About a dozen preschoolers sit in a circle on a big square of blue carpet in their sunny Manoa classroom one recent Friday morning. There are works of art to be made, wooden blocks to be stacked, even a ladder to be climbed that leads up to a loft draped in gauzy purple fabric.

Those things can wait.

This Mid-Pacific Institute class is on a mission to see the mayor of Honolulu, and they won’t give up until he pays attention to them.

It all began last September, when the 3- to 5-year-olds were making weekly visits to Waialae Beach Park in Kahala as part of an ongoing project learning about the coastal environment. One day, they saw city bulldozers at the site when they arrived. Their lead teacher, Leslie Gleim, said workers had removed a berm in a nearby stream. Gleim said the berm removal sent a flood of long-stagnant water into nearshore waters, but there were no signs warning swimmers about poor water quality.

“The children became concerned because what they did see there was a grandmother and baby playing in the sand, and there were no signs,” Gleim said.

“It was dirty water,” one boy in the class told Civil Beat.

“Yucky poisonous water!” one of his classmates clarified.

“First we started to think about the yucky poisonous water, and then we saw people, and then we wanted to put the sign,” another girl explained. “We tried to put the sign because we don’t want (people) to be dead.”

So Gleim helped her class take action. First, they talked about who would be responsible for placing warning signs near the water, and decided to contact Honolulu Mayor Peter Carlisle. Then, the class scheduled an appointment with the school’s principal, to ask if she would be the official contact between the school and the city. Finally, they got to work drafting a letter. Here’s what they ended up sending in late October:

Gleim provided this “translation” for Carlisle:

To the Mayor:

Can we put up a sign at the Kahala Beach to say:

Stay out of the whitish brownish water and sand.

No Babies and Children
No Grownups
No Teachers
No Friends
No Trash

Yucky Poisonous Water

Oh yeah, we need a lifeguard there to stop the people.

Thank you,
Mid-Pacific Institute
Little Kids

In case they weren’t clear, the kids also provided a mock-up for the kind of sign they thought might work well in the area.

The image — a sad face floating above dirty water with a line marked through it — was provided so that people who don’t know how to read could understand the sign.

Gleim also sent an email on behalf of her class, explaining the entire story and requesting a meeting for her “quite concerned” students.

Waiting For An Answer

Days went by with no response from the mayor. Then weeks. Then months.

Finally, Gleim said “after several months of waiting,” and with some help from a class parent who had a connection to the city, they were able to schedule a meeting with the city’s deputy managing director, Chrystn Eads.

“The mayor couldn’t meet with them, and they had requested several times,” Eads told Civil Beat. “Because I had kids, they said, ‘OK, you can meet them.’ They’re very young, and they did a good job. They had obviously practiced, they knew they were going to line up. They did their presentation and showed their signs. They were very professional for three- and four-year-olds.”

Eads said she asked the city’s Department of Facility Maintenance, which periodically cleans out the stream mouth, about the lack of signs.

“Because there may be bacteria in that water that may be stagnant, they place the signs until it can dissipate with the natural flow of the ocean,” Eads said. “Usually, they leave the signs in the parking lot while they do their work, then they put them up when they’re finished. So when I talked to DFM after I met with (the class), they were like, ‘Oh yeah, that was the day someone stole the signs from the parking lot.’ So they went back to get more signs, and then posted the signs. It was a rare occurrence.”

Here’s a photo Eads provided that shows one of the signs that would have been posted:

Eads said she takes seriously the importance of making time for even the youngest concerned citizens, and said it’s “not very often” that city officials hear from three-year-olds with a bone to pick.

“We said we would pass their message onto the mayor and be careful,” Eads said.

But the kids returned to their classroom and told their teachers they weren’t satisfied.

“So they met with her, told her the story and she said she would tell the department head,” Gleim said. “They were worried because she was the only person they told about putting the signs up.”

They still wanted to see the mayor.

“Because we want to,” one little boy said. 

“Because it’s very important,” a classmate said.

“We tried to talk to the mayor lady, and the mayor lady said she’s going to talk to the mayor,” another girl said. “We want to put signs.”

Taking Action

In the meantime, the children decided to warn people about potentially dangerous water themselves. This week, Gleim’s class plans to launch a public service announcement on YouTube. The class teamed up with a high school student to make a cartoon warning about dangerous water.

“Their message is about not going in the yucky poisonous water or you’ll die,” Gleim said. “It’s really serious. They’re going to translate it into Hawaiian, Hebrew, Chinese, Japanese, Korean, Spanish, French.”

For this class, a lesson about the coastal environment evolved into a civics tutorial. Ask them what the mayor’s name is and one child quickly and correctly names Carlisle. They know, at least on a basic level, what he does.

“The mayor runs the city,” one boy explained.

If they could be mayor, the kids say they would put up signs to warn people about dirty water. One boy said he would build a house. Most of the children say they think Carlisle’s job is easy. One girl said being the mayor is “dangerous.” Another boy is convinced it’s “super hard” but that for them to do his work is “even harder.”

“Because you have to put the sign up and we don’t know how to paint,” one girl explained.

Gleim said she realized her students felt powerless, and had to show them that even the youngest citizens can make a difference.

“As we were talking about seeing the mayor, the children turned to us and they said, ‘You need to talk to the mayor.’ We said, ‘Why?’ They said, ‘Because the big people don’t listen to the small people, and they’ll listen to the big people.'”

The preschoolers still aren’t convinced that they can be heard.

“Small people talk really, really not loud like the grown-ups, so they don’t know what we’re talking about,” one of the girls in the class said. 

“You can’t see small people but you can hear small people,” a classmate offered.

“Well,” one girl said matter-of-factly. “We need to talk loud.”

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