Kawika Winter; Director of Limahuli Garden and Preserve; ​National Tropical Botanical Garden

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The National Wildlife Federation EcoLeaders Career Center is celebrating the motivating stories and career accomplishments of young professionals making their names (and a difference) in the sustainability movement. We’re calling this group of change-makers and rising stars “The EcoLeaders Top 50 Inspirations.”

Interviewee: Kawika Winter
Director of Limahuli Garden and Preserve
National Tropical Botanical Garden

Interviewer: David Corsar, NWF

As an NWF Fellow, Kawika focused on developing a natural resource management system for the Limahuli Garden and Preserve, which is a part of the National Tropical Botanical Gardens. Today, Kawika is the Director of Limahuli

David Corsar: Looking back at your experience with NWF, how has participation as an NWF Fellow help shape your career path?
Kawika Winter:
As an NWF Fellow I have tapped into a network of conservation professionals around the country which I would not have access to otherwise. Professional networks, such as these, are absolutely essential to seeking out new collaborators and creating the synergy needed for conservation efforts to make a real and lasting impact.

DC: What was the top thing that you learned in your professional development with NWF?
My NWF Fellowship occurred right at the cusp of my academic and professional careers which was a very formative time for me. The Fellows trip to Washington DC, which was my first time there, truly opened my eye to the importance of influencing national policy. It helped to put me on a trajectory of engaging with policy makers in my own state, which has been a fruitful use of my time and energy. Inspiring and influencing the perspectives of policy makers is one of the most effective ways of making strides in conservation.

DC: What are you up to these days? What is your role at the National Tropical Botanical Garden, and why did you choose to work there?
The NTBG is a congressionally-chartered, non-profit organization with a mission to enrich life by perpetuating the survival of plants, ecosystems and cultural knowledge of tropical regions. This multi-site organization has five botanical gardens and nature preserves between Hawai`i and Florida. I am the Director of Limahuli Garden and Preserve, the largest of NTBG's sites which is housed in a one-thousand acre valley in the most biodiverse corner of the most biodiverse island in the biodiversity hot spot that is the Hawaiian archipelago. You could say that we are the hot spot of the hot spot of the hot spot in the State that is both the endangered species capital and extinction capital of the United States. We have dozens of species of plants and birds that are critically endangered. On top of that our valley is filled with storied and sacred places of the Hawaiian people. My job is to harness the synergy which comes from bringing the world of science and conservation together with the world of ancestral practice and philosophy, and to direct that energy towards being a model of biocultural conservation in Hawai`i. I often liken my job to that of a symphony conductor. As I administer over our conservation, research, education, visitor, and community-outreach programs I need to make sure that everyone is playing in time from the same sheet of music. The music that we make is certainly beautiful, and I hope that you will get to come to Hawai`i some time to hear it.

DC: I sure hope so too! What would you say is your personal mission for sustainability?
I actually believe that aiming towards sustainability is setting our sights too low. I realize that much of the world views human interaction with the natural world as a zero-sum game; and, therefore, the best we could ever hope for is "sustainability" where our extractions equal our inputs. I, however, subscribe to a different world view.
I live with traditions and examples of how human interaction with the natural world can increase biodiversity and resource abundance. To me, "sustainability" is where the pendulum rests if it were not in motion. What I have dedicated my career to is getting people to embrace the idea that we can indeed swing the pendulum in the other direction towards perpetual abundance, and providing a model of how we can get there.

DC: What motivated you to begin this path?
When I talk about the work I am blessed to be involved in people see how passionate I am, and they often ask how I got started on my path. My honest answer is that all I know is that I have been walking this path as long as I can remember. I believe in powers higher than ourselves, and I give thanks every day for the guidance and support that I have had my entire life which has gotten me to where I am now.

DC: Who are some of your primary “influencers” or mentors in the sustainability movement, and what do you think makes a mentorship relationship work?
I exist in life with each foot in two worlds-- one in the world of science and conservation, and the other in the world of ancestral Hawaiian practice and philosophy. I have been inspired, influenced, and taught by people in both worlds, and others who have a foot in each. There are, in actuality, more than can be listed here; but I will list a few of the most influential here:
  • My late hula master, John Ka`imikaua, who was the last in a line of knowledge keepers. The chants and dances that he taught were the vehicles for the preservation of ancestral knowledge, practice and philosophy through time.
  • The late and esteemed Hawaiian elder, Eddie Kaanaana, who loved me as a grandson.
  • Dr. Will McClatchey, an ethnobotanist who was my advisor from my academic career into my professional career.
  • Dr. Tamara Ticktin, an ethnoecologist who's classes and mentorship helped me to find my voice.
  • Dr. Fikret Berkes, my intellectual hero who coined the term, "social-ecological system."
  • Nainoa Thompson, master navigator and visionary leader of the Polynesian Voyaging Society. He is on a path to becoming a global elder.
The key to successful mentorships, in my experience, stem from shared passion and world view built on a foundation of mutual respect.

DC: How important do you feel obtaining project-based leadership experience is when entering the workforce?
KW: Project-based leadership experience is absolutely essential. Ideas and intentions are great, but to take things from concepts and to see them all the way through the process into a completed project yielding beneficial results in real life takes a special skill set, one that is an critical skill that is needed for any successful career.

Some of the traits of accomplished project leaders include effective communication skills in both face-to-face communication and electronic communication, the ability to develop a strategy for completion, design and implementation of a management plan, not to mention flexibility and adaptive management. I have found that, especially in the field of conservation, that the people involved are often extremely passionate and highly motivated. Managing a group of passionate people has its own set of challenges that management in other fields doesn't face as much. The project leader who has the ability to harness passions towards exceeding deliverables and expectations will be the one who goes far in their career."

DC: What would you recommend to students who want to make a difference for sustainability in your sector?
Follow your passions, work hard, be diligent, build networks, always be both polite and respectful, and pray.

Habitat and Wildlife

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Date Added: May 15, 2017
Date Last Modified: May 15, 2017