For Akiemi Glenn and Deja Ostrowski, the COVID-19 crisis was the final nudge for their Hawaii Strategy Lab.

Glenn is a Ph.D. linguist and researcher who evaluates the effectiveness of cultural and educational programs. Ostrowski is a mathematician-turned-lawyer who provides legal services to low-income families.

Last week, they launched their project, in part to contribute ideas on how to reshape Hawaii’s post-COVID-19 economy. The plan, Ostrowski and Glenn say, is to give a public voice to lower-income people who often don’t have one, by gathering, analyzing and sharing their stories.

“We have a way to intervene in the way we shape policy here,” Glenn said. “There’s often no space for folks to talk about the way policy and economic structures land on them.”

Right, Dr. Akiemi Glenn and left Deja Ostrowski portrait.
Prompted in part by the COVID-19 crisis, Deja Ostrowski, left, and Akiemi Glenn, created the Hawaii Strategy Lab to give more people a voice in shaping economic and social policy. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2020

Ostrowksi and Glenn are hardly the only people jumping into the discussion.

As Gov. David Ige’s administration focuses on how to phase out shut-down and quarantine orders, others, mainly in the private sector, are looking at the bigger issue: how to use the crisis as an opportunity to refashion an economy that was failing many people even before the COVID-19 crisis.

Ige’s appointed COVID-19 recovery czar, Alan Oshima, is encouraging people to step up.

“If we follow the same process, we’ll end up in same place again.” — Alan Oshima, head of the state’s economic and community recovery effort

The administration’s long-term plan is a blank slate by design, says Oshima, a former chief executive of Hawaiian Electric Co., the state’s power utility. He’s now the Hawaii Economic and Community Recovery and Resiliency Navigator.

As Oshima describes it, when it comes to the long term, there’s no plan, no process, no blue-ribbon panel of Bishop Street executives set up to make all the decisions.

“We’re creating an unstructured process intentionally,” Oshima said. “It’s not by accident.”

“If we follow the same process, we’ll end up in same place again,” Oshima said.

Tourism Still Central To Recovery

That’s left plenty of room for projects like the strategy lab.

To be sure, Oshima already has ideas about long-term changes. Requirements that people work and learn from home have underscored the need for more broadband connections to homes throughout Hawaii, he said. The need to provide child care services to more families, already a priority, remains one, he said.

For the short-term, Oshima said during a Facebook Live chat, the tourism industry will be central to stabilizing the economy. But ultimately, Oshima said, long-term decision making will be a team effort.

“This is a play without a lead actor,” he said. “This is an ensemble cast.”

Alan Oshima Hawaii Economic Community Recovery Resiliency Navigator.
Hawaii’s economic recovery czar Alan Oshima wants a broad group of diversified voices to help create a more resilient Hawaii. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2020

COVID-19 has brought into sharper relief economic problems that business and political leaders were starting to address.

A service economy characterized by lower-wage tourism jobs in a state with the nation’s highest cost of living has been a formula for driving people away from Hawaii, despite plenty of jobs.

By one measure almost half of all households are struggling, living paycheck to paycheck with little financial cushion; many more, apparently better off, cope by frequently tapping savings or living with relatives — strategies that merely mask basic problems.

Some hope the COVID-19 crisis will be a catalyst for change.

Already there were signs of a turning tide. With support from the business community and some nonprofits, policymakers had introduced a legislative package designed to address Hawaii’s high cost of living. But that stalled as the virus shut down the legislative session.

Still, the abbreviated session hasn’t stopped some lawmakers from acting.

Since mid-March leaders of the business establishment began convening as part of House Speaker Scott Saiki’s House Select Committee on COVID-19 Economic and Financial Preparedness. Co-chaired by Saiki and Bank of Hawaii Chairman and Chief Executive Peter Ho, the committee includes senior executives from businesses and organizations, like Hawaiian Airlines, the Hawaii Tourism Authority, Matson and a variety of chambers of commerce and trade associations.

But Oshima seems to be envisioning something broader.

