A speech presented by JoAnn A. Yukimura before the Women of Vision and Action Leadership Institute whose theme was “Women of Spirit, Vision and Service—Co-Creating Community, Locally and Globally” on October 7, 1997.
Growing Up on Kaua‘i
I grew up on this island in the 50’s and 60’s, when Kaua‘i was a sleepy, isolated place.
As the oldest of five children in a closely knit extended family, in a community where most everybody knew everybody else, my life was protected, nurtured and blessed. I thrived in the beauty, cultural diversity, peace and safety of the place though I was not really conscious of any of those factors. In fact, when I left for college, like many of my friends, I was glad to leave the “rock”, and I wasn’t planning to return.
My childhood gave me the foundation of whatever strength I have today. I learned the lessons of integrity and participation from my parents. When I was 12, I had to go to Honolulu every month for orthodontic work because there was no orthodontist on the island. Inter-island travel was not as common place as it is today, and it was very expensive. One could travel for half-fare until age 12. Small in size and late-born I could have easily passed for 11, cutting travel costs by 50%, but my father forbade it because that would have been a lie.
When I was in elementary school, my mother had a fit one day when she learned that a child could miss three days of school in a row because of cafeteria duty, office duty and library duty. I remember how she marched down to the school office and got that changed. I also remember coffee hours for candidates, rallies and walking house to house—it was one’s responsibility to be involved.
My childhood was also a time of fear. I always felt I wasn’t good enough. I studied furiously to make good grades and earned a reputation of being smart and a leader, but I was always afraid they would find out the real story—that I was really dumb.
Leaving Kaua‘i: The Turning Point, How Going Away Made Me Come Home
When I left for college, I naively thought that most of the world was like Kaua‘i. I quickly discovered that it wasn’t. That’s when I first became aware of how special Kaua‘i was—not just by its natural beauty, but also by its cultural richness, the closeness of family and community, and its tradition of aloha.
At Stanford—besides the Vietnam War controversy—there was a growing awareness of environmental issues. As I came back to Hawaii for the summers, I watched with horror as the frantic, environmentally unconscious growth pounded Honolulu. Newly aware of Kauai’s specialness, I felt passionately that I didn’t want the rampant growth and urban homogenization to happen to Kauai. I had planned to join the Peace Corps after college. I finally decided that my Peace Corps job was at home. After graduating from law school, I came home.
Crossing the Threshold: Running for Politics
After passing the bar, I came back to Kaua‘i to work at Legal Aid. Doing divorces by day and community organizing by night, I was catapulted into the huge land use debate that was raging on Kaua‘i. About 2,000 additional acres—mostly along the shoreline—were being proposed for urbanization, mainly resort development. The County’s general plan had already designated enough land for urbanization to triple the population of Kaua‘i. About the same time, the County’s 4-story height limit was being challenged. Kauai had such potential, so many opportunities, but we were in danger of losing it all by thoughtless, unplanned growth-for-growth’s sake. The stakes were high.
I was angered by the prevailing attitude of public officials who seemed to think of citizens as troublemakers rather than partners, who made decisions based on power and money, not what was best for the community. I decided I wanted to be on the other side of the public hearing banister.
At the same time, I struggled with my lack of confidence. Could I really do this? It seemed at times I was so incompetent, so inarticulate, so disorganized. Was I really good enough?
At that time, I took a seminar that changed my life. In that seminar I learned the difference between “and” and “but”. Thinking “ I want to run for office, but I am afraid” stopped me from running. Thinking “I want to run for office, and I am afraid.” meant I could feel afraid—and run for office. I could have my feelings, but they didn’t have to stop me. This was a liberating distinction for me.
I also learned that once you take a stand and commit yourself, the world shifts.
Once I made my decision and announced my candidacy for the County Council, everything began to happen. People appeared from nowhere offering to help. The campaign was managed by three young women who were my age: 26. Photographs were done gratis by a community college photography instructor—who later became my husband. We started with zero dollars, but the money started flowing. I campaigned on preserving our beauty, planning our growth, building affordable housing that was protected from the high-priced visitor destination marketplace, creating buses and bikeways and alternative economic development. When the votes were all in, although a neophyte, I was the highest vote getter.
The Crucible of Politics
Being in office was another story. I was a complete aberration. The other six council members were all men, all more than 10 years older than I, mostly pro-business and pro-growth and they all drove cars. I rode a bike.
