Joshua Stanbro is chief resilience officer for the City and County of Honolulu. Before taking part in a Zócalo/Daniel K. Inouye Institute “Pau Hana” event at the Artistry Honolulu titled “What Can Hawai‘i Teach the World About Climate Change?” he spoke in the green room about Mexican murals, his favorite nature spots, and where he takes out-of-town visitors in Hawai‘i.
Was there a teacher or professor who especially influenced you?
I grew up in a really rural area of Northern California, basically about an hour outside of Redding. Didn’t have a lot of educational opportunities. And in second grade this guy came, Bill Cullingford, he was an English headmaster who moved to our community just by chance, and became a second-grade teacher and then became principal of the school. And he was a portal to a whole different world. His expectations were super-high, and he didn’t allow any slouching, and he always addressed us as “Master Stanbro” and “Master Thomas.” And he stayed as principal, so all the way through the school there was this different standard that I think probably set some things early on for me. He was a force of nature.
Speaking of nature, is there a place in nature that you regularly reconnect with?
There’s a couple places. The one that’s most regular is a stream that flows past our house here, on this island. And on the rare weekend when I’m not doing something with the kids or doing work or whatever else—is this being recorded?—I go have a cigarette, and I sit on a rock, and the water flows by. I never smoke, but it’s basically a forced meditation, because you’re sitting in one place, you’re breathing deeply because you’re inhaling. And it’s a very different perspective: It’s down low, and you see the mountains up behind the house, whereas normally you’re inside a house looking out.
Then the other place is on the Big Island, where my dad’s ashes are in a little rock cairn that we built for him, and it’s this little knoll that is a good spot to go and just sit and listen to the wind blow through the trees, and see his favorite loulu palm, a native species that is still fighting above all the rest of the invasive [plants] there in that spot.
Is there a piece of music or a work of art that you like to go back to every now and then, just to kind of check in with yourself?
Yeah, so the art that first sort of opened my eyes that art could be accessible and inspirational were the big muralists in Mexico, especially José Clemente Orozco. One [mural] I saw in Mexico City is just so full of politics, and that’s what drives me, right? And so to have an artist just fully with, like, his shirt ripped wide open, saying, “I’m going to do politics, and I’m going to be overt about it, and I’m going to do it in these huge bold colors, these forceful images.” I would love to see that everywhere, all the time, as a reminder of what we’re doing and the power dynamics at play.
What got you interested in politics? Did it start as a kid? Was your family political?
My family has always been passionate about politics, environment, social justice stuff. They never were in politics, but there was always sort of a running commentary in the household about who was a [jerk] and that kind of stuff. So I think it was a household thing. I went to Claremont McKenna College, which is very conservative, and I think that actually was great because, instead of just having a like-minded group of folks, there were definitely these moments in class where I was thinking, “That is ridiculous!” And it made me have to sharpen my own understanding and arguments and all that, because you couldn’t just throw something out and not have it be challenged.
Where do you like to take visitors to Hawai‘i?
Waimea Valley is a great space, up on the North Shore. It’s just one of those places that’s still intact and serving a great purpose.
What was the first record or CD you bought?
It was Hall & Oates, H20, vinyl! “Maneater” was on there, and “One on One.” I was such a sucker for that Philly Soul sound. The Roots and Jill Scott and all these folks that come out of Philadelphia, it’s beautiful stuff.