Photo: Hula dancers at the Piʻilani Hawaiian Civic Club of Colorado’s 2022 Hoʻolauleʻa
Hula dancers at the Piʻilani Hawaiian Civic Club of Colorado’s 2022 Hoʻolauleʻa. The club is based in Littleton, a suburb of Denver. Hawaiian civic club membership on the continent has been declining over the past few years and leaders are hoping to reverse that trend. - Courtesy Photo

Hawaiian civic clubs popped up across the continent to serve the growing diaspora over the past few decades, but recently, membership has waned. Leaders hoping to increase civic club membership question whether politics should play a role in that revitalization.

With roots on Kauaʻi, Carol Nalani Johnson moved to Utah almost two decades ago. Now in her second term as the pelekikena (president) of the Mainland Council Association of Hawaiian Civic Clubs, the 86-year-old envisions a greater purpose for these organizations – the power to advocate for Hawaiian issues on the congressional level.

“You can see the potential influence that the civic clubs can have at the federal level,” Johnson said. “This is really important to me.”

But Johnson added that she hasn’t yet succeeded in convincing civic club leaders of this.

Almost 20 Hawaiian Civic Clubs exist across 12 states: Alaska, Arizona, California, Colorado, Missouri, Nevada, Oregon, Tennessee, Utah, Virginia, Washington State and Wisconsin.

But these organizations often compete against hālau and golf groups for members. The Mainland Council Association of Hawaiian Civic Clubs’ membership sits at around 800.

“We are severely, severely underrecruiting our people,” Johnson said.

Some of today’s approved, chartered civic clubs first started as social clubs. While Johnson recognizes the importance of community amongst Hawaiians on the continent, she wants them to join forces in talking about critical topics like housing and employment – “the very same issues that affect our Kānaka in Hawaiʻi as well.”

“We’d like to be part of the solution,” she said.

Johnson ultimately wonders how to draw more of the Hawaiian diaspora together. “It’s still a question mark.”

Esmond Ah Leong, a past pelekikena of the Piʻilani Hawaiian Civic Club of Colorado, hopes to form a civic club in his new home of Georgia.

“I’m trying to find more Hawaiians out here,” he said, floating the option of co-founding the group with another southern state, like Florida.

But the 68-year-old, who served two terms in his former role, doesn’t see space for politics within the organization.

“If you read the written bylaws of the civic clubs, we’re not supposed to be talking about politics,” he said. “That’s what destroys anything.”

Lisa Kelekolio, the current pelekikena of the Piʻilani Hawaiian Civic Club of Colorado, helped establish the organization around 25 years ago. The Hilo native spent a summer in Boulder, then moved to the Centennial State soon after.

In her mid-20s when it was formed, the club started with some 50 members. It grew to 200 at its heyday, with its Hoʻolauleʻa once attracting around 4,000 attendees. “We started with a bang,” Kelekolio said, noting that theirs was the first club with a website.

Today, Piʻilani Hawaiian Civic Club has shrunk to just 40 members. Now, with the Hoʻolauleʻa, “I’m lucky if I get 2,000 people,” she said. “But that’s also because of COVID.”

Over the past four years, she noted a decline in membership. Another personal opinion she holds about that slump: “The civic clubs themselves weren’t doing what the people wanted them to do.

“And people have been turning away from politics,” Kelekolio added.

The group weighed the decision of rebooting the club, and she stepped into her new position. Their hopes are high for the next Hoʻolauleʻa, planned for Saturday, Sept. 2, at Civic Green Park in Highlands Ranch, Colo.

Kelekolio described her role as president as “probably one of the most important things I do.

“It’s important to know where you come from; it’s important to know where your family comes from – especially if you’re Hawaiian,” she said.