Hawaiian Charter Schools Making House in the House and Senate


By Trevor Atkins

Many Hawaiian-focused charter schools students feel right at home on the Hawaiʻi State Capitol grounds. That’s because it has been a common practice to have students attend the opening day of the Legislative session each January. For over 20 years, students have been engaging in marches, rallies, and demonstrations that coincide with the anniversary of the overthrow of Liliʻuokalani on January 17.

But few students feel comfortable inside the chambers or behind the tall, wooden doors where lawmakers decide which bills pass or fail during the ensuing four months. Ke Ea Hawaiʻi is trying to change that.

Ke Ea Hawaiʻi is an 11-year-old ʻaha, a leadership council, composed of one selected student representative from each Hawaiian-focused charter school. The council sets priorities and plans interscholastic events that strengthen ea (independence). This year, one priority is to increase collective knowledge and engagement in governance.

On November 28, the council co-planned a Lā Kūʻokoʻa summit on Hawaiian Kingdom law and politics at Kanu O Ka ʻĀina’s campus in Waimea. Over 500 students and staff from nine charter schools learned about how Hawaiian Kingdom law can be applied within and without the U.S. justice system.

Then on Wednesday, March 13, Ke Ea Hawaiʻi partnered with former and current law makers to host over 125 students and staff for a second annual Charter School Legislative Day. After opening together with pule, representatives Jeanne Kapela, Amy Perruso and Kirsten Kahaloa gave a warm welcome. The students attended a live committee hearing for Culture, Arts, and Internal Affairs. Coincidentally, the hearing included bills to commemorate Makahiki as well as the overthrow of the Hawaiian Kingdom government on Jan. 17, 1893.

Fifteen students testified in support of commemorating Makahiki, primarily to elevate awareness of its importance in cultivating Hawaiian cultural practices.

Gov. Josh Green gave a brief welcome to students in his office, and members of the Senate and House introduced students by school during the respective chamber floor sessions on financial crossover day for live bills.

But the highlight for many students was hearing from a panel of Kānaka Maoli legislators, office staff, and advocacy specialists who shared moʻolelo about how to make the state government as afer space for Hawaiians.

“This building is really hard, but it also can be really welcoming if you can ground yourself and know what you stand for and why you’re here,” shared young Rep. Kapela, who believes she may be the first kanaka maoli wahine to represent her own hometown district in the state legislature.

“My presence, your presence, in this building disrupts the idea of what we think of politicians, what we think of as leaders, but your presence brings the change that we need and want to see.”

Participating in the lawmaking process has always been more bitter than sweet for Kānaka Maoli. Many persistently refute U.S. state and federal authority over Hawaiian Kingdom lands and citizens. Thus, some refuse to acknowledge, vote, testify, or participate in hegemonic politics, in accord with all our kūpuna who signed the Kūʻē Petitions.

Others follow in the path of Prince Jonah Kūhiō Kalanianaʻole, infiltrating the system and carving out space and time for Kānaka Maoli to exist, to grow, and to assert native rights.

Panelist Keahi Renauld, office manager for Sen. Maile Shimabukuro closed the day with pule and this manaʻo: “If you like the system, learn the system. If you don’t like the system, learn the system.”

Photo: Hawaii State Capitol Building

About 100 students from 10 Hawaiian charter schools visited the Hawaiʻi State Capitol on Wednesday, March 13 to engage in law and politics. Hawaiian Charter School Legislative Day is supported by the Hawaiʻi Peoples Fund, Native Voices Rising, and in-kind donations.

The Hawaiian Charter School Legislative Day preceded the 21st annual Kuʻi Ka Lono Conference on Hawaiian Education, March 14-15, hosted this year by Ka Waihona O Ka Naʻauao Public Charter School in Nānākuli.

The conference features student group presentations to inspire unity and innovation across the network of Hawaiian schools. It has been funded each year since its inception by the Office of Hawaiian Affairs, with administrative support from Kanu O Ka ʻĀina Learning ʻOhana (KALO).

Trevor Atkins, 39, of ʻŌlaʻa, is the lead advisor for Ke Ea Hawaiʻi. He currently teaches high school math at Kanu O Ka ʻĀina’s Ka ʻOhā program.