The Grassroot Institute of Hawaii has rapidly amassed a substantial social media following for its easily digestible short videos. And apparently, Institute Executive Vice President Joe Kent, who frequently appears in these videos, has become somewhat of a star.
During Kent’s appearance last week on “Augie T’s Guest List,” on KIKU TV, co-hosts Jason Genegabus and Augie Tulba shared that they are big fans of the Institute’s online content.
Kent attributed the success of the Institute’s videos to their conciseness and creativity.
“People are busy, you know … So, someone’s got to explain it to them right in their Instagram feed.”
However, he made it clear that while the videos might be short, he never holds back punches and always explains “the truth as we see it.”
Stressing the importance of political engagement, Kent said, “If you’re not interested in government, the problem is the government is interested in you.”
He shared that even lawmakers rely on the Institute’s content for information and “to see what is the pulse of the community on this issue or that issue.”
Tulba, a comedian and Honolulu City Council member, affirmed that he also benefits from the content.
“It’s good to have people like Joe … online attacking the problem,” he said, “because if you’re not aware of it, you know, does that make you a good servant?”
Genegabus, a journalist and college lecturer, added: “If you weren’t making this content — producing this content, stirring the pot, getting people talking — would we even be having these conversations?”
Kent emphasized that the Grassroot Institute has no political affiliation and that its content tackles issues rather than attacking parties or specific individuals.
“The lesson of policy is that you can get things done with people with which you disagree,” he said.
Asked about his feelings on becoming a social media “superstar,” Kent admitted that he’d prefer to be behind the camera but is glad that the Institute’s message is going viral.
He shared, “It’s such a joy to be able to see that spark in someone like, ‘Oh, I didn’t realize that that’s why that works.’”
To hear the entire interview, click on the image below. A complete transcript follows.
8-11-23 Joe Kent with Augie Tulba and Jason Genegabus on “Augie T’s Guest List”
Augie Tulba: Best show ever. Oh, you like even see a better show? Join me backstage. I want to know who I’m talking to. It’s “Augie T’s Guest List.”
J [Jason Genegabus], what’s up?
Jason Genegabus: Augie! How’s the show?
Tulba: Was good.
Genegabus: All right, welcome to the “Guest List!”
Tulba: Yes, to the “Guest List.” Augie. J — long-time lecturer, journalist. Did I do that correctly?
Genegabus: You got that right, bro.
Tulba: Yeah, yeah. Journalist …
Genegabus: I do stuff.
Tulba: A lot of stuff. All right so …
Genegabus: And now we’re doing the Guest List.
Tulba: Who we get today?
Genegabus: You’ve seen this guy. He’s been showing up on my Instagram. The algorithm has been feeding him left and right to me.
Genegabus: Grassroot Institute of Hawaii, Joe Kent. You’ve seen him on your Instagram, right?
Tulba: That guy has amazing content that helps people understand like, you know, how government works sometimes.
Genegabus: Kalani! Hey, let Joe in. You see Joe? Let him in.
Tulba: Hey, by the way, when [Jason] Momoa’s coming on?
Genegabus: Ah, broh. He’s too busy drinking vodka.
Tulba: What’s up, Joe?
Joe Kent: Hey!
Tulba: You look better than Momoa.
Genegabus: How are you?
Tulba: You look good!
Genegabus: Come on, sit down, sit down.
Tulba: I hate when people do that: “Oh, you look good in person!” So, when we’re looking at you on TV, on a cell phone, like, “Oh, this is the most ugliest guy on earth.” Welcome to the show.
Kent: [Laughs] Normally it’s like this on Instagram. So yeah, thanks for having me on.
Tulba: Yeah, man. So, tell us a little bit about yourself and, you know, why you love doing what you do.
Kent: Well, I’m Joe Kent. I actually started out as a music teacher. I taught K through 5 elementary public school music. And I started to, like, wonder: Why are teachers leaving the profession? Why is the system broken? Why does it cost so much to live in Hawaii?
And so I made a documentary called “The Price of Paradise.” And a bunch of people saw that, including the Grassroot Institute of Hawaii, which is a little think tank that said, “Hey, you should work for us. You know, you’re good at explaining stuff to kids. Now try to explain it to lawmakers and to the public.”
And so, that’s what I do now, is I try to break down how the world works. You know, why is milk so expensive? Why is shipping so expensive? And basically, why things are so expensive.
