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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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It’s My Fault

It’s late March at Blanche Pope Elementary School in Waimanalo, so the students are on spring break and their classrooms sit empty, except for the one where the staff of Na Pono No Na Ohana, a family education support group, have gathered to hear Andrew Aoki speak.

This isn’t the first time Aoki has addressed the group; months before he gave a talk about financial literacy. He’s also the husband of one of the Ohana’s members, Beth, and has an easy rapport with the 12 women. The friendly vibe between speaker and audience seems to grow more playful as he talks, even though the discussion covers some weighty and uncomfortable issues.

“I’m going to explain Kanu Hawaii by asking you what you want, because I bet what you want is what I want,” says Aoki.

He asks his audience what they love about Hawaii and the women fire responses to him from all sides of the room. Aoki writes the items down on the classroom’s blackboard and struggles to keep up: People getting along with each other, warm weather, beaches, friends, community, ohana and food, among others.

Then comes the second question: What’s the one thing that needs to be fixed in Hawaii? Again, with his audience fully engaged, the answers come fast and furiously: too much rubbish, dirty beaches, the cost of living, drug addiction, education, homelessness, domestic abuse and on and on.

When Aoki asks what commitments the women can make to preserve the items on the first list and address the issues on the second list, the discussion becomes even livelier, especially after the speaker recounts his own struggles to conserve and recycle at home.

One woman describes with frustration her dealings with the seemingly monolithic Hawaiian Electric Co. Regardless of what she does, her power bill goes up. She thinks it’s a conspiracy. Another talks about her meter-watching husband and his dogged efforts to lower the family’s electricity consumption, one kilowatt-hour at a time. The group is impressed. A third staff member says that she’s going to take her daughter to an Obon festival in the summer, so she can experience another culture.

“It’s very American to think that we should be able to do anything we want. But we live on an island, so we know that kind of attitude doesn’t work. We see what happens to the beaches. We know that there is no more room for the rubbish,” says Aoki. “For too long we’ve been trying to find out who’s at fault for all of this. But you know what? It’s my fault, it’s our fault and we can do something about it.”

Instead of challenging the self-described “over-educated Japanese boy from Moanalua,” the women, who are racially diverse and of varying ages, nod in agreement. It is as if they’re talking to their next-door neighbor and, in a sense, they are.

“The response varies from group to group and from speaker to speaker, but we see some common threads,” says Aoki, who a weekend before was addressing students at a charter school in Kohala and before that a group of downtown business people. “People in Hawaii seem to know that we’re all in this together.”

An Impossible Dream?

Despite all their high-tech tools, Aoki, Koshiba and Lagon spend most of their time doing outreach the old-fashioned way, speaking at schools and businesses and to community groups. They are concentrating on drumming up membership, hoping to have an online population of 10,000 by year’s end. Later, with this “community of purpose” they’ll explore how to harness and direct the resulting consumer and political power.

“Maybe it will start with a small campaign or a volunteer project together. Later, we’ll poll our membership and learn about the issues and decide how to act on them,” says Koshiba. “People in Hawaii are disconnected, and we don’t really care why that is. We are just looking for a way to reattach them to their government, their community and the land that they live on.”

But can it really work? How can Kanu Hawaii succeed where so many have tried and failed?

“They [Kanu Hawaii] are very bright, committed people, who not only care deeply about Hawaii but are really committed to work together in a different way,” says Kelvin Taketa, president and CEO of the Hawaii Community Foundation, which has provided support to Kanu Hawaii from its inception three years ago. “But a lot of very bright people have been working on the same problems for decades now. Some things have come to fruition, some haven’t. But what is different about Kanu is its ability to aggregate individual and group action into something bigger. That may work this time. I don’t know.”

The staff of Kanu Hawaii know that their pie-in-the-sky goals may sound familiar, maybe even unattainable. That is why they and members of their board have made 30-year commitments to the organization and its mission. For them, living the goal is the import thing.

“To be honest, I haven’t had my [a-ha] moment yet. It seems like an impossible task,” says Lagon. “But I have to ask myself: ‘How can I not try? How can I not be a part of this? And how can I not have a sense of joy while I’m on this amazing journey?’”

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