Bringing Civics Back

In his popular TED talk, Eric Liu says most Americans are illiterate when it comes to the language of power and politics. “We have to make civics sexy again,” Liu says. He’s not talking about House of Cards or sensationalized sex scandals among politicians but true reform by the people, which is a lot less common and definitely more sexy.

Hawai‘i was once a national leader when it came to issues like environmental laws and healthcare reform, but people seem to have lost their democratic vigor over the last few decades. If voting was as popular as Viagra, more people would be standing up for their rights, demanding action, and seeing radically different results at the legislature.

To help the state get its groove back, the Surfrider Foundation’s O‘ahu Chapter hosted a free legislative workshop at the Hawai‘i Capitol in mid-January. The main theme: “Civics Is Sexy.” More than 60 people showed up on a Saturday, including scores of high school, college, and graduate students eager to learn how laws are made. Participants learned how to work with legislators to draft bills, track their progress on the state website at (one of the first and best in the nation), and give oral testimony at legislative hearings.

Based on the turnout and enthusiasm of the attendees, the event was a success and civics is making a sexy comeback. The workshop featured presentations on Native Hawaiian rights by Office of Hawaiian Affairs, alternative energy by Rep. Chris Lee, and marine plastic pollution by the Surfrider Foundation. All of the presenters stressed the importance of our natural environment in everything we do—call it “50 Shades of Green.”

Along with Lee, the workshop included younger legislators like representatives Kaniela Ing, Nicole Lowen, and newly elected Sierra Club leader Matt LoPresti, as well as veterans like Tom Brower and Sam Kong. Reflecting on the event, coordinator Rafael Bergstrom says he hopes the attendees “left with tangible tools to navigate our state’s power structure.” Let’s hope this wave of sexy reform takes hold of the Capitol and the rest of the state this session.

To learn more about Surfrider’s legislative efforts and Rise Above Plastics (RAP) campaign, go to

UPDATE, May 21, 2015: After Surfrider’s O‘ahu chapter hosted its “Civics Is Sexy” legislative workshop in mid-January, activists of all ages and backgrounds came together to support, offer testimony and help pass three important bills this session. The Stormwater Management bill (HB1325) helps the counties reduce the leading cause of water pollution in the state. The Cesspool Upgrade (HB1140) bill gives state tax credits to homeowners who upgrade from cesspools to septic tanks, anaerobic treatment or sewer, and eliminates a leading source of water pollution. Finally, the Tobacco-Free Parks bill bans smoking and tobacco products in its state parks and beaches. When Governor Ige signs this last bill into law, Hawai‘i will be the first state in the country to have tobacco-free beaches and parks.

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