A kolea bird adopted my front yard this month, this cute, little gray symbol of transience.

In an annual tradition, Pacific golden plovers (as they’re more widely known) fly across 2,700 miles of the Pacific ocean from their Arctic nests to Hawaii, many of them doing it for the first time, without any help from their parents.

They come in August skinny, having used up nearly all their energy, and leave eight months later fat, ready for the flight back home.

Travelers navigate signs in the Honolulu International Airport. Honolulu, Hawaii  27 feb 2015. photograph Cory Lum/Civil Beat

Welcome signs at the Honolulu International Airport.

Cory Lum/Civil Beat

In Hawaii, we’re used to transience. It can be good, of course – sometimes we’re all relieved when a resident nutjob blows Dodge – but most of the time it’s just exhausting. That’s why “kolea,” as a nickname, can be used pejoratively, for people who come to Hawaii, get rich, and bounce out.

But I rather like to think of it as a term of endearment to describe friends we wish could stay. People for whom the need to fly away is in their bones – their best interest for them to live long and prosper.

In my last column, I talked with an artist and two DJs who had recently moved from Honolulu to New York City to tap into a scene they felt had either hit its limit in Honolulu or didn’t exist. Of course, each had their own reasons for going, but ennui and frustration with local limitations were significant refrains.

This week, I needed redemption. I looked for people who have reversed that path, who took the “brain drain” in the other direction and came to Hawaii from New York City.

While it might seem counterintuitive for these millennials at the start of their careers to move to Honolulu with a job outlook as dark as it is (in his “Living Hawaii” column on Civil Beat, my colleague Eric Pape compared chasing a career in Hawaii to career suicide), each of these individuals comes with perspective, ideas, ambition, gumption and possibilities.

They see potential where others don’t, and hopefully provide a bigger picture to how creative people can apply their thought to Honolulu in ways that reward their community and themselves.

I don’t know: maybe they just haven’t reached their ceiling yet, or maybe their capacity for frustration is higher than others, but right now, they’re here to make a difference.

Samantha Ruiz

Courtesy Samantha Ruiz

Samantha Ruiz moved to Honolulu a year ago by way of Florida, Vermont and New York. After a childhood in upstate New York and NYC, she graduated high school and college in Florida, getting a Bachelor of Science degree at the University of Central Florida, where she founded an environmental nonprofit called I.D.E.A.S. When in Vermont, earning her master’s in environmental law and policy, the energy industry rose to prominence in her interest, and Hawaii, she told me, “popped into my radar, because of the unique energy industry that exists here.”

Now, she’s the Strategic Energy Coordinator for the University of Hawaii and the founding organizer of HNL Soup, a recurring micro-grant event that supports creative projects by pooling small donations together to fund community-conscious ideas.

“When I was a little girl, my life was little more than, ‘How do I spend the most time in nature?’ My brother and I would just get lost in the woods.

“I lived on a three-acre farm in upstate New York, three hours outside of the city, that my parents managed, and we had bees and chickens – cows were our neighbors. An acre and a half of it was used to grow food. They were pretty off the grid, but some of my family lived in Manhattan, and we would usually spend weekends with my aunt in Riverdale. So my upbringing was a blend of country and city.

“The time I spent in New York was mainly about how to get involved in the nonprofit sector and philanthropy and underground issues, such as sharing economies and small scale organizations focused on climate change resilience and building local economies.

“I got my master’s in environmental law and policy, and Hawaii popped into my radar because of the unique energy industry that exists here. The renewable portfolio standards; the fact that the Leg has a goal of relying 100 percent on renewables by 2040. I was interested in coming to Hawaii to see what the landscape looked like and see what opportunities exist here.

