Sustaining a Sense of Place: Mehana Blaich Vaughan Honored with Early- to Mid-Career Alumni Award
A deep respect and vision for her community’s Indigenous culture, rich history, and exquisite environment grounds the work of this dynamic Hawaiian educator and researcher.
Kuleana – the Hawaiian concept that reciprocal relationships between people and resources together constitute community – is deeply instilled in Mehana Blaich Vaughan, PhD ’12, guiding her research, teaching, and focus on the care of Hawaii’s land and waters.
On Oct. 20, Blaich Vaughan, a University of Hawaii at Mānoa associate professor, was honored with the Stanford Doerr School of Sustainability’s 2023 Early- to Mid-Career Alumni Award. The award recognizes individuals who have made highly significant and long-lasting contributions in the civil, government, business, or academic communities within 20 years of receiving their Stanford degrees. While on campus, Blaich Vaughan spoke about her work as part of the Career Conversation lunchtime talks series.
Arun Majumdar, the Chester Naramore Dean of the Stanford Doerr School of Sustainability, presented the award to Blaich Vaughan. “Mehana exemplifies an academic who simultaneously speaks to global issues while playing an important role in taking care of local communities,” Majumdar said. “Her ability to build community and connections to nature in Hawaii resonates with environmentalists around the world, in both rural and urban areas.”
An island childhood
From an early age, Blaich Vaughan had a reverence for her island home of Hawaii and understood the privilege and responsibility of living there. Her parents, both born in Hawaii, were active in neighborhood organizations, and Blaich Vaughan remembers accompanying them to many community meetings as a child.
“When I think about growing up on Kauai, I remember less about individuals and more about this community, very much living from the land and ocean collectively,” she recalled. “My parents made sure that my sister and I, as Hawaiian daughters, saw, knew, and loved all the islands. We traveled to other islands to camp, swim, and hike over miles of lava fields.”
Her grandmother, a lei maker, taught her to see the land with an eye for what can be grown and created from it. Blaich Vaughan left Kauai to live with her grandmother and attend high school on Oahu. When she began to think about college, since her parents had both gone to East Coast schools, the idea of leaving Hawaii was not novel.
“I knew I would always come home to Hawaii,” she said, “and that I had a responsibility to live, work, and raise a family here.” She applied to Harvard and, to her surprise, was admitted.
The power of education
In college, Blaich Vaughan became passionate about how education could alleviate social injustice. She proposed an independent interdisciplinary major with this focus and, when it wasn’t approved, shifted to sociology and was soon on a path to teach high school social studies.
“While I didn’t know what I wanted to do, I had always loved teaching,” she said, “and being able to graduate in four years with a teaching credential was an opportunity.”
In that role, Blaich Vaughan’s unique, emerging ability to convey the cultural heritage of Hawaii to others began to take shape. Student-teaching in Boston’s inner-city schools exposed her to stark differences in both education and community relative to her Hawaiian experience. She considered the impact Hawaiian cultural values might have in other places and how to articulate those distant ties.
With college peers, she formed a Hawaii club and a Boston Native Hawaiian club. Following the 1993 centenary of the overthrow of the Hawaiian monarchy, she helped network island students on the East Coast to foster connection to home, a deeper understanding of Hawaii’s rich history, and ways to share that knowledge and sense of family and caring.
Blaich Vaughan spent a junior year semester teaching in Kenya and, not yet ready to return to Hawaii after graduating from Harvard, traveled to Zimbabwe on a Rockefeller grant to study community-based job creation linked to rural schooling. That year in Africa expanded her thinking about the role of education in addressing social injustice, and she returned to her island home with a renewed sense of purpose.
The Hawaii that Blaich Vaughan came back to after five years away had changed significantly. It was a time of immense development pressure and land-use change, much of it without community awareness. Additionally, the 1993 centenary had reawakened the prospect of Hawaiian independence and sparked a drive to recreate ability to govern.
“We didn’t have, for example, ancestrally grounded Hawaiian education or natural resource management systems,” she explained. “When I got home, our people were deeply embroiled in the work of rebuilding those systems. I worked at a Hawaiian language immersion school on Oahu and began to focus on implementing more culturally based education in Hawaii.”
At the University of Hawai‘i at Mānoa, Blaich Vaughan earned a master’s in curriculum studies tailored to Hawaiian education. She began thinking about what governance and systems could look like if they were developed by the local population in a way that honored Hawaiian culture and its teachings.
The changes she found on returning to Kauai after receiving her master’s degree were even more stark. “I almost couldn’t recognize our island,” she said. “There was a huge influx of new residents and most of the families I grew up with were priced out and had to leave, their land and livelihoods gone. The community I had loved and felt so connected to wasn’t there anymore.”
Blaich Vaughan wanted to assist in mobilizing community participation in island stewardship and began to consider pursuing a PhD. Meeting Stanford’s Peter Vitousek, a professor of Earth system science and of biology, got the wheels turning.
The Stanford experience
After Blaich Vaughan met Vitousek at a conference, he encouraged her to apply to Stanford’s new Emmett Interdisciplinary Program in Environment and Resources (E-IPER), where she could gain the skills to become an effective change agent in Hawaii.
