Power To The People And Their Fund For Good Works

Dan Boylan
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Wednesday - October 31, 2007
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Corporations, trade associations, doctors, lawyers, pharmaceutical companies - an endless list of favor-seeking lobbies - have been pouring hundreds of millions of dollars into the campaign coffers of presidential candidates since November 2004 - all with the intent of buying a piece of them.

Locally, the folks at the Hawaii Superferry have spent $175,000 over the same period lobbying for their big boat and enabling a governor, congressmen and state legislators to boast ever bigger campaign treasuries - and keep their doors super-wide open to Superferry executives.

Saturday night at the Japanese Cultural Center of Hawaii, the Hawaii People’s Fund will hold its annual fund-raising dinner. Its funds don’t support the ends of special interest groups; they go to groups seeking “to create progressive change, struggle against injustice and resist inequality.”

And in this, their 35th year, the Hawaii People’s Fund’s members honor one of their original founders: labor organizer, civil rights and anti-war activist, and lifelong advocate of social justice John Witeck.

Witeck didn’t come to Hawaii to effect social change. In 1967, the northern Virginia native crossed a continent and half an ocean to study for a master’s degree in Asian Studies at the University of Hawaii.

“In Washington and Virginia, all I ever saw were haoles and blacks,” Witeck remembers. “But my father worked in the Senate, and he was able to get me a part-time job with the State Department. I got interested in China, so I headed for Hawaii.”

Witeck never received his degree in Asian Studies; he was an activist before he was a student of Asia. “As an undergraduate at the University of Virginia, I became active in the civil rights movement,” says Witeck. “I was a member of the Newman Club, a Catholic student organization, and I went down to Selma, Ala., with the club to demonstrate.

“Selma was where my politicalization took place. Fear of being killed by an angry mob can do that to you.”

In Honolulu, Witeck considered founding a Newman Club at the University of Hawaii: “I decided to start a chapter of Students for a Democratic Society instead.”

In the spring of 1968, Witeck passed up his final exams at the university to take part in the Bachman Hall sit-in. It lasted for more than a week. The men in attendance burned their draft cards - a burned draft card plus failing to take his final exams spelled expulsion from the East-West Center and his graduate program.

“I went back to Virginia briefly, but my girlfriend lured me back,” says Witeck. John and Lucy Witeck were married at the Church of the Crossroads in the midst of a sanctuary for active duty military protesting the Vietnam war.

“My mom came out for the wedding, and she was a little unnerved when she saw the church surrounded by the HPD, military police and FBI types. Thirty-seven protesting GIs were our best men.”

With a $10,000 grant from the United Church of Christ and the Methodists, Witeck launched Youth Action. Youth Action provided seed money for local youth projects.

“In 1971 some of us began to ask why not do this for all age groups,” says Witeck. “The Aloha United Way was good, but it took time and paperwork to get approved. We felt Hawaii’s People’s Fund could fill a need.”

The fund’s first board included activists Larry Jones, Randy Kalahiki, Pete Tagalog, Rev. John Heidl and Prof. Walter Johnson.

“Over the years we’ve supported peace projects, environmental action, some of the early Hawaiian sovereignty groups, tenants and public housing organizations. Our grants may run as little as $100 needed to prepare a slide show, or $50 to print up fliers to advertise a meeting. Our grants are capped at $2,500. And we don’t require a lot of paperwork.”

Over the past two years, the Hawaii People’s Fund has given grants to more than 60 local organizations, ranging from the Drug Policy Forum of Hawaii to Micronesians United to the Waianae Coast Community Alternative Development Corporation.

“We raise approximately $200,000 a year,” says Witeck, “and we can now support - inadequately - two staff members.”

In its early years, it couldn’t support anyone - even inadequately. Witeck made his living instead working for the United Public Workers as the union’s newspaper editor and a business agent.

Despite reversals in recent years, Witeck maintains his optimism. “The environmental movement is much stronger than it was in the ‘60s. People are more tolerant on the gay issue. In the South there’s more mixing of races. And while the war in Iraq is a disaster, the anti-war movement still has strength.

“The effort to build a better world is an ongoing struggle, but that the Hawaii People’s Fund is still around after 35 years is a testament that there’s a community of people who will persevere.”

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