Drinking from a fire hose, blind-folded with both arms tied behind your back. This is a description that comes to mind when folks ask me to describe what it’s like working in the legislative arena as an advocate.
The need for citizen advocacy is great. The urgency of the moment for our community, and for the planet – is palpable.
The task is daunting at best and I applaud the many across all islands who take the time to enter this arena daily during the annual legislative session (mid-January to the first week in May), and throughout the year at the local and national level.
I have been blessed really. Representing Kauai in the Hawaii State Senate for 8 years (4 as Majority Leader), was an invaluable and incredibly fulfilling experience. Serving on the Kauai County Council for 8 years, likewise provided me with an opportunity to make a difference and a comprehensive education as to the workings (or not) of local government. The time I spent working with Governor Abercrombie as Director of Environmental Quality Control (OEQC) gave me additional experience from an administrative perspective. For all three opportunities, I am deeply grateful and the experience gained was both valuable and incredibly fulfilling.
Having spent nearly 20 years working on the “inside”, I now spend my hours on the outside, working with grassroots advocacy groups and individuals. Today, while also doing occasional consulting work, my life is mostly spent sharing my experience as a volunteer advocate, helping to train and support other policy advocates.
In the legislative world, most will have a “subject matter focus” and the people and organizations with whom I work primarily focus on issues pertaining to environmental, economic and social justice.
A healthy democracy requires an informed and engaged citizenry. Unfortunately, our democracy on both the local, state and national levels – is not healthy.
For evidence of our democracy in decay, one need only look at the enormous gap between the ultra-rich and the vast majority of people who slave away at multiple jobs earning just barely enough to get by.
If more evidence is needed, take a walk in the mountains or along the coast. There you will see our dead and dying streams, and our shorelines littered with plastics.
Anyone still not convinced of the decline should look into our criminal justice (or rather injustice) system – half the people in jail today are poor people awaiting trial because they cannot afford bail. Many of our incarcerated are there as a result of “victimless crimes” such as drug addiction, mental illness, homelessness (yes, in much of Hawaii being homeless is a crime). Rich people and corporations don’t go to jail, they simply pay their fines and hire expensive lawyers.
The answer of course and the solution to this madness is that citizens must take responsibility and ownership of our policy, our politics and ultimately our government. Abandoning the control and decision-making to those who are elected, without our active involvement as citizens, is an abdication of our personal responsibility as human beings.
We are responsible for the condition of the world and we cannot simply blame the politicians.
Yes, we are busy. But too bad, too sad – you will get no sympathy from me. I also am busy and have children and grandchildren and bills to pay and a yard to mow, and plenty of stuff to do – other than sending in testimony, following the process or meeting with my elected representative
The world is literally burning. Every year there are less fish in the ocean. Instances of various illnesses attributed to environmental causes (cancer, autism, etc) are growing at alarming levels, and our friends and neighbors are increasingly living under blue tarps, sleeping on pallets and under bridges. There but for the grace of God go each of us.
People slave away at starvation wages as a result of a conscious public policy decision to keep our minimum wage below that which is needed for a human to survive. Our own government has determined that $17 per hour is a “substance wage” for a single person working 40 hours a week. Our State legislature has decided that $10.10 per hour is sufficient. While legislators themselves will be getting their raises they continue to refuse to increase that of those at the very bottom of the economic ladder. Let them eat cake is the message sent.
The “affordable housing” public policy solutions (bills) being presented now at the legislature are essentially a collection of “giveaways to developers and landowners”.
The solutions being offered are “developer incentives” that reduce environmental protections, make development permits “automatic” and increase the urbanization of agricultural lands. In return for these government concessions (read public giveaways), the developers must promise that at least 50% of the homes they build will be sold for approximately $800,000 or less, targeting people who earn 140% of the median income in Hawaii. This is what our policymakers consider “affordable”.
Deliberate public policy decisions are responsible also for stream diversions and the subsequent killing of our mountain streams, caused by large agribusiness and others. Rather than pass and enforce public policy that says sufficient water must remain in the stream to keep it alive and allow downstream users to also use the water – public policymakers too often yield to big money and big landowners who simply want to “bank” as much water as they can for as long as they can.
The present challenges facing our local, state and national community are the result of conscious public policy decisions made by policymakers over time. As citizens, we have the power and the responsibility to affect those policy changes to the benefit of people and the planet. We can collectively change things for the better if we collectively take our responsibility seriously and invest the time and energy needed.
Voting is important but it is not enough. Full participation in our government requires becoming educated on the issues and the process, offering testimony via email or in person, and speaking out in public forums. It also requires people to put their names forward to serve on boards and commissions, to run for election to public office, and to help others campaign and win an election.
I encourage all to think about the options and to take action.
“Every time we turn our heads the other way when we see the law flouted, when we tolerate what we know to be wrong, when we close our eyes and ears to the corrupt because we are too busy or too frightened, when we fail to speak up and speak out, we strike a blow against freedom, decency, and justice.” Robert F. Kennedy