The voting was often 6-1. That wasn’t an entirely powerless position. Just by articulating another position or presenting alternatives, I could let people know that there was a choice. I could create discussion and debate where the modus operandi had been to say as little as possible to attract as little attention as possible. I could introduce new ideas, explain and educate. All of that was important especially in a place where the public was active and concerned. But when it came to getting something done, achieving real change, I really couldn’t do anything.
I soon learned that even if I was a part of the majority of the council, it was hard to get things done, to get real change established. The Council would fund a project such as the solid waste plan for the island, but how the plan was put together, whether it was based on a clear vision, and had meaningful public input was determined by the mayor and his administration. Or, we’d pass a law—for example, we were the first in the country to require solar water heating under certain circumstances—and the administration would simply refuse to enforce it. So, four years after being elected to the council, at age 30, I decided to run for Mayor.
After a heady, hard-fought, sometimes vicious campaign that drew out many people who had not been involved before and starkly defined the issues before our island, I lost the election by 800-plus or 5% of the vote. I ran again two years later, and lost again by a narrow margin. Six years later, in 1988, after having a child and serving another four years on the Council, I was faced with the question of whether to run for mayor for the third time. I struggled with that question for a year. When it came down to the wire, I went on a solo retreat. The screenplay of the two prior losses kept running through my head: the exhausting work, the grueling fundraising, the stress on my family, the unbearable disappointment of my supporters on election night.
Yet, I just knew the work that needed to be done. I knew in my heart the direction the community needed to take.
I kept searching my mind for someone else—someone else who shared my concern and sense of urgency who could run and win—someone I could support. When I realized there was no one else, I decided to run.
Yet, on the night before my press conference and announcement, I went to my friend’s house to videotape my speech. When we played it back, I was so horrified by the stiff, stilted person who appeared on the monitor, I looked at Terry and said, “I can’t do it—I wouldn’t vote for that person!” I went home, and all night tried to compose a press statement that I wasn’t running for mayor after all. I couldn’t do that either. So the next morning, with friends and family present in the Council chambers, hoping my makeup hid my exhaustion and fear, I launched my third try for Mayor.
I won by a two to one margin in 1988. There are a lot of levels of explanation of why I won. The political analysts will say people were fed up with the incumbent and thought I had matured. Certain sectors of the population supported me for the first time, thanks to the courage and independence of certain community leaders. But as I look at my two previous losses and the third time when I won, I am clear that I lost the first two times because I was, deep down inside, too afraid of being mayor. On the third try, my vision of myself as mayor, all the fears and feelings of inadequacy notwithstanding, was clear—not when I announced, but later, as I kept struggling with the conflicts within me, it was resolved—and then, I won…
But it wasn’t my vision of being mayor that propelled me, it was my vision of our community, of what it could be and the preciousness of this island in the middle of the Pacific that has driven me all these years—that’s the big vision.
If you think it was a challenge to get elected Mayor, you cannot imagine the challenge of being Mayor! I had never hired or fired anyone in my life and now, because we have a strong mayor and not the city manager form of government, I was the CEO of a public corporation with an operating budget of $45 million and 1,000 employees. In the first week on the job I had to fill fifteen executive positions, prepare a budget for presentation to the state legislature, and solve the problem of the pending closure of the only centrally located landfill on the island. It began as a trial by fire and continued like that throughout my six years as mayor—each step was a test which required the polishing of the soul.
My election had not happened by the conventional rules. I had had very little corporate, union or party support. My support had come literally from the grassroots. Thus I did not have great establishment support when I walked into the mayor’s office. When I presented my first budget to the County Council it was geared to the priorities and plan which I had laid out in my inauguration speech. It included positions like the Film Commissioner and solid waste manager and training officer. The Council, in my opinion, massacred my budget. I was shocked. I couldn’t believe they wouldn’t give me a chance at least to implement the program I thought I had been elected for. So I went out fighting, excoriating them publicly, rallying public opinion against them—and thus began the war.
Hurricane Iniki Brings It to a Head
I think I did many good things as mayor. During my first year as mayor, my administration uncovered a $1.3 million embezzlement which was indicative of the years of neglect in the day to day operations and systems of the county. When I got in, we professionalized the county. We established training programs. When I entered the mayor’s office there were 16 personal computers in the entire county, most of them owned by our employees. We computerized the entire county. We developed a new office complex that allowed us to serve the public better. We also created programs that were needed in solid waste and recycling, agriculture, film industry, tourism. We brought a standard of integrity and openness. We developed clear land use policies and standards. We started a public bus system.
