Scroll Top
Spread for Ka Pili Kai aricle Mālama during COVID-19. Collage of photos and text highlighting the career ofCeleste Connors.

Mālama during COVID-19

by Amanda Millin

For Celeste Connors, living with aloha extended far beyond the shores of Hawaiʻi.

The former American diplomat worked overseas for 20 years and served as the White House director for Climate Change and Environment. But she is from Kailua, and it is her connection to host culture values of aloha, mālama, kuleana, and ʻohana that have driven her. “I was involved in negotiations at the highest levels of government,” says Connors. “I realize now that my actions were informed by host culture values having grown up in Hawaiʻi, which I wouldn’t have connected to unless I came home and had the opportunity to work with local community leaders.”

These negotiations included the United Nations (UN) Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), 17 steps the world has agreed upon to end poverty and protect the planet by 2030. Now Conners is back on Oʻahu locally executing the SDGs as the executive director of the public-private partnership Hawaiʻi Green Growth (HGG) and its sustainability project, the ALOHA+ Challenge. This translates to increasing local food production, reducing waste and natural resource loss, guiding sustainable development, and creating green-focused jobs. Little did she know this work, which she calls a “kākou (inclusive) effort” across economic, social, and environmental sectors, would help Hawaiʻi’s COVID-19 response and recovery.

Two years ago, realizing the SDGs could not be achieved without on-the-ground support, the UN launched the Local2030 Initiative and identified global community Local2030 Hubs. Hawaiʻi Green Growth’s work helped earn Hawaiʻi the honor, making it the only island, and North American location, to hold the Local2030 Hub distinction. Just months before Hawaiʻi’s COVID-19 lockdown, HGG also collaborated with the Global Island Partnership (GLISPA), where Connors is a board member, to create the Local2030 Islands Network. She thought the pandemic would shutter their efforts, but instead, it accelerated them. “We realized we need to be talking to each other. We’ve all had supply chain and tourism disruption. We need more locally grown food, regenerative tourism, and renewable energy to build community resilience. That’s where the rest of the world will get to.”

Together, Hawaiʻi, Seychelles, Grenada, Guam, Bonaire, Curaçao, Ireland, and the Federated States of Micronesia, are now using traditional knowledge and systems thinking, which in Hawaiʻi is based on the ahupuaʻa model, to tackle what Connors calls a postcard from the future of a climate disrupted world. “COVID-19 serves as a preview for the kinds of disruptions that could occur if we are not vigilant in laying the foundation for a more sustainable future,” she says. “This puts islands ahead.”

The partnership has created an islander-to-islander virtual platform where five COVID-19 conferences have occured, each with hundreds of participants. “It’s debunking the myth that islands need to rely on outside help to solve problems. We can learn from each other,” says Connors.

Hawaiʻi Green Growth is also helping to address Hawaiʻi’s high COVID-19 related unemployment by identifying green job opportunities through a survey posted on HGG’s dashboard, which publishes Hawaiʻi’s SDG progress. Hawaiʻi Green Growth’s network has already identified 9,000-plus jobs and $535 million dollars of future employment opportunities. They hope the data will encourage legislators and policy makers to fund the positions. Not only will the jobs serve Hawaiʻi, but Connors is confident they will guide the world towards a sustainable future.

“Island kids through their connection to host culture, island values, and indigenous knowledge are best equipped to shape the future global development and economic policy agenda.”


Aloha: Literally, breath of life or presence of breath. Culturally, it is both a greeting and a farewell and encompasses living and treating each other with love and respect.
Mālama: To take care of, tend, attend, care for, preserve, and respect.
Kuleana: Responsibility; a reciprocal relationship between the person who is responsible and that for which they are responsible.
ʻOhana: Family; kin group; clan.
Ahupuaʻa: Wedge-shaped Hawaiian land divisions extending from the mountains to the sea.


Browse Ka Pili Kai issues HERE