Tackling Our Social Issues From the Long View of Community Values (Part 1 of 2)

Ida Yoshinaga

Artist and activist Joy Enomoto addresses her work on climate change in Oceania, speaking next to her painting titled “Diasporic Waters.” (Photo courtesy of Joy Enomoto)
Artist and activist Joy Enomoto addresses her work on climate change in Oceania, speaking next to her painting titled “Diasporic Waters.” (Photo courtesy of Joy Enomoto)

A dear mentor who is a political scientist says Politics is conflict over meaning and value. So this two-part article features people who have thought long and hard about what we value in Hawai‘i and how to communicate the meaning of that value using the tools of mainstream social institutions or those of grassroots cultural expression. For this and the next Herald issue, I wanted to share a multifaceted perspective on the longer-term social issues we face in the islands today: how, in order to resolve our own conflict over meaning and value, we tackle these issues at our most conscientious, most intelligent, most caring.

Appreciating Our Ancestors While Advocating for Life-giving, Life-enhancing Priorities

Joy Enomoto is a Japanese, Hawaiian, and African American artist and activist who educates local community members on issues related to demilitarization, environmental justice and Black Lives in the Pacific. Yonsei Enomoto’s artwork illustrates climate-justice themes and expresses her knowledge of Native Hawaiian political issues. She has participated as a ki‘ai (protector) of Mauna Kea in organizing against the expansion of the Thirty Meter Telescope on Hawai‘i island and creates art on the intersections between contemporary justice movements.

Demilitarization is currently Enomoto’s top concern as a grassroots activist. She views the Rim of the Pacific Exercise hosted by the U.S. Navy’s Indo-Pacific Command, an activity planned for mid- to late August this year, as a major environmental and political problem facing the islands. “With the rise in COVID-19 and the high numbers of the virus in the Navy and in general, the idea of even holding RIMPAC at all is concerning,” states Enomoto. During the biennial RIMPAC, global military members typically visit the islands from June to July, bringing in 25,000 visitors from 26 countries over that period. But this year, even with the limitation of those activities to two weeks and to at-sea exercises only, the international travel of these sailors, soldiers and observers to Hawai‘i would increase possibilities of the virus spreading, Enomoto says. [For news on the 60% jump in COVID-19 cases among military members nationally over the first weeks of July, see kitv.com/story/42363456/us-military-sees-60-percent-jump-in-coronavirus-cases-in-first-few-weeks-of-july.]

These exercises not only put our own military personnel at risk, but also, their at-sea games involve blowing up things in the ocean, Enomoto explains. “Even if it is a short time, it disproportionately alters the environment, and it alters marine life.” Historically, RIMPAC has resulted in ecologically destructive outcomes such as whale stranding, she adds.

Enomoto notes that the RIMPAC visits have been associated with other social problems long linked with the militarization of communities, such as rises in sex trafficking and violent incidents. The military exercises also coincide with a weapons market that tests out new ways for the global arms industry to sell militaristic technologies at the “innovation fair” held during RIMPAC; international government security forces visit Honolulu to purchase technologies of control and violence for oppressing their populations, such as powerful new police bullet and vest products and virtual weaponry systems, she says. Enomoto further observes that countries with strong histories of genocide, colonial domination and suppression of democratic movements, such as Indonesia, tend to be involved in the military exercises here.

“Rethinking RIMPAC should be the number-one thing in our agenda,” she recommends.

The second issue that Enomoto organizes around is Black Lives Matter’s recent recommendation to defund the police. Locally, BLM activists urge this action as a way to express our aloha ‘äina values and to change Hawai‘i’s economic priorities to reflect these values. The Honolulu City and County police budget is our second-highest line item, second only to rail, she says. While not at the level of major cities on the U.S. continent with police budgets resembling those of small nations (for instance, L.A.’s police budget is greater than that of North Korea, Enomoto observes), when compared to the government’s allotments for health care, social services and other longer-term issues, police moneys tend to not get cut, she says. When the federal COVID-19 CARES Act funds were distributed, $40 million went to our local Department of Defense, while $14 million went to the state Department of Health, Enomoto states. “Our budget priorities are out of whack, compared to what we need as a society,” she summarizes. “We need to put our priorities in life-giving and life-enhancing things.”

