Alumna returns to help guide sustainability at UH Hilo

Through a fellowship, Anya Benavides will focus primarily on completing the official STARS report on UH Hilo’s sustainability performance, coordinate students club activities, help establish the academic certificate in sustainability program, and coordinate sustainability and food security efforts with the UH System.

By Susan Enright.

Anya Benavides
Anya Benavides

An alumna of the University of Hawai‘i at Hilo has returned to her alma mater to help guide the campus in its sustainability initiatives.

Through the Johnson Controls International AmeriCorps Volunteer in Service to America (VISTA) Fellowship program, the UH System Office of Sustainability has placed a VISTA Fellow at each of the 10 campuses in the UH System. Anya Benavides began her fellowship at UH Hilo in March.

The fellowship is a full-time position for Benavides where she is focusing primarily on completing an official report on UH Hilo’s sustainability efforts. She also is tasked to coordinate student club activities, help to establish the certificate in sustainability academic program, and coordinate sustainability and food security efforts with the UH System. She is working closely with faculty, staff, and her on-campus supervisor Michelle Shuey, an instructor in geography and environmental science, on issues and programs specific to UH Hilo.

“The Americorps VISTA Fellow position is a challenging job,” says Shuey. “The position necessitates someone who can facilitate and engage simultaneously on multiple projects of widely different topics and knowledge frameworks at their home campus, while also assisting the UH Office of Sustainability move forward on various goals for the system as a whole.”

“We were lucky when they hired Anya as our VISTA Fellow,” she adds. “Her background in facilitation and education, and her interests in social justice and sustainability have allowed her to hit the ground running. She’s been working tirelessly to connect people and facilitate projects, all under the restrictions and challenges of an unprecedented pandemic.”

Benavides grew up in Hilo and Puna. She graduated from UH Hilo with a bachelor of arts in English with high honors in 2018. She has studied in Scotland, Malta, and Estonia, and received her joint international master’s degree in adult education for social change from the University of Glasgow, the University of Malta, the Open University of Cyprus, and Tallinn University in 2020.

The work at hand

Benavides has a lot on her plate coordinating sustainability initiatives at UH Hilo; the most extensive of her tasks is to complete UH Hilo’s official Sustainability Tracking, Assessment, and Rating System (STARS) report. STARS is a self-reporting framework for colleges and universities to measure their sustainability performance.

“This is a large data report which will help the institution develop long-term sustainability goals,” she says. “The STARS rating will show where the university is lacking with sustainability initiatives, and show where there is room for growth, collaboration, and overall campus engagement.”

She also is helping coordinate student clubs in their sustainability efforts, a challenging task during Covid-19 restrictions.

“Since the Covid-19 pandemic, any of our clubs have come to a halt,” she explains. “One of my goals is to help these clubs get back on their feet, and allow for more collaboration between Hawai‘i Community College and UH Hilo. Two of the clubs I am focusing on are the Garden Club and Students of Sustainability.”

“Sprouting more student involvement with our campus gardens is something I am working on,” she says. She also is planning to host monthly garden workshops where students can learn tips and then put those tips into practice.

Her work with the campus’s Sustainability Committee is focused on helping to finish the long process of creating an academic certificate in sustainability. “We hope to finalize the courses offered for the certificate this semester,” she says. For this project, she is working with Assistant Professor of Geography Chris Knudson.

In addition, Benavides is working with VISTA fellows from other UH campuses to coordinate on-campus food distribution and food security research initiatives.

Intersectional sustainability

Benavides also is organizing system-wide discussions throughout the month of October focusing on intersectional sustainability.

She explains that intersectionality is a framework first developed in 1989 by professor Kimberlé Crenshaw. It considers how characteristics like one’s race, class, gender, etc., are all factors that create societal models of privilege and or discrimination. Intersectionality is applied to both social categories and societal structures.

“Intersectional sustainability, for example, considers intersecting issues related to the climate crisis (in relation to) colonialism, racism, exploitation of resources, and the interconnectedness of these issues,” she says. “When using this framework, the root causes for the climate crisis are considered, and the ways in which these causes intersect is considered, and not left out of the discussion.”

“For example,” she says, “if we look at which communities are disproportionately affected by the climate crisis already, they are largely POC (people of color) communities. From here, we can connect this to poverty and lack of resources, food security, clean water. If we look closer, maybe we can find that these communities are being affected more severely because, for example, they have been displaced from their homes due to rising water levels or extraction of their resources due to corporations exploiting those resources and creating unlivable places.”

Earth Fair

Looking ahead to 2022, Benavides will be helping prepare for the 2022 Earth Fair, an annual event done collaboratively with Hawai‘i CC.


About the writer of this story: Susan Enright is a public information specialist for the Office of the Chancellor and editor of UH Hilo Stories. She received her bachelor of arts in English and certificate in women’s studies from UH Hilo.