‘It all begins with you’, Akina addresses Hawaii Community College graduates

Photo courtesy of Hawai‘i Community College

Almost 200 Hawai’i Community College students gathered at the Edith Kanaka‘ole Multi-Purpose Stadium in Hilo on Friday, May 13, 2022, to accept their degrees or certificates in front of families and friends — and hear inspiring words, including Hawaiian chants, from commencement speaker Keli’i Akina, president of the Grassroot Institute of Hawaii and at-large trustee of the state Office of Hawaiian Affairs.

See Akina’s commencement address yourself by clicking on the video below. A complete transcription of his inspiring speech is also provided.

As reported in Big Island Now by Nathan Christophel, Akina told the graduates their lives wouldn’t always be filled with the joy and celebration of that Friday night. They would also encounter challenges, possibly even injustice and even deep loss. But by realizing that others do not have the power to take their love, joy and peace, they would have the power to find happiness.

He encouraged the graduates to move beyond their time at HCC and into a period of transformation for themselves and the planet. He said there are countless needs and chances for them to bring about change, including right there on the Big Island, such as fighting injustice, environmental and cultural threats, inequity and, “sadly, much more.”

But all these challenges are opportunities, Akina said: “They are your calling to go forth and serve.”

He said their ancestors, kupuna, ‘ohana and keiki are looking to the graduates to lead the future, which is why they are so important to the world.

Quoting the Chinese philosopher Confucius, Akina said that to change the world, one must change their country; to change their country, they must change their city; to change their city, they must change their village; to change their village, they must change their family; and to change their family, they must change themselves. That, he said, is the key.

“It all begins with you,” Akina said. “Change yourself and change the world. Go forth and change the world.” 

See the Big Island Now article here. A complete transcript of the speech is provided below.

5-13-22 Keli‘i Akina’s commencement address to graduating students of Hawai‘i Community College:

Hawai‘i Community College Chancellor Dr. Rachel Solemsaas calls on HCC Interim Chancellor for Academic Affairs Dr. Melanie Dorado Wilson to introduce the evening’s keynote speaker, Dr. Keli‘ii Akina.

Dr. Melanie Dorado Wilson: Please allow me to introduce tonight’s keynote speaker: Dr. Keli‘i Akina, president and CEO of the Grassroot Institute of Hawaii. Dr. Akina is a leader who is transforming Hawaii’s economy, government and society. He is known for the phrase he coined, “E hana kākou,” which means “Let’s work together.”

Over the past several years as a public policy adviser at the state and national level, Dr. Akina has become a leading defender of the Aloha Spirit. His mission is to preserve the Aloha Spirit by which Hawaiians and people of all races are welcomed and encouraged to work together for a better future.

As a Native Hawaiian and skilled chanter, Dr. Akina has dedicated his life to the education and financial advancement of both Hawaiians and all people in these islands, starting in 1980 as the director of Youth for Christ, on the Waianae and Nanakuli coast.

Currently Dr. Akina is a trustee-at-large in the Office of Hawaiian Affairs, a statewide elective position to which he was elected in 2016 and then re-elected in 2020 with 197,000 votes. Dr. Akina is also president and CEO of Grassroot Institute of Hawaii, a public policy research institution dedicated to the principles of individual liberty, free markets and limited, accountable government.

Dr. Akina is a graduate of the Kamehameha Schools, earned his bachelor’s from Northwestern University, and earned both his master’s and Ph.D. from the University of Hawai‘i.

He served as a member of the Pacific Century Fellows, an offshoot of the White House Fellows program. As an expert in East-West philosophy and ethics, Dr. Akina has lectured at universities in China and the United States, and has served on the faculties of the University of Hawai‘i at Manoa and Hawaii Pacific University. Akina is also president emeritus of Youth for Christ, Hawaii, and founder and past president of the Center for Tomorrow’s Leaders.

At this time, I am pleased to present to you Dr. Keli‘i Akina, tonight’s keynote speaker.


Dr. Keli‘i Akina: 

Onaona i ta hala  (Fragrant is the day with the breath of hala)
me ta lehua (and lehua) a
e hale lehua nö ia na ta noe (We have long looked forward to your presence)
e ta’u nö ia (It matters not)
e a no”i nei (from whence you have come)
E a li’a nei
ho’i o Tahiti mai (from afar or near)
A hiti mai nö ‘outou (May all good be yours)
A hiti pü nö me te aloha (to fill your heart with aloha)
Aloha ë…Aloha ë…Aloha ë. 


It is a tremendous honor for me to be here with you today, one for which I am deeply grateful. 

My heart is full of aloha as I look upon all of you who have gathered to celebrate this great and momentous occasion, the graduation of Hawai’i Community College’s Class of 2022! 

 E ʻimi pono (seeking excellence)

 Mahalo nui to Chancellor Rachel Solemsaas, esteemed faculty, and staff of the college, and representing our Hawaii governor David Ige, the First Lady Dawn Ige.

