Lynette Cruz has wanted to clean up the heiau at Pōkaʻī Bay for years. Sitting at the edge of the Waianae beach park, the ancient Hawaiian temple is often littered with trash, presumably left by homeless people and big beach parties.

Despite the pandemic, Cruz helped her friend, Lena Spain-Suzuki, coordinate a cleanup for Feb. 20. They hoped 40 people would participate. Instead, Cruz says, almost 200 people showed up with face masks, weed whackers and garbage bags to take care of the historic site.

Cruz remembers seeing entire families pulling weeds, cutting grass and even helping to restack the protective wall around the sacred site.

“We had to ask, ‘Where did you guys come from?’ We only had one flyer that went out on Facebook. We didn’t advertise,” Cruz says.

Waianae Pokai Bay Cleanup
Volunteers pick up trash and cut the grass at Pokai Bay, located in Waianae. Courtesy: Lynette Cruz

Civil Beat didn’t cover the cleanup. No media organization did. But Cruz didn’t expect to read any stories about it. The care shown for the site by so many families is emblematic of what Cruz loves about her Westside community: People just roll up their sleeves and help each other get things done without waiting for help from the outside.

But it’s not particularly emblematic of what Cruz reads about Waianae or watches on the news.

During the month of February, Oahu’s daily news organizations published three stories about homelessness in Waianae, a story about a fire, a story about failing students, a story about a kidnapping, five stories about COVID-19 that mentioned Waianae, and half a dozen stories about UFC fighters from the area. There was only one positive story easily identifiable in a Google news search — a feature for Black history month about a Waianae High School teacher.

“It’s all the negative stuff that’s happening, like crime, homelessness, drug use,” says Michael Sarmiento, who grew up in Makaha. “That kind of negativity has always been associated with Waianae.”

This year, Civil Beat readers can expect to see some different news stories about the Westside. We may not cover every beach cleanup or community event, but we do want to make sure our stories are as much for the community as they are about the community.

To do that we’re taking a little bit of a different approach to how we gather and report news — asking readers to more directly engage with us about what’s happening on the Westside.

Over the last month, Civil Beat has held more than half a dozen listening circles with residents from West Oahu on Zoom to talk about the issues that are most important to them. We will be holding a public listening circle later this month, inviting Westside readers to continue the conversation with us in a Facebook group, launching a community calendar and much more.

Here’s what residents of the Westside have told us so far — and how these conversations are going to shape how we move forward.

News Coverage Is Lacking

People from Makaha to Waipahu had many words to describe their communities. They said Ewa is rising. Waipahu is striving. Waianae is worthwhile. Makaha is storied.

They talked about how their communities are diverse, safe, compassionate and special.

The adjectives they used to describe news coverage of their communities never matched the way they described where they lived.

The coverage of the Waianae Coast and Waipahu, people said, was overwhelmingly negative. People in Ewa and Kapolei, meanwhile, felt overlooked entirely.

“Is there news coverage of Ewa?” Sandy Ward, the executive director of Malama Pu‘uloa, said with a laugh. Malama Pu‘uloa is an Ewa-based nonprofit focused on restoring Pearl Harbor.

Coverage of Ewa and Kapolei focuses too much on development, people in the area said, but without enough of a focus on the impacts of that development on people who live there.

“What’s frustrating about news is they don’t often get to the point of understanding why,” Sarmiento says.

Across the board, people said they wanted stories that went deeper and provided more context: about why the PVT landfill is located on the Westside, how is development really affecting people in Ewa, and why is there a growing homeless population in Kapolei.

And they want stories that reflect more of the positive things going on in their communities.

“I think you have to say that there’s these problems that are happening in our community, but also, these are people who are meeting that challenge,” Sarmiento says.

This gap between how people perceive themselves and how they are covered by the news — it has an impact on the community, says Lorrie Kanno of Waipahu.

“When you’re only told negative stuff or you’re only viewed in a negative manner, the tendency is why not just continue on this path?” Kanno says, pointing out that a lot of people in the community are working to bring about positive change. “If we had more positive coverage, I think that would really, really help to make changes on a grander scale and a quicker amount of time.”

Understanding The Area’s Rich History 

Lost in all the negative news coverage of West Oahu is the rich history of the area — something people living on the Westside said they wanted to read more about. 

If people don’t know more about where they live, how can they understand the place they call home? 