“There are so many individuals, groups and organizations in our community that want to help and many have already started looking for solutions,” Oshima said in a statement announcing his position.

Among other things the statement refers to efforts to “collect reliable data and information for analysis that will be used as the basis for decision making.”

That’s where a group like Hawaii Strategy Lab can come in. Its plan is to gather more detailed stories from people who often appear only as statistics. The stories can generate more qualitative data, which can be analyzed to find common themes, said Glenn, who has a doctorate in linguistics.

For instance, the organization is asking people to share stories on how they plan to pay rent in May and what strategies they use to survive in Hawaii. This can provide useful information from people who actually use programs, Ostrowski said.

For example, Ostrowski said, there’s one thing often not considered as perhaps most important to many people she works with, including people without homes or those living on the edge.

“Transportation, transportation, transportation,” she says.

Often policymakers have no way to know this.

“Too often these people are not at the table,” she said.

‘Become Students Of The Crisis’

It’s not just new organizations like Hawaii Strategy Lab that are stepping up.

The Elemental Excelerator was founded in 2013 as a business incubator for startup companies focusing on renewable energy. It now includes other green companies, in fields like transportation and agriculture, and has awarded $36 million to 99 portfolio companies that have gone on to raise another $790 million in follow-on funding, according to its most recent annual report.

The Elemental Excelerator has always held out promise as something that could help Hawaii’s economy by helping to create higher-paying jobs, which could also advance the state’s renewable energy goals.

But the organization is taking another look at what it does in light of COVID-19, said Lauren Tonokawa, spokeswoman for the group.

The Elemental Excelerator’s chief executive, Dawn Lippert, has laid out a template for action: react, learn, act, Tonokawa said.

Reacting has meant making sure the portfolio companies could weather the crises financially, deal with logistical issues like working remotely or dealing with labs and in some cases pivot to opportunities, Tonokawa said.

The Elemental Excelerator isn’t acting yet, she said; it’s still in the learning stage.

“You have to become students of the crisis,” she said, quoting Mike Jackson, the Elemental Excelerator’s investor-in-residence.

Hawaii Investment Ready, another business incubator, is also looking ahead. HIR invests in social enterprises, or businesses or nonprofits whose main purpose is to address a social or environmental need. That means many of the HIR companies are positioned to address immediate challenges caused by COVID-19, said Lisa Kleissner, co-founder and board chair.

One example is Hawaii Community Lending, a federal community development financial institution, which provides small, low-interest loans to Native Hawaiian borrowers who also receive personal finance and credit counseling. The organization is expanding its capital, Kleissner said, by taking investments of as little as $1,000 which bear interest of 1% to 3%.

Such investments can be a win-win, says Keoni Lee, HIR’s CEO. Investors can support the community and get a return on their investment.

Rethinking Agriculture

HIR is also deeply interested in supporting diversified agriculture’s response to the crisis. To that end, it’s supporting another group that is creating a long-term plan.

Known as the Agriculture Response & Recovery Working Group, the organization includes entities like MA’O Organic Farms, the Hawaii Department of Agriculture, the Hawaii Farm Bureau and the Hawaii Farmers Union.

Mao farms in Waianae with Waianae Mountains.
One private organization is creating a long-term plan for the future of agriculture in post-pandemic Hawaii. Shown here is MA’O Organic Farms in Waianae. Cory Lum/Civil Beat

Such partnerships — between government, the private sector and philanthropic organizations – are key to rebuilding, Lee said.

“If we’re going to reinvent the economy, it has to be all three working together,” he said.

Pulling together effective multi-disciplinary groups can require reaching out beyond one’s normal sphere of friends and partners, says Meli James, co-founder of ManaUp, an incubator for Hawaii-made products, who is also chief executive of the Hawaii Venture Capital Association.

That includes reaching out to people perceived as enemies, for personal or cultural or historic reasons, she said.

She says the question is: “How can we both rise above it and start working together?”

Ultimately, such huis don’t need to be official roundtables or organizations. It’s a matter of acting to create ideas.

“Being a leader is taking initiative,” she said.

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