Every time a Hawaiian organization spends a dollar in the state—for salaries, services, supplies, consultants, labor—that dollar touches all of the people of Hawai‘i.
After decades of flitting about in the shadows of ignominious irrelevance, the political and cultural rebirth of Hawaiians was dramatically launched around 1975 with the Kaho‘olawe issue, and the construction and first voyage of the Hōkūle‘a sailing canoe. At the same time, the bar on Hawaiian cultural pride and intellectual achievement was raised to unprecedented heights with Hawaiians surging forward from every corner of the state to, in some way, lend themselves to further both causes. Mainstream media went bananas for a number of years with front page coverage.
From this push of the re-start button great political and cultural strides were made. In 1978 the Office of Hawaiian Affairs (OHA) was created by state constitution and in the same state constitutional convention native rights became the law of the land. The U.S. Congress blessed the return of Kaho‘olawe and a cessation to the bombing. The beleaguered Department of Hawaiian Home Lands (DHHL) finally got moved to the political front burner for attention. A School of Hawaiian Studies was born at UH-Mānoa. A College of Hawaiian Language was established at UH-Hilo. Hawaiians everywhere burst forth with expressions of every form of our culture – hula, visual arts, language, literature, botany, traditional arts, voyaging. Essentially, we dusted ourselves off, got up off the ground, and began a long stride toward the turn of the century.
The cultural awakening was matched by a resurgence of political activity that revolved around self-determination, sovereignty, seeking a return to nationhood, and some form of a political governing entity that would give Hawaiians our own government. Much of the new-found empowerment of the Hawaiian people came through an aggressive pursuit of entitlement programs by Hawai‘i’s congressional delegation. Thus, millions of dollars have been put on the table to fund a plethora of federal programs dealing with health care, education, housing, employment, entrepreneurship, social services, and economic development.
It’s been 37 years since those first days of the Renaissance. The early years saw a lot of support from the general public and politicians for Hawaiian causes. But we are now two generations removed from those initial years. Many non-Hawaiians today have little emotional connection to the Renaissance years and to the Hawaiian agenda. Times have changed. The average Hawai‘i family is struggling to stay afloat. In their struggles, they are not receptive to hear about how bad off we are. Partly this may be because they don’t see Hawaiians struggling any more than they are. They see Hawaiians going to college in unprecedented numbers. They see us achieving prominence in executive and professional positions. They see Hawaiian companies thriving. They also see the great wealth of the ali‘i trusts, OHA, and DHHL, and the range of government programs that help only Hawaiians achieve greater income, more housing stability, better health outcomes, and higher education. At the same time, they hear Hawaiian demands for more entitlement programs, and for our own nation.
Many non-Hawaiians have lost patience with us and our demands. I don’t have polls or surveys to tell me this but I sense it. I sense it from my neighbors and I sense it in speaking to community leaders in casual conversation. I sensed it from more than a few state legislators while lobbying during the last session. What can we do to turn this around?
When the business community thinks about Hawaiians they tend not to think of us as big picture players in Hawai‘i’s economy. Most are distracted by mainstream media-driven characterizations of Hawaiians as irrelevant to growing the economy.
As a business owner, consultant to developers, and a sitting Trustee of the Office of Hawaiian Affairs, I challenge the business community to turn the kaleidoscope and observe a different pattern. The new pattern would shimmer with shapes and colors of the five leading Hawaiian institutions. The institutional consortium of The Kamehameha Schools, Queen Lili‘uokalani Trust, the Queens Medical Center and related companies, the Department of Hawaiian Home Lands, and the Office of Hawaiian Affairs exude a collective financial affluence that may rival the Big 5 of an earlier time. The asset base includes hundreds of thousands of acres of land in fee simple title as well as billions of dollars in liquid assets. The merged economic capacity is staggering.
As these economic assets are released into the economy, the spending flows to every corner of the state in profuse support of all of Hawai‘i’s businesses. Hawaiian institutional spending translates to millions annually on employee payrolls for Hawaiians and non-Hawaiians, equipment purchases, supplies, consulting services, construction projects, land management, research, health programs, medical facilities, education, retail centers, entertainment – the spending is wide, deep, and contributes to the quality of life for everyone in Hawai‘i living on every island.
Consider the Office of Hawaiian Affairs as a case in point on the impact of Hawaiian spending and how it contributes to the growth of the greater economy. OHA has about 150 employees, with offices on every island. About 40 percent of OHA employees are non-Hawaiians. OHA’s annual spending is $43 million. OHA direct hires or sub-contracts experts in law, finance, architecture, development, research, economics, communications, banking, planning, and more. Thousands of dollars are spent on office supplies, furniture, and equipment. Most of our consultants, contractors, and suppliers are not Hawaiian.
Multiply that impact by the combined resources of the Hawaiian Big 5: about 8,500 employees, annual spending of more than $1 billion, and liquid and land assets of more than $10 billion. Combined, Hawaiian spending is on a par with the state’s biggest company, Hawaiian Airlines, and surpasses the University of Hawai‘i. All of this spending flows into the bank accounts of a diverse constituency of Hawai‘i businesses regardless of race, color, or creed.
While I cannot predict when a Hawaiian nation may occur or what it will look like, I believe our economic model will continue to be inclusive of the greater population and we will continue to work toward sustainable growth. Hawaiian money is color blind.