Kevin Kawamoto
Special to The Hawai‘i Herald

In my neighborhood in Kaimukï, people tend to keep an eye on each other’s homes. If they see anything suspicious, they usually react in some way, even if it’s just making sure that a strange-acting person in the area realizes that he or she is being observed. Many of us joined an email list — we receive regular neighborhood crime reports prepared by the Honolulu Police Department and alert each other about news we’ve learned concerning the safety of our community. I occasionally see a small group of residents, a number of them older adults, walking the neighborhood, wearing T-shirts that identify themselves as being part of a Neighborhood Security Watch program.

“Crime can create a climate of fear and mistrust. One of the most effective and least costly remedies to crime is a neighborhood watch group. Watch groups are a foundation of community crime prevention,” notes the HPD website.
The NSW program is also a good way to build positive relations between HPD and the community, each working with the other to build safer neighborhoods. Since officers cannot be everywhere at all times, residents are the eyes, ears and noses of the police and fire departments. Of course, there are situations best handled by the police, such as when a crime is in progress or needs to be investigated. But if crimes can be prevented before they occur, all the better.

Despite having vigilant neighbors, we still have the occasional home burglary or attempted car theft. But neighborhoods whose residents look after each other are at least making an attempt to collectively keep their living environments safe and pleasant. Watchful eyes are especially important during the holidays, when homes may be more attractive to criminals because of gifts inside or parcels either left at the doorstep. Neighborhoods with curious retirees or homemakers who are at home during the day are fortunate because they create a constant presence of surveillance.

You may remember the character named Gladys Kravitz on the television show “Bewitched” from decades ago. Gladys was always looking out her window to see what her neighbors were doing. Her name became synonymous with the “nosy neighbor.” We need more Gladys Kravitzes around now that homes are often left unoccupied during the daytime, making them vulnerable to burglaries. You may have read news stories recently about thieves entering people’s homes in broad daylight and stealing thousands of dollars in personal property. Unfortunately, these are not isolated incidents. They happen more often than many people realize, evidenced by crime statistics available on the HPD website.

People who voluntarily work for the well-being of their community in some way — big or small — are engaging in civic engagement. At its core, civic engagement is the mindset and practice of making a positive difference in the community and of acting in ways that serve the public good. A person can accomplish this as an individual, sometimes by simply moving something out of the way on a public sidewalk that could pose a tripping hazard to other walkers. It seems like such a small thing to do, but it could prevent a life-threatening injury for someone else. Others might join an organization and become part of a large social movement tackling environmental concerns such as pollution or global warming, for example, or fighting against social injustice, political corruption or domestic violence. Still others advocate for the physically and mentally disabled, the homeless and frail elders.

One of the benefits of living in a democracy is that people can get involved in the political process and play a role in shaping their society. This election year, thousands of ordinary citizens in Hawai‘i helped with political campaigns to support candidates for elected office, or helped convince voters to support — or not support — particular ballot measures. They exercised their constitutionally guaranteed right to free speech and to peaceably assemble and worked on behalf of candidates and causes that were important to them. That’s democracy in action. It resulted in some vigorous debates and surprising results, including a gubernatorial candidate – Democratic Sen. David Ige — who came from behind and beat his opponent in the primary election, despite being outspent 10-to-1. Ige relied heavily on grassroots support and old-fashioned stew-and-rice campaigning, demonstrating that money can’t buy everything.

Although there are some who claim that civic engagement is declining in America, there are examples all around us of people getting involved in their communities, not for individual gain, but to improve the quality of life for society in general and for future generations. People go about doing this in different ways, often with little fanfare or desire for recognition, so civic engagement may not always be apparent. At other times, however, when people engage in community service on a large scale, their contributions are more obvious.

An example of large-scale community service was featured recently on the Hawai‘i State Library’s website. The article stated that 2,455 adult and youth volunteers contributed 117,060 hours of service to the State Library System during Fiscal Year 2014 — a nearly 50 percent increase from the previous year, said the article. If those volunteer hours had been compensated with a minimum wage of $7.25 per hour, the monetary value would total $848,685!

What do library volunteers do? Some of the more popular volunteer activities include summer reading program assistance, book cleaning and shelving, shelf reading, donation sorting and pricing. Some volunteers also get down and dirty, so to speak. A specific example of volunteerism at the library involved the St. Francis School senior class. According to the library’s website, the students dusted shelves, cleaned windows and weeded the native plants garden. Without their volunteer efforts, those tasks might not have gotten the attention they deserved due to the library’s limited staffing. In fact, many nonprofit organizations depend heavily on the volunteer hours contributed by their supporters and would likely not survive without them. Some people are not physically able to do volunteer work so they find other ways to contribute, including financial support.

