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Running from Tony: Embracing Discomfort

Growth through embracing discomfort…

I’ve had a wonderful winter back in the Gunnison Valley after 3+ years in Hawaii.  My time in Hawaii gave me many unique opportunities to embrace discomfort.   As a professional I progressively advanced my fundraising and public speaking skills and reconnected with my youth in poverty through the most powerful mission I’ve ever been in involved with: the Boys & Girls Club of Hawaii.  Personally I left Colorado a state where bluntly diversity is low to Hawaii where the diversity in mind-blowing…and bluntly white man isn’t the majority.   Much to explain….

Hawaii is gloriously diverse socially and ecologically and having the opportunity to experience being a minority for the first time in probably my entire life was powerful.  Moving to Georgia from New Jersey and experiencing the outcast role of “Yankee” comes in a close second.  At one point in Hawaii my car broke down and being an import (not me, the car, well both) the car needed special (and expensive) attention and so for three weeks I rode the bus through some of the most diverse and not coincidentally impoverished communities on Oahu.  Kindness goes a long way in all situations and giving a smile and my seat to those who needed it more than me helped break barriers based on the most simplistic of things – skin color or what’s slightly deeper than skin color – place of origin.

Patience and persistence are also traits I relied on in Hawaii.  Mainland people come and go as residents in Hawaii and building relationships with locals takes time.  Some of my most rewarding experiences came from the incredibly uncomfortable start as a volunteer with Na Kama Kai. Na Kama Kai works in largely impoverished areas to give youth access to water sports. I am a terrible surfer and I was surrounded by pro surfers like Duane DeSoto and lifelong “watermen.”  Patience in not expecting to be “in the hui” right away and the persistence of showing up frequently gave me an opportunity to partner with Na Kama Kai on a nationally promoted video with Red Nose Day.

Where you from? I’ve often found myself trying to escape my birth state of New Jersey.  I didn’t choose to be born there (in a cosmic sense maybe I did, who knows) but people always ask “where are you from” and my answer is filled with explanations of where I’ve been since NJ and that I’m not “Jersey Shore” in real life.   Since leaving NJ I’ve been trying to escape Anthony Poponi, well specifically not Anthony Poponi as much as Tony Poponi (pause for laughter).  I didn’t chose the name (again, in a cosmic sense maybe I did, who knows) but when people ask “Do you go by Anthony or Tony?”   I say “Tony Poponi” and they laugh and I quickly try to move on.haole-boy-mainlander-hawaii-sign

When moving to Hawaii I was fully aware of being a “haole” and a “mainlander” and tried to be myself while also trying to fit in at the same time.  Hawaiians have an interesting language based in Pacific Island foundations yet unique and with only 13 characters in their alphabet the recycling of words having different meanings is common and context of word placement is key to understanding which version of “ono” was being used.  Example:  an “ono” taco can be a taco with “ono” or wahoo in it or ono can also mean delicious!  I can get an ono taco with ono at South Shore Grill – one of my favorites!

What’s interesting about having a language with limited characters became evident when white man arrived in Hawaii. Hawaiian syntax didn’t have sounds for many of introduced words brought in my transoceanic explorers and so much like an Asian person trying to fight through two L’s (Godzirra!) Hawaiians had phonetic translations of words and phrases they sounded out but with a tweak based on what their tongue’s could push out.

So file my Hawaiian name under “That what you fear you attract.”  Anthony when spoken in the Hawaian language is “Akoni.”  That’s right – Akoni Poponi.  After years of running away from it, I’ve embraced Tony Poponi…with a twist.  You’ll see me use the name DJ Akoni Poponi for my work in music.  New Jersey + Hawaii with a dash of Godzirra!

Hawaii taught me to trust that good people will find the good in you no matter the color of your skin and to trust that discomfort is chance to experience something new and incredible.

Anthony Poponi is a comic, improv artist, brain chemistry nerd and community-minded advocate and owner of He’s brings his love of connection and laughter to audiences as keynote, emcee, workshop host or moderator and his mission is to increase laughter and connectivity to combat the human health crises of isolation and disconnection.


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