By: Leija Helling, Communications Intern
CHEJ had the pleasure of hosting Kaniela Ing, an activist, community organizer and former State Representative in Hawaii, at a Living Room Leadership webinar on August 5, 2020. A Native Hawaiian, Kaniela was first elected to represent South Maui in the Hawaii State House 2012 at the age of 23. After six years in the legislature, he returned to community organizing and now works as the Climate Justice Campaign Director at the People’s Action Institute, a partner organization of CHEJ.
Kaniela was born and raised in one of the richest, whitest, and most conservative areas of Maui, a Hawaiian island known for its resort hotels and agriculture. Growing up, Kaniela witnessed capitalists using their power to harm native Hawaiians like himself. When he was young, a white business-owner stole land granted to his family, which, combined with the sudden death of his father, put them in financial peril. Kaniela and his brother started working in the pineapple fields, a brutal and hazardous job that paid below minimum wage. Both he and his brother developed serious respiratory problems from pesticide exposure. Kaniela’s experience working alongside undocumented workers, migrants with limited rights, and other marginalized folks for whom pineapple picking was not just a temporary gig left a deep emotional impression.
“Like many of us in impacted communities,” Kaniela says, “you don’t seek out politics. It finds you…I didn’t really have a choice but to get involved.”
As a young adult, Kaniela started to get involved in politics. He worked in native organizing and ran the student council at his university. When a Tea Party Republican was elected on his home island, hoping to dismantle the social security programs and environmental protections Kaniela’s family had relied on in tough times, Kaniela decided to run for office. By mobilizing a base of white liberals and Black, Filipino and Native workers in the hotel district, he was able to overtake an incumbent Republican and win a seat in the Hawaii State House.
During his time as a State Representative, Kaniela pushed for progressive policy changes in areas such as pollution and environmental contamination, education, and social inequities. He challenged corporate power in Hawaii, fighting against Monsanto, the infamous agricultural biotech giant, and Alexander and Baldwin, one of the original “Big Five” sugar cane companies that has dominated Hawaii’s land and politics since the 1800’s. Kaniela was the youngest legislator to hold a leadership role in the House.
But Kaniela quickly grew alarmed by how his colleagues in office got sucked into an insular political scene. He watched as progressives were pulled toward the center, spending more time with their colleagues than their district: the people they were supposed to represent. He saw firsthand how corporate lobbyists charmed and befriended legislators, while activists and organizers, seen as demanding and disagreeable, were dismissed by people in power.
“A system that relies on appealing to the good nature of politicians is never going to work,” Kaniela says. “We never really learned how to do democracy right.”
Organizing, on the other hand, is about the pluralism of power, about finding pillars to stand on and building movement and community by feeding off of each other’s energy. COVID-19 has made Kaniela’s job harder, he admits, since sharing physical space is such an important part of bringing people together. But Kaniela has noticed that people, now more than ever, have a longing to be part of a movement. He is working hard to make sure the movement he is building centers people who are facing the “triple-pandemic” of pollution, racial injustice and COVID-19.