Not Politics As Usual

In Part 1 of this article (in the 7/17/20 Herald issue), I featured four outstanding women in the Japanese American community, analyzing their societal contributions through my mentor’s definition of politics as “conflict over meaning and value.”

In this second part, I spotlight recent efforts — both within and outside of Nikkei networks — that try to translate our collective values into meaningful institutional practice. I posed the same questions asked of earlier interviewees: 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?

Protecting the Economic Well-being of Vulnerable Tourism Workers Until the Industry Comes Back

Visitor-industry worker Rodney Nakashima always wanted to be knowledgeable about the things beyond his hotel job duties —“I wanted to be informed about union membership, wanted to be well-rounded,” reflects the friendly, low-key assistant head gardener of Sheraton Waikiki. The sansei veteran of O’ahu’s mass-tourism sector has put in 15 years of mindfully caring for plants and greenery gracing the grounds of not only the Sheraton but other hotels at the heart of Waikīkī’s famous beachwater edge (including the Moana Surfrider’s nearly century-old, world-famous, iconic banyan tree).

Nakashima trained in the cultivation of native and invasive botanical species brought to hotel grounds from all over the Hawaiian islands and around the world. This type of greenery labor is “really sacred; many plants have a history at their hotel, so we have to be careful doing things like cutting,” he says. He feels humbled by the fact that coconut trees he had planted 10 years ago remain standing and that the special celebration trees and Native Hawaiian plants he had brought into hotel gardens, such as those in the Royal Hawaiian Hotel, are accompanied by signs commemorating their histories there. “People think, ʻIt’s just a tree,’ but it is actually a big informational system,” he explains.

Nakashima descends from tough sugar-cane farmers who migrated across Hawaiʻi to find employment (and who moved from the Big Island to Maui and Oʻahu, then to Kauaʻi). Raised by a Nisei father who had served in the U.S. Army during the Korean and Vietnam Wars and by a war-bride mother who immigrated to Honolulu from Osaka where her family was employed on oyster farms — the hotel worker hails from practical working people.

This genealogy of agricultural and horticultural aptitude seems to make him a cautious observer of the political landscape around him. Nakashima watches for post-COVID-19 shifts in our government’s economic stance, almost as closely as he had once gleaned information on day-by-day changes in the natural environment to perform his landscaping work. In the age of the coronavirus, “I am looking to our mayor and governor who I hold accountable for what is happening and who I respect for taking the time and stepping back in reopening the state,” he says, expressing the complicated position of visitor-industry workers who await tourism’s re-start.

In his estimation, only about 10% of COVID-19’s societal outcomes will result from individual actions such as washing hands and social distancing. More importantly, 50% will be shaped by unions — like Local 5, a very active service-industry labor organization to which he belongs (unitehere5.org). To Nakashima, unions protect workers from corporate employers that are now scrambling to take financial advantage of the virus-generated chaos, threatening to cut back on employees’ hard-earned pay levels and benefits. And the remaining 40% of how coronavirus will affect Hawaiʻi, he says, is up to our government to regulate business so as to keep stable the economic lives of working people in Hawaiʻi.

Now that the state is in a position to bring corporations to the table so as to balance their interests with those of other groups in these tough times, adds Nakashima, what will our government do to get companies to protect jobs, to respect workers’ past pay which reflects their years of experience, to continue providing fair benefits? “Because tourism will come back,” he says, predicting that it will eventually return to the robust economy we had enjoyed before 120 days ago, when the COVID-19 crisis began in Hawaiʻi. “But the question is, when?”

Nakashima calls for state practices and policies that encourage the private sector to keep tourism-industry employees continuously earning a paycheck for their hard work. Through innovative partnerships during the coronavirus situation, for example, Local 5 has helped members procure this kind of much-needed employment. Not only representing hotel and airport workers but also healthcare employees, the union arranged for some of the furloughed hotel workforce to assist with the state Dept. of Health’s Temporary Quarantine Isolation Center in Iwilei. There, high-risk populations (e.g., the houseless, those who have mental illness and/or substance abuse addiction, unsheltered veterans and vulnerable family members needing protection from household violence) can be safely housed during the pandemic. With his background in groundskeeping, Nakashima was temporarily retrained as an environmental specialist and now disinfects room and common areas at TQIC.