Enomoto states that a telling indication of this “out-of-whack” budget prioritization is that the state’s $650,000 “rainy day” fund was not drawn upon during the coronavirus crisis. “With a 37% unemployment rate, this makes me wonder, What does ʻrain’ look like? What does a ʻstorm’ look like,” she queries about what constitutes an emergency “rainy day.”

I enjoyed my conversation with the wry, compassionate Enomoto, as we share many things in common of which I had not been aware, when we first met in local decolonial-activist circles: family who had immigrated to Hawai‘i from Yamaguchi Prefecture (hers in 1885 and mine during the early Territorial Era) and male relatives who had fought for the U.S. during World War II (her grandfather in the Military Intelligence Service and my uncles in the 442nd). Though she is critical of the military and of overly romanticizing the “go for broke” mindset, viewing the militarization of community as ultimately traumatic for its members and devastating to the natural world around them, she speaks of her veteran grandfather, Toshi Enomoto, with deep respect for his commitment to Hawai‘i society. After the war, as Maui County Clerk, he helped many Japanese American families recover from the effects of World War II, successfully administering his part of the County government for over 20 consecutive terms, she said.

As we discussed how we appreciate our conservative, Republican grandfathers whose politics differed from ours, we came up with the idea that what we shared with those earlier generations (Nisei in her case; Issei in mine) is a sense of community: “Helping neighbors regardless of political party; being committed to family and to helping each other,” she sums up as the commonalities between them and us.

Funding Strong Communities of Cultural Caregiving

Hawai‘i Council for the Humanities executive director, community organizer and poet Aiko Yamashiro is a yonsei on her mother’s side, descended from great-grandparents who had immigrated from Japan to work on Pu‘unënë sugar plantation, Maui. Her family’s paternal side came from Okinawa to Käne‘ohe, where both Yamashiro’s father and she herself grew up.

Even before she was selected to lead of one of Hawai‘i’s most established humanities funding organizations, Yamashiro, who earned her doctorate in English at the University of Hawai‘i at Mänoa (where I met her as a fellow Ph.D. student), has been using poetry, literature and the performing arts as way to bring community together. Creative, cultural, historical projects allow for Hawai‘i residents to “talk about important social issues including cultural identity, land and imagining the futures we want. We can discuss peace and safety — true peace and safety,” she explains.

As a community organizer, Yamashiro had developed poetry workshops that explore the Native Hawaiian value of ea (life, independence) and this value’s importance to Hawai‘i communities. As a beginning student of Okinawan dance, she feels that the performing arts can bring to children and families a sense of history and of intergenerational connections, as cultural traditions of music can hold memories of the experience of war and human perseverance.

Now that she administers humanities funding, Yamashiro says, “One of the big projects our [HI Humanities: hihumanities.org] office has done is giving out federal CARES money to cultural caregivers — education, history, taking care of culture.” Recently, HI Humanities awarded 38 grants to different organizations across O‘ahu, Hawai‘i, Maui, Kaua‘i and Moloka‘i — including community museums, small historical societies and literacy-education organizations. Some were “Native Hawaiian organizations which care for the land while also creating a place for elders and the community,” she said.

Why do we need the humanities in the coronavirus era? I asked. “Of course we need to support first responders, medical workers and schools — the clear front lines — but if we are going to move forward as a strong community in this pandemic, we need also to support the centers of culture and history that connect us to each other and deepen our understanding of where we came from,” she emphasizes. “I am interested in how we can preserve these intergenerational connections. Culture and arts are important places where this can happen.”

Why not just rely on families as key carriers of culture? While families are important in passing on some community values, “We see in Hawai‘i the impact immigration and colonization have had on all of us, not just Hawaiians: many of our families have only partial knowledges and seem disconnected from these larger histories and traditions. My grandparents were all learning to be good Americans, and that meant they had to disconnect from their roots. There are so many gaps and silences that people feel — especially with regard to language and culture. Humanities organizations help fill those holes we all experience,” she describes.

