Honolulu should establish a commission dedicated to social justice and equity, according to a new report by the city’s Office of Climate Change, Sustainability and Resilience.

The office’s director, Matthew Gonser, wrote the report in response to an August 2020 City Council resolution by Chairman Tommy Waters.

“The Council believes that there is a critical need for response, recovery, repair, and revitalization to create a more equitable, resilient, and sustainable post-COVID-19 economy for the City,” the council pledged at the time.

It committed to “equity and social justice and to the realization of equitable outcomes for frontline communities through the City’s operations and COVID-19 pandemic economic recovery programs.”

The new report by Gonser outlines a pathway to help address those goals: establishing a nine-member commission attached to the managing director’s office that’s charged with identifying, addressing and eliminating inequities within the city.

Honolulu City Council members listen to public testimony on Bill 85 89.
Honolulu is exploring the idea of a commission dedicated to equity and social justice. Cory Lum/Civil Beat

The commission would also serve as a liaison between the city and communities and advocate for systemic changes, the report says.

The proposal comes amidst a broader nationwide trend toward establishing governmental structures — commissions, positions and offices — that directly address systemic disparities. That’s true in the private sector, too.

Before the pandemic, Time Magazine reported the diversity, equity and inclusion industry was growing in part due to the #MeToo and Black Lives Matter movements. The pandemic, with its stark racial disparities, coupled with the police killing of George Floyd, brought more attention to structural inequities as well as government’s role in them.

Gordon Goodwin, director of the national Government Alliance on Race and Equity, says he’s seen an uptick in the number of states and municipalities establishing racial equity offices and commissions over the past five years.

“I think it’s a movement that’s building momentum,” he said.

Hawaii’s demographic makeup differs from most other states but the state still sees stark racial and ethnic disparities across home ownership, income levels, education and other metrics. Gonser said his office was assigned to do the analysis in part because it’s been considering equity as part of its work to address climate change.

“It’s likely that those who perhaps are already underserved, marginalized or on the front lines today will become even more so through a whole variety of climate change impacts,” he said.

Gonser only submitted the report to the council last week and isn’t sure whether the commission will become reality.

“Whether it’s the ultimate establishment of the commission or not, I think it’s more just a recognition that we all benefit when we bring more voices to the table,” he said. “And how do we keep this concern about social inequity front and center in what we do moving forward?”

Other States

Cindy McMillan, a spokesman for Gov. David Ige, said the state’s Commission on the Status of Women is the only state commission dedicated to advancing equity, with a sole focus on gender.

“However, Gov. Ige expects that all members of state boards and commissions will advance the goals of equity and social justice,” she said.

Hawaii this month resurrected its Office of Health Equity, expanding it with help from an influx of federal funding. But that office is only within the Department of Health.

Other states like Oregon and Tennessee have staff positions under the governor’s office dedicated to diversity and equity. Virginia even created the first Cabinet-level chief diversity officer.

The report by Gonser found 36 states have commissions dedicated to equity and social justice and specifically highlighted the Equity and Empowerment Commission in Evanston, Ill. and the Commission for Racial Justice and Equity in Lexington, Ky.

Goodwin noted that the Human Relations Commission in Asheville, N.C. helped the city review its history and the role of local government in contributing to racial inequities.

The commission’s work ultimately led to more funding for affordable housing, he said.

Broad Mission

If Honolulu moves forward with a new organization, Goodwin says it will be important to do some analysis of the historical causes of inequity.

He also said that while volunteer positions are typical for commissions, it would be helpful to have support staff and resources. The commission as currently outlined would be all-volunteer.

Resources are also a concern for Akiemi Glenn, who leads the Pōpolo Project, which is dedicated to telling stories of and supporting Black residents of Hawaii.

“I’d also be curious what the mechanism is for the commission to have real power,” she said. “Will it just be an advisory role? Or will it actually be able to help direct and shepherd policy through?”

Jonathan Okamura, professor emeritus of ethnic studies at the University of Hawaii and an author, said the mission is so broad that it would be tough to muster adequate resources to tackle it.

“It’s overly ambitious,” he said. “These inequities are all over the place.”

Okamura suggested narrowing the commission’s mission to focus on furthering racial and ethnic equity specifically.

Tom Yamachika from the Tax Foundation of Hawaii said the idea of having more inclusive decision-making and better outreach to disadvantaged communities makes sense. He’s not concerned about the financial costs given that it would be a volunteer group. But he hopes the new commission would also include ideological diversity.

“If they can find a good number of ideologically diverse people who are willing to participate in this, this might be a very good thing,” he said.

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