High schools and colleges have been good incubators for promoting the ideals of civic engagement among youth. Many schools offer service-learning opportunities — students can volunteer for nonprofit organizations or at community events designed to improve or enhance the community in some way. When the Mö‘ili‘ili Japanese Cemetery needed strong bodies to help in its ongoing beautification efforts, students from ‘Iolani School and Kaimukï High School answered the call for assistance and showed up on Saturdays to lend a hand.

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Harriet Natsuyama and Laura Ruby beside the new rock wall in the Diamond Head, east end corner of Moiliili Cemetery. (Photo by Paul Nishijima)

And, if you haven’t seen the Mö‘ili‘ili Japanese Cemetery recently, you are in for a surprise. Over the past few years, Laura Ruby, a Mö‘ili‘ili resident previously featured in the Herald, along with Harriet Natsuyama and scores of volunteers of all ages, have transformed that historic parcel into a beautiful and tranquil setting, restoring it to a source of pride in the Mö‘ili‘ili community. They replaced a tall junkyard fence with a beautiful hand-built stone wall, planted trees and flowers, cleared the area of debris, spread gravel throughout the cemetery grounds to improve access and aesthetics, replaced faulty plumbing, constructed practical stone sculptures for sitting . . . the list goes on.

Ruby and the volunteers spent many long hours in the hot sun on weekends, doing heavy labor — and many of the volunteers do not have relatives buried in the cemetery; they don’t even live in Mö‘ili‘ili. Many, like Laura Ruby, are not Japanese American. They just wanted to help and do something positive in the community. Their efforts have paid off in a big way and will be appreciated for generations to come. Even though the major work has been completed, volunteers are always needed for routine maintenance and upkeep.

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Core volunteer workers, from left: Richard Teruya, Dean Uehara and Ricahrd Nakahara. (Photo by Paul Nishijima)

Another excellent example of civic engagement is Project Dana, whose 25th anniversary celebration was featured recently in the Herald. Project Dana volunteers embody the principle of dana, or selfless giving, and provide services that enable frail elders to age in place for as long as possible. The organization’s mission is “to recruit, train and mobilize volunteers to provide in-home assistance with compassion and care without the desire for recognition or expression of appreciation.”

The Wakamiya Inari Shrine Preservation Committee, also written about this past year in the Herald, is comprised of a small group of multiethnic and multigenerational volunteers who have seen to it that this once-family-owned Shintö shrine (now at Hawaii’s Plantation Village) is preserved for current and future generations to learn from and enjoy. Remarkably, some of its original committee members from 1979 continue to look after the shrine’s welfare some three decades later.

These are just a few examples. There are many others.

The idea that civic engagement is declining was famously raised in the best-selling book, “Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community,” by Robert D. Putnam. Putnam was concerned about decreasing voter turnout throughout the United States and declining membership in traditional civic organizations, among other things, in recent decades. Putnam believed that these kinds of civic activities were important because they helped build “social capital,” a valuable social asset that accrues when people join organizations and get to know each other and share information, assistance and social contacts that result in reciprocal exchanges.

Putnam, a political scientist and public policy professor at Harvard University, makes some good points and observations in “Bowling Alone,” which was first published in 2000. His bold assertions have their supporters and detractors. But Putnam is no cynic when it comes to the potential of American communities. He believes that one of the causes of civic malaise could also be one of its remedies. “No sector of American society will have more influence on the future state of our social capital than the electronic mass media and especially the Internet,” he writes in the closing chapter of his book. “If we are to reverse the adverse trends of the last three decades in any fundamental way, the electronic entertainment and telecommunications industry must become a big part of the solution instead of a big part of the problem.”

Putnam challenged both the big media industries and the general public to spend less time “sitting passively alone in front of glowing screens” and to spend more time “in active connection with fellow citizens.” He wanted to see this change occur by 2010, which has come and gone, of course, and hoped that media could be used to get people off the couch and into the community.

