Our Team

Keliʻi Akina, Ph.D.

Keliʻi Akina, Ph.D., is a recognized scholar, public policy spokesperson and community leader in Hawaii. He holds advanced degrees from Northwestern University and the University of Hawaii, is an expert in East-West philosophy and ethics, and has taught at universities in China and the United States, including Hawaii Pacific University. In 2016 and again in 2020, he was elected to statewide public office as trustee-at-large for the state Office of Hawaiian Affairs. 

Joe Kent
Executive vice president

Joe Kent grew up on the Big Island and attended the University of Hawaii at Hilo and Minnesota State University, where he obtained his degree in education. Kent was a public school teacher for eight years, at King Kamehameha III School in Lahaina, Maui, and Sleepy Eye Public School in Minnesota. He also is a former student fellow at the Foundation for Economic Education.

Malia Blom Hill
Policy director

Malia Hill comes to the Grassroot Institute of Hawaii with a background in law, politics and communications. She completed her undergraduate studies at Mount Saint Mary’s University and obtained her J.D. from the Catholic University of America. After working in Hawaii politics at the state level, including a brief period with the Office of Rep. Mark Moses, she went on to work for several advocacy groups based in Washington, D.C., where she currently resides. As policy director for the Grassroot Institute of Hawaii, she works on both national and state issues affecting the future of Hawaii.

Sean Mitsui
Development director

Sean Mitsui is a graduate from the University of Hawaii at Manoa with a major in finance and minor in political science. He was born and raised in Hawaii, but also has lived in Japan and California. Mitsui worked at a local insurance company before joining the Grassroot Institute of Hawaii. During his spare time, he is an avid runner who participates every year in the Honolulu Marathon. He also enjoys reading books about history and economics.

Mark Coleman
Communications director, managing editor, writer

Mark Coleman is a veteran journalist who spent almost three decades with the Honolulu Star-Advertiser, a decade with Honolulu-based Pacific Business News, and two years with the Pacific Daily News on Guam. He has communication degrees from Florida State University and the University of Hawaii, was a Herbert J. Davenport Fellow in Business and Economic Reporting at the University of Missouri, reported from Japan as part of an International Press Institute journalist exchange program, and is a former Hawaii chapter president of the Society of Professional Journalists. He also has been published widely as a freelance writer.

Ted Kefalas
Director of strategic campaigns

Ted Kefalas is a graduate of the University of Virginia, where he double majored in political science and media studies while playing football for the Virginia Cavaliers. Prior to joining the Grassroot Institute of Hawaii, he worked as a government affairs and crisis communications professional with Capital Results in Richmond, Va., representing clients in diverse industries nationwide. His experience and established relationships help him build coalitions and view policy issues with a distinct point of view.

David Swann
Cartoonist, illustrator

David Swann is a graduate of the University of Alabama with a degree in history. He was born and raised in Huntsville, Ala., and is a U.S. Air Force veteran. He was an editorial cartoonist for the Huntsville Times in northern Alabama for nine years before settling in Hawaii in 1994. He worked as a graphic artist for the Honolulu Advertiser until 1997, then switched to the Honolulu Star-Bulletin for 19 years, as both papers merged to become the Honolulu Star-Advertiser. He has won numerous local and national awards for graphics, cartoons and illustrations.

Jonathan Helton
Research associate

Jonathan Helton was born and raised in Tennessee. He currently attends Freed-Hardeman University, in Henderson, Tenn., where he is majoring in law and politics. He has worked for two law firms and multiple forensics organizations. His work has been published in a number of outlets including The Strategy Bridge, Small Wars, BORGEN Magazine, and Mises Wire. In his spare time, Helton enjoys reading and fishing. His research focuses primarily on the Jones Act and other cabotage laws.

Melissa Newsham
Research associate

Melissa Newsham is a student at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland, Ohio, where she is studying political science and economics. She was born and raised in Tokyo and moved to Hawaii at the age of 9. She graduated from Punahou School, where she was the editor of the school newspaper. Her columns have appeared in the Honolulu Star-Advertiser, Honolulu Civil Beat and The Western Journal.

Jackson Grubbe
Research associate

Jackson Makanikeoe Grubbe graduated from BYU-Hawaii in 2018 with a bachelor’s degree in English and legal studies certificate. After graduation he worked as a policy and communications specialist on a local gubernatorial campaign. Since then he has worked in compliance for a student housing company. Starting in the fall of 2020, he will be attending the University of Virginia Law School on a Karsh-Dillard Scholarship, which is the school’s top scholarship for students who demonstrate extraordinary leadership. His research focuses primarily on land use and housing.

Aaron Lief
Policy analyst

Aaron Lief was born on Kauai and raised on Oahu. He spent four years as a geospatial intelligence analyst in the U.S. Air Force, with the 6th Intelligence Squadron in South Korea and 11th Special Operations Intelligence Squadron in Florida. Aaron joined the Grassroot Institute of Hawaii as a researcher and writer while attending Hawaii Pacific University, from which he graduated in 2018 with a bachelor’s degree in nursing. His work for the Grassroot Institute has focused mostly on medical regulation, privatization, land use and housing.