And congratulations to all you parents, grandparents, ‘Ohana and friends who have stood with today’s graduates in preparation for this moment. 

Most of all, I salute you who are completing a significant milestone in your educational path and life journey. You have invested the time, energy, and personal commitment to reach a stepping stone to the fulfillment of your dreams. 

While this is your commencement, it is a homecoming for me.  

Edith Kanaka’ole, for whom this stadium is named and her husband Luke Kanaka’ole are my ancestors. On my mother’s side, I am a Lupenui. And on my father’s side, I am descended from the long line of the Akina ‘ohana. Both sides of my ‘ohana hail from the Ka’u District of this great island of Moku o Keawe, and my ancestors lived in little towns across the moku such as Pahoa, Kohala and Milolii. To them, Hilo was the big city. 

I opened my remarks this evening with a very special ‘oli, taught to me by my beloved kumu hula Winona Beamer. In my youth I was the chanter for her halau at Saint Andrew’s Priory on O’ahu.  Before tonight, the last time I chanted the words of this ‘oli on the Big Island was in her home not far from here.  

Aunty Nona looked beyond the literal translation of words to find their true kaona or poetic meaning.  

I can still hear and see her teaching me the kaona of the ‘oli: 

Gently, she would say…  

À Hiti mai no ‘outou.
À Hiti pu no me te aloha.
Aloha e. Aloha e.  

It does not matter where you come from, whether near or from far.
For what matters is that we are all here together.
Sharing Aloha. 

Throughout my life I have sought to live by these precious words of my dear kumu.  

And while my professional life has called me to work amongst people of different religious, philosophical, and political beliefs, sometimes in the midst of conflict, I have always endeavored to practice aloha.  

And that has served as the bedrock of my life, anchoring me to an unswerving foundation no matter how powerfully the winds may blow. 

While all cultures and civilizations have some understanding of aloha, we in Hawaii have actually made it part of the law of the land. 

The Aloha Spirit is inscribed in the Hawaii Revised Statutes, Chapter 5, Section 7.5.  That’s where the following unuhi laula loa or acronym is used to describe aloha. 

The letter A:  “Akahai”, meaning kindness to be expressed with tenderness;  

The letter L:  “Lokahi”, meaning unity, to be expressed with harmony;  

The letter O: “Oluolu”, meaning agreeable, to be expressed with pleasantness; 

The letter H: “Haahaa”, meaning humility, to be expressed with modesty;  

The letter A: “Ahonui”, meaning patience, to be expressed with perseverance. 

Then in a remarkable statement, the law prescribes Aloha as the way all public officials are to treat the people and each other. I quote: 

 “In exercising their power on behalf of the people and in fulfillment of their responsibilities, obligations and service to the people, the Legislature, governor, lieutenant governor, executive officers of each department, the chief justice, associate justices and judges of the appellate, circuit and district courts may contemplate and reside with the life force and give consideration to the ‘Aloha Spirit.’”

Now, to some, however, this version of Aloha may sound sugarcoated. According to Professor George Kanahele in his book “Ku Kanaka,” which I have required in many of my philosophy and humanities courses, the modern ideal of Aloha has incorporated the virtue of Christian love or agape. Kanahele reminds us of the fierce dedication to family or one’s people which the early Hawaiians practiced long before they encountered the Christian concept of universal love for all people. 

One of the greatest examples of ancient aloha was a Hawaiian woman, the Chiefess Manono. Your main Hilo campus is named after her. 

Let me share with you her mo’olelo:

E Manono la, ea, (Come now, Manono)
E Manono la, ea (Come now, Manono)
ae oe ae oe
Kau ka ‘ope’ope, (Take up your burden)
Ka ulu-hala la, ea (Thru the hala grove)
ae oe ae oe
e-e e-e 

 Manono was the wife of Kekuaokalani, a mighty warrior who fell in the historic Battle of Kuamo’o. That took place in Kona here on the Big Island back in 1819. 

So great was the aloha of Manono for her husband and for their people that she followed him into battle through the wild ferns. 

Ka uluhe la, ea, (Thru the wild fern)
Ka uluhe la ea (Thru the wild fern)
ae oe ae oe
Hali’i punana (A resting place)
No huli mai (to turn to)
ae oe ae oe
e-e e-e 

In the heat of battle, Manona saw her beloved husband fall to the ground, fatally wounded. Where his blood spilled became his final resting place. Her dreams, her hopes, and her future also fell to the ground in that moment. 

Huli mai ‘oe la (Turn now)
Moe kaua (Let us rest)
ae oe ae oe
Hali’i punana (A resting place)
No huli mai (to turn to)
ae oe ae oe
e-e e-e 

But while Manono’s husband found his final resting place, her heart did not fail. She picked herself up, grabbed his spear, took his place in battle and fought bravely. Aloha for her husband and her people drove her forward. Manono would not allow herself to be captured. She would not serve another man or another people. She refused to be a victim.  