American society has changed dramatically since Putnam’s book was first published in 2000. True, voter turnout continues to be low: Voter turnout in Hawai‘i this past general election was 52.3 percent of registered voters — among the lowest in the nation, if not the lowest. This disappointing turnout was despite widespread efforts to get eligible residents to register to vote and then to get registered voters out to cast ballots. On this point, Putnam’s concern is still valid and more needs to be done — not only to get more people to vote, but to also figure out why so many do not vote.

Putnam is also correct that, in general, younger generations are less likely to join traditional civic organizations like the Shriners, Jaycees, Kiwanis, the Lions Club and the Odd Fellows, which calls into question the future of such organizations if there are fewer, newer, younger members to replace the older ones. Locally, older members in longtime civic organizations often voice their concerns about needing younger members to fill their ranks, so the situation appears to be widespread. The reality is that some of these organizations with mainly older members and few new prospects may be reaching the end of their life cycle. They may have done a great job helping the community — indeed, in building and empowering community — in various ways at one time, but they may live on for only as long as their remaining members are willing and able to keep the organization running. That is why veterans organizations, for example, have sought to form “sons and daughters” organizations to maintain a sense of continuity.

Amazingly, there are still so many Japanese prefectural clubs — 26 in all, plus 48 Okinawa-related clubs — listed in the most recent Japanese American Community Guide (published by the Hawai‘i Herald and Hawaii Hochi). However, the guide’s opening message foreshadowed anticipated changes as time goes by. “This ‘directory’ of sorts will change as our Japanese community changes,” it said. “New organizations will be added as they are formed, and older ones will disappear from these pages as they disband due to declining membership and participation.”

So “yes” in response to Putnam’s assertion that membership in these kinds of organizations is in decline. It’s difficult to argue with the membership rolls. On the other hand, civic engagement endures in other forms, some of them difficult or impossible to actually measure. (An organization need not be packed with members to do good works — even those with declining membership can positively impact their communities.) Relevant to the Japanese concept of omoiyari — demonstrating a sympathetic and positive regard for others — which Frances Kakugawa mentioned in her lead story in the Herald’s Nov. 21 issue, civic engagement may actually be thriving without our being able to quantify it through membership numbers or voter turnout data. Combined with the concept of dana, selfless giving without need for recognition or expressions of appreciation — there are probably many examples of civic engagement that do not receive any attention because it is not done for that reason.

I’ve seen many examples of this in the community. For example, I encountered an older man who was getting ready to clean up graffiti in his Nu‘uanu neighborhood. I struck up a conversation with him and learned that he was not employed by the city or any organization to do this. He was just part of a small group of concerned neighbors who volunteered to keep their neighborhood looking nice and feeling safe.

Unfortunately, there was work for them to do because there are others who do damage to community property and public spaces — people who are engaged in what I would call “civic dis-engagement.” These are the kinds of people who don’t pick up their dog’s poop when out for a walk, who throw trash wherever they want, who damage things (for no good reason) that are meant to be shared by the community, who blast their car radios in total disregard for others and who think it’s OK to deface public or private property that doesn’t belong to them.

There will always be selfish people who could care less about their community — and who, in fact, try to destroy their community for whatever socially or psychologically deranged reasons they have — but there are far more people who are doing good and tipping the balance in favor of civic engagement. Many of these people may or may not be “joiners” of traditional civic organizations, but they certainly don’t spend all of their spare time watching television, either. They’re definitely out there in the community; sometimes you have to look harder to see them if their involvement is not part of a large organized group.

Oftentimes, we see what we are looking for, so if you’re not looking for civic engagement, you may not notice it. I encourage students in my UH-Mänoa classes to look for civic engagement in the community, and they always find a lot going on. I tell them to “put on their civic engagement lens” when they walk out of the classroom and into the community. Many of the students are already doing positive things in the community or on campus. They volunteer, for example, for fundraisers like the Relay for Life (to raise money for cancer research) or they help out at community-based nonprofit organizations, or at schools. I hope others will discover civic engagement activities that they would like to participate in either now or when they have more time.

Richard Dubanoski, retired UH-Mänoa Dean of Social Sciences, was an advocate of civic engagement and started a working group of faculty members to think about how to integrate more of it in our classrooms. Dubanoski believed that it was especially important at a taxpayer-supported public university.

At one meeting I attended, I remember his asking this question: “How do we get students to understand their obligation to the community or to the common good?” I wrote those words down immediately after he said them and they have guided my teaching philosophy ever since. Dubanoski felt that one of the goals of a liberal education (meaning a broad, diverse and empowering education) was to prepare students not only for employment after they graduate, but also to become good citizens and to contribute to improving society through civic engagement. He challenged faculty members to think about what that meant and how to accomplish it with students, using a combination of knowledge, skills, values and motivation.