Yamashiro provides as one example how in the Okinawan community, the group Ukwanshin Kabudan regularly holds an identity conference, a multi-generational place drawing everyone from grandparents in their 70s through 90s, to teens and younger kids. “Through learning about music, history, traditions, philosophies together, we can cross these silences. We have a hunger to learn and connect, explore who we are together. The humanities can create these spaces for learning about each other and for appreciating each other.”

In terms of Hawai‘i leaders being focused on reopening the state and getting back to business, Yamashiro advises the state’s planners to embrace creative ways of thinking, including “How to take care of our whole selves and see all our connections. Who is being left out, who is most vulnerable? Elders, incarcerated people, certain ethnic and socioeconomic communities, kids? When we can see and connect with each other’s humanity, we value everyone.” A humanities education teaches society to ask, “How do we broaden our perspective, our compassion, our imagination, across difference?”

Yamashiro’s long-term definition of a “strong community” asks for a secure foundation that does not rely as much on outside sources but rather, that looks to the values and gifts we have among us to create a stable community base and to care for the mental, spiritual, physical health of existing populations in the islands. “When we stay connected, we can help each other,” she concludes.

Not Band-Aids But a Commitment to Preserve Nature’s “Essential Services”

Having worked in Hawai‘i’s environmental preservation field for more than 35 years, Pauline Sato takes a long, if critical, view: it is “glaringly apparent that we are not doing enough to take care of (mälama) our natural resources, upon which all of us depend….

“It’s not just pollution like plastic waste and harmful chemicals reaching the ocean from the land, it’s also the influx of invasive plants and animals that people bring to Hawai‘i that are changing the landscape and ocean,” says Sato, executive and program director of Mälama Learning Center (malamalearningcenter.org) which she co-founded over 15 years ago to serve the people and ‘äina of west O‘ahu, from Waipahu to Wai‘anae.

Sato describes how not only are unique native Hawaiian species becoming rare or extinct, but the very tapestry of our islands’ watersheds has been degrading, creating consequences like less fresh water and more erosion, pests and diseases, which will hurt local agriculture. When compounded by climate change, this chain of effects will degrade the islands, ultimately leading to “a reduced quality of life,” she says:

“Everything is connected, and until we embrace that concept, we will only be putting band-aids on our wounds, until we are completely covered and realize that we have lost our identity of who we are in Hawai‘i.”

Conservationists at her Center work at restoring native Hawaiian forests by planting native trees and removing invasive species. Mälama trains students and volunteers from the community to perform this work, an approach that enhances relationships between people, their culture and their place. “It is a slow and painstaking process, but we do it to protect and improve the quality of life for future generations,” she reflects. Sato, whom I first encountered when we attended Dr. Manu Meyer of UH West O‘ahu’s “Niu Now!” webinars which honor Native Hawaiian and global indigenous perspectives on the coconut’s traditional uses that reflect sustainable food practices, has learned from Hawaiian land-management systems rooted in cultural values that care for the land.

In terms of budget priorities, Sato says the two state agencies most closely connected to such issues are the Department of Land and Natural Resources and the Department of Agriculture. However, in the budget for fiscal year 2020, these Departments received 1.1% and 0.4% of the overall state budget — only 1.5% total! “We need to put a higher priority on funding these agencies to do the work that is imperative for the health of our environment and for growing food and other crops. If we want Hawai‘i to be ‘sustainable,’ we have to invest in our environment and the people who take care of it.”

Sato has heard many times the belief that we can always find technological solutions to any environmental problems we create. But, she argues, it makes no sense to pay extra for things that nature already provides for free — clean air, fresh water, buffers preventing sediment from entering the ocean and coral reefs making habitats for fishes while also protecting homes along the coastline from storm surges (“let alone the great surf we enjoy for recreation!” she adds). Sato says these are a few “ecosystem services” that nature gives us generously, particularly in Hawai‘i. “The cost of replicating any of these essential services through technology or engineering is staggering and often unnecessary if forethought and restraint are practiced against the enticement of quick economic gain,” she cites from the DLNR Forest Action Plan.

