It was 6:30 AM on my last day on Maui a few weeks ago.  I was determined to have an ocean swim before I headed back to Texas, where the 30 degree weather covered the ground with twelve inches of snow and dangerous ice.    It was a bit chilly in Maui, just under 70.  I wore my bathing suit under a fleece top and shorts.  The south shore was still shadowed by Haleakala’s enormity, but the sun was slowly making its way to me.  I wanted at least one swim.

I was on Maui for work.  You might think that visiting Maui for work cannot possibly be real work.  Balmy breezes, a perennially warm ocean, and laid back casualness are diametrically opposed to office cubicles, pantyhose and briefcases.

But, I assure you, my work is W-O-R-K.  I am paid to figure out how public agencies and developers should work with “the community.”  It’s not public relations.  I don’t advocate or push projects onto communities.  Rather, I study the social fabric of groups of people and analyze how a proposed project might affect them.  My studies are presented in environmental reports, before various councils and commissions, and often just end up on a shelf.

The common theme of all of my projects is conflict, both potential and already activated.  I work on large resort developments and residential communities, airport runway extensions, wastewater treatment plants, highway bypasses, homeless shelters,competing hospitals and prisons.  By themselves, these projects have intrinsic positive value, such as jobs, much-needed housing, infrastructure improvements and socially redeeming value. 

Put these facilities in an existing social context and there is potential for conflict.  That’s a great project . . . in another neighborhood.  That’s a good project to accommodate economic growth . . . but we don’t want any more people living here.  You can’t buy us with jobs that we don’t want.  We don’t want to spend our tax dollars on people who commit crime or “choose” to be homeless.  The reasons for opposition are many and varied.  My job is to uncover the “real” issues and see if there is a way to facilitate solutions that benefit most parties.

This time, I was on Maui to test the acceptability of a project in its very early stages . . . it’s not even a real project yet.  I had  meetings with some very thoughtful and open people, and spent of lot of my “free time” reflecting and thinking. 

On my last morning, I wanted one souvenir — an ocean dip after a walk along the beach.  My feet tasted the salty foam, and the water’s cadence seduced me.  One time, a quick swim, just one.  Come, the ocean beckoned.

But I realized that the tide was high and that, every now and then, there were big waves.   As I stood knee-deep in the swirling water, waiting for a break in the series so that I could walk further and dive in, I realized I am not that good a swimmer.  There was no final swim on this trip. 

My morning at the beach was all about the undercurrent.  Regardless of how calm the surface seemed initially, the undercurrent prevailed.  This was a south swell in late winter, Hawaii-style.  Its insistent undercurrent simultaneously brings much desired waves for surfers and windsailors, and danger for the inexperienced and foolish. 

I stepped back onto the dry sand, and thought about how much of my work is to look for the undercurrents in community meetings, in the media, inconversations with stakeholders.  What are they really saying?

Do they really care about the trees, or is it about property values? 
Is it about jobs, or about political influence?  
Is project feasibility the issue, or are they angry because the developer did not communicate with them before the public hearing? 
Do they really believe that the homeless would be uncomfortable in the city, or are they just trying to keep out the riffraff.

It is only after I understand the undercurrents that can I come up with appropriate analysis and strategies. 

On that last day on Maui, I settled for sitting on the sand and watching the waves as I hugged my knees.  A few people dove in and eventually the lifeguard posted signs and used a bullhorn to call people out of the water. 

I guess some people should pay attention to the undercurrent.

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