Paola Rodelas, Local 5 communication specialist and Nakashima’s colleague, contrasts her union’s strategy of finding more work for furloughed hotel employees post-coronavirus, with non-unionized hotels’ management practices. “They [non-union hotels] laid-off workers and then, as the economy is expected to re-open, made them reapply for their jobs under subcontractors. So employees were unsure whether they can keep the same position, pay and benefits. Because they were not protected by unions, after they got fired, they had to go back and fight for their jobs. There is no excuse for this, especially coming from big corporations,” she says, mentioning Highgate, a Manhattan-based real-estate investment company which manages the Aston Waikiki Beach Hotel, ʻAlohilani Resort and Courtyard by Marriott Waikiki Beach, as an example.

Nakashima says, “I respects these businesses and know they have to get going, or the money will run out.” But he hopes that in that process, the state will protect workers’ jobs which might be lost due to the pandemic crisis. “Not all [jobs] can come back, but what is the pathway for the hospitality industry, the restaurant industry, to help us return? Where are the workers going to work? Have they got other options for employment to that [tourism-industry job]?,” he asks.

When working at the Sheraton, Nakashima was grateful for his Local-5-secured pay, benefits and pension. He hopes that one day, all of the visitor industry might provide jobs that help workers feed their families and live an affordable life in Hawaiʻi. Right now, he feels, without this type of across-the-board standard, the tourism labor market is split into two-tiers or sets of job standards: those who work unionized jobs protected by collective-bargaining contracts like him, and those who end up with hotel and other service-industry work without this kind of security, healthcare, pensions and other benefits. “But everyone [working in the visitor industry] should be up to our [union] standard,” he says of the $2.07 billion-a-year (in 2019) industry’s economic ecosystem.

More Stability and Support for Crucial Gig-Economy Artists that Help Nourish Local Community

Raised in the Himalayan mountains of India, ethnomusicologist Teri Skillman sensed an instant affinity for the diverse cultures of Hawaiʻi when she first arrived in 1982. “I felt the values and priorities here fit [me] in ways that the mainland did not,” reflected the woman who now serves as the Hawaiʻi Arts Alliance’s CEO.

Trained from childhood in classical Indian music and dance (including playing with the Delhi Symphony Orchestra when she was just in high school!), when she initially came to the islands, Skillman studied hula under Kumu Edward Kalahiki and Noenoe Zuttermeister. Eventually, she consulted with many kumu hula for her doctoral dissertation on the Merrie Monarch Festival. After stints such as Hamilton Library’s outreach coordinator (at the University of Hawaiʻi-Mānoa) and executive director of a folk-life center in New Jersey, Skillman now aims her considerable knowledge of the arts to advocate for Hawaiʻi’s beloved — albeit economically undervalued — creative workforce. Cultural artists and performers are respected in Hawaiʻi at the individual level…but not supported societally, something the former musician aims to address.

While a teaching assistant, Skillman once noticed that as much as a quarter of her music-education students, in an UHM undergraduate class of 28, displayed digital-dexterity deficiencies. Attributing the problem to a lack of music instruction when the students were in elementary school, this finding “hit home” with Skillman, at that time the mother of a female child who was attending a Department of Education school. She made sure that her own daughter received basic musical-performance training, but the larger lesson, of public-school classes as a means to transfer necessary cultural-artistic skills to the younger generation, long stayed with her.

Skillman’s Alliance has worked alongside the DOE, the Hawaiʻi Association of Independent Schools, the UHM Colleges of Education and Arts and Humanities and the Hawaiʻi State Foundation on Culture and the Arts as stakeholding partners in ARTS FIRST. Established by Act 306/01, ARTS FIRST anticipated the narrow standardized-testing emphases of the millennial “No Child Left Behind” era. To balance out that schooling trend, these institutional partners put together a fine-arts strategic plan from 2001 to ensure meaningful arts-education learning experiences for all Hawai‘i children in the classroom.

