Editor’s Note: I recently had a chance to connect with Mike Loftin and Fawn Liebengood, the folks who run 808Cleanups.org, a Honolulu non-profit that has caused a lot of folks to pay attention to the environment in ways we never gave a thought to just a few years ago. I met Fawn, a Chaminade student, through Chaminade University’s Hogan Entrepreneur Program and was impressed with her strong interest in environmenal “activism”.
808Cleanups jumps in and does the gritty, dirty work such as extracting the nails from Oahu beaches which ended up in the sand (and capable of impaling some human foot) because some bright light decided it was cool to throw a bunch of pallets on a bonfire. Likewise, they’re the ones who remove graffiti from rock walls or retrieve plastic bottles from the shore a some mountain trail. In short they (and their diverse cohort of volunteers) go above and beyond the call of duty to make Hawaii a better place. Their enthusiasm has inspired people from throughout the state to share a labor of love for our precious aina. Most recently the org was recognized for their work from the Atherton Foundation which awarded them a grant to keep up the good works.
HR: Tell us a little about yourselves and how you got to Hawaii.
MIKE: I came to Hawaii in January 2006. I had finished my Peace Corps service in August 2005. The country I was assigned to was Jamaica and I worked at the Montego Bay Marine Park Reserve. Our mission was to make the fisheries sustainable and restore the ecosystems of the bay. I enjoyed working on a mission near and dear to my heart, and once I returned to my home State of Virginia, I found it very hard to adjust back to life there. Very quickly I realized I needed to return to a place where I could continue the kind of work in the kind of environment I had in the Peace Corps. So I moved to Hawaii. After working as a Divemaster, then in the solar industry both in the field and management, I found my way back to stewardship and ecosystem restoration.
FAWN: I first came to Hawaii in 2009 with my college choir from Los Angeles. After a magical few days in Hawaii, I decided to go back for the summer. During my summer in Hawaii, I realized how much I loved it and wanted to stay. At the time, I was studying Psychology and wanted to be a Social Psychologist and I transferred schools to UH Manoa after realizing how great UH Manoa’s Psychology program was. I graduated with High Honors in 2010 and began graduate courses. However, being a Psychologist was not in my true calling and I soon realized that after failing to pass my entrance exam, being hit by a car, and being laid off of all three of my jobs. I found myself at a major cross roads in my life and I did not know what to do next. So for a month during my recovery I wrote down what I wanted to do each day if money were no object and I had no obstacles in my path. After this process, I returned to my first true love, the ocean and all of its fascinating animals.
HR: Tell us about the genesis of 808Cleanups. How was it formed?
MIKE: It started very small and the turning point for us at the time (Myself and Wayde, Board of Directors) was an alarming increase in nature tagging at some gorgeous hiking locations. So our journey began by researching and taking action to remove graffiti tagging from natural surfaces. We were tired of the talk. But very quickly we realized how much litter there was, and illegal dumping, and pallet bonfires leaving nails in the sand. Fawn joined us just a few months later with an emphasis on marine debris that poses a threat to people and animals. So by Fall 2014 we were truly a Mauka to Makai organization, cleaning everywhere.
HR: What’s your mission? Isn’t it the responsibility of the state or city take care of cleaning up public places?
MIKE: Well there’s a couple of things going on. First and foremost I want to stress that it should be no one’s job to pick up litter, or clean up graffiti tagging. These acts are stemming from a larger problem of people thinking it’s someone else’s job to pick up after them, or not thinking it’s a big deal, or not putting their creative talents towards the community as a whole. I mean really, we’re all grown adults here, this is common sense. If I walked into your house you’d expect me to respect your space, yeah? The public spaces are everyone’s spaces.
So it is every single person’s responsibility. And no, littering does not help create jobs, it actually takes away from primary duties. Which brings us to the second point. The City, and especially the State, are understaffed and have a huge mandate for what they need to do. So they can’t keep up with their regular duties let alone clean all the parks. Myself and other volunteers talk to them all the time and universally they appreciate our help, and with many you can see how burned out the litterbugs have made them over years or even decades.
The big picture is we currently have way too many litterbugs, not enough staff, and probably not enough money to hire the needed staff, so to me the solution is to help organize the community. There are so many tremendous people in the community young and old who want to take positive action, and we support them. My hope is we will prevent much of this damage and make a lot of these cleanups obsolete in due time!
FAWN: As Michael said, I joined the organization in Fall 2014. I had been seeing more and more about marine debris’ impacts on the animals that I loved so much and I decided that I wanted to take action and protect what I loved. Michael, Wayde, and I had been friends for years and I knew about the graffiti removals they had been doing. I approached Michael, Wayde, and Ethan with my idea thinking they would turn it down, but they embraced it!
HR: What kinds of places do you clean up?
MIKE: We clean up everywhere, literally. Hiking trails, roadsides, parks, beaches, parking lots, underwater, litter removal, graffiti removal, illegal dumping removal, invasive plant removal.
HR: What kinds of programs does the org have?
MIKE: Our core program is the Adopt a Site program where volunteers pick their favorite location to help clean twice a month or at least once a month. 808 Cleanups supports them by helping get the word out for help on our social media and website, and providing them supplies. We also have our Volunteer Directory so volunteers can find one another for smaller cleanups if they want a buddy, especially for underwater, graffiti and illegal dumping cleanups where you need training, scuba skills or a truck to haul. Much of what we do is self-initiated and really we do our best to help people and organizations connect to make things happen fast, safe and efficiently.
HR: Where does your org fit in the scheme of things compared to other environmental groups?
MIKE: We created 808 Cleanups because we saw a huge opportunity to work with and compliment other environmental groups. When I volunteered with other groups I heard a couple of things. One, a lot of people couldn’t make the scheduled events for whatever reason, and though big events, they happened once a month or once a quarter. I would also hear people ask, what can I do between events? I want to do more! So I saw a need to support volunteers and keep stewardship as a regular thing in their life. I also saw the need to add flexibility which is why we provide support both in the field and online 7 days a week to the best of our ability.
FAWN: Like Michael, I believe that we complement the other environmental groups. One of the wonderful things about our approach is that it can maintain a clean site longer after large cleanupevents. Hopefully one day groups won’t have to have their annual cleanups, because the beaches are too clean! That is what we are trying to accomplish.
Editor’s note: See their year in review below:
For more information, visit https://www.808cleanups.org/
Stay tuned for Part 2 of the interview, coming soon.
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