“I moved here in April, 2014, and so far, it’s been great. It was really interesting to move to Hawaii, because I moved to become a part of the energy industry that I felt was bubbling at the time, and then when I moved here I noticed that there was a really deep need to put people into positions to generate that change for a clean energy future. So it doesn’t seem like, I don’t want to say that the talent pool isn’t here, because I think the talent pool is here to create the solutions. I just think that the minds are now coming together in terms of how to address those solutions.

“Working with the university has been really interesting because I’ve been trying to create a culture of innovation, raising education and awareness to the problems that we face and the power that people can have if they get involved. I’m hoping to increase civic engagement, which is a huge need that correlates to social impact and energy. If you get enough people to vote on an issue, that can drastically change a piece of legislation that is close to being passed through the Senate.

“I’m interested in creating a sense of ownership for Honolulu and Hawaii, rather than looking at Hawaii as a place of limitations.”

“It’s frustrating to hear that people of a place say there’s not enough possibility, so I’m interested in creating a sense of ownership for Honolulu and Hawaii and, rather than looking at Hawaii as a place of limitations, look at it as a testbed and a place for your ideas to take root and to change your environment. We are a product of our environment. There is a responsibility for the people who live here to contribute to that.

“I didn’t really ever expect to start something like HNL Soup and I didn’t think it would be so well-received, either. The community organizing just came from the fact that I was in a new city and wanted to integrate into the community in some way. A lot of the work that I.D.E.A.S. does was already being filled here in other ways. I plan to stay in Hawaii for a long time and so, in my mind, how do I add value to a place that’s already doing such good work? Soup just seems like a good model.

“I have been warmly welcomed here, but have been repetitively cautioned to be delicate in this place – it’s something that I think about every day whenever I’m interacting, whether it’s with a colleague or potential partner. It’s to be cognizant where they’re coming from: their place, their cultural background.

“Coming from the East Coast, it’s a very go go go go mentality. Forget empathy, forget background, forget the place – it’s ‘how can we get what we want to do, done now’ – but coming to Hawaii has made me slow down in my approach to action. You have to consider the details here and have respect for that. I appreciate that, because it makes for enriching conversation and allows you to approach solutions differently. And it adds a dynamic to problem solving because you have to consider other things, rather than just what’s the fastest way to get from point A to point B. The cultural sensitivity here lends itself to creativity.”

Hazel Go

Courtesy Hazel Go

Hazel Go is an architect involved in Kamehameha Schools’s Salt at Our Kakaako project, which will be a block incorporating 85,000 square-feet of retail, restaurant and mixed-use space. Go earned a Bachelor of Architecture from Carnegie Mellon University and, after working in various design firms in Washington, D.C., and New York City, moved to Honolulu two and a half years ago because, she admits, “I wanted to surf.”

“I had friends in New York City who are from Hawaii, and they warned me that I wouldn’t be happy here for the same reasons that the people in your earlier column moved to New York, that it’s not as progressive, etc. When I landed here, I felt like I’d just landed in the ‘80s. It’s even in the way people dress sometimes. For me, it was a culture shock. But while I’ve had my challenges, at the same time I’ve been able to achieve what I’ve wanted to outside and inside of work.

“In NYC, you couldn’t have hobbies outside of work; it was all about work.

“I appreciate surfing and art, and here, I’m able to take art classes. In New York, I never had time for that. Also, if you come here to work hard, and you have a skill set that you are passionate about, I feel like you can take it further than you can in New York, just because it’s so dismissive there, and there are more people. It’s harder to find your niche in NYC when you’re surrounded by everyone who’s super super talented and has super super high ambitions. You’ll kill yourself. Here, it’s a little different.

“One of the things I miss about New York is being able to walk and bike everywhere, and I think Honolulu is starting to see the importance of that. But a lot of locals don’t necessarily see the importance of a bike lane, or a wider sidewalk. They see a sidewalk that’s two feet wide, and there’s no empowerment or education that would have them think, ‘This could be a better space.’

“There’s a level of happiness here that’s not apparent in NYC.”

