Written by: Jahkotta Lewis

Empowerment. What does that mean to the STEM community and how does it apply to our everyday lives? It depends, in some cases, it’s as simple as designing green spaces that preserve ecological and cultural landscapes that reduce the carbon footprint. In other cases, empowerment takes the form of supporting indigenous communities to help bolster community health. The concept of providing spaces that reflect cultural identity via the natural environment isn’t a new concept and has existed in cultures around the world. Today, many traditions are trying their best to revitalize and continue the practices that have maintained their cultural and environmental landscape. From systems of observation that ensure that resource procurement doesn’t result in overfishing and or deforestation; the survival of the traditional and ecological landscape means the survival of indigenous culture.

In today’s world, globalization and continued colonialistic perspectives have decimated not only cultures but also the natural environment. We all hear it every day in the news; our carbon footprint is out of control; The Marshall Islands are disappearing due to rising sea levels, and pipelines like the Dakota Access that rip through the natural landscape while cutting off access to indigenous burial sites. Or tourism industries that cut access to traditional fishing grounds while visitors kill marine life with sun protection that isn’t eco-friendly. That’s why there is a whole new generation of professionals in STEM fields that are focusing not only on making the world a greener place but are empowering communities’ cultural ties to the environment. The offshoot of this melding of perspectives regarding resource management is that it often has global benefits, such as reducing carbon footprints and protecting fisheries.

In this second installment of Black Girl Nerds’ The Color of Science, titled, “Empowerment,” meet Kevin Chang and Chi Talley; two professionals who support a greener world by empowering communities and creating spaces that are both culturally and planet friendly.

The Queen of Green Design!

Name: Chi Talley       

Occupation: Junior Landscape Architect

Where are you from? Big Island, Hawaii. I presently reside and work in New York.

What are your hobbies?

I like doing anything outdoors, hiking, biking, the beach! I enjoy dance, live music, and collecting vinyl. Back home in the Islands, I was an avid surfer. 

Tell us something nerdy about yourself?

I have been known to get into a few ‘plant-offs.’ You know, when you passionately debate the species of a plant with someone.

Tell us a little bit about your childhood. Were you always drawn to the natural sciences?  

Growing up in Hawaii you can’t help but be immersed in nature and this created within me a general interest in nature and natural sciences.  I was the kid always outside designing forts and gardening with my family.  

What is your education background? What degree(s) or training do you have or are working on? How have you used your profession to empower communities that want to retain cultural and environmental values?

I have a B.A. in Philosophy and Masters in Landscape Architecture.  My focus was on eco-friendly and green landscapes. My MLA Master’s report focused on sustainable eco-tourism. My design, ‘Where the Rivers Meet,’ was a master plan for a 93-acre site owned by the indigenous Kalinago on the Caribbean island of Dominica. I researched sustainable strategies and proposed an eco-destination that included an eco-resort and visitor’s areas, an agricultural component, and a community space. The success of this design stemmed from employing values of cultural preservation, energy efficiency, and economic sustainability. For instance, the onsite coconut plantation used a culturally significant crop to stabilize the eroding soil and was a means to produce coconut bio-fuel, which powered the eco-destination.

What inspired you to choose your field of study?   

I read about landscape architecture in a career book, and I was transfixed.   The fact that I could combine environmental conservation, natural sciences, art and design in a field enticed me.

 Who do you look up to in your field?  

Hitesh Mehta, he is a landscape architect and designer who travels the world designing eco resorts.

Please describe a typical work day in your field.   

My days can vary widely.  Somedays are spent in the office where I am creating and drafting plans, designing public spaces, coordinating with other professionals or computing estimates.  A good amount of time is also spent in the field doing work that ranges from selecting plants from nurseries for a project, site inventories and inspecting completed projects.

What is the coolest aspect of your job?

