Broadcast live under a setting sun from the beautiful Kaʻiwakīloumoku Hawaiian Cultural Center on the KS Kapālama campus on July 2, the “Super Debate” offered Democratic primary candidates running for lieutenant governor, U.S. Congress and governor a chance to shine before all of Hawaiʻi as they made their best election pitches.
When the three hours of debate were over, the biggest stars of the night may well have turned out to be the students from a number of schools who asked questions of the candidates and participated in a post-debate wrap-up with moderators Keahi Tucker and Kamehameha graduate Mahealani Richardson of Hawaiʻi News Now.
The main reason that Kamehameha Schools and the Office of Hawaiian Affairs co-sponsored the event was provide a lesson in civic engagement and leadership for these students. And these kids did themselves proud before an audience of more than two million people who watched the debate through multiple platforms including on air broadcast, online streaming and social media.
“Who won the Super Debates?” asked Honolulu Star-Advertiser columnist Lee Cataluna in the paper the next day. “The sharp Kamehameha Schools students – many of whom will be voting for the first time this election – asked great questions and gave the best hope for the future.”
Not only Kamehameha students participated. The list of schools that took part in the Super Debate included local Native Hawaiian-focused charter schools that help make up the Kanaeokana network as well as students from St. Andrew's School and even a few from the University of Hawaiʻi.
Richardson as well, who came off as a true professional of her craft and great role model for the students as she served as the onstage moderator, said she was impressed.
“It took a village and an amazing team to put on this unprecedented broadcast political event between the candidates at Kamehameha Schools. I was completely humbled when former Governor John Waiheʻe said some very kind words to me afterward,” she said.
“As a KS grad, I’m inspired by the leadership and thoughtfulness shown by the students who got to ask questions. They’ll be voting soon and you should too!”
Elijah Lee, who will be a junior at KSK in the fall, asked a question about how the candidates would approach and solve poverty and homelessness in Hawaiʻi.
“They answered with very good responses but we can’t really evaluate their answers until we see how they execute. There was a lot of ‘we’re going to do this and do that’ but until we see how they can actually execute, then we’ll know if they follow through with their promises,” he said.
The night had Lee thinking about what it means to be civically engaged, even at his young age.
“I think it means to be aware and to be involved where you can be,” he said. “If you have a passion for things like politics then you should be involved, and even if you're not especially interested I think that you should be informed to the extent that you can make a prudent decision based on your values and the values you hold for your family and loved ones. I do plan to vote as soon as I’m eligible.”
Piʻiakea Purdy of Kanu o ka ʻĀina New Public Century Charter School observed the debate and participated in the post-debate wrap-up.
“Today I learned that not everyone has the same opinion, but being respectful can get you farther in the race because you get people’s respect and ultimately their vote,” she said.
Purdy said she thought many of the topics up for discussion that night were relevant like poverty rates and tent cities and that discussing Hawaiian Home Lands is a big issue for her personally.
She said getting more students engaged and active in the community is important to her.
“I think it’s just being knowledgeable about current events – a lot of kids don’t know things like this debate even go on in their community and it’s important for kids to understand that this is who we’re going to have in our future and it’s important to be engaged,” she said.
“If we want to see a change in our place we need to be active and come up with solutions and not just complain about a problem.”
KSK Poʻo Kula Dr. Taran Chun said he was struck with the uniqueness of the event.
“The uniqueness comes from the fact that we’ve involved students in the democratic process and political process and it’s sad that that’s unique because we need more of our young people involved,” Chun said.
“But I’m grateful that we started that here at Kamehameha Schools. I think the questions that our students asked showed how interested they are in these topics, showed how important these topics are to them and it’s an example of how much involvement we can get throughout the state from our young people if we involve them more.
“We’re growing that voice here on our campus and we’re growing that voice here in our state by involving the young people and that’s extremely important. They’re our future and they’re interested in their future. They’re going to be the future leaders so it’s appropriate that we’re involving them.”
Waiʻaleʻale Sarsona, Kamehameha’s managing director of the Kūamahi Community Education Division, said she had a conversation with her daughter Mia Sarsona who participated in the event as a member of Ke Kula ‘o Samuel M. Kamakau Laboratory Public Charter School.
“Having this conversation with my daughter about why this was important for her to even participate was insightful,” Sarsona said. “She talked about the decisions we make today and the impact they will have on her future. So being involved today means that they’re being involved in what they will have in 10 years and 20 years.
“The ability to be engaged at such an early age is really important for them and I know that for many of us, we weren’t prepared at such a young age to be engaged in the way that I see these haumāna engaged today."
Sarsona said the best thing about the event was the fact that Kamehameha Schools took on the challenge.
“This was new for Kamehameha, and I know that can be challenging but I appreciate that we found a partner in OHA and we found a way to make this work. We found a way to highlight our haumāna and then we had a great mix of people participating so I appreciated that as well.”
The now-famous Lee was also appreciative of being able to stand and deliver a thoughtful question to candidates.
“This was a great opportunity for Kamehameha and the other schools to showcase their students and how we want to be involved and be informed,” he said. “This was a wonderful opportunity and I’m very grateful to have been a part of this.”