Tulba: Well, I gotta tell you, you know, being in office now for over three years, one of the things that I find is that we don’t do a good job at giving information or educating the public. So, like, if you’re a simple guy, you watch what they’re posting — it’s so easy to connect the dots, right? And that’s why like, that’s why you guys going viral and that’s why you becoming “that guy” right now: Joe Kent.
Kent: Well, and we try to put it in 15 seconds, you know, like explain the state budget in 30 seconds with a Jenga set. And so, we’re trying to use toys … like, I have a 2-year-old daughter and I try to look at her little toys and [ask], “How could I explain policy with this?” Because people are busy, you know. They don’t have time to read a hundred-page bill and all this stuff. So, someone’s got to explain it to them right in their Instagram feed. So, grassroothawaii is our Instagram feed.
Genegabus: What kind of blows my mind is you worked doing music education, working with kids to teaching grown adults about the political process.
Genegabus: How did you connect … Like, did you sit there and think, “Wow, this is something I could do,” when they asked you if you wanted the job?
Kent: Well, actually, teaching kids is really similar to teaching lawmakers.
But, you know, even the public needs to know: OK, what’s going on with our energy, our agriculture, our shipping? But people are too busy unless you can explain it to them in 15 seconds.
Genegabus: Yeah. And this is what I really enjoy, as an educator myself: You break it down into concepts and ideas that — like you said — you only need 15 seconds. And you can digest it, understand it and hopefully think of more questions to start a conversation.
Kent: Right. But I think it’s not just the 15 seconds; it’s the message too. Because we’re not trying to hold back punches. Like, we’re saying the truth as we see it. And that’s why it’s so cool that the Grassroot Institute is not funded by the government or the unions or the big power brokers in the state. That means we can say what we want.
Tulba: There’s amazing freedom with that.
Kent: Right. Independence.
Tulba: Not being pulled.
Tulba: But being able to express yourself for the benefit of the people.
Kent: That’s right.
Tulba: Because at the end of the day, that’s what it’s all about. It’s about, you know, kind of like this show. Hopefully, this is benefiting you and we can find some good solutions right here on the “Guest List.”
Genegabus: Absolutely. And when we come back after the break, we’re going to talk more with Joe Kent from Grassroot Institute of Hawaii. Stick around.
Tulba: Hey everybody. Welcome back to the “Guest List.” Jason, Joe Kent from Grassroot Institute.
Genegabus: And we did — this is a new show, we’re just starting out — we forgot to do something. So, gotta read the disclaimer real fast.
Tulba: Thank you.
Genegabus: Let me do this for you. All statements made on this program are personal opinions and are not official endorsements of the City and County of Honolulu. So, we got to get that out of the way.
Tulba: Thank you J.
Genegabus: Now we can have real conversations.
Moving along. Joe Kent, Grassroot Institute of Hawaii. Don’t have the “s” at the end; it’s Grassroot Institute of Hawaii.
But now that we talked a little bit about you, let’s talk a little bit about why you do what you do: civic service. You know, you’re talking to people about the political process. You’re trying to explain things to people. But why is that even important in the first place?
Kent: If you’re not interested in government, the problem is the government is interested in you. And the government is interested in your life and how to run your life, right? And so, that’s why it’s important for people to pay attention to what the government is doing.
And also, it’s important to make fun a little bit of the government; that’s kind of what we do sometimes. We do it in a nice way. I mean, we don’t try to take potshots at individuals.
Tulba: For me, after this is all over, I will have the most amazing book and [comedy] routine ever.
Genegabus: I was going to say Augs, I would imagine you’ve grown a little more humble in the last few years as well, right?
Tulba: Well, you know, I have to always — in my head — tell myself that I’m a public servant 24 hours a day. So, I think it’s good to have people like Joe and everybody else online attacking the problem. Because if you’re not aware of it, you know, does that make you a good a servant?
Tulba: You know, you gotta be able to answer questions. You gotta be able to decipher the problem. And then sometimes, you know, direct-messaging Joe going, “Hey, explain to me some of the ways we can solve some of the problems here.”
So, I appreciate guys like Joe and whoever, that exposing what needs to be exposed.
Genegabus: Joe, not everybody has to be in government to be involved in government.
I think what you make a very good point of is you don’t want to be a sheep. You don’t just want to blindly go and be told what to do and let people take advantage of you. But, you don’t necessarily have to run for office either.
