By Cybele Zhang
After campus closed in early March, Jack Golub ’20 and Jet Toner ’20 found themselves 5,000 miles apart. The pair met on Move-In Day 2016, when they were roommates in the then-named Serra dorm (now Sally Ride) in Stern Hall, and they have been friends ever since.
In that year living together, the pair brainstormed startup ideas, but nothing ever came to fruition. Now home in the midst of a global pandemic, they drafted their newest plan: HNL Collective, a clothing brand that donates 100% of profits to those in need.
Back on the Hawaiian island of Oahu, Toner has seen the effects of COVID-19 first hand. One in three Hawaiians is now unemployed, compared to less than 6% unemployment in California. This staggering statistic makes Hawaii the hardest-hit state nationwide because its economy is so reliant on tourism, which is now virtually nonexistent.
For Toner, whose mom works in the state’s foster care system, the plight of already underserved families during the pandemic hit home, prompting him to give back.
“The marginalized in Hawaii are some of the most marginalized people anywhere,” said Golub, a former Daily sports columnist who is majoring in comparative studies in race and ethnicity (CSRE) and sociology. “If you think about the history of this state being its own sovereign nation that was overthrown by U.S. economic interests, you know, it was a picture perfect example of American economic imperialism. And so, these are people that in every way have been taken advantage of by the social, political, economic world in which they inhabit.”
There were over 1,600 children in the Hawaiian foster care system as of September 2017, according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, a number that has been rising each year. About 12% of all Hawaiian children live in poverty, and that number has risen amid the coronavirus outbreak.
In response, Golub, Toner and others co-founded and launched HNL Collective on April 2 to support the Hawaiian foster care system. The website currently sells sweatshirts, T-shirts and stickers.
In the first two weeks of orders, HNL Collective raised more than $6,000 — used to purchase strollers, car seats, diapers, wipes and toys for foster-care families across Oahu.
“He [Toner] jumped into action to support others before most of us could think about anyone but ourselves,” Golub said. “In challenging times like these, I think the best thing we can do is … consider our own privilege and direct as much of our effort as we can to uplifting the people that need it the most.”
The choice to start in merchandise was strategic for two reasons. The sales fund the donations to foster care, and the symbolic meaning of the logo spreads the nonprofit’s message across the country.
“The clothing is the vehicle,” Golub said. “There’s something symbolic about buying this clothing. By buying it, you’re showing, ‘I am committing my awareness to people, who are not necessarily close to me. I am extending myself in a time of need to be in solidarity with those that can use my help.’”
Although the brand is new and may be unrecognizable to many, Golub sees this as a conversation starter to prompt continued activism.
“At the end of the day,” Golub added, “our mission is making people more responsive to their communities and to put more of themselves into their communities. In order to do that, you first have to identify that that community exists.”
The brand’s name parallels their mission. The acronym HNL has a double meaning — an abbreviation for Honolulu and “Heart Never Loses,” their motto.
“It’s the belief that that drives our work,” Golub said. “Jet’s mom has a saying that inspires me in times of need. It says that if you’re playing your hardest, you can’t lose — you just run out of time.”
“There is no question that we will beat the coronavirus [and] that we as a civilization are not going to lose to it,” Golub added. “But for some families, if we do not act quickly, it’s possible we run out of time and are unable to help. So while we can take comfort in knowing that we will eventually get this done, we have to simultaneously act with urgency because the health of every single person is not guaranteed.”
Despite growing up in New York, Golub has a “big appreciation” for Hawaii. In addition to working at farms last summer on the Big Island, Golub has spent time on Oahu while visiting the Toner family.
“I visited Jet and spent last summer on the Big Island, during a time when the spirit of Hawaii and the culture of the people was really called into question and really put to the test in the Mauna Kea TMT project,” Golub said. “I was blown away by the solidarity among Hawaiian people, so that’s definitely a community that I have boundless respect for and that I want to engage with and support.”
To Golub, what makes this organization special is its focus directly on the families most affected.
“The way out of this crisis is going to be through paying attention to the people we cannot see,” he said. “The people that are most at risk are not the ones giving daily briefings. They’re not the ones with a large social media following. They’re the ones that are sitting quietly in their homes and running out of food or maybe need to get to the hospital or need some other basic care and are unable to receive.”
HNL Collective has since taken on more ambitious goals to connect more personally with those in need through HNLCollective.com’s interactive forum, led by Golub, to foster community despite social distancing.
The website includes conversations on everything from movie recommendations to watch while quarantined to recipes. The forum’s next endeavor is launching “A Day in the Life — Quarantine Addition,” where community members share their stories to foster conversation in a trying time.
“Something I had been working on when [Toner] contacted me was thinking about group emotional well being activities for people to do while they’re quarantined,” Golub said. “Jet identified a way for those to overlap.”
In addition to serving as an interactive webpage, the forum is also a social space that extends beyond HNLCollective.com. The organization has hosted events, mostly through Zoom, including guided meditation. The kick-off event featured live music from Oahu-based artist Misi the Singer.
“The HNL Collective zoom event was a great experience,” said Collin Riccitelli ’20. “I was able to meet and talk with a diverse range of people all while supporting the important cause HNL Collective is fighting for. There was a talented local musician, who played a few songs, and then we spent the rest of the call playing games and getting to know one another.”
Now a month into the initial project, HNL Collective has expanded to include HNL Gives, which Golub describes as a “partner” organization. The nonprofit, also run by Golub and Toner, manages donation progress and sales from HNL Collective products.
With HNL Gives, the seniors hope to continue fundraising and launch new initiatives, including partnerships with other nonprofits, to reach even more Hawaiians affected by COVID-19.
“So while HNL Collective has already started working on its mission of providing financial support to foster care families, we’ve quickly realized that the extent of support that a lot of these families need is much greater than simply financial resources,” Golub said. “So the next step for HNL Collective will be HNL University.”
HNL Gives also launched HNL University on April 29 to help students specifically as education is shifted online.
Giving children laptops and internet access isn’t enough; Toner and Golub identified weaknesses in inherently impersonal online education for families because many children have been thrown into new roles that take them away from school. With new household responsibilities and financial burdens, education can fall to the wayside.
HNL University partners each participating family with a strategically selected college-aged “Team Captain” to provide free support and programming. The Team Captains are intended to connect with each family personally to understand their unique issues and will relay challenges on to Golub and Toner at HNL Gives. The organization then creates a plan on the best way to assist both financially and emotionally.
Team Captains are also there to serve as educational motivation and help students feel invested in their work despite being at home.
HNL University also hopes to make original educational content by collaborating with teachers and professionals, to be shared both online and on television, as a supplement to traditional schooling.
Golub said that many children now are expected to partake in classes that they find boring and instead spent their time on social media or other outlets that “simply do not have any sort of productive values.” Instead, HNL University aims to create informative and engaging video content, activities and app-based games with student interests in mind, “where kids will be able to spend their time wisely and not fall helplessly behind.”
HNL University has not released content yet but is currently in the process of gaining access to public television and has met with PBS executives on the matter, according to Golub.
Although fine-tuned for Hawaii’s values and needs, HNL Gives hopes to serve as a model for other parts of the world.
“By investing in this model and in this idea and making it successful,” Golub said, “you — whoever it is that wants to participate — is contributing to a national and perhaps even international effort to grassroots organize young people to leverage their community resources to provide for those most in need.”