“There’s a lot of attention being paid to outdoor space right now, and what we’re doing with the Salt space in Kakaako is curating public art for Kamehameha Schools in that space, but also designing furniture and signage that wants to be Hawaiian and feel Hawaiian and create a Hawaiian sense of place, but at the same time progresses what a Hawaiian ‘sense of place’ is.

“For me, what’s been interesting is being able to see how you can incorporate a very specific culture – NYC has this culture and history, but here there’s such a strong viewpoint and strong pride in Hawaiian culture – into the design and also progress that sense of Hawaiian culture.

“With the project, there is this important need to preserve Hawaiian culture, but it’s not just doing it in a way that feels historic; we don’t want to create another Waikiki or Polynesian Cultural Center. We want something that is relevant to locals, as well as people like me from the mainland. It’s the idea of preserving a culture, but also progressing what that means.

“I’m shocked at what’s getting built here as we speak – it’s just so dated. It doesn’t push materials, it doesn’t push form. I’m looking at some of the towers going up in Kakaako. Materially, there’s no interest in designing something that looks different than the building next door, and I’m not sure what’s driving that.

“I’m pretty happy with where I am professionally and, to be honest, I think working here is about the people. Everyone’s just happy to be at work, and in New York it’s a little different. There’s a level of happiness here that’s not apparent in NYC – that happiness can be achieved even if you work hard. It might be contentment, but I think the work environment in general supports a work-life balance more.

“I think Hawaii is at a point where it needs people to think progressively, because we’re at a place where people see the value in thinking outside of the box when it comes to the urban environment.”

Nicole Velasco

Courtesy Nicole Velasco

It’s hard to think of Nicole Velasco outside of public service. After a roundabout path that started as a research analyst in the House of Representatives, followed by a stint at the State Auditor’s office and a turn at running for a seat in the state House in 2012, Velasco’s found a steady gig as the executive secretary of the Neighborhood Commission for the City and County of Honolulu.

But before all of that, Velasco grew up in Kalihi and graduated from Punahou. And when she moved to the East Coast, Honolulu was nothing but a glance in the rearview mirror until a friend sent her an email that would change everything.

When Velasco left New York, she says she “probably added 10 to 20 years back onto my life.”

“In New York, I hustled and I did odd jobs, everything from event planning to selling tonic water, which is not like selling Girl Scout cookies. It’s very difficult! But eventually I got a job: audio production for TV and film, which I knew nothing about. I worked right by the Empire State building and managed to do really well for myself, considering the challenges of graduating college in 2008. I was living in New York! My family had resigned themselves to receiving greeting cards or maybe the occasional visit, because I loved the East Coast that much.

“Most people I know from Hawaii who move away, we all say the same thing: maybe, when I’m ready to have a family, I’ll come back and settle in and have my family there. But the gray area to that is, well how are you gonna get back? So for me, I didn’t have any intentions of coming back, and if I did it probably wouldn’t have been until I was 37 years old, if that. If ever.

“The real turning point came just by chance when a friend of mine, who was in a completely different country reading the Advertiser about rail, sent me an article about Furlough Fridays. I was in my very New-Yorky office and got the email from my friend. It was a link to an article and the words “Time to go home.”

“I clicked on it and got immediately pretty upset about it. That was the beginning of me realizing that, although I love New York and the people and the culture and pace, I wasn’t doing anything for anybody but myself. It’s very difficult to be able to do things for other people in a way that you can really feel and make an impact. Sure, you can volunteer, but everyone’s working so hard just to survive in the city, how do you make time for that?

“But, soon after I moved back, I was so over being in Hawaii because nobody thought I was from here. At all! It was the most shocking and heartbreaking thing. Everybody would ask me ‘Oh, where are you from’ with this inflection that they already knew I wasn’t from here. I’m like, ‘I’m actually from Kalihi, which on a good day without traffic is about six minutes away.’

