6 People Making a Difference in Honolulu

Meet a few people making Honolulu a better place for all of us.

Give It Fresh Today founder Vivian Best. EPIC Ohana Inc. CEO Laurie Tochiki. The ARTS at Marks Garage, Hawaii Academy of Performing Arts and Chinatown Artists Lofts executive director Rich Richardson. Creative Industries Division Department of Business, Economic Development and Tourism chief officer Georja Skinner. MAO Organic Farms managing director Gary Maunakea-Forth. Community Alliance on Prisons coordinator Kat Brady. 

Photo: Adam Jung

Sure, it seems this city runs backward sometimes, but what has always been true for Honolulu is that remarkable people live here. They lead from behind the scenes, oftentimes, making life better for all of us without making too much of a fuss about it. They don’t just live or work here: They build our communities.

When compiling this list, we chose to focus not on those who get a lot of press already, but on people who sometimes miss out on the spotlight. We applaud Pierre Omidyar for giving away more than $1 billion to charity, but we’re also grateful to anyone helping those around them, doing what they can with what they have.

Here are people who lead not because it’s a means to fame or fortune. These are farmers, elementary school teachers, state employees and artists who work tirelessly for a better city because, no matter the advocacy, wisdom, experience or perspective, for this network of leaders, it’s about making a difference.


Vivian Best

Vivian Best says she first became inspired to help reform Hawaii’s food-supply network after watching documentaries such as Food, Inc., Fresh and Ingredients. But it wasn’t until a trip to Chicago that she realized exactly how she could be effective. Best met a woman at a farmers’ market who was accepting excess fresh fruit and vegetable donations to be given to homeless shelters.

Best, a part-time teacher at Kahala Elementary School and coordinator of the Aina in Schools program there, brought the idea back to Hawaii, starting small in 2010, with a table, a wicker basket from Goodwill and a couple of poster boards decorated with doodles of vegetables.

Now, her Give It Fresh Today (GIFT) program accepts more than 24,000 pounds of food annually, of which 200 to 250 pounds per week come from its table at the KCC farmers’ market. The nonprofit Aloha Harvest picks up the food, as does Unity Church, and delivers the goods to various outlets that provide nourishment to impoverished and homeless people throughout Oahu.

“[GIFT is] changing the way people view their excess,” says Best. “In the past you’d bring a box of avocados to work, people would get sick of all the avocados. Sometimes, you can’t eat all the fruit from your trees, so GIFT gets people to think about their food waste. There are families who come to the table, they take a little bit out of each bag, one cucumber, one tomato, two ears of corn. It’s changing people’s shopping habits.”

Best says meals for recipients are changing, as well. “If they used to get a canned fruit or canned vegetable, now they’re more likely to have a fresh one on the plate. As far as the fruit, what we collect on Saturdays goes to feed the children at the Institute for Human Services. Unity Church always has a salad now at their Monday night seating. More nutritious food is even more important to vulnerable populations, such as those with HIV.”

GIFT accepts food donations at farmers’ markets at Windward Mall, Blaisdell Center, KCC and Kailua, but, with more than 60 farmers’ markets on Oahu, there’s a lot of room for expansion. Best says hers is a model that could be implemented anywhere, by anyone. “It’s an idea I wish more people would run with.”

Updated Nov. 4, 2013.


Laurie Tochiki

For the more than 300 underage teens in Hawaii’s welfare system, life can be hard. According to the nonprofit EPIC Ohana Inc., 25 percent of Hawaii youth transitioning out of foster care will be homeless at some point, only 6 percent will earn any sort of college degree and more than 81 percent of the males will get arrested.

“Our mission is to transform child welfare,” says Laurie Tochiki, EPIC’s CEO. “The court system is about punishment, rather than rehabilitation. I think that what we’re trying to accomplish is more humane, more connected, more restorative than punitive.”

Tochiki founded the organization in 1997 with Arlynna Livingston, and, when Livingston retired in 2012, Tochiki left her deanship at the William S. Richardson School of Law to helm EPIC.

