Magnificent Non-profit: Mana Maoli Collective


One of our Still & Moving teachers had a grandmother here on the island whose school teacher sent her home from school one day with a sign hanging around her neck saying: “Don’t talk Hawaiian to me.” In 1896 the government banned teaching and learning in Hawaiian language.  Over 70 years later, the resurgence of the Hawaiian cultural pride emerged. A local radio show sparked revival of the native ‘oleo (language). Hawaiian language activist Larry Kimura along with many Hawaiians led the charge in the 1970s, getting Hawaii’s Department of Education to sanction Hawaiian-language immersion schools. 

In the back roads of Kaneohe, in the ʻili of Waipao, in the ahupuaa of Heʻeia, in Koʻolaupoko on Oʻahu, I heard the captivating tones of conversational Hawaiian – a rare sound in my experience. I walked across land embraced by the Ko’olau Mountains, towards a brightly shiny silver Airstream trailer with a hawaiian lei painted around it, as if engarlanding the vehicle. Over a dozen local musicians and Hawaiian cultural practitioners gathered, many with instruments in hand, to share the blessings of Hawaiian mele (music), community, and our keiki (children). With a camera at my side to photograph the event, I felt a sense of sacredness and gratitude as I absorbed the tuneful gathering. 

Something different was happening here. Laughter and easy aloha filled the space. 

I felt especially connected to the culture, language and land where I grew up. Gathered on the land of Papahana Kuaola were the people (students/mentors/participants) of Mana Maoli.  

Mana Maoli came to life in 1999, a non-profit initiative that locals of Oahu created to plan and grow a community, culture, and environment-based public charter school. By the time I encountered the group, a project within Mana Maoli, Mana mele, had just completely refurbished an Airstream and transformed it into a state of the art – solar powered – mobile recording studio.  Mana Mele carries the vision into music. Their one-of-a-kind, high-tech trailer serves as a hands on, mobile ‘classroom’ for children, as well as a recording studio for local musicians, and has by now blessed hundreds, possibly thousands of people in the community.

“Teaching and caring for our keiki is the most important thing we can do as adults,” says John Cruz, widely acclaimed musician and Board Chair of Mana Maoli.  

The non-profit has grown into a multidisciplinary collective of educators, artists, musicians, cultural practitioners, community organizers, and families who share a common vision of community empowerment.

Mana Maoli took early steps by creating monthly events with cultural learning activities, games, and Hawaiian food, for the kids and their families at the Papakolea and Maunalaha Native Hawaiian Homesteads. These monthly gatherings eventually turned into weekly classes in Hawaiian language and culture. The Hawaiin language is still classified as an endangered language, meaning that every effort to teach the language helps to perpetuate a deeper connection to the ‘aina (land) and spirit of Hawaii. Perpetuating the language is of huge importance. 

The nonprofit founded Hālau Kū Māna Public Charter School, Kānehūnāmoku Voyaging Academy and the Mana Mele Project, which serves over 2000 Hawaii students each year, delivering cultural, academic, and life skills and inspiring students to learn and create. 

Unlike the traditional western sit-in-your-chair-with-a-book approach to schooling, Mana Maoli students learn by participating in real-world settings, alongside mentors and top professionals. The collective currently consists of around 200 music, video, and education professionals who expose students to STEAM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Arts, Math) – all with a uniquely Hawaiian perspective. 

Mālie, a young student, found her calling through Mana Maoli. She shared,  “They opened a new window for me… I didn’t know what audio engineering was, but now I see myself being a sound engineer because of my mentor, Aunty Kelli. She’s taught me so much. I plan to go to college for engineering.” 

Mana Maoli continues to take big strides, enriching the community. We can all get behind this cause – to work towards a Hawaii where children have access to hands-on learning that can inspire and connect them to their cultural heritage, to the ‘aina (environment) and where the community comes together with sound cultural values, such as aloha (love, fellow-feeling), kuleana (personal responsibility), malama (to care for, preserve, protect), allowing for a stronger Hawaii. 


MANA : nvs. Life-force energy/power, powerful nation, authorization, miraculous, divinely powerful, spiritual.

MAOLI : vs. Native, indigenous, genuine, true, real; really, truly. Hawaiian native.

You can learn more about Mana Maoli and the Mana Mele project you can look them up here, or find them on Facebook and Instagram

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