“People don’t know about Pu‘uokapolei, even though that’s what this city is named for,” Miki‘ala Lidstone says about where she lives and works. Pu‘uokapolei is a historically recognized hill in the middle of Kapolei Regional Park, where a heiau once stood. 

The director of the Ulu A‘e Learning Center says there are many stories about Kapolei that make it unique, like the importance of the sinkholes scattered across town. 

If the community knew how important the hills are to Kapolei’s history or about the multiple heiau in Waianae, other participants in the listening circles said, maybe they would feel more connected to and responsible for these places. 

“Where we live is a part of our identity. These places connect us to our past and our legacy,” Lidstone says.

Westside Ewa Beach Green Wall
Located in Historic Ewa Villages, the Ewa Green Wall is a callback to Hawaii’s plantation days, when sugarcane field workers lived in the surrounding homes. The historic Ewa Sugar Mill was located across the street. Kuʻu Kauanoe/Civil Beat

And then there’s the challenge of who is telling the stories of the Westside — and how much time they have to spend on them. 

 “A lot of times reporters aren’t from the community and don’t have the context to fully understand what they’re being shown or what they’re being told,” Sarmiento said. “And they don’t have the time to dig into the story and to understand why that’s happening the way it is and what the history of that problem is.”

Having a firm grasp on history and context was important to a lot of participants in Civil Beat’s listening circles, because many of the communities on the Westside are undergoing significant changes. 

People are worried about how their communities will change when the rail is finished — and what will happen if it isn’t finished. People in Ewa and Kapolei talked about new housing complexes popping up and rapid growth, but without enough community conversations about where that growth is going. 

“The heart of Ewa is old school but with all the new progress and developments, it feels like there might be an identity conflict,” Ewa Neighborhood Board member Kathy Foote, says.

A Commitment To The Westside

If there’s one thing that people on the Westside said they don’t take pride in, it’s the area’s reputation as “trash lands.” Oahu’s only non-military landfills are located on the Waianae coast and the expansion of the privately owned PVT landfill received pushback from many residents. Some from the circle also wondered why Hawaiian homes are built between the two waste management sites. Is this land that no one wanted? Why doesn’t West Oahu have better roads? More community gardens? Better infrastructure? 

Along with concerns about expanding the PVT landfill and the use of Hawaiian homelands for a shopping center where many of the businesses are fast food restaurants, the talk story groups also pointed out how Westside communities have been deeply impacted by the pandemic. 

Westside WCCHC Makeke Food Distribution
Volunteers help to distribute food at Waianae Mall during the pandemic. Courtesy: Alicia Higa

People are nervous about unemployment and food insecurity and they want to see stories about solutions to these big challenges.

What will it take to create better jobs on the Westside for young people? How can Waianae businesses become a leader in aquaculture? How can Ewa residents in their area?  

The pandemic has exacerbated existing challenges on the Westside. But how the community is responding to those challenges is a source of pride. 

Waianae is a place where people take care of each other, multiple people said in listening circles. In Waipahu, people have tremendous compassion for each other, says Tina Tauasosi-Posiulai, executive director of Pasefika Empowerment and Advancement, an organization supporting the Pacific Islander community. 

“I see a lot of people in my neighborhood helping each other,” Tauasosi-Posiulai said. 

Over and over — even after sharing real worries about problems in their communities — people told Civil Beat that they felt tremendous pride in where they live. 

“Community is about the commitment you have to place,” Cruz said. 

So here is the commitment Civil Beat is making this year to the Westside.

Not all of Civil Beat’s stories about the Westside this year will be cheery. We’ve heard from people in recent weeks who want us to look into renovating Ewa Public Library, innovations in agriculture by many Waianae farms, and the work of local nonprofits.

But we’ve also heard from people in Waianae who are concerned about an increase in crime during the pandemic, people worried about homeless people in Waipahu, and how people on the Westside are being economically impacted by the pandemic. 

What’s different for us moving forward, is how we engage with people in West Oahu about our coverage. 

Throughout 2021, we will be holding listening circles for people on the Westside. Our first public listening circle for people who live or work in West Oahu will be on Friday, March 19 from 4:30 to 6 p.m. Please register here. 

We will also be soliciting story ideas on our site and through social media, working with people in the community on a new calendar feature launching soon, and looking for ways to strengthen our coverage of this often-misunderstood area. 

Send us an email. Comment on the stories. Participate in an event. Help us serve this area by letting us know what we’re missing. 

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