Today, under Skillman’s leadership, the Alliance — originally created in 1981 by HSFCA’s founding director, Albert Preis — also connects working artists through an online database for collaborative projects (hawaiiartsalliance.org/creative-network). “The Arts Alliance used to be, and needs to return to being, more community-minded,” summarizes Skillman of the vision she has enacted since being hired to lead the Alliance in 2019, a vision centered on issues of creative labor in the gig economy.

“Even before COVID-19, we have been trying to get more artists to sign up for our Creative Artists Network. We want to offer business-management workshops and, hopefully, services such as different types of insurance, affordable legal assistance and resources for creative artists,” she says.

“It is inexcusable that creative workers in the gig economy do not have these benefits or even basic job stability,” Skillman adds. Such creative cultural and artistic labor is essential to the visitor industry’s success. After all, “People who come to Hawaiʻi want two things [from their visit]: a beautiful environment, and cultural traditions. Without those two, Hawaiʻi would be seen as not offering anything.”

Skillman cites 2015 Hawaiʻi data from the Americans for the Arts’ Arts and Economic Prosperity 5 study which finds that “Nearly 45% of nonresident attendees [of local arts or cultural activities] indicated that the primary purpose of their visit to the state was ʻspecifically to attend this arts/cultural event’.”

That yearlong national study had also revealed that in the islands, “spending by nonprofit arts and cultural organizations and their audiences totaled $205.6 million,” and that, while nonresidents had constituted just 7.9% of all cultural-or-arts-event attendees, they actually spent 155% more per person than Hawaiʻi-resident attendees, in order to experience the same events, as they also pay “surrounding expenses of lodging, meals and transportation.“

Almost $206 million a year is “not a drop in the bucket,” assesses Skillman. As Hawaiʻi Arts Alliance’s associate director, she hopes that in the next legislative session, an “Arts and Cultural” caucus can build political awareness in the islands about the value of creative workers to the tourism industry as well as to the community. In the last session, mourns Skillman, “There were no bills to support the gig economy — the creative-sector workers. But how crucial they are to how well the economy recovers!”

Skillman’s latest effort to support gig workers in the creative sector is a collaborative application for a National Endowment for the Arts “Our Town” place-making grant with the Downtown Arts Center. If the Alliance were to procure this grant, it could once again help to reinvigorate downtown Honolulu’s historic arts and culture district — an area which in its recent past had been revived by the Alliance’s ARTS at Mark’s Garage, in collaboration with small businesses in that area, through First Friday from 2001-12. “To a great extent,” Skillman observes, “Chinatown has fallen apart, and First Friday is now dead in the water. But for the long run, with the rail [project completion] coming, it makes sense to address the region from Beretania to Aloha Tower and from Maunakea to Richards St. It makes sense for it to go arts oriented.”

The goal would be to focus on local participants, not out-of-state tourism, such as Micronesians and other new immigrants in nearby public and low-income housing — “They should have access to the arts and creative programs…to rejuvenate the historical, cultural arts district,” she stated, recognizing the many independent art galleries, pubs and restaurants, cultural organizations, flower shops, fashion retailers, architecture firms and performance spaces in Honolulu’s longtime small-business neighborhood.

Skillman applies her earlier lessons, which she learned when studying the Merrie Monarch Festival for her dissertation, to this Honolulu urban area. That festival ended up reenergizing business in Hilo, she says, because its organizers had focused on building local community interest and used different sectors of the Hawaiʻi island economy to help out. “Focus on community, on Hawaiian values and issues, and everyone benefits,” she says. “This must be seen as the bottom line.”

