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Growth Potential

Not your daddy's way of giving back. Kanu Hawaii leverages MySpace technology to help grow a social movement

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Kanu Hawaii Directors

LEFT TO RIGHT, James Koshiba, Andrew Aoki and Olin Lagon of Kanu Hawaii

Photo by Olivier Koning

What Ryan Mielke loves about Hawaii – the one thing that he really cherishes and hopes to preserve for his children – would be difficult to accurately reproduce on a postcard, although many have tried for almost as long as there have been postcards.

Mielke, the deputy asset manager for Hickam Community Housing and Actus Lend Lease grew up in a military family and lived in more than 12 different towns and cities across the country. In the early 1970s, Wahiawa was home, where he suited up for the Schofield Packers Pop Warner football team. Football was fun, even though his team got an annual butt kicking from the Waipahu Jackrabbits. But it was what happened after the games – win or lose – that Mielke remembers most fondly.

“We’d meet the families from the opposing team, and it was always surprising to me how welcoming Island people were to complete strangers,” says Mielke. “Plus, they knew that we were military, and we weren’t going to be around for very long. But there was still a warmth and openness that I haven’t experienced anywhere else I’ve lived, and I’ve lived in a lot of places.”

The observation is hardly unique: It’s the aloha spirit personified, and almost everyone who has spent any amount of time in the Islands has experienced it in one form or another. Personal warmth, generosity, openness, tolerance. It seems almost pointless to describe or define the feeling, since it’s as ubiquitous as the Islands’ sun and sand and as individual and unique as a breaking wave.

It’s My Kuleana

Mielke is a member of Kanu Hawaii, a new, revelatory nonprofit organization, which is trying to identify and harness the aloha. Kanu Hawaii officials believe that this sense of personal connection and implicit responsibility for the land and each other may be the single most powerful tool in building a sustainable future for the state and maybe the rest of the world. Unlike old models of giving back to community, which were largely based on monetary donations, particularly from large corporate entities, Kanu Hawaii is about empowering individuals to take an active, personal role in making change.

But how do you do that? By bridging the old with the new. By connecting the technology from the MySpace generation to a message of aloha that is as old as dirt. Kanu Hawaii (www.kanuhawaii.org) asks prospective members two simple questions: What do you love about Hawaii? What personal commitments are you willing to make to preserve it? The resulting answers and pledges are posted in personal profiles on its social networking Web site and, one pledge at a time, a social movement is born.

“At first, it seemed like small, insignificant steps, but then we took all those pledges, and we shared them with each other, so we could hold each other accountable,” says James Koshiba, one of Kanu’s three staff members. “We found what pledges people had in common, and we tried to estimate what would be the collective impact. For instance, we found that if 40 members cut their shower time by two minutes or turned off the tap while brushing their teeth, we would save 400,000 gallons of water. Then it all started to make sense, and it was empowering to know that even a small step could get us there.”

Using the Web as its meeting place and soapbox, Kanu Hawaii is building a community for social activism and giving back. By asking for specific commitments to make Hawaii a better place, Kanu creates a sort of living contract that members make with themselves and with others.

It’s not just a tool to fight The Man, it’s also a way for The Man to join in on the fight, too. Businesses and organizations of any size can join Kanu and use its site’s tools to aggregate and calculate their group’s collective actions, providing an opportunity to bring a company’s mission statement to life, or highlight its efforts for others to see.

“Kanu understands that it is more than just the environment. It’s about a commitment to the community,” says Mielke, who joined Kanu Hawaii with several others from his company. “Ideally, we want everyone to join but they have to make their own commitment.”

Last summer, Kanu Hawaii took a big step toward its goal: The Omidyar Foundation awarded the group a three-year $750,000 grant. The monies enabled Koshiba and Kanu’s other staffers, Andrew Aoki and Olin Lagon, to become fulltime sustainability evangelists and community builders, spreading the word and collecting pledges from businesses, schools and community groups.

“We invested in Kanu Hawaii because they’re working toward something we believe in — the idea that Hawaii can be a model for sustainability and strong community,” said Pierre Omidyar, founder of eBay and the Omidyar Foundation, in a prepared statement.

As of April, Kanu Hawaii had signed up nearly 1,200 members from 100 different zip codes and 20 states across the country. These members made approximately 6,400 pledges and commitments. According to Kanu’s Web site, their efforts will annually reduce CO2 emissions by 143.1 tons, provide $27,412 worth of labor to charities and reduce the amount of trash sent to landfills by 182,578 pounds, among other socially conscious and environmentally friendly impacts.

“I don’t think we’ve ever been under the delusion that individual action alone was going to change the direction of things. Some of the biggest users of natural resources are government and big business,” says Aoki. “But instead of pointing fingers and telling people what they should or shouldn’t do, we can say that this is what we’re doing, join us. Because if we don’t make an effort to change the world around us, it’s a lost cause.”

Kanu means “to plant” or “pass down through inheritance” in Hawaiian. But the guiding principle of Kanu Hawaii is best summed up in another word: kuleana, which translates into “right, authority, responsibility and obligation.” It’s a noun, a verb, a mission statement and maybe something more.

According to Koshiba, the all-encompassing concept of kuleana is the result of the realities and limitations of living on an island, where resources are scarce and neighbors live close by. For decades, kuleana and its close cousin, aloha spirit, have been pithy monikers of a cherished yet fading lifestyle. But as the rest of the country and the world grow smaller and struggle with the dwindling resources and the fragility of the environment, kuleana suddenly seems to be both a call to action and a plan of action.

“People are realizing that the Earth is really like an island now. How are we going to solve things? How are we going to all get along?” asks Aoki. “Suddenly, Hawaii has a lot of assets in regard to how a society functions with those concerns. But we have to start here first. We’ve got a lot of our own problems.”

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