Naka Nathaniel: Here’s A Better Way To Help Hawaii - Honolulu Civil Beat

About the Author

Naka Nathaniel

Naka Nathaniel spent much of his career as a journalist with The New York Times, helping launch, covering war in Iraq and Afghanistan and the collapse of the second tower on 9/11. He lives in Waimea on the Big Island. Opinions are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Civil Beat's views. You can reach him by email at

Active community listening sessions are a way to counter disinformation.

Hawaii is hurting. 

So many of us have stepped forward, but not all of us have stepped in to help. A handful have stepped in to hurt.

Corrosive conspiracies are hurting Hawaii and are prolonging the time it will take to heal. What’s worse are reports that the misinformation many are spreading is part of malicious campaigns by foreign governments, like China, to sow discord in the wake of tragedy.

The people of Hawaii need to talk story with each other and stop relying on social media. We know that our leaders weren’t prepared, and they haven’t supplied the answers that inspire the trust we need right now.

I wrote last week that figuring out how to help is hard.

We need to do what we can to help the helpers.

The Maui County Council meeting a couple weeks ago was a complete disaster. While most came in good faith to listen and discuss ideas about how to help, heal and move forward, others vented; and I trust, unwittingly, spread lies. 

We need to take a better approach.

In the hope of providing solutions instead of just pointing out problems, I want to revisit a similar-ish problem from 20 years ago.

The New York region was still tilted after the Sept. 11 attacks. The debris was still being cleared from Ground Zero, but the developer who had the lease was intent on making all the decisions and desperate to get his insurance money. The governor had presidential aspirations and community input would only slow his ability to show that he could get things done.

A collection of community groups organized a meeting called “Listening to the City” with the novel plan to gather thousands of New Yorkers of all backgrounds to meet in small groups to discuss how to help their beloved and wounded city.

Listening To The City Naka Nathaniel column NYT story
This New York Times article from July 21, 2002 highlights how all New Yorkers were asked to lend their thoughts and opinions in the “Listening to the City” exercise after 9/11. (Screenshot)

Robert Yaro was the head of the Regional Planning Association and in 2002 he helped shepherd the gathering after securing funding from nonprofits and not relying on governmental agencies. 

“I’ve been in this business my adult life, and one of the things I’ve learned early on was that most people were very, very reluctant to speak out in a large group,” Yaro said. “The usual public hearing process in which people are given 90 seconds or two minutes to say their piece is just the worst possible way to engage the public.”

A New York Times editorial praised the Regional Planning Association for breathing life into the process of rebuilding Lower Manhattan.

“On this singular occasion, people who cared urgently about what happens to the World Trade Center site had a chance to respond without staging a demonstration or filing suit,” the editorial board wrote. “It was a heartening experience, as urban planners and secretaries, out-of-work actors and construction workers registered their veto of the first six designs and offered counsel about what should replace them.”

The solution of how downtown Manhattan should be rebuilt did not come swiftly.

Nine years after the attacks, nothing had been completed at the site. On the 10th anniversary, the memorial waterfalls were opened to the public. In 2014, One World Trade Center was opened. And, in the summer of 2016, when Hokule’a arrived in New York City, it docked in the shadow of the rebuilt towers. 

Rebuilding took a long, long time in a place not known for its patience.

“We didn’t get everything that we wanted, but we got a lot of it, and it’s a much better place than it ever was before,” said Yaro. “Rebuilding confidence in the city after that terrible attack was something that we were very focused on and that worked.”

Yaro is right. When my family was there to greet Hokule’a in the summer of 2016, that part of Manhattan was dramatically nicer than it had been in the summer of 2001.

hokulea New York City NYC Naka Nathaniel column
When Hokule’a’s crew disembarked at the Lower Manhattan harbor next to the site of the World Trade Center in 2016, the area had been significantly improved in the previous 15 years. (Naka Nathaniel/Civil Beat/2016)

I want to be hopeful. I want to be optimistic. I believe that putting a version of “Listening to Hawaii” on our collective calendar a few months from now would give us a goal we can move toward. 

