Honolulu Civil Beat’s new “Making Waves” column, which spotlights local people and organizations who “aren’t afraid to make waves” recently featured Dr. Akina and the work of the Grassroot Institute. You can go here to read the full article or see the excerpt below.
Making Waves: Kelii Akina and The Grassroot Institute of Hawaii
The new leader of the Grassroot Institute of Hawaii, a nonprofit hui focused on public policy, has a rallying cry.
“E Hana Kakou — let’s work together,” says Kelii Akina. “That’s what Grassroot wants to do — let’s not be partisan, let’s not tend to a left side or a right side. Let’s identify some central issues around which all people can come and work together. We want to unite Hawaii’s people for a better economy, government and society.”
Akina, who was named president and CEO of the institute March 1, has already identified two policy areas as priorities: the cabotage laws that govern maritime rules in U.S. waters (the Jones Act) and the formation of a race-based government (the Native Hawaiian Roll Commission).
Akina and the Grassroot Institute — yes, it’s singular; more on that later — want to amend or repeal the century-old Jones Act because they believe it limits competition and raises the price of consumer goods. They also want to prevent federal recognition of a Native Hawaiian governing entity that they argue would discriminate against non-Hawaiians.
Both issues are embraced by a large swath of the Hawaii political and business status quo, making change an uphill battle.
But Akina, a 55-year-old educator, is not deterred.
“Ideas are very important to us — we’re a think tank,” he said. “We do the research work to educate the public and policy makers. But we also do advocacy work. We’re not lobbyists. We are not partisan — we don’t promote candidates or fund them. But we do stand for bringing our values to bear on society.”
Akina, an expert in East-West philosophy, is an adjunct instructor at University of Hawaii Manoa and Hawaii Pacific University. His publications, like one on Confucian ethics for a global society, are for the academic-inclined.
Akina, a graduate of Kamehameha Schools, is critical of OHA, whose mission is to help Native Hawaiians. His views are detailed in both his campaign platform and two Community Voice commentaries published by Civil Beat.
One, titled Native Hawaiian Roll Commission Is Racial Discrimination, takes issue with the commission’s five-member panel that is “charged with disqualifying any Native Hawaiians, even those with proof of Hawaiian blood ancestry, who do not pass a specified test.”
The other article, Why The Public Must Hold OHA Accountable, argues that OHA is in need of a leadership change: “Regardless of the exchange of personal insults, the fact remains that one trustee, Rowena Akana, has publicly charged another trustee, Haunani Apoliona, and the entire board with self-dealing in OHA’s recent purchase of the Gentry Pacific Design Center.”
(Read Civil Beat’s OHA Trustee Says $21M Property Deal Was Shady.)
Asked about his 2012 campaign, Akina said his “broader concern was to create a more collaborative space in Hawaii for people to do politics and serve the public good.”
“I’m very concerned about the fragmentation, the polarization, how you are either for or against,” Akina said. “And we saw that in many issues in the 2012 election. What I want to do is help people come and work together in the area where their concerns and needs overlap, and find solutions.”
Those areas include advocating for Hawaiians.
Akina thinks the original goals of institutions like OHA or the roll commission have fallen short and may hinder Hawaiians’ advancement.
As head of the Grassroot Institute, Akina says he will continue to oppose a Hawaiian government separate from the United States.
“My great concern is that Native Hawaiians as well as all people need to have the fullness of the Bill of Rights protecting them,” he said. “And whenever we create tribal leaders, and create a tribe of people, we limit and sometimes work against their rights. We have seen this take place throughout the nation in the Native American Indian reservation system.”