The acronym stands for Effective Planning and Innovative Communication—an apt summary of Tochiki’s philosophy. “I don’t know why the criminal justice system seems like such a black hole, but we try to do these things in silos. And whenever you can break down the silos and have people partner and collaborate, you get better results. That’s our goal: To break down the barriers between the social worker, the family, the DOE—to make better connections.”

Among EPIC’s programs are voluntary meet-ups that bring families together with Child Welfare Services and other service providers to talk about what each family needs. The Ohana Finding program scours databases and the Internet to find possible relatives for children in foster care (EPIC then helps bring everybody together for counseling).

Susan Chandler, director of UH Mānoa’s Public Policy Center and a board member at EPIC, says that, in the old days (about 10 to 15 years ago), the system was bogged down with secrets. “It used to be that somehow you weren’t allowed to tell the family that you were making decisions, or where you were taking the kids in foster care.”

Because of the work Tochiki and her team at EPIC Ohana have achieved, “You don’t do that anymore,” says Chandler. “Everything is just more open and transparent, and families feel that they are getting help, that they’re part of a collaborative process. It’s a rule and a practice, but it’s very profound.”


Rich Richardson

As the executive director of The ARTS at Marks Garage, the Hawaii Academy of Performing Arts (HAPA) and the Chinatown Artists Lofts, Rich Richardson is living proof of the theory that art builds communities.

While restaurateurs such as Dave Stewart, Don Murphy, J.J. Niebuhr, Danny Dolan and Glenn Chu were fueling Chinatown’s 1990s renaissance with food and booze, Richardson was building a network of artists through his Chinatown gallery, Salon5. He’s quick to downplay his role: “I feel like an interchangeable type,” he says. “It didn’t have to be me; it could have been someone else who saw the diamond in the rough.” But it’s possible that erasing Richardson from Chinatown’s history wouldn’t mean just taking out the art; it would remove the community from the neighborhood.

Looking at a map of Chinatown these days is like playing Six Degrees of Richardson. Bradley Rhea and Jon Saupe, owners of the boutique Barrio Vintage, live in the Artists Lofts, as do Manifest owners Brandon Reid and Justin Park. Designer Roberta Oaks Power says she saw a vacant retail space on Pauahi Street while walking from the parking garage to meet with Richardson. Four years later, her store is still there.

Richardson and HAPA started First Friday in Chinatown and organize many of the street festivals there, and 16 organizations consider The ARTS at Marks their headquarters, including the Cherry Blossom Cabaret, Youth Speaks Hawaii and the PA‘I Foundation.

“I’m intrigued by community as art,” Richardson says. “Spaghetti as art. I’m thinking the potluck with your boring neighbors might have more artistic value than watching the most popular film on Netflix by yourself. That’s what I like about Hawaii, the multigenerational structure of culture. Enjoying space together out of doors, the whole breaking bread thing, the barbecue. It’s like, bring a dish. I love that as a model.”


Georja Skinner

If Rich Richardson builds communities with art, Georja Skinner has built a statewide industry for it. She’s the chief officer of the state’s Creative Industries Division (CID) within the Department of Business, Economic Development and Tourism (DBEDT), and her job exists to make Hawaii a creative destination.

“We’re dedicated to looking at all the creative clusters,” Skinner says, “facilitating programs and initiatives in new media, music, fashion and writing, particularly for all new content platforms,” such as phone apps and tech startups, by making connections between them.

It’s a lot to juggle: According to CID estimates, the creative industry is made up of more than 48,000 people and 3,200 businesses statewide, and Skinner oversees both the Hawaii Film Office and the Arts and Culture Development Branch. “It’s a huge program to manage, based on an average of $250 million in activity per year,” she says.

To give a very brief example of what Skinner does, this year’s Hawaii International Film Festival (HIFF) featured Creative Lab, a series of incubator-type workshops co-created by CID and HIFF that put local screenwriters, filmmakers and musicians in the same room with professionals such as Los Angeles producer and director Michael Palmieri.