I find landscape architecture inspiring in the sense that the designs that we create can influence culture and values.  For instance, creating a bike path can affect an individual to lessen their environmental footprint and commute by bike or a well-designed park may influence a user to understand the benefit of public space.   There are so many subtle messages that landscape architecture presents to our culture and society.   

How do you feel about how this Administration is dealing with environmental issues?

I’m worried. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) is such an important part of environmental conservation and for the administration to not realize that is truly disheartening.   

What advice would you like to give to young people of color with interest in the sciences?  

Find a mentor!  

Community-Based Natural Resource Management

Name: Kevin Chang

Occupation: Executive Director, Kuaʻāina Ulu ʻAuamo (KUA” kuahawaii.org ). KUA is a US 501c3 organization that works to empower communities to improve their quality of life through community-based natural resource management (CBNRM) to better Hawaiʻi and achieve ‘āina momona— an abundant, productive ecological system that supports community well-being.

KUA employs a community‐driven approach that currently supports three statewide networks: more than 30 mālama ʻāina (environmental stewardship) community groups collectively referred to as E Alu Pū (move forward together!), 40 traditional Hawaiian fishpond restoration projects and practitioners called the Hui Mālama Loko Iʻa (the group that cares for fishponds), and a new and growing group of limu practitioners and kupuna (elders) called the Limu Hui (literally seaweed group).

Our work blends environmental science (Western and Hawaiian forms of scientific inquiry) and indigenous traditional ecological knowledge and management practices to help us better care for our environment.

Where are you from? Hawaiʻi

What are your hobbies?  

Movies, books, and music (mostly playing; I play music in a band called Kupaʻāina or as a solo act called Mr. Chang). I also enjoy watching stand-up comedy.

Tell us something nerdy about yourself?

I love comic book conventions and film festivals. I am also a musician who occasionally writes or sings dorky lyrics.

As far as nerd work:  my organization Kuaʻāina Ulu ʻAuamo (means “grassroots growing through shared responsibility;” KUA= backbone) was created to serve the grassroots and indigenous CBNRM networks it facilitates to help them seek a common mission of creating the kind of conditions that help achieve ʻāina momona-  an abundant, productive ecological system that supports community well-being. The participants in our three networks are primarily rural and Native Hawaiian communities.

The state and national government cannot manage Hawaiʻi’s resources alone, and rural and native Hawaiians communities continue to have a cultural connection to their environment that is deeply rooted in kuleana or responsibility to one’s place. CBNRM empowers communities to take ownership of their resources and destiny and provides an opportunity to leverage government and private investment for conservation and resource management.

By serving and supporting community efforts on a broad network scale, we help communities build their capacity collectively.

Tell us a little bit about your childhood. Were you always drawn to the sciences?

I am Chinese/Irish. I grew up in a region of Oʻahu, Hawaiʻi often referred to as Kahaluʻu. It is a place on the cusp of rural and suburban shifts. Much of my childhood time was outdoors.

In my youth, I did not understand science as a framework for thinking/learning. Just another boring subject of public school indoctrination. My school- from my personal recollection-  did not teach scientific thinking as a tool to improve a person’s thought processes and their interaction, understanding, and wisdom in the world. Ironically, my science teacher nominated me for the National Honors Society in high school. I did not understand NHS at the time. I went to their introductory meeting, took a whole bunch of cookies and left.  Today I wish I stayed and met the potential I could have had as a full blown nerd.

I came to science with more enthusiasm and wonder as a result of work, self-inquiry, and reading. Today Hawaiian and western inquiry approaches (sciences), social science, policy and traditional ecological knowledge inform much of what I do.  

What is your education background? What degree(s) or training do you have or are working on?

I have a bachelor’s degree in Psychology and a Juris Doctorate (Law). However, I believe I have learned more from my life experiences outside of traditional institutions.

What inspired you to choose your field of study?

