Editor’s note: Linda Hamilton Krieger delivered the following remarks as the faculty speaker at the University of Hawaii’s William S. Richardson School of Law graduation ceremonies last Sunday. 

It is impossible to look out at you and your loved ones today and not think of Chief Justice William S. Richardson. Right behind you, I can see him, as in the photograph, smiling ear to ear, arms outstretched as if lifting you up, his face radiating joy, satisfaction, and most importantly — belief in you. Belief that you can change the world. Belief that you can, and will, through the understandings and the relationships you have cultivated here, make these islands, or anywhere you go, a better, more just, more loving, place.

About five years ago, one of my students taught me an ʻōlelo noʻeau – a Hawaiian proverb:

“I uluno ka lālā i ke kumu.”

“The branches grow because of the trunk,” or “without our ancestors, we would not be here.” Without C.J. Richardson – the kumu or trunk, you, the branches, would not be here. And this is true.

But of course, as it is with all proverbs that express deep truths, there are additional ways to understand the proverb’s meaning. So it is with I ulu no ka lālā i ke kumu.

“The list of Hawaii’s problems is long, and her peoples’ troubles deep,” said Prof. Krieger in challenging the law school’s new graduates to be of service to this state.

More recently, other students have taught me that the Hawaiian word “kumu” has many meanings. Yes, it means trunk, as in the ‘ōlelo no’eau. And it can also mean “teacher.” It also can mean “root,” “origin,” or “starting point.” So we might ask ourselves, what is the “root,” “origin,” or “starting point” of the law school from which you are now “commencing,” and what would it mean for you to “branch” out of that “root,” “origin,” or “starting point?”

And we might also explore what the word “lālā” in the proverb expresses. Yes, it means branch. But I have been told that it has other meanings as well. One of the more poetic of these evokes the “wings” of an army, unfolding and spreading out onto a field of battle.

And so I wonder, what might it mean to think of the “kumu” of the of the proverb as the deeper “root” or “origin” of this law school – as Chief Justice Richardson envisioned it — and to think of the “lālā, – the “wings of an army” — as all of you, as you fan out across the terrain on which the battle to bring that root into leaf, flower, and fruit is joined?

Law as an Instrument of Social Justice

Those of you who know about the life of C.J. Richardson know that before he was the founder of this law school, before he was Chief Justice of the Hawaii Supreme Court, he was part of what is sometimes called Hawaii’s “revolution” of 1954.

The revolution of 1954 grew out of long-standing injustices in Hawaii’s social, economic, legal, and political systems — injustices that created a small oligarchy of “haves,” and a large mass of “have-nots.” Effectively organizing at the grass roots level, staging strikes, enduring threats, building alliances, and subsequently taking electoral control of the state House, the Senate, the governor and lieutenant governor’s offices, the participants in this movement transformed Hawaii, made its tax code more progressive, raised workers’ wages to mainland equivalents and instituted land use reforms, including those designed to preserve Hawaii’s agricultural and conservation lands.

For C.J. Richardson, the creation of a law school in Hawaii was a central part of the movement. Equality of participation in governance requires equality of opportunity to acquire the knowledge and skills needed to make that participation effective. Without a law school in Hawaii, legal education would continue to be the exclusive province of those wealthy enough to leave the state for three years to obtain it. This would leave local people, less affluent people, Native Hawaiians, un- or under-represented in the legal process.

Under such conditions, Justice Richardson saw, the conditions required for the flourishing of all Hawaii’s people, could not be achieved. To effect real social and economic justice, all Hawaii communities needed effective representation at the table where laws, institutions, and economic opportunities are made and remade. That principle is truly the “trunk” out of which you, the branches, grow. And that principle is itself a branch of an even deeper “root,” namely a resolute commitment to the use of law as an instrument of social justice, as a blueprint for building a society, a polity, and an economy in which all Hawaii’s people can flourish.

If you, as the branches, are to bring your Law School’s “root” or “source” into leaf, fruit and flower, then your goal must be that, at the end of your career, you can look yourself and your children in the eye and know that you have left Hawaii a better, more abundant, more Hawaiian place, one more conducive to the flourishing of its people, its land, and its oceans, than you found it here today.

You have your work cut out for you. The list of Hawaii’s problems is long, and her peoples’ troubles deep. With greater and greater frequency, the grandchildren and great grandchildren of the 1954 revolutionaries are leaving Hawaii for good, because they cannot afford to live here.

