UH educators ask what in Hawaii is worth protecting?

Beth-Ann Kozlovich

with Beth-Ann Kozlovich

HONOLULU—Why Hawaii? That’s a question you may have asked yourself—especially over the last two years, or the past two decades—as Hawaii has been buffeted by economic change. Yet what keeps many of us here is something that goes to quality of life and not just to our wallets.

We know Hawaii is more than its economy. And then there’s the question of exactly whose economy it is that we’re talking about. And whatever we each personally see in Hawaii, it’s enough to keep us here. But is it enough to make us understand how Hawaii got into its present situation and whether we have the fortitude, compassion, and creative thought to bring Hawaii into a comprehensively prosperous future? That journey, if we can make it, is going to be anything but easy. In the value proposition of “why Hawaii,” there are disparate and diverse points of view, competing interests, even disagreements over history.

In October 2009, during one of their usual runs through Manoa, Craig Howes and Jon Osorio turned their conversation to what had happened to bring Hawaii to where we are now, what might be done about it, and whether the 2010 elections might be pivotal or just provisioned extensions of the status quo. Howes is the Director of the Center for Biographical Research at the University of Hawaii at Manoa, editor of a biography quarterly, and a UH English Department faculty member with deep ties to Hawaii arts and humanities communities. Osorio is a UH Manoa professor of Hawaiian studies, an historian of the Hawaiian Kingdom, writer, musician, composer, and an advocate for the restoration of Hawaii’s political independence. Running together several times weekly has over the years fostered a good conversation. This time the result is many conversations, a collection of essays by some of Hawaii’s deep thinkers about our challenges, our unique place in the world, and what Hawaii has to offer. The Value of Hawaii: Knowing the Past, Shaping the Future is available this week; Howes and Osorio are the book’s editors.

Within hours of that October day, Howes and Osorio moved quickly to expand their discussion to bring a book quickly into reality. Within weeks, the planning group included Meda Chesney-Lind, Mari Matsuda, Neal Milner, and Deane Neubauer—people Howes and Osorio knew had the expertise and depth of knowledge to write some of the essays and the right contacts for the rest of the pieces. By late January 2010, the group increased to the full complement of writers and most of those asked in the first round quickly took on the challenge: 3000 words, seven weeks to write, no extensions. Only Howes and Osorio would see everyone’s work. There were only two instructions for each topic: Tell what happened to bring us to this point and tell what we do next.

That said, Howes’ introduction states the book is not a “repair manual” or an “update to Randall Roth’s ‘Price of Paradise’” series released in 1992 and 1993. Nor is the 250 page volume meant to be a “shared manifesto.” And while there is a confluence of some viewpoints, likeminded voices were not prerequisites in the selection of contributors. Some of the essayists were actually dubious about the inclusion of others. Howes and Osorio took that as a good sign.

“We asked the people we did because we knew they had strong opinions and we knew they were articulate,” says Howes.

Osorio also made it a point to find others who did not agree with him to let them have their say.

“When I was asking some of the Hawaiian authors to contribute something on law or policy—particularly on where the sovereignty movement is going—I asked people I have substantial disagreements with over Hawaii’s political future and I wanted to have absolutely no oversight.”

Although the essays appear in categories, all are self-contained and at an average of eight pages each. A few can be read at a sitting. All are written in accessible language.

Three themes weave in and out of each selection:

Hawaii must reconcile Hawaiian claims on land and sovereignty if Hawaii is to have a prosperous future for all its people; Government must have the political will to support regulatory, human services and cultural agencies and be made to be accountable over the long term; Public and private partnerships exist best together and need to redefine how we do business.

That last one could have tax implications; Howes doesn’t shy away from the cursory criticism that the essayists all just want to increase taxes. He also believes most people wouldn’t mind tax hikes, if they could actually see where the money was going, how it was serving to make communities healthier, stronger, and more sustainable, and if there were measureable, tangible results.

“We have to decide what we want to do first, what we want to do second,” he says. If that sounds a little too “just do it” for you, he and Osorio say they hope the essays are a call to action through public discourse. Both are clear: We have to have these conversations and we have to have them now.

Beyond the marketing slogans and the Hawaii-aloha-ohana happy talk we often mythologize with each other and especially with visitors—even if we truly mean what we’re saying—the essential question behind each essay is, “What’s worth protecting?” And now the second question: “What will you do?”

The full interview with Craig Howes and Jon Osorio is on the Town Square archive at www.hawaiipublicradio.org. Have a topic you wanted discussed on Town Square? Reach Beth-Ann at [email protected].