“I see local artists benefit a lot from the advocacy that Georja and her team do every year in the Legislature,” says Robert Lambeth, HIFF’s deputy director. “If there was not a creative-industries position in DBEDT or the state, I think it would be a huge disadvantage to local artists.”
“When you think about it, it’s a small team who does that,” Skinner says. But Skinner adds that, rather than looking at where they’ve been, she looks to the future for opportunities.

CID wants to expand the Creative Lab at HIFF to get more international exposure for local filmmakers, get the Hawaii Film Office better funded and staffed and establish a fund for creative media to encourage more tech startups to come out of Hawaii.

“My favorite thing is to connect people and bring them together for a positive outcome,” says Skinner, “to put them at play on a statewide level.”


Gary Maunakea-Forth

The soil of Waianae is growing more than kale and salad greens, thanks to the sowing done by Gary and Kukui Maunakea-Forth of MAO Organic Farms. At 24 acres, their farm is the largest organic farm on Oahu, yielding about two tons of food per week. It is a leading, if not the leading, producer of organic foods in the state.

But, as the managing director and cofounder of MAO (an acronym for Mala Ai Opio—“the youth garden”), Maunakea-Forth says he doesn’t limit his definition of a profitable farm to one that makes money. “Profit also means investing in young people,” he says. “While we do a lot of the farming, I am constantly training and retraining young people—not just how to be an organic veggie farmer, but I’m teaching them a work ethic: how to work, how to lead.”

MAO’s programs give at-risk and lower-income Waianae kids more than just a day at the farm; they tap into and foster their potential. MAO offers programs such as giving Waianae Intermediate students a “mini-immersion into Pacific Island culture” with hands-on activities and field trips, for example, or an internship in Organic Agriculture and Food Systems for Waianae High School students, as well as offering a two-year college-level paid internship that grants Waianae youth an Associates of Arts degree from Leeward Community College (LCC), while also giving them experience in leadership of a nonprofit organization. So far, thousands have gone through the programs, and 50 people have graduated through MAO’s relationship with LCC.

Maunakea-Forth estimates that more than half of the graduates from Nanakuli, Waianae and Makaha high schools who went on to college last year went through MAO Organic Farms. “The large numbers of [Waianae] youth between 17 and 25 years old are thought of by others as a deficit,” Maunakea-Forth says, “but it was our contention that they are our biggest asset. … The food tastes good and people enjoy it and value it—plus, the soil seems pretty happy.”


Kat Brady

Five-hundred seventy-five Hawaii parolees were released back into society from correctional facilities between 2011 and 2012, but what happened to them? Was there real help on the other side to keep them from committing the same crimes again? And what about the 1,966 Hawaii inmates still locked up in Arizona? Kat Brady spends her time addressing these questions and educating the public as the coordinator of Community Alliance on Prisons (CAP).

Originally the Rethinking Prisons Working Group, CAP was formed in the mid-’90s when social workers, churches, academics and families of prisoners met to talk about the state of affairs in Hawaii’s justice system. These days, Brady runs CAP as a reliable, central resource from which inmates can find advice.

Judging by CAP’s near-daily newsletters and the phone calls to the state Legislature, its requests for help from inmates around the state and prison visits, you’d think there was a full staff at the CAP offices, but it’s really just Brady and maybe a couple of interns.

One of her biggest achievements has been bringing the Justice Reinvestment Initiative to Hawaii. Run by the national Council for State Governments, the program is a data-driven approach to reforming Hawaii’s criminal justice system, saving money and reducing the prison population by addressing what Brady calls the “true reasons that people end up there, rather than just creating more criminals.”

Brady is also working toward other initiatives, including drug-therapy programs for parolees and the compassionate release into parole of sick or elderly inmates with rising medical bills and a family willing to take care of them.

“Democracy depends on truth telling and transparency,” Brady says. “I think the only road to peace is the road that’s just. Without justice, we’ll never have peace.”