In a Feb. 14, 2017 Civil Beat article titled “Why Aren’t We Changing Waianae’s Culture of Fistfights?” journalist Noelle Fuji provides an in-depth look at the youth fighting that regularly occurs in a cul-de-sac off of Farrington Highway.

The fights, according to residents’ reports, occur at least once a month and can draw up to 100 spectators. The fighting space, called “the ring,” has been in existence for 30 years, some say.

As two professors who have conducted research on youth violence prevention in Hawaii and elsewhere, we want to chime in on the problems highlighted in this article.

Reinforcing perceptions that violence is a cultural problem within specific communities, like Waianae, can lead to lasting community stigma and increase the likelihood that all teens from Waianae will be marked as violent and dangerous.

Residents are concerned that Waianae High School and Waianae Interemdiate students often hold fights at the common area within the Ulu Wehi community. Noelle Fujii/Civil Beat

The unfortunate fact is that teens across the country hailing from a variety of communities engage in these types of planned fights, and they have done so for decades. The culture of violence is, therefore, not a cultural problem within Waianae. It is a national problem and part of the American culture more broadly.

We also want to spread a hopeful message about community resilience in places like Waianae. After conducting a nine-year study of youth violence in a rural community in Oahu (one that is much like Waianae), what struck us was not the fact that “nobody seems to care.”

Quite the opposite was true. There were scores of youth advocates, adult mentors and community leaders who cared deeply about teens and who worked tirelessly to steer kids away from violence and towards positive community engagement. Importantly, these adults’ efforts were overwhelmingly successful, and the efforts of youth leaders in Waianae are no exception.

While there is no single remedy to the problem of fighting, we offer several ideas to start a larger conversation. More information about the causes and solutions to the problems that youth face can be found in our book titled “Jacked Up and Unjust: Pacific Islander Teens Confront Violent Legacies.”

1) Listen to the voices of those involved in the fighting. There is usually a rational explanation for every fight. And there are often alternative ways to settle these disputes so that young people’s reputations would not necessarily have to be defended in the “ring.” Starting with the teens’ stories about the interactions leading up to the fights can be surprisingly helpful in finding innovative ways to avoid violence in the future.

2) Arrest and punishment are not the solution. Arresting and punishing youth for fighting does little to increase their capacity to resolve conflicts in beneficial and less harmful ways. Arrested and punished teens are often stigmatized, shunned and alienated from opportunities to become positively engaged in their communities. In our research, we found that teens who were arrested could become more violent as a result of their punitive experiences.

We also found many ways that caring adults effectively deterred teens from fighting, including helping youth address underlying pain from trauma, adult mentoring of teens towards community engagement opportunities, and training youth in peer mediation and ho‘oponopono.

3) Promote more promising pathways to gain respect. Fighting as a means to gain respect is magnified in the absence of more hopeful, life-giving pathways in life. In a society where the rich are getting richer and the poor face greater disadvantages, moves to create greater opportunities for young people facing challenging circumstances is essential.

We also want to acknowledge that the Civil Beat article highlights some of the effective work being done in Waianae. And there is much more we can all learn from.

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