But the manner in which I did things tended to generate or aggravate conflict. I did things often in a confrontive and combative way. My gift is that I can usually see the big picture, the long range, so a lot of times, I am right in my position on an issue, but because I came from a place of not being good enough, I often had to make people wrong in order to prove myself right. How can you build support for your position in that way?
The Hurricane brought things to a head. Post traumatic stress experts tell us that the trauma will exaggerate whatever was existing before the hurricane—both the good and the bad. Before the hurricane the community was heavily divided in three days of hearings on the STARs program for the naval base on the Westside. In my stand against the program, I was in the middle of the conflict. I had also proposed an excise tax program to fund a public transportation system and shoreline park acquisition which had set up another war between me and the council. Before that was the on-going issue of commercial boating in the Hanalei River.
On September 11, 1992, Hurricane Iniki hit our island and changed our lives forever. It stopped business as usual, pulled the rug from under us and forced us to look at what was important to us. When we got to the bottom we realized that we may not have running water, electricity or houses, but we had our lives, our loved ones and the will to clean up and go on. It was a collective near-death experience that made all of us see what was important to us in our lives.
One month after the hurricane, taking a moment from the emergency response and recovery efforts, I met with a lady called Barbara Curl who I had never met before. We met at the top of Crater Hill because I was craving some fresh air and respite from the post hurricane recovery work. Surrounded by breathtaking natural beauty and feeling Barbara’s complete empathy and love, though I barely knew her, I burst into tears and said I hated all the conflict and struggle that I had somehow generated in my life. I was sick of it. I wanted something new.
Barbara taught me that every person—even the council members—had a higher intention and that if I spoke to that higher intention, miracles would happen. She also taught me to access Spirit and put me through an exercise that changed my life. She taught me the difference between mind and spirit. “Let’s take someone you don’t like that you are in conflict with” she said. So I chose my strongest adversary on the council. “What does your mind say about this man?” she asked. “That he is out to get me, make me look bad, stop me at every turn, stab me in the back” I answered. “Good,” she said. “Thank you. Now, what does your spirit say?” When I closed my eyes and looked, I got an answer that I did not like. The answer was, “He wants to serve.”
I may not have liked the answer, but to my credit, I didn’t quickly discard it. That began a whole new phase in my life. I initiated several unpublicized meetings between council members and myself, which Barbara facilitated, to work on a new relationship. That “evil council man” is now a good friend, by the way.
Unfortunately I lost my re-election attempt one year later (to one of those council members) so I didn’t have much time as mayor to practice this new way. But I have had time to practice as JoAnn Yukimura.
I didn’t want to lose the election. I wasn’t expecting to lose the election. I had my heart’s dream still yet to complete which was the update of the general plan which I saw as a means to create a clear and compelling vision for Kaua‘i that would guide us into the new millennium. But the night I lost, I felt strangely calm and at peace. Perhaps I knew that I had made my choice and my choice was my family—my husband and my daughter—from whom I had felt increasingly out of touch. Earlier that year in a soul-searching process that I don’t have time to describe I had come to the conclusion that they were my top priority.
I also had lost before, and I knew to a certainty that losing is not the end, just the beginning. Of what, I wasn’t sure, but in my old age, I’ve come to trust a lot more that things will be made clear to me over time. And they have—to a certain extent.
These past two, almost three, years have been a wonderful gift to me and my family. When I stooped to pet that cat and stopped to look at the plants around the house two weeks after I left office I knew that my unwinding and healing were beginning. It’s been a time to be quiet, to look inward, to reflect on the past and be in the present. I’ve had the time to go a movie or boogie boarding on the waves with John and Maile—or to hike to Kalalau or spend a weekend at Kokee. It’s been a time to restore my physical self, to know that age doesn’t have to take away attractiveness and physical health. And time to be back in touch with the community again, working with things like this conference and institute, the 7Habits Community Leadership and Development program… and the creation of an island-wide vision.
As Barbara says, this time of quiet has taught me the distinction between positional power, which I had as mayor, and personal power, which each of us has as a person. What I know now is that personal power is rooted in the spirit. It comes not from doing, but from being. It springs forth from the quiet space inside and the universal source that connects all of us. Women of Spirit, Vision and Service. That is us, by the grace of God.