I thought I might be a counselor of some sort and chose psychology as an undergraduate focus. I also wanted to produce movies, so I decided to get a higher degree which gave me flexibility. Law school seemed the most flexible regarding the opportunity.  Today I do neither as a career but dabble in both (as a coach, as a supervisor, a musician, and producer). I have flexibility and have an honorable job working with good people to make my community better through science, culture, and empowerment from the grassroots.

Who do you look up to in your field?

I look up to many people. But they are not necessarily in my “field.” One is my dad who was a litigator and my mom who was a journalist. Both put a high priority on communication and empathy which I think have helped me throughout life.  

I look up to people who can collaborate with many people to progress on a vision greater than themselves. I partly studied psychology because of my interest in personal and team motivation and inspiration (coaching in athletics and life). I always liked producers of film or music because they were a necessity behind the scenes of visions accomplished by many. Names that come to mind in my life Coaches Mark Kane, George Gaspar, Ken Niumatalolo and Ivin Jasper, Producers Stacy Sher, Brian Grazer, Weinstein brothers, Rick Rubin and Tracy “Dr. Trey” Terada.

As a musician/songwriter, I like Ice Cube, Tom Waits, and Bob Marley.

For my work: Malcolm X, Sun Yat Sen, and Lao Tzu.

Please describe a typical work day in your field.

There is none. KUA is a movement-oriented organization. We work across islands to support a movement for community-based natural resource management in Hawaiʻi. It is a movement primarily led by rural and Native Hawaiian communities. Some aspects of our work happen every year (but in a different place and often in different ways), and others are based on our ability to adapt to the unpredictable  environment (weather, politics or otherwise).

Because of this, I get to see new and beautiful places where most people, even Google may never get to go. I get to see, learn about and help good people. My job is about supporting the beautiful people in these places and helping them build a thriving community through environmental stewardship.

Perhaps a common task or behavior in our work is a focused improvement on communications with people, as a group and one on one.  Metaphorically, we need to check the temperature of the individuals and the collective as a whole.  This requires taking the time to get a sense of their needs where they are at (in life and on projects). Building on the science of trust, if there is such a thing.  

What is the coolest aspect of your job?

I get to see empowered people make change together.

How do you feel about how this Administration is dealing with environmental issues?

A disastrous tragedy. Sad.

I am concerned about how it affects the support given to many communities and my many friends working at places like NOAA, USFW, SeaGrant, EPA and state departments funded by the feds, etc. I believe 80% our water quality funding is from the EPA.  On the average, I think 30% of state budgets across the nation come from federal support. This also applies to many other programs in our already under-funded State Department of Land and Natural Resources (at less than 1% of the state budget).

Because D.C. is so far away and disconnected I dwell less on the issues there and focus on what I can control and do to empower my community on the ground here at home.

In many ways maybe it is time for a powerful ground swell. I would rather focus on this than the current bullying top down bad smell that emanates from that part of the world. The Department of the Citizen must be activated.

What advice would you like to give to young people of color with interest in the sciences?

Science is an important tool and process that all humans need to understand and engage with as a part of life. Instead of thinking about lab coats and beakers, think of building a better drinking water system for a community like Flint, Michigan. We will need scientists to help us think out and resolve some of our greatest problems, the greatest being understanding and overcoming ourselves as a human community.


Science is certainly not boring like I was led to believe in my youth. It can cause wonderment and inspiration.

Next Time on The Color of Science…

Join us as we meet Harvard-educated Indigenous Scholar-Practitioner, Dr. Manu Meyer as she gives a Hawaiian perspective on science.

If you are a person of color that works in a STEM field and would like to participate in this series, please contact Jahkotta Lewis via her Twitter account @jahkotta.

Jahkotta Lewis is a professional archaeologist, an amateur astronomer, and an aspiring writer. When she is not documenting Pacific Island archaeology, she spends her days hiking through native forests, spelunking within the depths of an active volcano, and watching/reading all things fantasy and science fiction. Follow her on Twitter @jahkotta

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