In Good Company: Debbie Millikan, Director of Sustainability

All Roads Lead to Green

Punahou welcomes its inaugural director of sustainability, Debbie Millikan, who has her sights set on taking the School’s verdant culture to new heights. In her capacity, she will spearhead all aspects of planning, development and implementation of Punahou’s sustainability strategy. 

Throughout her impressive career, which spans two decades, she has immersed herself in all things green. Millikan has worked as a teacher and sustainability specialist at Waikı¯kı¯ School and ‘Iolani School and helped to advance K – 12 sustainability curriculums across all academic disciplines. She has also forged key community partnerships and raised vital funding for the O‘ahu Farm to School Network, helping to transform school gardens and cafeteria programs. The seasoned educator has been instrumental in training broad networks of teachers and administrators in sustainable food practices throughout the state.

Millikan holds a B.S. in biology from the University of California, San Diego, a Ph.D. in marine biology from the Scripps Institution of Oceanography at UCSD, and completed a National Science Foundation postdoctoral fellowship in microbial biology at the University of Hawai‘i’s Pacific Biomedical Research Center. 

You are Punahou’s first director of sustainability, what are some of your strategic goals?

We need to prioritize a whole-school approach, recognizing the need to integrate sustainability as a core component of our organizational culture. Punahou has already made huge strides from the early days of “buff and blue equals green” to the more recent net zero initiative; sustainability efforts have played a key role in how we do things.

Moving forward on this journey, we have identified three priority areas. The first is in academics, where principles of sustainability are embedded and woven within the existing K – 12 educational program, rather than seen as an add-on or only for science class. The second area is framed around physical place, where the built and surrounding natural environment, and the resources that flow through them, provide the context for educational experiences and a demonstration of our School values.  

Finally, the third area is creating a sustainability certificate program where high school students from both public and private schools come together to learn and apply their understanding to tackle some of the serious challenges we face and prepare them for careers in sustainable energy and technology, climate policy, food production and economics. 

You have a varied and distinguished background in sustainability. What previous experiences will you leverage most to help with your new role?

My experience as a teacher of a wide range of students from kindergarten to university and in both formal and informal settings will come in handy – it gives me a broad perspective of relevance and context. Also, my experience in establishing the community partner relationships and connections with educators that I have garnered over the years. Those will play a key role in defining our goals and developing the sustainability certificate program. 

What drew you specifically to Punahou?

Punahou continues to demonstrate its leadership in education, in values of ‘Ike Hawai’i and various aspects of sustainability. But truly it is the level of commitment that the School is making that has drawn me to join the Punahou ‘ohana. When you see that level of commitment across campus from the administration, faculty, students, physical plant and the school cafeteria, who wouldn’t want to join that? It’s exciting and I’m thrilled to have this opportunity.  

President Mike Latham ’86 has said that sustainability is both an existential challenge for our society and an area of tremendous opportunity and innovation. Where do you see the biggest potential gains?

Time is of the essence. I see the biggest opportunities when we leverage our greatest asset: people. We have incredibly dedicated and smart teachers who already recognize that our rapidly changing world calls for new strategies in teaching and learning. We can rise to the challenge and Punahou is providing the resources to do so with the new Centers Distinctions, the Center for Teaching and Learning and much more.  

We need to be flexible and continually adapt our curriculum to make learning authentic, place-based and meaningful so students feel a sense of belonging and see themselves as agents of change. We hear the projection that many of the jobs of the future have yet to be defined, and we also know our future climate and ability to thrive on this planet are unclear. Our role as educators is to prepare our young people for that uncertainty, provide them with opportunities to find joy and fulfillment while achieving their highest potential to do good for others.

Punahou is large and multifaceted, with a lot of moving parts. How will you prioritize the sustainability goals?

In order to prioritize, we need to know where we are while simultaneously defining where we want to go. Specifically, we need to identify how we will measure success along the way, recognizing this is an iterative journey and we will need to revisit our goals and measurements as new efficiencies and technologies come on board. It’s also important that we continually consider how our goals align with our educational mission and core values and use those opportunities to re-prioritize as needed. 

How will sustainability look at Punahou five years from now?

My hope is for our School community to embed sustainability in all we do – with a way of thinking that recognizes a systems perspective, an ecological worldview and a deep spiritual and emotional intelligence. This broad sustainability mindset should be infused into the entire community, from students to families and faculty to staff. Just for fun, it would be really cool if the food we serve in our cafeteria were to come from our campus gardens and nearby farms and included indigenous foods like kalo and ‘ulu; the energy we use to power our laptops comes from the sun; and that we see every material on campus as a resource rather than something to be discarded. I also see students engaged and active in their communities, understanding and implementing the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals, and connecting every potential career path to forging a sustainable future that is both just and equitable.  

How do you have fun outside of work?

I am thinking about sustainability all the time and I have fun with it so it doesn’t always feel like work. I enjoy the critical analysis of what it means to be sustainable and all it encompasses that I find I’m thinking about it while also having fun outside of work, mostly spending time on the ocean. My favorite activity is surfing, although I’m happy doing just about any activity that involves water – from paddling, to snorkeling or swimming.  I also enjoy any activity that involves food, like gardening, or cooking and eating with friends and family.

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