Stakeholder Groups Coming Together Under the Right Conditions for Collaborative Problem-Solving

In Hawaiʻi, the gap between average household incomes of the top 1% of our population (around $797,001 in 2015) and the bottom 99% (around $57,587), has been growing — paralleling the rising income inequality in most other U.S. states from the 1970s onward, according to the Economic Policy Institute (cnbc.com/2018/07/19/income-inequality-continues-to-grow-in-the-united-states.html).

For this reason, I interviewed Gavin Thornton, executive director of the Hawaiʻi Appleseed Law Center for Law and Economic Justice, a non-profit which drew my attention due to its unusual mission. Part of a national network of 16 public-interest law centers, Appleseed locally attempts to “build a more socially just Hawai‘i, where everyone has genuine opportunities to achieve economic security and fulfill their potential” (hiappleseed.org/).

To achieve this, Thornton focuses his Center’s team of data analysts and public-policy researchers on what he calls “high-level systems issues.” Hawaiʻi’s decision-makers, he thinks, need to come up with an effective problem-solving process so that various social groups and economic actors in the islands that have traditionally demonstrated differences in priorities and perspectives, can come together to achieve concrete solutions to pressing matters of socio-economic inequality, especially regarding issues such as a livable wage for workers, affordable housing and a rebalanced tax structure.

These issues were underscored by the surprising (to some) data findings of the Aloha United Way’s ALICE report, originally released in 2017. The initial report illustrated the urgent nature of working-class economic struggle in the islands, revealing not only those beneath the official U.S. federal poverty level (about 11% of all Hawaiʻi households), but also the extent of families and individuals with slightly higher incomes that were “Asset Limited, Income Constrained, Employed” (ALICE, an additional 37% of all households here) — in a nutshell, the working poor.

Some forward-thinking political and economic leaders of the state saw from the report that [a total of] “48% of all local residents were struggling to make ends meet, and if you add a few percentage points to that figure, all of Hawaiʻi is done for,” Thornton explained. This motivated these leaders to rethink where we were headed, he said.

The percentage of Hawaiʻi households in the two combined income categories (federal poverty level + ALICE level) fell from the time of that first report to the time of its most recent version. However, since the economic impact of the coronavirus, Aloha United Way now estimates that 59% of Hawaiʻi residents don’t earn enough to cover the costs of a survival budget (see auw.org/more-half-hawaii-households-struggle-under-covid-aloha-united-way-says).

Despite this alarming data, Appleseed’s director shares an encouraging story from the last legislative session when a new package of bills was introduced with the intent of financially shoring up working families. The bills included a minimum-wage increase, tax credits for working families, affordable housing supports and an education component, Thornton described.

For the housing part of the bills, Thornton thought that most of the stakeholders were generally supportive of its $200 million appropriation toward infrastructure that promoted affordable housing development on state-owned lands.

However, he said, that bill’s controversial aspects included disputes over what constituted “affordable” housing, concerns about land use and environmental oversight and protection, and Native Hawaiian justice issues.

Thornton describes how the Hawaii Community Foundation then brought together a diverse group of political actors with often-conflicting interests, representing various perspectives on Hawaiʻi land and housing development. This group included Pacific Resources Partnership (aka the carpenters union), Aloha United Way, the Office for Hawaiian Affairs, the Sierra Club, Kamehameha Schools Bishop Estate, the Building Industry Association of Hawaii and other organizations. Recognizing a shared commitment to improve the affordable housing situation for Hawaiʻi families, the community representatives in the group ended up submitting joint testimony with proposed amendments to provide the bill with a broad base of support, he says.

Although the COVID-19 outbreak eventually led to the effort’s demise, Thornton views it as an exemplary start for addressing our complex political conflicts. “It was one of the best examples I’ve seen of a diverse, broad spectrum of stakeholders — people who historically have been divided — coming together with shared purpose to resolve a problem that impacts us all,” he sums up, contrasting this experience with how problems are often approached through the legislative process and elsewhere.

Thornton concludes that when “the right representatives come together in the right environment focused on collaborative problem-solving rather than negotiation,” even the most intractable problems can be addressed.