Now, I have told you her story because your lives, like Manono’s, will not always be filled with celebration and joy as they are tonight. As you graduate today, you will discover many opportunities and a chance to fulfill your dreams. But you will also encounter many obstacles and challenges that will stretch you to thelimit. You may even face relentless opposition and injustice. In the midst of trial, you may experience the tragedy of deep personal loss. Indeed, some of you have already gone through intense suffering, and may know within your heart deep sorrow or fear.  

Viktor Emil Frankl was an Austrian physician and a survivor of the Nazi Holocaust in World War II. He saw his friends and family die one after another, unable to survive torture and captivity at the hands of German soldiers. Frankl wondered how he managed to survive until the war was over and he was freed from his concentration camp.    

In the classic book Frankl wrote, “Man’s Search for Meaning,” he shared how other prisoners he observed had lost hope. They believed that they were victims with no power over their fate. They died of resentment, bitterness and hatred for their victimizers.  

But Frankel realized that while his guards could control his material life, his body and his environment, there was one thing they could not control. They had no power to make him hate them. Thus, they could not make him bitter or resentful. They had absolutely no power over his heart. There, Frankl was in total control. His captors had no power to make him a victim. How he felt about them, how he faced the world, remained completely within his power. No one could not take away his Aloha. 

If we think of ourselves as victims and blame other people or the circumstances around us for our lack of happiness or success, we have no power to change our condition. But when we realize that others do not have the power to take away our love, joy and peace, we will never be their victims. Instead, we have the power to determine our happiness and how we face life.  

The great philosopher Confucius lived in a culture where most people believed their lives and fortunes were controlled by fate or the universe or a force known as the Dao. To this he said: It is not the Dao that makes the person. It is the person that makes the Dao.  

Stevland Hardaway Morris came to learn this lesson firsthand. Born in the 1950’s as a poor African American child, Stevland not only encountered the challenge of racism, he also grew up as a blind man. His mother, however, refused to let her child feel sorry for himself or believe he was the victim of other people or circumstances beyond his control.  

Despite trials and hardships, Stevland nurtured In his heart what we have called Aloha. He called it love. And it became his gift to the world. Inspired to transform himself and the world through love, Stevland Hardaway Morris became one of the most beloved musical composer-performers in the world.  We know him by the name Stevie Wonder.  

In 1976 he released the album Songs in the Key of Life.  It featured “Love’s In Need of Love Today.” The opening lyrics are: 

“Good morn or evening friends
Here’s your friendly announcer
I have serious news to pass on
To everybody

“What I’m about to say
Could mean the world’s disaster
Could change your joy and laughter
To tears and pain 

“It’s that love’s in need of love today
Don’t delay, send yours in right away
Hate’s goin’ ’round, breakin’ many hearts
Stop it, please, before it’s gone too far”

Powerful words. Aren’t they? 

Love, Aloha, is in need of love today. That refrain is your wake-up call to move beyond your time at Hawaii Community College into a new time of transforming yourself and this planet. 

“Love’s in need of love today” means that there are endless problems and countless opportunities waiting for you to bring about change. 

On the Big Island and throughout the state of Hawaii, there is poverty, homelessness, economic despair, injustice, crime, lack of medical services, environmental and cultural threats, inequity, a world of haves and have nots, the loss of civil liberties, growing social strife and , sadly, much more.  A single-family home costs a million dollars, and well-paying, sustainable jobs are scarce. 

Conditions are so challenging that large numbers of young people, middle-agers and the elderly are leaving the state, which now has a net population loss for the past several years. 

But all these challenges are opportunities. They show that love’s in need of love today. They are your calling to go forth and serve. 

I want to encourage you today to pick one of these challenges, or any other on your heart, and join with like-minded partners to create the solution. 

We, your kupuna, your ‘ohana, your ancestors, your own keiki now and into the future, and your community are looking to you to create the future of Hawaii. That is why this moment is so important. That is why you are so important, to yourself, to those you love, and to the entire world.

So how do you, as an individual, do this? 

Once again I refer you to the philosopher Confucius. In his classic work called the “Da Xue,” or “Great Learning,” Confucius shared the secret of how to change the world. He wrote this: 

“If you want to change the world, then change your country; if you want to change your country, then change your city; if you want to change your city, then change your village; if you want to change your village, then change your family; if you want to change your family, then change yourself.” 

Wow! That’s transformative. That’s the key to changing the world. And it all begins with you! 

I leave you now with three ‘olelo no’eau, or words of wisdom, to think about:

Ekahi: Never let your circumstances or other people make you believe you are a victim. You are the one who controls your happiness. No one can take that from you.  

Élua: Fill your heart with aloha. Give aloha to yourself. Give aloha to others.  

Ekolu: Change yourself and change the world! 

Mahalo for letting me share this special occasion with you. Congratulations!

Now, go forth and change the world!

Aloha mai kākou! Aloha!

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