Genegabus: It’s about having an awareness.
Kent: You know, even the comments on our Instagram — I mean, we’re getting thousands of comments of people saying, “Right on,” or “I disagree,” or …
And, you know, people are watching. The lawmakers tell us all the time, they’re like watching our Instagram to see what is the pulse of the community on this issue or that issue.
I mean, because we’re talking about … You’d have to like sit back and laugh sometimes when you think about the cost of the rail — maybe cry, I don’t know.
And, you know, this is kind of like the poster child of the most over-budget, over-schedule project in the United States right now. It used to be the “Bridge to Nowhere” [Gravina Island Bridge] in Alaska; now it’s the Honolulu rail.
At the same time, it’s basically built. You know, we can’t really tear it down at this point. And so, now what do we do?
Genegabus: Now we ride it and make Instagram videos while you’re riding the rail.
Kent: That’s right.
Tulba: Or we find solutions to a problem that’s … Right now, everyone’s seeing like: Is it working? Is it ever going to work? Right? So how do we solve that problem? How do we get people to get on the rail? How do we pay for all the maintenance fees? How do we pay, you know, for the services?
Genegabus: If you weren’t making this content — producing this content, stirring the pot, getting people talking — would we even be having these conversations?
Kent: A lot of it is just looking at the right place and asking the right questions. I mean, like the video when I went on the rail, I literally just went to the rail at 4:30 p.m. on a Thursday and just filmed, you know, what does the car look like? And no one was there. [laughs]
I mean, it’s a great ride; you get the train all yourself, right? But how much does that cost? You know, how much does it actually cost to run this rail? $85 million in operational costs and if people aren’t running it, then you know, what are we running this for?
Genegabus: And it also begs the question — we were talking about this off camera — there are people at the shipyard. There are people out there on the west side who can actively use rail right now, but it’s not being run in a manner for them. Why can’t we change this?
Tulba: Or, like really, you gotta really think about how we’re gonna utilize this amazing project, right? TOD [transit-oriented development], they call it, right? All the projects are on TOD.
Are we gonna keep complaining or are we gonna make, you know, a really assertive effort to go, “OK, we gotta step up the game.”
Genegabus: And that’s the conversation. So many people have been trying to stop rail, stop rail, stop rail. Now, like you said, it’s there.
Genegabus: What are we going to do?
Tulba: We made our bed.
Genegabus: Yeah, or the lemons. The lemons are there. Are we going to make lemonade? Or what’s the deal going to be, you know?
Kalani! What’s up? Oh, Augie, I think you get [inaudible] outside.
Tulba: Yeah, yeah, yeah. OK, stay right there. We’ll be back with Joe Kent, Jason, Augie. It’s the “Guest List.”
Genegabus: Take it easy, take it easy out there.
Welcome back to “Augie T’s Guest List.” I’m Jason, that’s Augie, this is Joe Kent from the Grassroot Institute of Hawaii.
Tulba: All right. So Joe, with all the valuable information that you guys are giving out at Grassroot, what is the most difficult part? Like, say, for instance, like explaining why milk costs so expensive.
Kent: I mean, it’s just like trying to explain encyclopedic topics in a way that a 5-year-old can understand. Milk is eight bucks a gallon around …
Genegabus: How come?
Kent: … on Oahu right now. And I was just in Minnesota a few months ago, and it was $2 in Aldi. And, you know, why is it so expensive?
Well, part of it has to do with the shipping. We’ve got these federal shipping laws like the Jones Act, which make transporting it here more expensive.
Then we’ve got high land costs because of our, you know, land constraints, regulations, basically.
Tulba: Not enough farmers, right?
Kent: Not enough farmers.
Tulba: Feed. We talked about that with …
Genegabus: Alec Sou.
Kent: Yeah, and there’s even laws around how you can sell milk in Hawaii and all this stuff makes it more expensive. And they actually had a law that mandated that the price of milk in Hawaii be higher, be sold at higher. So, they got rid of that.
Tulba: Well, like, you know, that’s why this show is so important because we’re throwing out information, again, so that you guys can see like, we might have ways to solve some of the problems right now so that our lives can be a little bit better, right?
Tulba: And people can stay here.
Genegabus: So Joe, let me ask you this then: Who do you — or who does the Grassroot Institute of Hawaii — who else you guys got beef with?
Who else is on your hit list? Who’s on your list?