Blaich Vaughan and her soon-to-be husband agreed that she should go back to graduate school, and she arrived at Stanford alone three months after their wedding. From the beginning, students were pressed to clearly articulate what they were trying to change.
“I had to understand the environmental situation in Hawaii in the broader context of climate change and consider similar issues in other parts of the world,” she said. “I had to gain skills across disciplines and solve problems collaboratively. But I had little ecology, economics, or policy background and was far from home.”
Vitousek remembers that Blaich Vaughan presented a very powerful cultural message in her academic methodologies.
“When she had her qualifying exam, she started out by passing a basket around to her committee, asking them to take a food item from her homeland out of the basket and put a thought about their family in,” he recalled. “When the basket returned to her, she said, ‘OK, now examine me.’ In that way, she’d put her cultural stamp on the proceedings.”
Her advisor, Professor Barton “Buzz” Thompson, elaborated: “Mehana’s blend of knowledge, insight, and cultural appreciation was unparalleled. I’ve never had a student who combined those three things the way she did.”
Blaich Vaughan had strong mentoring from the faculty, including female teachers like Roz Naylor, Pam Matson, Nicole Ardoin, and Meg Caldwell. “It was a learning experience,” she said, “thinking about starting a family and seeing these women with children working so hard to make the world a better place. They were at the top of their fields and so gracious, giving, and supportive.”
Another one of those women, Professor Gretchen Daily, remembered the impression Blaich Vaughan made on her. “Mehana helped me situate my work about the values of nature in decision-making in a much broader context,” she said. “In helping us understand the ways in which Native Hawaiians interweave cultural, spiritual, aesthetic, material, and other dimensions of nature into value systems and practice, she helped us understand many other contexts across the world.”
Blaich Vaughan is currently an associate professor in the Department of Natural Resources and Environmental Management at the University of Hawai‘i at Mānoa and the University of Hawai‘i Sea Grant Program. Her work includes community outreach, teaching, and research, and documenting these efforts has revealed deep, integrated cultural motivations in neighbors caring for their communities.
Her students work directly with community groups on climate change, social justice, environmental restoration, and education, and she is continually impressed with them.
“They are so far beyond the student I was,” she said. “Nothing is off the table for them, and they’re doing it all in service to their communities. I learn along with them and encourage them to delve into the values underneath resource management practices, so they can innovate new solutions that perpetuate those values.”
For Blaich Vaughan, her efforts to focus on cultural perpetuation, community development, and environmental restoration are entwined, with wisdom of the past imparting strength and adaptability in the present, and Native Hawaiian culture helping sustain communities through an abiding sense of place.
“In articulating their views on climate change, many of the Indigenous people I work with speak of past upheavals, like hurricanes and tidal waves,” she said, “and how their ancestors adapted and helped the ecosystem to right itself. This is not something that has happened overnight or that humans haven’t faced before.”
Blaich Vaughan’s book, Kaiāulu: Gathering Tides, spotlights the commitment of fishing families to care for Hawaii’s coastal waters, and how the unique responsibilities that come with being from a specific place offer lessons that apply elsewhere. She wrote Kaiāulu (which means “community”) to bear witness to the changes she has seen and to honor the Hawaiian families who endure. Due to increasing property prices and taxes, driven by out-of-state buyers, local families are forced to leave the lands and waters that their ʻohana have cared for across generations – places that depend upon their stewardship in a changing climate. The proceeds of her book support Kīpuka Kuleana, a nonprofit she started that helps longtime Kauai families protect their ancestral lands and perpetuate kuleana and connections to place.
“The hardest chapter for me to write was about what’s happening to land ownership on our island and how hard but essential it is for families and community to stay here,” she said.
When she talked to the grandchildren of the elders she had interviewed for the book, they spoke of traditional knowledge and sustainability based on reciprocity and respect, and their youthful wisdom proved pivotal in her writing process.
“Even though we’ve lost so much, there’s continuity in these young people who are striving to perpetuate ancestral values. I knew I could finish my book when I heard them saying a lot of the same things their grandparents say. It helped me see more clearly how we sustain communities and keep people on their land and in their neighborhoods by caring for their environments, even in urban areas.”
Her message to Stanford students is that they have much to give in terms of approaching a problem, issue, or injustice. “I advise them to figure out what their unique gifts are and to use those to better the condition of the places they care about. I’m excited to see their solutions.”
Our alumni are changing the world.
Each year, we recognize alumni for their highly significant contributions to addressing today’s sustainability challenges and celebrate their long-lasting impact on the Stanford community and on the world. Submit your nomination for the 2024 Early- to Mid-Career Alumni Award today.
Peter Vitousek is the Clifford G. Morrison Professor in Population and Resources Studies in the School of Humanities and Sciences, professor of Earth system science, senior fellow at the Woods Institute for the Environment, and professor, by courtesy, of biology. Barton Thompson is the Robert E. Paradise Professor in Natural Resources Law at Stanford Law School, professor in the Social Sciences Division at the Stanford Doerr School of Sustainability, and senior fellow at the Woods Institute for the Environment. Gretchen C. Daily is the Bing Professor in Environmental Studies in the School of Humanities and Sciences, professor of biology, and senior fellow at the Woods Institute for the Environment and, by courtesy, the Freeman Spogli Institute for International Studies.
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