mountain climber…he had tried climbing K2 and almost died doing that. In the process of getting down from the mountain he met various people in villages and realized that the people in general were very happy but the thing that was missing was any kind of education. There were no schools or books—most of the education came from the land and the elders who told stories. So after that his mission became building schools in Afghanistan. … He’s now built 55 schools in that region through money he got from philanthropists and from an institute he was funded for called the Central Asia Institute.
–How did you discover it?
One of the people that I work with, Rod Chamberlain, he’s an avid reader and he’s always picking up these wonderful tales of education. So he had picked up this book and wrote me an email and said you’d love this book…so I picked it up from his reference.
–What do you like about it?
What was really so meaningful to me was the journey he took from being a mountain climber, where his heroism was focused on himself, to equal heroism focused away from himself and on building schools in Afghanistan, where the spotlight is on the deed that was done and not on the hero. The spotlight was more than just him but a spotlight on the village and the spotlight on the courage and conviction they had to educate their people. That seems to be a universal value among people—education for people and children. … It’s an indication that fortitude, perseverance, and being tenacious are incredibly important in parts of our world to bring something of value to other people. Instead of climbing a huge peak he was climbing a different kind of peak to help people in the villages of Afghanistan. … Coming to build schools was the universal peace offering.
–How do you find time to read? Is it just for pleasure or is it necessary to you as a person or the work you do?
I wish I could say it was something I had to do. Because I’m in education it gives me insight and perspective about how you can educate people just with fortitude and not a whole lot of resources. But more important for me—it’s an escape from all of you have day to day. It takes me away from my world for a moment to other places in the world where I can live through someone else’s story rather than my own.
–How does Mortenson’s story affect your thinking about serving the needs of immediate Kamehameha Schools’ beneficiaries while also fulfilling the mission into perpetuity?
The first truth for me is that when you are educating people you need to listen to those people first. So when Kamehameha works with our communities, which we do a lot, we need to listen to them and we need to understand the circumstances that they face, and we need to be patient to be sure that we cover all the bases that are important to the community. By the same token, we never should give up, just as Greg [Mortenson] didn’t. We should always know that there is an end to the journey and always keep our sights on that, and never let the milestones in between stop us from going forward.
And the community will be with us along that journey because education is what can rescue all people from challenges and despair, and that outcome of freedom from being hopeless to hope is a universal aspiration. When we work with our community, everyone understands the value of education and wants that for their children. … For me it’s an affirmation that people around the world have a will to live, but that they need the knowledge and worldliness to do so. If you mix will with knowledge and understanding of what’s going on in the world, that’s where people thrive.