“There’s something unique that happens when you leave Hawaii. You realize what Hawaii is.”

“At the beginning, it kind of hurt me; it was an identity crisis. Like, yes I’m from here, but I went away during very formative parts of my life. And although the essence of who I am hasn’t changed at all, I am different. And people must have noticed in a way that made them think I’m not from here. I just wanted to assimilate and be accepted. I thought, we have a deeper issue: culturally, our conception of what it means to be local is something that I think will forever plague or beautifully complicate Hawaii.

“I started thinking, I gotta be somewhere else where I’ll be accepted, where everybody else is a transplant and nobody cares. That was also the interesting thing – in NYC, you can be a transplant and nobody cares, because everybody else is a transplant.

“It’s such a weird place to be when you’re unemployed and a college grad and you can’t find work and you’re in Hawaii – it was just really hard. If you are someone who’s willing to work hard in New York, you will make it in New York, hands down. It’s a numbers game. There’s a lot of a lot. Where else can you be someone who only wants to make organic paper for stationery companies for the rest of your life? Yes, it’s difficult – the pace, lifestyle, cost of living. But it’s easy to make it in New York. You can do it. The challenge is, can you do that in Hawaii? I always tell the very intelligent, qualified individuals who move back and say ‘it’s so hard,’ well, if you were such a badass in New York, then you should be able to make it work here. This is the true test.

“In late January, early February of 2012, people started asking me if I was going to run for the House, but the way that my district was reapportioned was that it was an open district. I’d never had any intentions of running in my entire life. But the argument was, ‘You came back because you want to help and get involved and work. This is probably one of the best ways to get a seat at the table and do that.’

“I had never campaigned for anybody before. The one time I waved signs for someone as a kid, I fell asleep on the sidewalk. But the more I thought about Kalihi, about how, my goodness, it really doesn’t look like it’s changed at all since I’d left, I decided to run.

“It was one of the best/worst experiences of my life. The good thing that came out of it was a real sense of why I was doing what I was doing. Ironically, after the race, after the loss, I went back to NYC – that was where I went to escape. The race was controversial, had a lot of unique and interesting elements to it, and I was just so exhausted. Had nothing left to give, I was just so tired.

“When I went back to NYC, I was like, ah, it’s so nice to be back, to be able to walk the street and nobody bothers you, asks you why you’re not going to contest the election results. I crashed at my friend’s place at Union Square. But while walking up 3rd Ave., it hit me: my calling is always going to be helping Hawaii. After losing, I didn’t really feel that. But in New York, of all places, I got this feeling: you’re always going to want to help Hawaii.

“Quite frankly, especially when you live in a big metropolis like New York, you see ideas and things that could work here in Hawaii, in a way. But I always caution people about this: it is not about transplanting whatever works in other cities across the globe, smashing it into Hawaii – that’s not possible. But seeing things that have improved other places across the globe, the question is how do we adjust and tailor those ideas to make them work for Hawaii?

“There are two sets of knowledge that people who want to be successful here need to have. The first is an understanding of this place, not just as a geographical piece of land, but also as a cultural entity. The nuances, the ethnic breakdowns, and how the history of the place has informed what it is today.

“The second part is that you must have knowledge from different sources. It can come from time spent elsewhere, or it could be from doing research. We can access the entire world wide web of knowledge from one place, but I do find value in leaving to challenge the values that you grew up with and, in some ways, solidify and confirm them. There’s something unique that happens when you leave Hawaii. You realize what Hawaii is.

“It’s not that it gets any easier, but rather as you continue to push through that initial barrier of being extremely unsuccessful, once you start to see small gains, it’s so fulfilling that it keeps you going. It doesn’t get easier, even for people from Hawaii. We don’t get a free pass; the struggle is real for everyone. But when you do make an impact and start to see things happening around you, that’s when you go, OK: it’s totally worth it.”

These statements were edited for space considerations from telephone interviews.

About the Author