Perhaps not coincidentally, Dubanoski was instrumental in establishing and perpetuating the “Universal Values for a Democratic Society — Nisei Veterans Endowed Forum Series” within the College of Arts and Sciences to “foster thoughtful discussions on values and their role in enhancing a democratic society.” The forum’s first keynote speaker on June 1, 2000, was none other than the late U.S. Sen. Daniel K. Inouye, who died in 2012. A description of this first talk, which was described as “stellar” and “historical,” was preserved in a publication prepared by the University of Hawai‘i at Mänoa College of Arts and Sciences. Part of the description is reprinted here for its relevance to this story.
“For 40 minutes and without the help of a prewritten text, Senator Inouye told us how values were instilled in him as a child and young man. He described how lessons were taught by demonstration and not words. He described the many cultural origins of these values. He told us about his parents and grandparents to whom he referred as mentors. ‘Well, I have been very fortunate. I have had good mentors, I have had good comrades, and I have had good classmates. Everything has been in place for me. I just hope that the values that we picked [up] during our youth can be transmitted to my son’s generation and his son’s generation. I think it is a challenge for all of us.’ He concluded, ‘It is important to know what honor is all about, that there is something a bit more important than materialistic gain and resources and accumulation. There are other matters in life that are much more important, so I hope that this forum will be a catalyst for this type of activity’.”

It may be useful here to recognize Hawai‘i’s Nisei generation as exemplars of civic engagement. In World War II, many of them volunteered to fight for their country, which had deemed them “enemy aliens.” Many gave their lives in the process or returned home with injuries or permanent disabilities. Others, both men and women, sacrificed on the home front in different ways. After the war, a group of Nisei men and women helped launch the so-called “Democratic revolution” of 1954, which paved the way for greater opportunities for working-class people and ethnic minorities in what was previously a highly stratified and, to be blunt, a racist society. Hawai‘i politics today is not perfect, but the point is that the 1954 “revolution” could not have occurred without the willingness of people to make sacrifices for a greater good. Even the Issei did their part, participating in labor strikes and courageously standing up to social oppression when they could and sacrificing so that future generations could live more comfortably.

In fact, the history of Japanese Americans in Hawai‘i provide many examples of civic engagement and community-driven, grassroots social change, often aided by supporters of other ethnic backgrounds whose values were consistent with social equality and the democratic process.

Civic engagement endures, although there are still inroads to be made. As mentioned earlier, low voter turnout continues to plague Hawai‘i, a situation that can lead to problems of true representation. And longtime civic organizations may either need to redefine themselves in order to survive or plan on serving the community in ways that don’t require large memberships. It could be that many in the younger generation are looking for short-term ways to contribute to the community and prefer not to commit to organizations that expect a long-term commitment. The long-term commitment today could be more toward a cause or philosophy as opposed to an organization.

In any case, all things considered, we do not appear to be on a downward spiral of civic dis-engagement, widespread cynicism and apathy. There are promising pockets of civic engagement everywhere you look. Young people are getting involved in improving their communities and helping others — sometimes in quirky ways like the “Ice Bucket Challenge,” which raised over $100 million dollars in several months for the ALS Association — and sometimes in more conventional ways such as volunteering for nonprofits or working on political campaigns (and even running for office).

And then there are people like James Koshiba, one of the founders of Kanu Hawaii, who have taken an active role in improving our quality of life in Hawai‘i and encouraging others to join him. When Koshiba stepped down as Kanu’s executive director, he left a poignant message on the organization’s website: “The learning at Kanu has come fast and furious, like drinking out of a firehose. I plan to take time to sift through lessons, both personal and professional, and hope that some of what I’ve learned can benefit others striving for people-driven change. I also want to focus more of my energy on civic engagement and political change — two things I believe must go hand-in-hand, and which I’ve become more passionate about thanks to Kanu.”

When the founding fathers decided to begin the U.S. Constitution with the words, “We the People,” they were probably sending a message to all of us through time and space so we would always remember that we — the people — will drive the change we want to see happen in the world around us.

Kevin Kawamoto is a longtime contributor to The Hawai‘i Herald and teaches part-time at the University of Hawai‘i at Mänoa.

Photo by Flightspeed/emreyuzak on Flickr.


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