Sato’s father, Robert Sato, belonged to the 100th Infantry Battalion and also served as Executive Secretary of Club 100 (now the 100th Infantry Battalion Veterans organization). Herself a past President of the veterans club from 2011-12, to honor Robert and other World War II Nisei veterans, she views her conservation work as following the club’s motto, “For continuing service.” [For more on Sato, see Kristen Nemoto Jay’s 2018 Herald profile, available to digital subscribers at thehawaiiherald.com/2018/02/12/lead-story-for-pauline-sato-earth-day-is-every-day/.]

Restorative Justice Invests in People and Decreases Crime, Strengthening Neighborhoods

Carrie Ann Shirota, a civil rights attorney for the state, holds herself to the high level of excellence one would expect from an accomplished member of the Maui Shirotas. Her uncle, novelist Jon Shirota, writer of before-their-time works of fiction such as “Lucky Come Hawaii” and “Pineapple White” in the 1960s-70s and my father’s friend, was an early role model that showed me that JAs from Wailuku could become writers, not just doctors, engineers and CPAs. Like her uncle an uncompromising pathbreaker, Carrie Ann Shirota contributes to a much-needed field of advocacy for which she is respected by many Native Hawaiian families and community organizations, but perhaps is not as well-known among Hawai‘i Nikkei: The intersection of criminal justice with social justice known as restorative justice (sometimes called transformative justice).

This approach to crime argues for rethinking the larger U.S. trend of over-incarcerating people in favor of community-based preventive and rehabilitative efforts including educational, mental-health, poverty reduction, homeless support and substance-abuse programs — a policy reversal now occurring in major metropolitan states such as New Jersey, New York and California, where officials have recently reduced their prison populations, and, as a result, have witnessed decreases in both property and violent crimes, according to the very data-supplied Shirota.

A proud graduate of Baldwin High School, Santa Clara University and UHM’s William S. Richardson School of Law, Shirota is fueled by hands-on experience with this issue as a past director for Maui Economic Opportunity’s BEST (Being Empowered and Safe Together) Reintegration Program which supports returning community members exiting our jails and prisons by providing comprehensive re-entry services.

She states, “We send too many people, the majority of whom are poor and Native Hawaiian, to our jails and prisons for too long, resulting in severe overcrowding. While our system punishes, it fails to address the drivers of crime and overcrowding, fails to promote accountability, fails to provide victims with restitution and restoration and fails to make us safer.” Armed with a mountain of studies from other states, nations and communities that have attempted, and succeeded at, workable solutions to this problem, Shirota is now a member of the Hawai‘i Justice Coalition (facebook.com/communityjusticecoalitionHI/), where she uses her legal chops to argue for transformation of the criminal legal system so as to “make fiscal sense and to build safe and healthy communities,” she says.

Thinking of Herald readers, I wonder: Why should law-abiding local people even care about prisoners? Since Shirota like her uncle is a master of impactful, dynamic prose, I share her powerful responses word-for-word: “First, incarceration is very costly. It costs $197 a day or annually over $70,000 to incarcerate an adult in our jails or prisons. By contrast, we spend less than $15,000 a year to educate a child in our public schools.

“Second, over 95% of all incarcerated persons in Hawai‘i eventually return home to their families and our communities. As the saying goes, ‘what happens in jails and prisons, doesn’t stay in our jails and prisons.’

“Third, despite spending millions on corrections each year, Hawai‘i has recidivism rates of 45-60%, meaning more than half of all persons exiting our jails and prisons will be rearrested, convicted of a new charge or return to incarceration due to a technical violation of probation or parole (missed appointments, etc.).

“As a community, we must critically examine whether our jails and prisons are making us safer. Do we honestly believe that our current corrections system provides people with the education, training, treatment and reentry support to exit our jails and prisons and contribute to their families and our community in a positive way?

“Or are we investing in a broken system where people are exiting our jails and prisons with more sophisticated criminal skills, an inability to obtain employment due to their criminal record and more trauma after living in a place that breeds despair and violence?

“If our schools were managed like our prisons, with 45-60% of all our students failing, our community would be outraged,” she closes.

Shirota and her Coalition push for several policy changes, the most pressing of which seems to be (1) a moratorium on building or expanding jails and prisons, until prison populations have been reduced and criminal justice reform administered; (2) bail reform that would eliminate cash bail, so as to support poor pre-trial persons who lack the money to get out of jail or prison while awaiting trial; and (3) the repeal of mandatory minimum sentences which do not let compassionate judges consider mitigating factors in criminal cases, including cultural, health and economic factors.

