A new generation of Hawaiian leaders are rising to the challenges facing our islands and our planet. E Hoʻokanaka features these important new voices.
Shaelene Kamakaʻala, 33, is the new Director of ʻĀina Protection at the Hawaiian Islands Land Trust and previously served as Deputy Corporation Counsel for the County of Hawaiʻi. Born and raised in the rural communities of Punaluʻu and Kahana in Windward Oʻahu, Kamakaʻala attended Kamehameha Schools Kapālama and went on to Marymount College and the University of San Diego earning A.A. and B.A. degrees, respectively, in Political Science. Upon returning home, she pursued her dream of becoming an environmental lawyer at the William S. Richardson School of Law. She was also a First Nations Futures Institute fellow, earning a certificate from Stanford Woods Institute for the Environment. After passing the BAR in 2015, Kamakaʻala served as Community Based Fisheries Planner with DLNR and later as a law clerk with the Hawaiʻi State Judiciary in Hilo, where she currently resides.
What inspired you to go into environmental law?
“Growing up in Kahana I remember hearing stories of the original families who fought eviction in the 1960s. Our community dedicated itself to improving living conditions, supporting cultural initiatives, restoring Huilua fishpond…all good things. Yet, I remember our community feeling frustrated by walls and barriers; the government referring us from one agency to the next, never being able, or willing, to fully address the problems we faced. My dad and uncles were fishermen, overwhelmed by regulations and dying fish stocks. As a teenager I remember thinking that there had to be answers out there, and perhaps knowing the law would provide clarity.”
What were some of the challenges you faced?
“I could write a novel about that! Understanding the practice of law and the steps to get there was a challenge in itself. Each step I took was more difficult than the last; I believe the biggest challenges were the mental barriers I had to overcome. My 10th grade counselor, Mr. Lee, taught me that you learn more when you persevere through challenges.
“In law school, I took all the environmental, Native Hawaiian rights, and social justice legal courses available and that opened opportunities to work with communities on cultural and environmental issues across the pae ʻāina. Then came the bar exam. Just completing the application was grueling. But the community work I was immersed in gave me the strength to refuse to fail. I committed to 15-hour days, studying seven days a week for two-and-a-half months. When I found out I passed the bar exam I cried hysterically; my mom thought something terrible happened to me!
“In my 6th grade classroom at Kahuku Elementary, my teacher, Mrs. Aiu, had a poster on the wall that said “Shoot for the moon. Even if you miss, you’ll land among the stars.” This still guides me till today and is like my own personal motto.”
What can or should we do differently to protect our environment going forward?
“We need to educate ourselves about circular economies and reignite our ancestral knowledge and relationships with our natural resources. Seeing empty highways and beaches, new colors and brightness in the coral reefs, clear skies in the most polluted cities in the world – it’s evident that our environment needed a rest. But it was only able to rest when humans were forced to stop and stay at home. If we return to life as normal, it will all just happen again.
“Can we commit to making little and big sacrifices? Can we have honest conversations to better understand the environmental and social impacts of our behaviors, work and businesses? We each have the power and the choice to improve our Māmā Honua for the next seven generations.”
What is your vision for the health of our ʻāina and your role in attaining that vision?
“My vision is to see communities thriving in place—living, working, gathering, growing, playing in their own community. Driving across an island to go to work for eight hours, or sitting in traffic for two hours on your way home from town, is not a wholesome lifestyle. I’ve been there and my own experience has inspired me to craft a better lifestyle for myself and my family.
“We also need to simplify decision-making structures that impact our communities and natural resources, and engage practitioners in those processes. As Director of ʻĀina Protection at Hawaiian Islands Land Trust, I am part of a Project Team that helps to ensure Hawaiʻi’s coastlines, sacred spaces, cultural landscapes and farmlands will be forever cared for in partnership with those communities and people of place. I am blessed to put my energy into a role that aligns with my own vision and passions.
“We must commit to a better future. Decision-makers and governments have opportunities to support the growing environmental and green jobs market; proposals have been offered to the government to fund and provide stewardship and green jobs for displaced workers. Businesses have the opportunity to pivot and reassess their impact on the environment and on the mental, spiritual and physical health of the community. Individuals have an opportunity to slow down, recognize what matters most, and reconnect with the environment.”