Neal Milner: Politicians Need To Step Aside And Let The People Deal With Rail

October 18, 2017

By Neal Milner
Honolulu Civil Beat
September 14, 2017

Talking about how everyday people are affected by the Honolulu rail project is the best way to move forward and make the best of it.

It’s time to face rail reality. Whether you like it or not, or, like most of us, remain dazed and confused, the train is going forward as originally planned.

So we citizens might as well begin to do our part to make the best of it. Or as the little boy happily exclaimed as he dug his hands into his 50-pound bag of manure Christmas gift, “there’s got to be a pony here someplace.”

My modest proposal for finding a rapid transit pony doesn’t involve technology or budgeting, technicians or politicians.

It involves storytelling. To move forward, the community needs to hear more actual stories from ordinary people about how rail will impact their lives.

That could move things off in an interesting, productive direction, kind of like community building in response to a disaster.

Over the years rail has moved away from stories. Rail has become a public policy informed by big stats, big ideas and big ads. Actual flesh and blood people have become data.

Of course those remain important ways of looking at rail, but these big-time policy approaches are also bloodless, driving out information about more personal, everyday activities.

Cold, Remote Concepts

A few years ago I went to a community meeting on rail at Ewa Intermediate School. The parking lot and entrance of that recently opened building were full of people in identical pink T-shirts holding placards and doing the Pacific Resources Partners pro-rail happy dance.

The meeting itself was a mixed bag of pros and cons. But the most significant and disappointing thing about the people who spoke at the meeting — you lined up and waited your turn at the mic — was how abstract and general they were. “Rail,” “job creation,” “budget,” “timetables” like that.

Everyday folks talking about overall costs and infrastructure, sounding like City Council debaters or policy analysts.

I’ve thought a lot about that meeting since then, how unsatisfying it was and how little of it resonated with me. I knew no more about how rail affected people than I did before.

All that economic and public administration-type rhetoric has driven out specific flesh-and-blood stories about using the train.

How can stories help? Four ways.

First of all, stories are the key sources for a person’s understanding. It is now accepted wisdom, backed by a great deal of empirical evidence, that narratives are the most important way that humans learn about their world.

Give folks a boatload of well-documented statistics, put them up against a story, and the story wins almost every time.

Second, stories, even contradictory ones, create a bond and help people cope with complexity.

Third, narratives catalyze and enhance community building. Think of storytelling as a form of grassroots politics that brings issues down to a level that regular people can engage in. They don’t necessarily lead people to agree, but narratives do get people to think about what others think.

Finally, narratives are good tools for connecting issues. In Hawaii we need far more talk about the importance of transit-oriented development, which impacts the entire community no matter how far you live from a rail stop.

A Lot We Haven’t Discussed

Transit-oriented development is another bloodless concept that needs humanizing.

The city and state are way behind on TOD. The governor has proposed a fascinating, comprehensive plan for Kalihi, but it’s only at the just-a-dream, just-a-dream stage.

The rest of the TOD discussions have included the usual suspects with the usual scripts — politicians, bureaucrats and developers talking about setbacks, waivers, boundaries and quotas.

Up to now, rail has been a disaster, so think about newly told rail stories as a grassroots disaster response.

Responses to Hurricanes Harvey and Irma require well-organized, large-scale government interventions. If FEMA and Congress don’t respond well, the victims are toast.

But there has also been much more — ordinary people responding spontaneously in communities and neighborhoods.

Politics is not an issue when the Cajun Navy shows up at your flooded front door. Discussions are not about policy or projects. They focus on what do you need and how can we help. In short, what’s your story?

What should rail storytelling sessions look like?

Instead of the usual official “community input envisioning” meetings with — please, please spare me— Power Points and flow charts, we need grassroots meetings in libraries, community and religious centers, and schools where people talk story about their possible rail use.

The Univeristy of Hawaii West Oahu is a fast-growing, mostly commuter college right next to a Kapolei rail stop. How about a session on campus where students get to talk about how it will affect their lives?

These should not be pro versus con meetings, but rather opportunities for expression and learning without having to act like a high muck-a-muck.

If politicians or rail officials want to come, fine, but sit in the back, way in the back, and it’s best that they say nothing.

These meetings should be arranged so that folks from different parts of the island encounter one another. Aren’t you tired of hearing someone from the Windward Side say she does not support rail because she won’t benefit personally, as if that’s a trump card?

You’re skeptical that this will make a difference? Sure, but ask yourself this: How has the conventional approach worked so far?

Rail is too big an issue not to think small about it.

Honolulu Civil Beat has created a Facebook Group to do just this, share stories about how the Honolulu Rail project is impacting lives. Visit this link to join and share your story.