Nine years ago, Craig Howes and Jonathan Osorio edited a book, The Value of Hawaii: Knowing the Past, Shaping the Future.

Each essay in the book explored an issue in our state: poverty and homelessness, among others. The authors were local scholars and pundits, people like Tom Coffman, Sumner La Croix and Ian Lind.

I first read the book as an earnest 19-year-old, sympathizing with the authors as they gestured toward large problems and possible solutions.

The authors were insistent, almost polemic in their writing. But they were also scholarly, so they supported their righteousness with statistics and footnotes. Throughout their essays, the authors called for action.

Rereading the volume today, I have a sense that a once drowning man has now slipped below the surface, that the leaking fissures in the dam are now large cracks, that there is little hope to be found here.

Poverty? Official measures of progress ignore the cost of living in Hawaii. Homelessness? Worse than ever – if not in fact, at least in appearance. And lack of opportunity has many millennials leaving, with good reason.

The problems in Hawaii can seem daunting, but rather than watching young people flee to the mainland for opportunities we should be encouraging them to stay and help solve our problems.

Denby Fawcett/Civil Beat

From the void, a voice calls me to leave Hawaii. It says, “Why struggle for crumbs here when you could prosper somewhere else? You could make a life anywhere.”

Another voice answers, “Why not stay? Why not plant your feet in this patch of soil and claim it as home? This is a place you belong to.”

This debate plays in traffic and while paying the rent. It soundtracks salary negotiations and echoes while passing the homeless encampments of Honolulu.

I want to stay, but I worry about the future of our state. I am concerned for my future children, for the quality of their lives. I’d like them to have the same opportunities that I had, but the trajectory of our state is worrying.

I honestly wonder whether our political, business and community leaders can work together to solve the problems we face.

At times, it seems that those leaders lack shared values. When I read local news, I see corruption and struggle, faction against faction. Dysfunction persists, with elites networking on the top deck of the Titanic. And that ship may be sinking.

It looks like we are heading for a period of hardship and sacrifice. Local economic growth has slowed, the population has leveled off, and the American economy may be nearing recession. Tough times lie ahead.

Departure And Return

When I returned from graduate school on the East Coast, I committed myself to five years at home while completing my doctorate. Four years later, I’m writing my dissertation and preparing for the next stage in my career.

Some of my teachers and mentors advise me to leave Hawaii. They argue that leaving will equip me with skills to help in the process of improving our state, when I eventually return.

This is curious advice, and it weighs on me. Why should leaving be a prerequisite to making a difference at home? 

I honestly wonder whether our political, business and community leaders can work together to solve the problems we face.

It’s true: travel and the encounter with another culture can broaden perspective. But how often do we send our young abroad, never to see them return?

Instead of encouraging people to flee, why not focus on preparing them to stay? All the resources and effort that elites put into preparing their children to leave could be dedicated instead to creating a place where they could stay – without drowning in debt or working two jobs to pay the bills.

We should focus on nurturing young leaders and creating development opportunities that don’t require them to leave the state. We need more efforts like the Center for Tomorrow’s Leaders, so our young people have both the skills and commitment necessary to improve our state.

Creating a more viable Hawaii is imperative, as leaving isn’t an option for everyone. For those without a college education, a move may not be possible. Others might be trapped in debt or responsible for caregiving. Still others might have deep-rooted commitments to the land itself.

These people deserve a home which does not expel them. And our leaders are responsible for maintaining that home.

Those currently in positions of power have obligations to those less fortunate, especially when they are entrusted with that power by voters. But so too do young people like myself, people with opportunity.

It is somewhat unfashionable to talk of obligations in the American context. We are so focused on freedom and liberty that we have lost a language to speak of responsibility and duty.

But it might be necessary, when thinking of the value of Hawaii, to reclaim the language of responsibility. Because if we truly value something — if we find purpose and meaning in it — then we might have a duty to pay for it, and that payment may take the form of staying, of struggling to make better our tiny corner of the earth.

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About the Author

  • Sterling Higa
    Sterling was raised in Nuuanu. He graduated from Roosevelt High School and later earned a master’s degree in education from Harvard University. Sterling now works as a debate coach and lecturer at Hawaii Pacific University. By candlelight, he is finishing his Ph.D. in education at the University of Hawaii Manoa. The author's opinions are his own and do not necessarily reflect the views and opinions of Civil Beat.