Changemakers discuss their path to policymaking
One is nicknamed by her husband as the “Irresistible Force.” The other is known as “The Enforcer.” And the third has a spouse who wholeheartedly stands behind him—even if it means wielding a tire iron. Together, Althine Clark, Celeste Connors and William Aila, Jr., respectively, represent a “super power” to contend with when it involves environmental policy and activism in the islands.
“The goal of this session is to have our guest speakers talk about how they got where they are today,” said Clark, a Chaminade adjunct professor who recently retired as the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s (NOAA) superintendent of Papahānaumokuākea Marine National Monument. “You’ll hear real-life examples of what it’s like to live a life in environmental policy.”
In his opening story, Aila recalled a time when he was young with a fervent commitment to do whatever it took to preserve the aina–even if it meant physical confrontation. “I saw these three guys one day and I confronted them because they were mistreating a cultural site,” Aila shared with the students. “I asked them to stop and I started to move towards them. When you’re about to get into a fight, you look at the person’s eyes and then watch their shoulder. But these guys kept looking behind me so I thought I was going to be ambushed. And when I had a second to look back, I saw my wife standing there with a tire iron in her hands.”
Today’s environmentalists are faced with many forms of violence—and even death at times. The non-governmental organization Standing Firm has published an annual report on the killings of land and environmental defenders around the world every year since 2012, after the murder of Chut Wutty, a Cambodian environmentalist who worked with the Global Witness CEO Mike Davis investigating illegal logging.
While stationed in Greece as an economics officer with the U.S. Mission to the United Nations, Celeste Connors once remembered seeing a bullet lodged in her office window. “There was so much anti-American sentiment at the time,” said Connors, Executive Director of Hawaiʻi Green Growth, which is a United Nations Local 2030 hub that brings together diverse stakeholders committed to economic, social and environmental priorities. “But when I told them I was from Hawaii, everyone started reaching out because they can connect with Hawaii.”
Indeed, Hawaii holds a special place with Connors who decided to come home in 2015 after serving as a diplomat in Saudi Arabia, Greece, Germany and U.S. Mission to the UN. She later was named the Director for Environment and Climate Change at the National Security Council and National Economic Council in the White House (2008-2012), where she helped shape the Administration’s climate and energy policies, including the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). Connors also worked with the United Nations on the Paris climate agreement that was signed in 2016, which she sees as inspiration for Hawai‘i Green Growth’s goals.
“The world is at a point where we desperately need solutions,” Connors asserted. “Since I left home, there has been a cultural renaissance, and other nations are now looking to indigenous models, such as Hawai’s ahupua‘a system, to become sustainable and independent. Think locally but act globally.”
With a background in urban and regional planning, Clark understands the complexity of environmental law and policy, a class (ENV 300) that she is currently teaching to sophomores and juniors. Her introductory course outlines environmental policy and law—specifically its nature, development, flexibility, and growth, and to the ethical dimensions surrounding the creation of state, national and international environmental policy and law.
“No is not an option nor an answer,” Clark said. “I’m now seeing lots of communities get engaged. One of the reasons I agreed to teach at Chaminade is because the University encourages students to get involved in projects that benefit society.”
Asked by a student how to deal with climate change deniers, Aila said try to first reason with them. “And if that doesn’t work, go around him, go above him, go below him,” he advised. “Don’t let anyone tell you, you can’t. Instead, use those words as a motivator, and go out and make a difference.”