As I write this, it’s been 17 months since I took office as an Oʻahu Trustee of the Office of Hawaiian Affairs. I took a nearly 30 year break after having served on the first Board of Trustees from 1980-82. In the intervening years my thoughts and perceptions of the challenges faced by the Hawaiian community have shifted and changed and in some cases been completely reversed as my knowledge base grew and I achieved levels of understanding and information management skills that eluded me for many years. In fact, as I review my history of engagement and attempts to dialogue with Hawaiʻi’s leaders on Hawaiian issues, I find I knew little back then (although I thought I knew a lot) and I’m amazed that I survived my own ignorance. Here are a couple of thoughts about where the journey has led me to this point.
Probably the most important thing I learned is that many of the real leaders and opinion shapers of the Hawaiian community do not carry titles. In fact, Hawaiian leaders who carry official titles are often under suspicion. So efforts to rally Hawaiian community support for a specific initiative is sometimes better advocated by the un-titled but charismatic and sometimes coercive leaders. For OHA, one translation of this notion means taking risks by empowering our community leaders by providing them with resources to help us “better the conditions of Hawaiians and native Hawaiians.” So I’m proud of our grants programs which take such risks of community empowerment and involve millions of dollars. I believe empowering our community leaders and communities across the state to create their own successes and even make their own mistakes is invaluable to our growth and learning toward the goal of self-governance, independence, dignity, and honor.
Another conclusion, which will raise an eyebrow or two, is the urgency for OHA to respond to the growing disenchantment and alienation of the general community from Hawaiians. Our communications dealing with the subjects of nationhood, Hawaiians-only special entitlements, laws that protect native Hawaiian traditions but not other ethnic cultures, and the very existence of OHA, has to improve. While we know these are legitimate initiatives designed to right 119 years of wrongs, mass media reporting selectively hammers away at everything unflattering about our struggle for self-determination. The result is a picture of angry Hawaiians against the world. Us against them. It’s urgent that we offset the media penchant for “the latest bad news from Hawaiians,” and balance those true but dark messages of our past with the overwhelming good news going on with Hawaiians.
This leads me to pose the question, “Why should people care about Hawaiians?” I sense that most people consider Hawaiians and their institutions to be irrelevant to their lives. Many have grown to be fearful of us and choose to remain aloof. One way to answer the question is to begin to communicate the impact of Hawaiian spending on the Hawaiian economy from the five largest Hawaiian institutions: the Department of Hawaiian Homelands, the Queen Liliʻuokalani Trust, the Kamehameha Schools, the Queen Emma companies, and OHA. Their combined millions reaches into every community and thousands of pockets. Hawaiian money seeps into every spending category and translates into a substantial number of jobs, supplies and equipment purchases, construction projects, housing initiatives, health care services, education projects, culture, recreation, and so forth…and the money is color blind.
Last, we have a big public opinion task convincing the rest of Hawaiʻi that aloha is still in our DNA. That whatever the future holds for Hawaiians it will be inclusive of a better Hawaiʻi for everyone. Of this, I am sure.