Environmental Heroes 2013

The earliest people understood the integrity of nature: that what happens at the mountain's top affects the ocean's depths. We contemporary islanders are fortunate to have individuals whose actions remind us of that wisdom, whether they serve as committed volunteers, or by making their passion their profession.

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Malia CahillMalia Cahill
A Sense of Direction

How do you engage teenagers in environmental issues?

Hand them a video camera.

“Kids are obsessed with media,” says Malia Cahill, founder and executive director of Maui Huliau Foundation. “That’s why it’s such a powerful learning tool.”

Designed for twelve- to eighteen-year-olds, Maui Huliau Foundation comprises three interrelated programs: Huliau Youth Leaders, a leadership-development group; Hui Laulima, a service-learning program; and the Huliau Environmental Filmmaking Club.

“Huliau has several meanings, including ‘turning point’ and ‘time of change,’” Malia explains. “That’s what I witness when my students start to see the bigger picture. It’s the best feeling in the world.”

Of the three, the Huliau Environmental Filmmaking Club is the nonprofit’s flagship program, and the most popular.

No surprises there. In this semester-long afterschool program, students get to flex their creative muscles as they explore environmental topics through digital storytelling.

Not to mention, there’s some pretty cool camera equipment.

“That’s definitely part of the appeal,” Malia says with a laugh. “But it’s really about creating a visual experience that can inspire others.”

Every semester, students work in teams to master the fundamentals of cinematography, from preproduction, scriptwriting and storyboarding; to directing, shooting and editing. They also learn to peel back the layers of the complex environmental and conservation issues affecting their community.

“The kids choose their own topics,” Malia explains. “They’ve covered air quality, water pollution, sustainable agriculture — and everything in between. They work independently, but we walk them through the research process, connect them to experts in the community, show them how to conduct on-screen interviews and scout locations for the films.”

Once a “green teen” herself, Malia grew up in rural Upcountry Maui, where she vowed to always care for her island home.

“I left to get my degree in environmental studies,” she says, “and I came right back.”

While working as an environmental educator three years ago, Malia had her eureka moment. “I couldn’t find a program here that focused on teenagers,” she recalls, “so I started my own.”

Armed with a clear vision but lacking technical skills, Malia pooled her resources and purchased a cheap camcorder.

“I gave myself a crash course in filmmaking,” she laughs. “I knew it would be a challenge, since I wasn’t very tech-savvy; I didn’t even own a cell phone at the time.”

Launching a nonprofit proved to be an entirely different challenge. “I went to everyone I knew and asked them for fifty bucks. We bought a few $80 camcorders, and started as a 100 percent volunteer nonprofit.” Three months later, she welcomed her first cohort of students. Nearly a hundred young people from all over Maui have participated in the three Huliau programs since their inception.

Malia’s students have had their cinematic creations screened in several national film festivals. Every June, they present their work at the Huliau Youth Environmental Film Festival at ‘Iao Theater in Wailuku.

“My goal is to empower youth,” Malia explains, “because they are our future.”

— Sarah Ruppenthal

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