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'The global ocean cannot be an afterthought'

May 19, 2020

Aulani Wilhelm portrait
Photo: Conservation International

Aulani Wilhelm is Senior Vice President of Oceans at Conservation International. In an interview, she shared lessons from her work tackling challenges to coastal and marine areas around the world and shared how the Hawaiian core value of kuleana has informed her personal and professional approach.

What is the program you work on and what does it aim to do?

I lead the Center for Oceans, Conservation International’s global coastal and marine program. We are tackling the work that is essential to the future of ocean health, from fisheries and aquaculture to protecting coastal ecosystems and generating ‘blue carbon’ markets, to place-based conservation and effective ocean management and governance. Conservation International was one of the first nonprofit organizations to be accredited as a GEF Agency, and we are currently working together on nine transformational projects for the ocean. Through each one, we are advancing innovative new models - from improving small-scale fisheries in the Philippines to protecting carbon-rich mangroves in Liberia and the Northern Brazil Shelf Large Marine Ecosystem. Each project is designed with a fundamental respect for the human dimensions of conservation and a commitment to scalability and durability.

When did you start to become interested in global environmental issues?

My mother is native Hawaiian, and I grew up in Hawaii in a community closely tied to the ocean. I grew up understanding that we are children of the sea. Our origin story tells us that we literally descend from the ocean; that our first non-human ancestor to emerge out of Pō - the primoridial darkness - was the coral polyp from which all other higher forms of nature, including us, descend. Not the reef, but the organisms from which the reef is built. In other words, people and nature are kin. Early on, I was taught one of our core values, kuleana. If you translate that to English, it has a duality to it: it means both privilege and responsibility. Essentially, even if you are given a responsibility to carry, you understand you were given that responsibility because it is something you can carry - and it is your privilege.

Unlike a lot of my peers, I didn’t have a specific ‘aha!’ moment that inspired me. Service to family and community was imbued in me by my parents. My decision to work globally grew over time - as the need and kuleana became clear to me. I continually try and ask myself, ‘what is my kuleana?’ That responsibility - that privilege - is yours to hold and carry forward. The bottom line: being an islander from an indigenous community that values each other and the inextricable relationship between people and nature underpins everything I try to do.

Coral reef activity
Diver observing fish around coral reef at French Frigate Shoals in Papahānaumokuākea Marine National Monument. Photo by James Watt/NOAA/Flickr Creative Commons

Do you have a ‘typical’ work day?

I wish I did! There is no such thing as typical in this line of work - and actually I think that is one of the best parts of my job. I am able to work with some of the most dedicated, passionate, and innovative people that I have found not only in conservation, but in life. People who are genuinely trying to see the problems we are facing from new perspectives and challenging themselves and their teams to really do better. Challenging ourselves and ‘kicking the tires’ to make sure we are doing the most we can with the limited resources, time, and people power that we have is a daily mission.

What pushes me every day is the opportunity to solve the next puzzle, to identify the next opportunity for collaboration or progress. It is not without its conflicts and challenges. Innovating new conservation approaches while amassing the resources needed to make it happen - it all comes down to that, to focusing our time and making sure we deliver what we promise. That is the art and science of my job.

How do you explain your work to your children?

I don’t know that I have ever explained it to them, but they have been absorbing the work that I do through the conversations we have and via the community efforts we are engaged in. When they were little, I was the manager of Papahānaumokuākea Marine National Monument so they just thought that I saved coral reefs. The idea of protecting the ocean was, and still is, somewhat opaque - as it is to most people. Because they grew up with stories about our Hawaiian heroes, they equated my work to learning from those heroes and taking those lessons into modern day.

I know that they are sometimes challenged by the fact that my work is global and I normally travel a lot. But I take comfort in a clear memory from a few years ago: my middle son, when he was 9, was trying to comfort his little brother when he was upset because I was packing again and he said, ‘don’t be sad, Mama is trying to save the future for us so we need to share her.’ I think they have this idea that what I do is for their future and the future of other kids, and they feel comforted by that.

How has the COVID-19 outbreak affected your work program?

Like many others, the pandemic has forced my team be more focused on what we can do remotely, because so much of our work typically has been through travel. Travel has been impacted the most. The international conservation world acknowledges that we need to be better with our travel and carbon emissions, but at the same time, so much of our work hinges on constant, far-flung travel. So I see this as an opportunity to think about when we actually have to travel, and think about how to build community partnerships, meet new people, and foster trust and information transfers virtually.

In practical terms of our work, we’ve largely pivoted from the work we were doing on the ground to scoping new opportunities to invest, to build relationships, to build up communication channels so that when we are able to travel and meet up again, we can hit the ground running. We are using this unexpected block of time where no one is traveling, where there are no schedule conflicts or conferences to take our attention away, to dig into our foundational strategies on research, international policy, learning and knowledge, and long-term finance.

What life lessons has your work life taught you?

The good stuff is never easy. The best successes and rewards that I have ever experienced have manifested where people and institutions were challenged to not only do better, but to work differently to get there. I think conflict is often necessary. It doesn’t have to be - and shouldn’t be - disrespectful or damaging, but people shouldn’t be afraid of conflict - in the form of pressure or friction - because it is through those processes that we make the most progress. All we have to do is look at nature to see that the good stuff comes from high heat, high pressure, or friction. If we take those principles to heart in our work, we don’t have to let those forces break us; instead, we can use that energy for breakthroughs, new ideas, solutions and more impact.

Fishermen with nets
Fishermen cast a net. Photo: Keith Ellenbogen

What does success look like for your work area?

For my team, for the Center for Oceans, success is continuing to innovate everything that we do, to expand the scale of ocean protection across the planet. We must continue to create the space to take risks and to grow, to formulate new pathways, new ideas, and new finance models to reconnect people to nature, and to understand and hold how we value oceans differently.

The global ocean, which makes up the vast majority of the planet, cannot be an afterthought any longer. How we do business, support our families, build economies - it must all be done with the ocean in mind. The goal is for the work we do to inspire the ability for that to become a reality.