Kent: We’re not trying to go after anyone. Actually, our motto is “E hana kākou,” which is “Let’s work together.” So, there are a lot of people who disagree with …
I mean, the lesson of policy is that you can get things done with people with which you disagree. And so, you don’t have to agree on everything. There’s a lot of people who say, “Hey, I don’t like your stance on shipping, but I love your stance on housing.”
Genegabus: That is sadly ignored so much these days in so many …
Tulba: I just did this podcast, they asked, “Are you Republican or Democrat?” I go, “I’m local.” You know, because this …
Genegabus: It’s aloha spirit.
Genegabus: If you live in Hawaii, you should be able to get along with everybody.
Tulba: That’s right, regardless.
Genegabus: It shouldn’t be, we have to talk smack about people. That’s living for aloha.
Kent: For Grassroot Institute, we’re really independent. You look at our staff, you know, there’s Republicans, Democrats, Libertarians, independents, moderates. You know, we don’t have any sort of political alliances with anything. And so, that allows us to speak the truth independently.
And in Hawaii, there’s really a hunger for people speaking truth to power, and the truth as they see it without some sort of filter there. And so, I think people of all stripes, you know, appreciate that.
I mean, just like in housing, we’re talking about: Why is housing so expensive? This is like the No. 1 question in our comments, and part of it has to do with the Department of Permitting, which in Hawaii, we have the slowest Department of Permitting in the nation.
And then you say, “OK, so why is that? How long does that take?” Well, it takes maybe six months to a year to get through the department.
I was in a town in the mainland called Sandy Springs and it took one day. I saw a guy standing in line there and I said, “How long does it take you to get your permit?” And he got it right there and left.
And so, well, how do they do it? Well, they use the private sector to help them. Now, in Hawaii, we have a law that says you can’t use the private sector to help with that type of thing.
And so, our laws are basically screwed up, and it’s just too confusing. And so, we’re just trying to explain it all.
Tulba: Yeah, and it’s so important that we do that, you know.
Genegabus: What is the biggest challenge though? Like when you say, “All it is is a matter of explaining it to people.” But is it getting the message out? Is it people not wanting to hear the message? Is it people trying to scream over your message?
Kent: Well, we’re starting to gain some traction. I mean, you know, on Instagram — @grassroothawaii, by the way — you can join us. But also, we’ve got a newsletter list of 40,000 people who read our stuff. 40,000 — that’s like more than some local news [outlets] by the way.
We actually won … we’re winning journalism awards at this Society of Professional Journalists the other day. And so, we’re starting to gain some traction, but we want to move the education to activism eventually.
Now, people can act how they want. You know, we’re not telling them what to do. But we think that as long as people are armed with the right knowledge, then we can have a healthy democracy.
Genegabus: Even with topics that may be a little, you know, challenging for people to get involved with, you guys approach it with a sense of aloha. It’s like you want to make it open to everybody to join that conversation.
Kent: And also, where are we wrong? You know, tell me where I’m wrong about something. And I love it. You know, sometimes people correct us and we’ll send out a news release, like, “We were wrong about something,” you know. So, yeah.
Genegabus: For people who want to learn more about the Grassroot Institute of Hawaii — this is a good time to talk about it — where can they find you online?
Kent: Well, grassrootinstitute.org is our website, and sign up for our newsletter there.
Genegabus: And Instagram is?
Kent: Instagram @grassroothawaii.
Genegabus: All right, there we go. So we’re going to come back after the break with one final out of the drawer — out of the box.
Tulba: Yeah. Is it out of the box?
Genegabus: We’re working on a box with the out-of-the-box questions coming up next on “Augie T’s Guest List.” Stick around.
Welcome back to “Augie T’s Guest List.” Jason, Augie. Also, we are here with Joe Kent from the Grassroot Institute of Hawaii. It is time!
Tulba: Dude, get a box. You know what I mean, it’s like out of the cabinet? We have the question of the day.
Genegabus: We’ll get there eventually. We gotta get a sponsor; work harder, give us a box.
Tulba: All right, your question is: You’re a music teacher — sing something.
You know, it’s so funny because I think every entertainer, every comedian wanted to be a … There you go. Joe Kent breaking our equipment.
Tulba: No, your question is: Do you enjoy being a social media influencer?
Genegabus: We talked about it a little bit before in the show. Music teacher to politics to government to Instagram superstar.
Kent: Yeah, well I’d much rather be behind the camera actually doing the controls.
