Visualizing Hope in Wai’anae

Hawai’i Peace and Justice is committed to developing youth leaders for making positive social change. Since 2009, we have conducted an environmental justice education program with Wai’anae youth – Ka Makani Kaiāulu o Wai’anae. The program uses popular education methods and hands-on place-based and culture-based learning to develop critical understanding of the social and environmental conditions in their community as well as the skills for making social change. In past years we have conducted door-to-door surveys, community mapping and digital video storytelling to lift up the voices and visions of their community.

This year we worked with students in the agriculture program at Wai’anae High School, a school with low graduation and college enrollment rates. We discussed the students’ feelings and perceptions about their community –the positive and the negative. What did they want to protect and enhance and what they hoped to change? But it was a challenge to get them to take the risk of having hope for a better future for their community. Much of their experiences and perceptions have been shaped by hardship, struggle and violence. One common problem they identified was the stereotyping of Wai’anae people as unintelligent, violent and failures. Labeling and tracking even impacted their school experience. Within the status-conscious hierarchy of programs, agriculture was perceived as being a ‘low class’ and undesirable assignment because it was ‘dirty’.

Students creating their vision

Like true stewards of the land, these youth transformed their space into both a kīpuka –an oasis of life and creativity and a pu’uhonua — a place of refuge that was safe and empowering. Here they could share and transform the stories of their own lives into a deeper understanding about social conditions affecting their lives: drugs, violence, homelessness, health problems and premature deaths. We decided to paint a mural to beautify the campus and to express themselves. Through a process of field observation, research and discussion, we designed and painted a mural to express their hopes and dreams about Wai’anae. The group creative process was essential to our pedagogy to develop socially aware and engaged youth. The hours of prepping, sketching, painting, cleaning up, eating, talking, and playing music was essential to transforming the space, and each one of us. The mural has stimulated interest and conversation about the many images and themes depicting a struggle between the elements of hope, life and positivity and the encroachment of threats and problems that harm the people and the ‘āina. We have discussed creating a guide pamphlet to explain the different images in the mural and other educational materials based on the artwork so that the seeds of consciousness and hope will spread. If you are in Wai’anae, please check out the mural in the garden area of the Natural Resources Academy!

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