And listening to small groups is already commonplace here. The method was used at a meeting about the Ala Wai pedestrian bridge last week. 

In the spirit of “Listening to …” here are a half dozen ideas shared with me via email and comments. These are among the voices I’ve listened to, continue to think about and want to elevate here. 

I liked these questions jaykimball posted in the comments: “If you had it to do over, what enforceable policies would you wish you had in place years ago? What enforceable policies would you like to see put in place going forward?”

I would love to hear readers’ (and our leaders’) answers to his questions.

“A culture of ‘we’ requires community, connection – a deep sense of belonging to a deep common purpose,” wrote JM in the comments. “We have many strangers coming to Hawaii but fewer and fewer neighbors.”

From BigIslandRes: “I’m seething too, but until the folks in charge of our planning and commissions learn to say no or insist on putting power lines underground, insist on clearing out invasive vegetation, insist on proper roads and turn lanes to prevent bottlenecks, insist on building greener with buffer zones and protecting our precious water aquifers, it’s not going to change.”

From Matt: “The emotion and compassion we feel does not need to compete with the urge to learn and fix what’s broken. These themes can coexist. Our nature guides us to mourn loss, and want to help. We have within us the ability to empathize. But rebuilding requires expertise and leadership. Vast improvements in emergency response, energy supply, water supply, communications infrastructure, housing, and current legal frameworks like insurance are needed to reset for the future. High level commissions have been used to set a course for changes in civil rights, the financial crisis, the terrorist attacks, and many other disasters. We will need to drop our suspicion of expertise and engage with our problems to move forward.”

And Kepa Maly emailed interesting background information about Lahaina, and I was glad to see that my Civil Beat colleague Denby Fawcett included it in her column about restoring Lahaina’s wetlands.

Beyond looking forward to a “Listening to Hawaii,” I really look forward to the morning, perhaps at the conclusion of the Moananuiakea voyage, when Hokule’a can once again sail into a famed port city rebuilt better and stronger from the ashes. 

That idea gives me hope. 

Read this next:

Schatz: Government Shutdown Shouldn't Stop Maui Recovery Efforts

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About the Author

Naka Nathaniel

Naka Nathaniel spent much of his career as a journalist with The New York Times, helping launch, covering war in Iraq and Afghanistan and the collapse of the second tower on 9/11. He lives in Waimea on the Big Island. Opinions are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Civil Beat's views. You can reach him by email at

Latest Comments (0)

From jaykimball, Tax unused Ag-zoned land at a higher rate thereby encouraging better land management practices.

hilotime · 6 days ago

I recently met a person on a return flight to Hilo. He gave a interesting example of government and political representative disparities. When hundreds of homes were destroyed by lava just a few years ago Puna people got very little aid, attention and help like Maui got and will continue to receive. He asked me "you know why?" I kinda have a feeling… but I wonder does anyone have an opinion why?

MahieAloha · 1 week ago

Naka I love your vision that the way to justice or aloha must itself be just and filled with aloha.I am72 and grew up in the after shock and glow of post World War II Kalihi. The world had a fourth of the people it now has and so did Honolulu. We lived in the intimate nest of "camp life." I lived in Sumiyoshi Camp along-side Japanese, Filipino and Hawaiian families. It was a three-mile an hour life. We walked everywhere. The theater, the barber, the tailer the drug store and the beloved "mamasan" stores epitomized what E.F Shumacher called "Small is Beautiful: Economics as If People Mattered." We mourned each others deaths and heartbreak. We shared plumbing skills and carpentry skills. Now we have Apps for all the people who were once part of our social world. "Biophilia" or "Necrophilia" . Love life and people or love things and money." Fear and anxiety are viruses so is intimacy and trust. Your dream is a step forward on the marathon of restoring trust and intimacy that we hold as dear to the spirit of aloha.

JM · 1 week ago

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