Kaua'i Community College: Leveraging Partnerships to Accelerate Progress Toward Sustainability

Member Spotlight

When Chancellor Helen Cox first arrived on the Kaua'i Community College (KCC) campus in August 2008, she had already made it clear that she believed that KCC had an important role to play in moving the island of Kaua'i toward sustainability. In the public forum that was part of her interview, she was told that while much of the country was slowly sliding into the abyss when it came to economics and sustainability, Kaua'i was going over a cliff. She was then asked what she would do to help. In her answer, Cox confessed she didn't have all the answers, but then proceeded to suggest some ideas that might be part of the solution. One of those ideas was to use part of the large campus as a community garden, both to model and to teach while growing local produce. Little did she know that the man who questioned her, Glenn Hontz, worked at KCC through a USDA grant and directed the Kaua'i Food Industry Forum, established in cooperation with a wide range of community agencies to address the issues of food self-sufficiency. The forum not only looks at the obvious stages of production, distribution, and consumption, but also wrestles with other issues that impact agriculture, such as the availability of land and affordable housing.

Within the few short months of her tenure, Cox has identified and encouraged those at the college who are already engaged in sustainability efforts and she has tapped others to become so. As a result, the role KCC plays in the community in supporting agriculture, food self-sufficiency, and other sustainability initiatives has grown substantially. In a recent meeting with the college's fund board, Cox outlined the approach the college team is taking, beginning with the belief that in these difficult economic times KCC must be a beacon of hope and opportunity. She ended with the desire to truly be the community's college, saying, "We must malama both our 'ohana and our 'aina," or, "We must care for, nurture, and love both our family/community and our land." Between these bookends, Cox outlined an approach rich with partnership and empowerment.

Clearly, Kaua'i, a small, mostly rural island in the Hawaiian chain, faces hurdles that few other places in the U.S. face. It is, after all, an island about 30 miles in diameter with a multiethnic, multicultural population of about 65,000 that has no coal or oil, that currently imports 85-90 percent of its food, and that has depended in large part on the now slumping visitor industry since its plantation economy faltered in the 1980s. It is also isolated, not only from the mainland U.S., about 2,600 miles away, but also from Honolulu, about 100 miles away. Being an island with fallow land from the earlier plantation era and with adequate sun, wind, and ocean does have its benefits, though. KCC wants not only to solve its own community's sustainability issues but also to provide a model for others. And the approach it is taking may be worth emulating.

The KCC commitment to its community and to sustainability includes four areas of action:

  • To change the ecological footprint of the college
  • To educate the community regarding best practices and dilemmas
  • To train the new workforce that will be needed for green jobs
  • To increase the focus on science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) for career and technical programs and for transfer students who must understand the complexity of issues facing them in order to be good citizens

To demonstrate commitment, the college first took on its own behavior. In addition to the usual recycling and swapping out light bulbs, it has committed to cover its new one-stop center with photovoltaic panels and plans to install a solar array supplemented by wind turbines that will essentially cover the needs of the campus. The capitol improvement project has the firm backing of State Senator Gary Hooser and Kaua'i members of the House, but is on the list the University of Hawai'i System hopes to cover with federal stimulus funds.

Beyond addressing its own behavior, the college also has recognized that the issues facing the community have no easy answers, and residents need to be well informed if they are to appropriately change policy and behavior. The island has a very active and passionate citizenry. Despite its small size and population, dozens of groups are working on local food production, renewable energy, transportation solutions, and the like. What is lacking, however, is coordination.

To address this, Ken Stokes, a green economist, author, and sustainability advisor, suggested that education, government, private business, and grassroots organizations collaborate to form a Kaua'i Sustainability Think & Do Tank (TDT). As a result, Beth Tokioka, Executive Assistant to the Mayor of the County of Kaua'I; Mattie Yoshioka, Director of the Kaua'i Economic Development Board (KEDB); and Diane Zachary, Director of Kaua'i Planning and Action Alliance (KPAA), are partnering with Cox at KCC to create an entity that, as Stokes says, "will accelerate the transition toward sustainability through coordination and good thinking across all of our community, economic, and ecological challenges—including renewable energy, alternative transport, sustainable agriculture, green building, green business/consumption, and waste management." The TDT memorandum of understanding created by Stokes stipulates that the TDT will build this capability with a three-fold organizational approach:

  • Engage citizens in community learning by creating new opportunities for talent sharing. Use social networking tools to build relationships between individuals and initiatives.
  • Provide decision support to businesses, households, groups, and agencies by integrating new knowledge from sustainability science and best practices. Adapt citizen-science tools to build consensus around expert advice and strategic direction.
  • Foster initiatives for community sustainability by creating new business models for green entrepreneurship.

While the TDT will push beyond programs and policies these institutions are separately pursuing, KCC already has become more visible in the community by hosting community events, usually through joint sponsorship, that educate residents about sustainability issues. For example, the college recently hosted a forum in which community members could listen to and question candidates for the board of directors of the local electric utility cooperative, KIUC. This event was jointly sponsored by the college, the grassroots environmental group Apollo Kaua'i, and the L'hu'e' Business Association.

In addition to public events on campus, KCC offers continuing education courses on topics such as green retrofitting and electric vehicles, and partners with business and industry to explore new technologies and provide training. For example, a partnership in the planning stages with the University of Hawai'i at M'noa and the Pacific Missile Range Facility (PMRF) will explore marine energy potential for the island.

The Community Gardens Project Planning and Coordinating Group within the Food Industry Forum provides classroom and hands-on training for back-yard gardeners, community gardens, and small farmers. It is also in discussion with the county to establish a network of community gardens at neighborhood centers around the island. A pilot county/KCC community garden will begin soon at one of the centers. Then, to address the distribution and consumption end of the agricultural spectrum, KCC will jointly sponsor a farmer's market on campus with the Kaua'i Farm Bureau, County of Kaua'i, and the Garden Island Conservation and Development Resource beginning this spring.

To make sure KCC continues to lead training for emerging green jobs on the island, a KCC cabinet member sits on the Kaua'i Economic Development Board committees in each of the following areas: renewable energy; food and agriculture; and science and technology. These three committees match three of the six clusters identified by the county for development.

Finally, to increase the focus on the STEM fields, KCC partners with K-16 as well as business and industry. Particular areas of focus beyond agricultural technology include electronics, science and math, and construction. In each area, KCC faculty work closely with their middle and high school counterparts to make sure curriculum is aligned and to provide professional development workshops. In addition, local business or industry groups have contributed expertise and equipment. For example, money for a construction academy offered in the high schools lines up with the college curriculum and was funded by the legislature through the Carpenters Union. In the area of electronics, KCC, high schools, and industry partners Boeing, Envisioneering, and Textron have formed the Kaua'i Photonics Alliance.

The thread that weaves through all of these endeavors is one of partnership and genuine love and respect for the island and its people. As Cox says at the end of each of her presentations in the community, "We must malama our 'ohana and our 'aina."