Hawai‘i People’s Congress Address Climate Change

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Back row, standing: from the left: Daniel Kaanana; Tanoa H Sautia; Hunter Heaivilin; Simon Russell; Jun Shin; Kaapuni Aiwohi;H.A.P.A. Founder/President, Gary Hooser,Jennifer Kagiwada, Kuleana Academy Program Manager, Aria Juliet Castillo; Hannah Liebreich; Heidi Low; Matthew Weyer; Donovan Kanani Cabebe, volunteer staffer/alumna, Natalia Hussey-Burdick.
Front row, seated, from the left: Anne Frederick, ED, H.A.P.A.; Charessa Fryc; Doorae Shin; Taylor Quanan; Nanea Lo; Erika Lechuga DiSalvo (PC: Kuleana Academy)

This year’s Hawai‘i People’s Congress attendees confronted the climate crisis and pledged to use the ballot box to hold elected officials accountable.

On Nov. 23, more than 150 participants from across the islands gathered for a day of discussions organized by the Hawai‘i Alliance for Progressive Action (H.A.P.A.) at the University of Hawai‘i William S. Richardson School of Law.

The conviction that emerged from the 2019 event was Hawai‘i can be an ‘aina momona again as long as advocates played offense.

“For too long we have been playing defense,” said legendary activist Walter Ritte as he and other panelists spoke about what it would take to ensure a “just transition” in the face of the climate crisis.


Moderator Ikaika Hussey suggested that the theme of the 2019 Hawai‘i People’s Congress should more appropriately be a “just transformation” in view of the gravity of the crisis: that the world has has about 3,700 days left before 2030, by which time, to avoid widespread calamity, the planet has to have cut emissions by 45%.

Speakers representing groups who are already addressing the most pressing challenges facing Hawai‘i examined how to move the islands away from extractive economies, borrow from ideas in the Green New Deal and discuss how all these efforts must be rooted in Aloha ʻĀina. Or, as Ritte put it, how to rediscover and apply the “ancient green deal” known to our kupuna.

The People’s Congress opened with a powerful poem by Dr. Jamaica Heolimeleikalani Osorio that drove home the message that what was happening on Maunakea went far beyond just the question of telescopes. Her repeated refrain to “ask me” hit a chord that ran through the rest of the day as people questioned common assumptions about protecting our natural resources, to addressing issues of houselessness, economic inequality, open government, education and equal rights.

At both the plenary and breakout sessions, attendees shared experiences and vigorously debated how they might build greater solidarity in order to advance homegrown solutions, which address the interconnected climate and inequality crises. While there is a lot of work to be done, UH law professor Maxine Burkett stressed the importance of treating each other “with compassion and in a spirit of shared sacrifice” to get to where we need to be.


The key to having an impact was making sure all voices are heard, said Ritte. He explained that many elected officials see native Hawaiians through a prism that says “nonvoters.” He went on to say politicians realize that many native Hawaiians refrain from voting in protest against the illegal annexation of the islands.

But, he argued, “Native Hawaiian rights are enshrined in the state constitution. So, if those rights are being violated, if laws are not being followed, we need to use the ballot box to hold elected officials accountable. We need to use our votes to make sure they follow the law.”

Also running through the conference was the argument made, and reinforced by the experience of various grassroots communities engaged in the restoration of ancestral practices, that for future generations to thrive, it was imperative that local climate solutions be centered in the wisdom and knowledge of communities who are deeply connected to the places where their families have lived and worked for decades. The experience of akule schooling in the waters off Kona after years of nurturing, and the return of the community once evicted from Ho‘okena in the name of development who now co-manage the area with the county were examples given by Charlie Young, Board Member – KUPA-Friends of the Hoʻokena Beach Park, of how indigenous practices are restoring balance and furthering self-sufficiency.

“This People’s Congress had an urgency and purpose that was even sharper and more focused than the last one. People are responding to the crisis because they are experiencing the impacts first-hand and want to protect their families and neighbors from harm. That goes to the heart of who we are as a people and what we mean when we talk about Aloha ʻĀina,” said H.A.P.A. Board member, Pua Rossi-Fukino.


A member of the Kuleana Academy 2019 cohort, Ka‘apuni Aiwohi said he found the event very empowering.

“This Congress was the perfect way to round off our training and to make us more informed about the challenges facing us. Each of us needs to step up and do our part to make Hawaii a better place for us—and for our children,” he said.

Kuleana Academy is a H.A.P.A. initiative that identifies and trains people aspiring to become more civically engaged, run for office themselves, or help other aspiring candidates get elected. This was the fourth cohort of the Academy.

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