But yeah, I like the idea of educating. I still view myself as like a music teacher. There’s actually a lot of the stuff that we — the videos and stuff — that we do are really creative and they have a musical quality to them. We try to keep that.
But it’s such a joy to be able to see that spark in someone like, “Oh, I didn’t realize that that’s why that works.” Like, so many people in Hawaii don’t even realize that we’ve got the highest taxes in the nation, the most housing regulations, the worst traffic and on and on and on. And that’s why so many people, their friends and families are leaving the state.
Tulba: Local people leave every day.
Kent: Oh yes, yeah. It’s tens of thousands [that] leave every year. You know, since 2016, we’ve been losing so much of our population. And, you know, people wonder why.
Well, we’re trying to answer that question. And also trying to answer: How can we make Hawaii a better place to live?
Genegabus: OK, OK, OK, OK …
Tulba: I wanted to ask you, I have a question, too, because …
Genegabus: But if you’re at the supermarket, and you’re walking down, trying to get some, you know, Kool-Aid for your kid, does somebody stop you and go, “Hey, you’re the guy, huh?”
Kent: That’s true. People are starting to do that and that freaks me out. It’s like really freaky. I don’t really know what to say about that. But, you know, I really want the message of the education that we’re talking about to go viral.
Tulba: What you’re doing is valuable and how you [are] creating a message is so important.
Kent: But it’s important to make it funny.
Kent: I mean, that’s kind of where I think about you. There’s a role for the comedian in public policy, basically. Because who’s going to make fun of this stuff, you know? And you have to make it funny in order for people to pay attention too
Tulba: I think not so much funny — relatable. Because my whole 30 years of doing comedy was like, was more self-deprecating, right?
So, how do I expose me and my challenges, right? And making it relatable? And I think we got to do a better job as servants to be relatable.
Kent: But you had a good comedy where it was a nice comedy. It wasn’t mean-spirited, I think. And that’s kind of what we think really hard about that.
We have a lot of, you know, editorial cartoons that we’ve actually thrown away because they were a little too mean. The nose was a little too big on someone or something like that. And we want to make jokes that are about the policy, not the people.
Tulba: Right. No, it’s easy to attack and it’s easy to be graphic because, you know, that gets the easy hits and looks. But like, to be creative and to be like, you know, clever.
Genegabus: Yeah, I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: If you’re from Hawaii, if you’re going to be somebody that’s from Hawaii, then act like you’re from Hawaii.
This ain’t the continent. This ain’t California. Live aloha.
Kent: That’s right.
Genegabus: Be nice. You don’t gotta rip people down.
Tulba: Yeah, but come on, man. You gotta do that — you’re a teacher.
Kent: A song?
Tulba: Music teacher. Yeah. You know, like, take us out with a song, Joe Kent, you know?
Kent: [Singing] Oh when the sun comes down …
Tulba: [Laughs] That’s OK, Joe, we good.
Genegabus: Joe Kent!
Kent: I’m not a music teacher anymore for a reason.
Genegabus: “I didn’t quit, I was fired!”
Tulba: When was the last time you teached? How long [ago] was that?
Kent: Oh, 10 years ago. Yeah.
Tulba: Yeah, so, you get 15-year-olds going, “That’s my teacher!”
Kent: They do. They actually do that now. Yeah, a lot of kids are saying, “Hey, you’re awesome, I see you!”
Genegabus: Yeah, very good.
Well, Joe Kent from Grassroot Institute of Hawaii has been our guest this week. Sir, thank you so much for joining us.
Tulba: Love your stuff, man.
Kent: Yeah, thank you.
Genegabus: You can find out more about them on their website. Also, be sure to follow them on Instagram.
Augie, next week’s guest …
Genegabus: Chris Lee, and we’re not talking about the dude from the state Senate or state government. We’re talking about the big Hollywood producer, Chris Lee.
Tulba: Maybe we ask him, like, you know, what he can cast you and I in the next big …
Genegabus: Can we get a buddy, a buddy movie, a buddy flip?
Tulba: Maybe we don’t need Jason Momoa; we the next big stars.
Genegabus: You be Jason Momoa, I’ll be Dwayne [Johnson].
Genegabus: We in business now.
Tulba: Can you see it?
Genegabus: See you guys next week with Chris Lee from the Academy of Creative Media over at the University of Hawaii, right here on “Augie T’s Guest List.” Aloha.