Tell us a little about yourself.
Aloha! My name is Brooke Hannah Hoffman. I was raised on a 4-acre parcel of land in the redwood forest in the 2,000-feet-high coastal mountains of Santa Cruz, California. My yard had a creek that my family took water from. I spent countless hours playing along its banks with no regard to property lines of what was mine or my neighbors’. I was free roaming, and as long as I was within earshot of an adult, I was being a good kid. My neighbors were my extended parents, calling my parents on speed dial if I was out of line. My friends and I played until dark, catching animals and putting them in terrariums, running around with nets in hand, building forts out of burned-out redwood stumps, and making soap and tea from flowers.
I was constantly an observer of natural cycles. My curiosity and fascination only grew deeper the more I learned. I loved exploring nature’s intricacies and relationships, and my parents stoked these values by allowing me unstructured free play, where I could wander and live in my imagination. They took me tide pooling along the Big Sur Coast, and we backpacked every August in the Sierra Nevada Mountains. They even helped me get my first job at the Monterey Bay Aquarium, where I learned the importance of “creating an experience” for another person so they can help advocate alongside you.
My introduction to Hawai‘i began when I transferred to UH Hilo to complete my bachelor’s degree through the Western Undergraduate Exchange program. In Hilo I immediately felt relaxed, as it echoed the small-town values of my childhood home. Observing my new home, I watched how much time people spent outside fishing, gathering ‘opihi, teaching their kids to surf. They were audaciously friendly, open and genuine. Hilo has a thriving agricultural and art community, but what I noticed most was how a stranger, often within 5 minutes of meeting you, would try to feed you, or you’d end up in a 30-minute conversation. It felt warm, comfortable and good for the heart.
I learned just how special Hawai‘i is. It wasn’t just the statistic of Hawai‘i having the most endemic species on the planet, or Hawai‘i having active volcanoes and all the geology and wildness that comes with that; it was the rarity in people’s attitudes—the aloha—that I found so endearing. That gave me the desire to call Hawai‘i home and learn everything I could about it.
Why is joining the JCI VISTA Fellows program important for you and your future?
The VISTA Fellows program is a wonderful and rare opportunity. I love community development and transformative change, and having a mentorship program that further developed my initiative and drive toward acting as an environmental leader was what I was looking for. Any environmental movement always begins with community and motivating people to protect the things important to them. I see Hawai‘i’s dedication to the UN’s 2030 global crisis goals as valiant. I also see COVID, in a way, as a blessing that has forced our state to address many old systems that weren’t working, but possibly were bothersome or expensive to correct. There is an immediate need to redirect economic goals, to diversify job opportunities beyond tourism, and to reduce our 90-percent reliance on imported goods.
This forceful jarring has changed the way we live. We have to work on Zoom, worry about food, worry about the number of errands we do, and keep a tally of the people we have interacted with. It forced our everyday habits that we never questioned, those comforts, to change. It forced us collectively as humans to be introspective, to be resilient and resourceful. To ask hard questions like, “What and who are most important to me? Am I giving my energy in the correct proportion to the right things? Are my actions in alignment with my values? Am I presenting myself to the world in a way I am proud of?”
This momentum is exciting for me as a conservationist: the fact that not only academics are talking about trying to solve broken systems, it’s part of household conversation. This is the time to act, to teach, to change mindsets: when people are already thinking, brainstorming, changing behaviors. UH is possibly the most ideal place to collaborate, as it has many years of creating longstanding working relationships with other partners, and it gives me access to many more people and projects within my year than possibly any other agency. This fact, partnered with a mentor I admire and a group of 13 dedicated, creative, “doer” people, makes me feel like part of a unified front addressing some of our state’s hardest and most complicated questions.
Having a VISTA in every community college and university in our state means that with clear goals, we can have long-reaching effects. Tackling the problem of 44 percent of students lacking adequate access to food, creating green workforce pathways that create living-wage jobs in our state, and teaching students applicable skills so they hit the job running when they graduate, are all projects I feel strongly about and something I want to work hard to improve. I see Hawai‘i as my home, and I want to preserve not only its natural beauty, places and species, but also its dynamic patchwork of people.
What kind of work do you hope to do after the program wraps up?
I hope to be a driving force in Hawai‘i environmental stewardship. I think my ideal job would be with the Nature Conservancy. I really love their approach to environmental protection. They buy land and immediately prioritize creating a healthy relationship with the community that this land serves. They put themselves in the community as part of a team to collaboratively address the specific needs of that area. They ask direct questions like, “As a community what do you want? What are your roadblocks? Can we help you write a grant, or introduce you to another partner, or provide labor and resources?” They are the protectors and guardians of that place. For me, this is the key component in long-standing change. I also think their team of conservation biologists, land acquisition experts, lawyers who lobby and change policy, and social media storytellers seems to be a very effective blend. I admire them greatly.
However, I realize that this year will expose me to many new groups and people, so I am open to possibilities. As long as it’s environmental with a community component, I will be happy. I know there are also AmeriCorps VISTA placements with the City and County Office of Climate Change, Sustainability and Resiliency, and Hawai‘i Green Growth, and there are internship placements with Elemental Excelerator. I would love to know more about their work and open the door for collaborations. Finding farmers more land, subsidized support, and helping with consistency and distribution is definitely a project I would like to help with more.
If you could change anything about our world, what would you change and why?
There are so many problems, but I would like people to realize what a huge opportunity COVID has been: an opportunity on a global scale to make some big changes, and to see the benefit and importance of science. We are living with the repercussions of our leaders’ choices and our individual actions. Being in a global crisis—whether a worldwide pandemic or global warming—affects us all. It’s overwhelming and scary, and it leaves us to question, “What can I do as one person?” Something as small as carpooling with a friend or joining a van share for your work commute, or buying items with less packaging, can make a huge impact over one’s lifetime. Small changes do matter when done on a global scale, or when you commit to it for a long period of time. As with anything in life, be informed, take the time to learn.
I also wish we started seeing one another as resources instead of competitors. If we freely gave our skills to our communities and partnerships, we would get a lot more done. I’d like people to stop seeing change as a failure, or implying that they did something wrong, and see it as an opportunity to learn a new skill or to have more options to choose. I wish people were curious about each other, and asked hard questions. Where there is tension, there is room for growth: “On the edge of comfort is where change happens.”
Our personalities, individual life experiences, cultures, races and upbringing make us unique individuals. But our basic needs are the same: to care for ourselves and loved ones with food/water and shelter, access to healthcare and education, and to be treated with respect. If we act with curiosity, kindness, patience and compassion, these divisions disappear. To be with someone vastly different than oneself is a huge learning opportunity: it helps us reflect on and define our own value systems. If we always interact with people like us, we aren’t even aware of other perspectives or ways of doing things.