Networking is the name of the game

–Published in The Honolulu Weekly on February 9, 2011–


It’s 7:30am on a Saturday morning and Juanita Kawamoto is frying dough at the YMCA in Kailua. Using locally bought ingredients, she molds dozens of malasadas for the World Wetland Day fundraiser that will be held later that day.

Since more than 800 people visit the party, signing petitions, donating money and munching on malasadas, Kawamoto and her volunteers are busy discussing another topic: the mass e-mail they will be sending urging people to support Senate Bill 1156.

For the past 10 years, she has been working as a caterer and vendor for farmers markets throughout the island. But as time went by, Kawamoto noted the state’s increasing reliance on imported foods and decided that it was time to do something about the situation. Last August, she joined the Environmental Caucus (EC) of the Hawaii Democratic Party.

“I’m 50 years old and I know how to talk story so I’m going to make sure I talk about this with everyone I know,” she says. The only problem, admits Kawamoto, who describes herself as “a one-man show,” is that she lacks political experience and does not know the best way to promote her bill.

She’s learning to do this is by sending out e-mails to all of the members of the Environmental Legislative Network (ELN) to support Senate Bill 1156, which promotes the expansion of local farms and the use of their products by larger retailers.

The ELN, of which the EC is a member, is an open-membership, informal group of environmentally minded individuals and organizations. Among its members are the Hawaii Chapter Sierra Club, the Surfrider Foundation and state Sen. Les Ihara.

“The idea is to get conservation organizations that are concerned with legislation to gather in one place,” says Bill Sager, the resource management subcommittee chairman of the Democratic Party’s EC. “They can talk about their priorities and what they are trying to do, and find other organizations within the group that have similar priorities they can work with.”

Since its inception in the 1980s, the ELN has changed from a casual inter-office, paper-bag lunch discussion to a 90-member primarily e-mail-driven communication network. Each year, member organizations submit their top environmental legislation priorities, which are compiled into one press release that is then sent to legislators, lobbyists and other environmental organizations.

“It’s a way for us to present the priorities of the main environmental groups in the state in a way that might get a little more media and legislative attention than if we didn’t,” says Marjorie Ziegler, one of the original members of ELN. “One press release from a coalition of groups is a lot better than 20 different letters.”

The main topic of discussion this year is food security and sustainability. Bills such as Senate Bill 1145, which sets goals for local food production, are amongst the top concerns for many of the groups in the ELN.

Ziegler acknowledges that food sustainability is not a new issue with the environmental community, but it has become a hot topic with the public.

“I know guys that have been doing this kind of work for 20 or 30 years and they never called it sustainability,” she says. “But now that food and energy costs have gone up, people have started thinking more about where their food is coming from and it has become a big thing.”

In addition to garnering public and legislative attention for the priorities they support, the ELN also operates as a way for members to communicate and network with each other. Members can send out e-mails or action alerts urging one another to testify on a bill or sign petitions.

Another benefit of joining ELN is the pooling of resources and skills of all its members.

“Because there are a multitude of different kinds of people involved– lawyers, scientists, advocates, fisherman, surfers– they’re able to scan the whole thing [the bill], and if there’s any weak points, they’re able to sort it out,” says Keiko Bonk, of member organization, PONO.

This is especially helpful for individuals or organizations, says Kawamoto, who are new to politics and have yet to learn the best ways to campaign for a cause.