“While decarceration and downsizing jails and prisons seem like an impossible goal, they are not. Other jurisdictions have done this successfully by enacting data-driven Justice Reinvestment policies while saving money and enhancing public safety. With courage, compassion, creativity and commitment, we can chart a new course and transform Hawai‘i’s criminal justice system!” she concludes.

Economic Self-sufficiency via Building a Sustainable Local Industry

I was surprised when I asked an old UHM Creative Writing Program classmate, sansei/yonsei lawyer Stacy Fukuhara-Barclay, the same questions that the Herald posed to the other interviewees for this article: What important social issue today do you think is misrepresented or under-discussed in Hawai’i’s mainstream media, and how can we address this issue via the law, governance or social policy?

Fukuhara-Barclay, a longtime advocate for children in divorce, abuse cases and other family conflicts, has been helping children and families since 1999. Naturally, I expected she would talk about the much-reported situation of increased household violence for women and children globally due to the coronavirus lockdown. However, her answer had more to do with…sitcoms?

Moanalua graduate Fukuhara-Barclay has recently combined her deep knowledge of family dynamics, with her deft skills in crafting lightly comedic, Hawai‘i Creole English-inflected short fiction, to write and produce a local web series, “Like Maddah” (likemaddah.com). With three scripted episodes, each about 20 minutes long, produced so far, this situation comedy premiered in the 2019 Hawai‘i International Film Festival.

““Like Maddah” is about three generations of Japanese American females living together: the controlling matriarchal grandmother, the mother who vows to be different but isn’t, and the rebellious teenage daughter,” she says of this HCE comedy series.

Fukuhara-Barclay learned screenwriting via the state-funded Creative Lab of the Creative Industries Division of the Hawai‘i Dept. of Business, Economic Development and Tourism (cid.hawaii.gov/creative-lab-hawaii/) which nourishes local filmmakers by bringing in media producers, directors, writers and other talents from Hollywood and independent cinema to train Hawai‘i creatives in scriptwriting, documentary shooting and production work.

A small-business entrepreneur who in 2006 cofounded the Children’s Law Center (childlawhawaii.com) to provide legal services for the well-being and interests of kids, Fukuhara-Barclay is critical of how the state budget favors the corporate mass-tourism industry, known for generating service-class jobs and environmentally destructive effects. She emphasizes the need for a better financial infrastructure through the creation of other economies where the moneys do not flow out so much from the islands. Pointing out that in the years when Hawai‘i tourism had suffered a blow both after 9/11 and the Great Recession, the local film industry generated a substantial amount of revenues for the state, she wonders if there are ways of increasing funding for that less environmentally harmful industry and also of hiring more locals above the line (in positions of relative power) when movies are made here, such as writers, directors and producers, instead of mainly logistical crew and lower-level industry workers.

“We need to create more home-grown crew; Hawai‘i has so much talent, but a lot of work is shipped out for post-production. We have a great workforce and should try to keep it local, making it more entrepreneurial,” she recommends. She points out that Australia, for instance, provides matching funds for productions run by creative entrepreneurial filmmakers.

Hawai‘i legislators need to not be so obsessed with tourism’s deceptively big numbers, says business leader Fukuhara-Barclay. “They should be trying to figure out how to keep the money in Hawai‘i, finding other industries that support the local economy,” she advises, drawing parallels between the ways that New Zealand, Australia and Canada support their local film industries via inventive tax strategies, with recent sustainability efforts in the islands by state Sen. Donovan Dela Cruz and others who have innovated ways that the state can encourage local farmers.

Fukuhara-Barclay entreats lawmakers to not follow the usual fear-driven pattern during recessions, a pattern of trying to get more tourists without first discussing what type of tourism and tourists we are supporting, then cutting other parts of the state budget. “We need to be very smart about the budget,” she asserts, referencing the talent potential of local content creators who could become a whole new labor force for Hawai‘i’s creative industries.

Part 2 to be continued in the Aug. 7 issue.

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