Campus Life


Written By Gregory Fischbach

October 23, 2023
Share this article:
The conference was a student-driven diversity conference that included a keynote presentation by Wanjiku ‘Wawa' Gatheru

The conference was a student-driven diversity conference that included a keynote presentation by Wanjiku ‘Wawa' Gatheru.

The first-ever HPUnity Diversity Conference took place on October 13, 2023, at Aloha Tower Marketplace and it collectively galvanized HPU students, faculty, and staff for a transformative and enlightening event. The conference was a student-driven diversity conference aimed at fostering awareness, expanding knowledge, honing skills, and strategizing for social change concerning crucial DEI (Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion) topics and contemporary trends affecting present-day college students in Hawaiʻi.

The conference highlight was a keynote presentation by Wanjiku “Wawa” Gatheru.

Known for her role as an environmental justice warrior, Gatheru is a Rhodes, Truman and Udall scholar, and the founder of Black Girl Environmentalist. She shared invaluable insights at the conference, igniting a wave of inspiration and shared dialogue. Her keynote presentation delved into critical topics that resonated deeply with the packed HPU ʻohana audience.

Wanjiku 'Wawa' Gatheru delivers an engaging keynote presentation to HPU students, faculty, and staff

Wanjiku 'Wawa' Gatheru delivers an engaging keynote presentation to HPU students, faculty, and staff.

Gatheru's keynote primarily revolved around the climate crisis, highlighting that it's “not too late to solve the crisis.” She emphasized that the Earth is providing essential feedback, urging folks around the world to usher in an era of climate action. Gatheru also called attention to a change in the narrative surrounding the climate and plastics crisis, stating that “a world without plastics is possible.” In the same breath, she stressed the need to embrace the concept of “intersectional environmentalism.”

Environmental intersectionality can be described as the interconnected nature of injustices faced by marginalized communities and the planet. It advocates for justice for all people and the planet, promoting an inclusive version of environmentalism. “It's not too late to flip the script. Climate justice is possible because we have all the climate tools necessary to solve the problem,” Gatheru passionately stated.

Gatheru also shared her personal journey, explaining that her connection with environmentalism was not immediate. It was during her junior year of high school, in an environmental science class, that she had a pivotal moment of environmental proximity. Her teacher's decision to introduce a section on environmental justice, not part of the planned curriculum, changed the course of her life. She discovered that caring for the environment is deeply intertwined with everything she holds dear: her family, her community, her home, and her personal life. This realization led to the birth of her own climate story, a journey that everyone can embark on without having to search very far.

Fourteen HPU students who served as student diversity leadership ambassadors, representing their fellow students, held key roles to make the conference a great success. The student ambassadors led student breakout sessions on the topics of addressing microaggressions, how to talk about diversity, how to be an ally, and cultural competence and diversity initiatives. The student ambassadors worked in collaboration with select HPU staff ambassadors.

“Communication technology has enabled knowledge to be transferred quicker and more widely than ever before. However, some of the knowledge is moving faster than wisdom. It was a pleasure to introduce and listen to Waha Gatheru make the connection between the two as it relates to embracing and working towards justice and diversity in our climate change adaptation endeavors,” said Kumu Ramsay Taum who introduced Gatheru to the audience and provided closing event comments.

Wanjiku 'Wawa' Gatheru and Kumu Ramsay Taum at HPU's Aloha Tower Marketplace campus

Wanjiku 'Wawa' Gatheru and Kumu Ramsay Taum at HPU's Aloha Tower Marketplace campus.

HPU student Venus Mairena shared her experience as a student ambassador, stating that she “thought this would be an opportunity to not only find my community, but to also help others find their community, or to start initiatives at HPU that will help others find their communities.”

Mairena is a first-generation student studying English at HPU and is the first person in her family to leave home to pursue an education. “I don't think I'm the only one,” she shared. “I have met others in a similar situation, and I also have met others that are not in that situation. There’s a very strong contrast in how we live our lives. I want to be able to provide support or to find ways to help support the people who have to work several jobs to afford college.”

HPU student Blake Jones became a student ambassador for two reasons. The first, “I want to help students become better allies,” says Jones, “ because I think there's an idea that if it doesn't concern you then don't worry about it. Or, that it could be stressful to stand up for other people. So, I’d love to create an atmosphere of inclusion where it’s okay to stand up for people; it’s a positive thing to be an ally and there’s a lack of fear in terms of that.

Later in the afternoon, Gatheru joined Sabrina Thomas for an engaging Q&A session with a faculty and staff audience. The questions touched on Gatheru’s educational background, her experiences as an environmental activist, and her invaluable insights into the pressing environmental issues she passionately addresses.

Gatheru is a first-generation American of Kenyan descent. She hails from a background where conversations about saving the Earth were commonplace while farming with her mother and grandmother. As a Rhodes Scholar, she is committed to amplifying the voices of those most affected by climate change and exposing the roots of environmental racism.

She tirelessly advocates for a climate movement that is inclusive and representative of all. She collaborates with artists, musicians, and cultural influencers to bring climate justice to the forefront of mainstream conversations. Her remarkable efforts have garnered recognition, including being featured alongside Billie Eilish on the digital cover of Vogue in 2023. Gatheru's involvement in various boards and advisory councils underscores her commitment to environmental causes, making her a celebrated figure in the climate activism landscape.

The Ohana teal logo