It has been almost a year since I started writing blog items for the State of the Re:Union website. I’ve both enjoyed it and found it useful in my work. A lot of what I do at the National Civic League is to disseminate stories of positive community change, stories that typically don’t get the same coverage in the news media that stories about celebrities behaving badly do, or politicians or the weather.
But writing about these communities is only part of my job so I can’t always do justice to the many, many towns, cities, neighborhoods and regions we interact with through the All-America City Award and other programs. Blogging for SOTRU has forced me to focus on one such community every week and that has been good.
And I have to admit. I’m beginning to run out of stories. I’ve pretty much touched on all the finalists and winners from 2011 and some from earlier years. I was shaking my head over what to write about this week when I heard about Sam Lee and the story of Mililani Town, the only Hawaiian community to be named an All-America City.
Samuel Sang Hoy Lee returned to his native Hawaii in 1981 after a 26-year stint in the U.S Foreign Service having served in Sicily, Germany, Yugoslavia, Vietnam, Korea, the Philippines and Taiwan. He was the chairman of the Mililani-Waipio-Melemanu Neighborhood Board when an environmental crisis erupted in his idyllic, tree-line, “perfectly planned” community.
Traces of ethylene dibromide (EDB) and dibromochloropropane (DBCP), pesticide runoff from the nearby pineapples fields, were found in the local water supply. One of the town’s five wells had to be closed because of contamination, the first of several to come.
“Most of the government agencies involved tried at first to downplay the health threat,” related Lee, in his 1985 presentation to the All-America City jury in Cincinnati. “Often supported by the scientific community and the university, their slogan to residents was, ‘Don’t panic!’” But one department head committed a pretty serious gaffe during a community meeting. “Personally, I’m not worried,” he said. “I drink Scotch.”
The community mounted a letter-writing campaign and held a series of nearly two dozen local meetings, eventually wearing down the resistances of the powers that be. “We approached the problem within the perspective of our times,” explained Lee. “We helped government agencies realize that the standards for pesticide use accepted a generation ago were simply not accepted today.”
Community pressure led to the mayor of Honolulu declaring the contamination to be a threat to health and safety, which triggered the release of a $3 million emergency remediation fund, but community pressure also pushed the developer of the subdivision paying for a new carbon filtration system, which freed up the public funding for other water projects. Community pressure also led the EPA to issue an emergency ruling suspending the use of EDB in pineapple fields.
In the course of this struggle, Lee noted, the neighbors gradually began to employ a “secret weapon,” which he described to the AAC jury as “ohana spirit.” Ohana means family in Hawaii, but not the immediate family, the extended family, the clan, the community. The water crisis had “infused the town with the ohana spirit—a sense of the whole community pulling together.”
As for Lee, after leading the successful community uprising, he ran for a seat in the Hawaii House of Representatives, was elected and served five terms before retiring from public office in 1996. He passed away last week at the age of 81.
I never met him, but reading a typewritten transcript of his presentation to the 1985 All-America City the vivid language and good humor, made me smile. In writing about civic engagement, it’s hard to avoid using and overusing verbal abstractions like “deliberation,” “democratic governance,” “public engagement,” and the like. Ohana spirit, though, that’s pretty good.
Mike McGrath is senior editor and chief information officer for the National Civic League. A former newspaper reporter and magazine writer, he is editor of the quarterly National Civic Review, which will be beginning its centennial year of publishing this spring.