Being the change
BY MAUREEN O'CONNELL
Advertiser Staff Writer
Kanu Hawai'i first took shape when a group of young people found themselves struggling to envision a future here that would come with good job opportunities and access to solid schools for their children — a sustainable lifestyle wrapped up in cultural diversity and green-minded values.
Kylee Pōmaika'i Omo, who took part in the group's informal meetings, which got under way about five years ago, recalls that amid brainstorming where to turn for help, someone blurted: "We have to start with ourselves. So, let's commit to something right now that each of us can do."
On-the-spot commitments ranged from saying no to plastic bags to Omo's pledge to purchase a fuel-efficient Toyota Prius. "It was one of those moments where it was put up or shut up. You're either all in or you're not. Everybody felt that," she said.
Last month, Kanu Hawai'i marked its second anniversary as a nonprofit and counted more than 9,000 members who have made public commitments on the group's Web site to "protect and promote ... a connection to the 'āina, a culture of aloha, and local economic self-reliance."
The commitments range from shopping with reusable bags — 3,098 members pledged to do so — to the challenging, "I will walk, bike, bus or use alternative transportation, and use my car only when I absolutely have to." So far, 28 members have committed to that.
"The message of people 'being the change' ... has really resonated," said Kanu's executive director James Koshiba. He notes that the interactive Web site is virtually free of snarky comments, as members "take this idea of leading by example and setting a tone of kuleana and responsibility to heart in everything they say online and everything they do offline."
Opportunity to meet up offline comes by way of call-to-action campaigns, such as "Live Aloha," which teamed up members with residents of public housing and shelters last year for a day of shared work and talk story.
Another campaign, the "Eat Local Challenge," surprised organizers when the throw-down for 30 people to eat only Hawai'i-grown food for a week last summer drew the attention of more than 700 members who shared recipes for "all-local" dishes, hosted homegrown potlucks and met up at grocery stores and restaurants.
This year's eat-local effort will spotlight big-picture matters related to food production, Koshiba said, from "how we use our land and water to what kinds of food are subsidized and what's served in schools.
"We want to connect those dots for people — from their eat-local experience to those policy issues," he said.
Kanu advocates for public policies that support environmental sustainability, economic resilience and compassionate community, using "island-style" activism that starts with leading by personal example.
Even so, board member Alani Apio said, "There's only so much work that we as individuals or even as organized groups can do. We need policy changes and we need ... business practice changes to happen to realize some of our vision."
When Kanu members pored over past visions for Hawai'i, dating back to the 1960s, they were puzzled to find calls echoing their own — for a diversified economy, thriving public schools and "Islands that were healthy in their environment and not being degraded," Apio said.
Why hasn't Hawai'i gotten there? Apio blames Hawai'i's slow-moving "leadership culture," which relies on a few dynamic figures to set the pace.
Kanu wants to step up the pace by grooming "servant leaders" who can "take efforts that we are building and connect them up to policy and business change to help make the Hawai'i that we want," Apio said.
Still, Koshiba conceded, especially here, this is no easy task.
"In island culture, it is a challenge to speak out and speak up in a confrontational, adversarial way because we're all so close-knit," he said.
Given the possibility that a policy adversary may be an uncle, auntie or neighbor, Koshiba said, "The kind of activism we're trying to encourage is one that does speak hard truths, but does it in a way that ... communicates our sense of responsibility to take on an issue and not just point the finger."
When Omo pointed a finger at herself and started driving a Prius, she said, "That was the commitment I made, because I wanted it to hit me hard — so I would remember that I committed to this movement."
Now, with the car recently paid off and two young sons competing for her attention, Omo has no worries about slipping away from Kanu.
"It's a whole different lens now," she said. "It's not only me impacting the world. It's me training somebody to impact the world."
Indeed, Kanu, which takes its name from the Native Hawaiian verb "to plant," is committed to growing the organization for decades to come, Apio said.
"After we put the vision together we recognized that there were elements that would take a generation ... to come to fruition," he said. "We all looked each other in the eye and said, 'We're going to commit to 30 years.' "
Board member Omo said, "We're in it for the long haul. And once you have kids, you're in it for longer. You start thinking about 100 years down the road."