The cost of living in Hawaii is 157 percent higher than the U.S. national average, and yet across the entire range of professional, middle class, and skilled trade jobs, salaries in Hawaii are significantly lower than those in areas of the country with much lower costs of living. The median income on Oahu peaked in 1989, and has been dropping ever since.

Wage equality with the mainland was one of the goals of the 1954 revolution? What happened, and how can it be turned around?

Hawaii’s energy prices are the highest in the country, three times higher than the U.S. average. Why? We are blessed with abundant renewable energy resources here.

An even more perplexing irony: Despite the 1954 revolution’s commitment to and success in instituting a more progressive taxation system, a 2013 study by the non-partisan Institute on Taxation and Economic Policy rated Hawaiʻi among the “terrible ten” states that have tax systems that most disadvantage the poor. In 2013, we ranked the very worst in terms of the tax burden on the poor imposed by sales and excise taxes. What happened, and how can it be turned around?

Living the Effects of Bad Public Policy

The 1954 revolutionaries also brought into being laws intended to protect Hawaii’s agricultural and conservation lands. This intent was re-expressed in Hawaii’s 1978 Constitution, drafted in part by some of this law school’s first graduates That Constitution provides that the state must conserve and protect agricultural lands, promote diversified agriculture, increase agricultural self-sufficiency, and assure the availability of agriculturally suitable lands. Despite the reforms of the 1960s and the 1978 Constitutional revision, Hawaiʻi continues to lose agricultural lands, in recent years, largely to luxury and vacation rental development, not even to housing stock for Hawaiʻi residents, as controversial as even that might be.

In 1992, when Professor Randy Roth published “The Price of Paradise,” the median price of a single family home in Hawaii was $349,000. Today, statewide, it is more than double that. In some areas, North Kohala for example, the average home price is an astronomical, $1.6 million.

It would be one thing if this state of affairs was an inevitable condition of an island state whose population was outstripping its land base. But this is not the only, or even the best, explanation for the mess we find ourselves in.

Why are we allowing Hawaii’s housing stock to be turned into illegal vacation rentals and luxury investment properties and why can’t we muster the will to do anything about it?

A 2011 study by members of the San Francisco Federal Reserve Bank — not known for radical economic views — concluded that from 1975 to 2008, rising housing prices in Honolulu were almost entirely determined by demand from out-of-state purchasers, rather than Hawaii residents. In a December 2014 report, the Hawaii Tourism Authority reported that, in one month between mid-August and mid-September 2014, there were 22,238 individually advertised vacation rentals on the internet, representing 4 percent of the statewide housing stock, a shocking 12.6 percent on Kauai, 11 percent on Molokai, and 13.6 percent on Maui.

Why are we allowing Hawaii’s housing stock to be turned into illegal vacation rentals and luxury investment properties and why can’t we seem to muster the political will to do anything about it?

Yes, of course, housing, taxation, wages, agriculture and energy — these are phenomenally complex public policy problems. But right now, the effects of bad public policy, or no public policy, in these areas are no less devastating on Hawaii’s ordinary people than were the problems that motivated C.J. Richardson and his fellow 1954 revolutionaries. There is no less reason to believe today than there was reason to believe in the 1950s that grass roots organizing, political education and activism, coalition-building, and mass participation in the electoral process can make things better.

“I uluno ka lālā i ke kumu.”

The branches grow because of the trunk. For today and for many days to come, you are the branches. My wish for you is that you might flower and fruit true to that trunk.

But also remember, though today you are the branches, one day you will be the trunk. What you accomplish over the next four decades in your careers becomes the trunk for the next generations of Hawaii’s people. And so, as you move through that career, as you take a job, or agree to represent a client, or take a position in litigation, or make a deal as a legislator, or write an administrative decision as an appointed official, ask yourself: “What does this decision or action mean about the trunk I am becoming, from which the next generations of Hawaii’s young people will branch?”

The kind of trunk you individually and collectively become is critically important for who your children and grandchildren have the opportunity to be. The branches grow because of the trunk.

Congratulations, good luck, mālama pono.

Editor’s note: If you would like to learn more about the cost of living in Hawaii, read Civil Beat’s special article series, as well as readers’ stories about the challenges they face on our Connections: Living Hawaii pages. And if you have a story about the human impact of high prices, share it through Connections by clicking on the red pen, or write to epape@civilbeat.com. And join Civil Beat’s Facebook group on the cost of living to discuss broader practical and political solutions.

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