Civics Is Sexy

The Civics IS Sexy workshop, hosted by Surfrider Foundation, aims to help people understand the legislative process PHOTO BY RAFAEL BERGSTROM

The Civics IS Sexy workshop, hosted by Surfrider Foundation, aims to help people understand the legislative process PHOTO BY RAFAEL BERGSTROM

For a long time, Anthony Chance wondered when somebody was going to do something about the dirty water in Pearl Harbor and the trash that piled up around its estuaries near where he lived.

“All I kept thinking was, I wonder who is going to clean this up,” recalls Chance. “I thought, somebody has to clean it up, who is going to do it?”

Then, a couple of years ago, the former Navy officer returned to school to study social work. When an assignment required him to attend a community event, he stumbled across Civics IS Sexy, an annual workshop hosted by the Oahu Chapter of the Surfrider Foundation that focuses on giving people a comprehensive rundown on how the legislative process works and a primer on how they can get involved. There, Chance met some of the politicians who represented his area and practiced writing testimony on proposed bills.

Chance since has started his own nonprofit, Hui O Ho‘ohonua. He’s still in the process of building up its programs, but its goal is to clean up the Pearl Harbor area while also serving as an educational resource on environmental issues. Looking back, Chance credits the workshop for propelling him into this new line of work.

“After Civics IS Sexy, I learned, don’t wait for ‘them’ — you do it,” he says. “If everyone is sitting around pointing fingers at ‘them’ and wanting ‘them’ to get it done, it will never get done … It’s up to me.”

That’s exactly the type of outcome that the workshop’s organizers, Surfrider Foundation Oahu Chapter administrator Rafael Bergstrom and Hawaii regional coordinator Stuart Coleman, hope people can get out of Civics IS Sexy: Community Voices Getting Louder, which takes place at the Hawaii State Capitol Jan. 21, beginning at 11:30 a.m.

“Most people don’t understand the avenues that they can go to actually influence change,” Bergstrom says.

“To create the world that we want to live in, it is going to take all of us to understand how to do that,” he adds.

The day features talks by local politicians, an overview of how a bill becomes a law, along with a hands-on session where participants practice writing testimony — from crafting a speech to actually presenting it to elected officials.

The spark for this workshop comes from Bergstrom’s own experience. A few years ago as a grad student at UH, he helped create a bill aimed at minimizing stormwater runoff. Eventually, the bill was passed into law. It was the first time, Bergstrom recalls now, that he really saw the type of power that regular individuals could have on the legislative process.

“It was a really powerful experience — I mean, here were two grad students who had come up with an idea to try and make Hawaii more sustainable, and it took a lot of work and a lot of engagement with a lot of different stake-holders and figuring out how to make it happen, but it did happen,” he recalls.

He conceptualized Civics IS Sexy as a way to share that experience with others. The title, he explains, is derived from a TED Talk by educator and entrepreneur Eric Liu, who stated that, “We need to make civics sexy again. As sexy as it was during the American Revolution or the Civil Rights Movement.”

Bergstrom also feels that hosting the workshop has helped Surfrider Foundation in its lobbying efforts for significant legislation in the last couple of years, including the statewide plastic bag ban and the ban on smoking at beaches and parks.

“I think that what people are going to get out of it is the feeling of empowerment that they have the ability to participate in their state government and hopefully that trickles down all the way to their individual communities as well,” Bergstrom says.

“It takes involvement to make our world a better place,” he adds. “Breaking down the barriers that people think are there is the first step to making that change.”

Metro recently had the chance to chat with Coleman and Bergstrom about the event. The following is a condensed version of the conversations.

Tell me a little bit about the workshop itinerary. By the end of the day, what will people be able to do?

Rafael Bergstrom: Everybody should be able to know who to contact if they have a question. The second thing is to navigate the Capitol website — they should be comfortable understanding the different ways that they can use that website to get involved. The third is how to write a piece of testimony, when you would send it in and what to say at a hearing.

The things that are being learned, while this is directed at the state legislative session, it translates to our city council on all islands; it translates to the neighborhood board. There is no wrong place to start — if it is just going to a committee meeting in your neighborhood, that is a huge first step.

Why is this something you wanted to do? What is the value in having public participation in politics?

RB: I felt that most people have no idea how to take the next step past voting … Going through the process of this and realizing that I did have the ability to make a difference as an individual person was a very powerful thing.

It is our world that we have to live in, and by not being involved, we are letting a certain set of people dictate how our community is going to be run. What I have seen in just a couple of years of being with (Surfrider Foundation) is that it is very powerful when a representative or a senator’s constituency actually comes in and makes contact with them and says, ‘hey, I am in your district, this is important to me, here’s why.’ That makes a massive difference.

Stuart Coleman: As we have seen from this past election, voter turnout was incredibly low. There is a lot of dissension in the country, and there is a lot of anger and apathy at the same time … Democracy is based on an engaged electorate and educated citizens who are actively taking part in it — it does not succeed if you don’t have those elements.

As you pointed out, in this election, voter turnout was low. I think people often feel like they don’t have power.

SC: I would say that it is very understandable to feel like you can’t make a difference because the system is so

large, but we’ve just seen too many times a small group of individuals make big changes — from the founding of our country to the recent passage of the smoke-free beaches and parks bill … The bag bill also is an example of that. Hawaii became the first state in the country to ban single-use plastic grocery bags, county by county because people were sick of them being littered.

Overall, what would you say your goal is with this event? What are you hoping that it can offer to people?

SC: I hope that it will help people get engaged with our organization and efforts … But also empower people to take on their own issues and the things that they care most about, whether it is health, wellness, the environment, better governance, the economy. What I would like to see is just people getting more engaged with the issues that they care about and learning the government is a potential friend. Because if you look at it as the enemy, then you are completely crippling your own ability to make any kind of change.

RB: To be living in a community that is engaged. That’s engaged, empowered, that understands that they can participate and understands that, on a daily basis, each individual has the ability to make change. It doesn’t have to be an overwhelming system that we think is out of our control. Each one of us really does have the power and the ability to make a difference.

Civics IS Sexy runs from 11:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. Jan. 21. Registration is free, and a free lunch is provided. For more information and register, visit




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Also on Jan. 21 is what is projected to be the largest Trump-related demonstration to date. That day, one day after Trump’s inauguration, hundreds of thousands are expected in the nation’s capitol for the Women’s March on Washington to protest policies that they feel could threaten women’s rights. Locally, individuals, businesses, nonprofits and other groups have banded together to make Honolulu one of the hundreds of cities throughout the country hosting sister marches the same day. (The national event, in fact, also began at the suggestion of retired Hawaii lawyer Teresa Shook.) Women’s March – Oahu takes place starting 9:30 a.m. at the Hawaii State Capitol.

“It’s the first day of a new national administration, and we are putting them on notice that we will let them know when we don’t agree with what they are doing,” says event co-chairwoman Amy Monk. “We are a diverse group, we have different concerns, but none of us should be afraid to call them out and say we don’t agree with something.”

According to Monk, women’s healthcare is the primary issue that they hope to address through the march.

“Congressional Republicans now have a majority and a supportive president-elect, and they are poised to defund Planned Parenthood and repeal some or all of Obamacare,” Monk says. “Thousands of women in Hawaii, and millions in the other states rely on Planned Parenthood and the Affordable Care Act.

“We don’t all think alike, but that’s the beauty of a democracy,” Monk continues. “And this march is a vehicle for everyone to express their concerns, frustrations, and fears, and to find a way to channel that in a constructive force for change.”

Meet time is set for 9:30 a.m., with the march beginning at 10. A rally follows until 3 p.m. For more information on the march, find Women’s March – Oahu on Facebook and Eventbrite, or visit