‘Compassion in Crisis’: An Interview with Kailea Frederick

By Imara-rose Glymph

Plant your feet in fresh dirt, breathe deep the gift of oxygen, sense the cool wind tickle your nape; you are, in this moment, rooted. In the midst of the climate crisis, how are we cultivating a tangible, regenerative kinship with Mother Earth in our daily lives? This is where Spiritual Ecology comes in as a framework for healing and bridge-building, making place for oneself in gratitude for the natural world.

Kailea Frederick is a First Nations mother dedicated to supporting individuals in remembering their personal ties to the Earth. Growing up off-grid in Maui, Hawai’i forever imprinted on her the importance of reciprocity and cultivating intimate ties to Honua, our island Earth. In this interview, Kailea shares her work on climate justice, spiritual ecology, and resilience thinking, and describes how motherhood has influenced her practice. 

Currently, Kailea is the editor for Loam, and a climate commissioner for the City of Petaluma, California. Earth is `Ohana is her brainchild – an online integrative space offering writing, consulting, and the facilitation of workshops focused on our reconnected relationship with Earth to address our environmental reality.

Kailea Frederickphoto by Adam Loften.

What first drew you to the realm of climate activism? How did your experience as a graduate of the International Youth Initiative Program and as a Maui youth delegate to two United Nations Climate Change Conferences enrich and inspire your environmental leadership?

In 2011, when I was 19 years old, I entered into the slow food movement, which became an access point into food justice and ultimately food sovereignty. That year, I started working on a local farm that I would end up being at for the next six years. Most of my friends were young farmers or practiced some other form of subsistence. I grew up in the Hawaiian islands, where there are estimates that 80% to 90% of all food is imported, so the topic of food sovereignty is something you inherently understand due to the fragility of the whole system. Growing up, I would always hear talk about what would happen if the ships were to stop coming. During this time, I saw a huge transition in mindset and awareness around this issue. 

I became politicized through the local food movement. Once you start talking about food, you have to start talking about water. I was introduced to the fight for local water rights that Native Hawaiians have been engaged in. Many streams have had their water flow cut off, which previously fed into their lo`i, the area where they would grow their kalo or taroKalo is one of the main staple foods; the act of growing and preparing it is both a cultural and spiritual practice, as well as a means of survival. This brought me into learning from and supporting the Hawaiian Sovereignty Movement. I learned that when you fight for Native self-determination, you actually fight for regenerative stewardship practices. Native people globally know how to respectfully manage and tend to land. 

In 2014, I graduated from the International Youth Initiative Program (YIP) and upon arriving home on the island of Maui, a campaign called the SHAKA movement was just getting underway. This was my formal initiation into the world of activism; previously I would never have described myself as an activist. SHAKA had put together a ballot initiative for that year’s elections that would place a moratorium on biochemical companies like Monsanto utilizing our land for experimental testing until we, the citizens, had an opportunity to hire our own scientists to check if their testing was safe. It was a huge community education endeavor, in which I spent time working on the youth arm of outreach and moderated the main Facebook page. We ended up winning the ballot initiative but failed to vote in the people who would defend the bill. That in itself was a huge lesson for me, one I am still addressing today through my work as a climate commissioner in the city of Petaluma. Never overlook or underestimate the power of local politics. 

My experience at YIP was months fresh and directly played into my active participation. YIP, as a program, is focused on project development, collaboration, and conflict resolution. The experience gave me the courage and skills to take an idea, implement it, and learn how to navigate work within complex group dynamics. 

In 2014 and 2015, I was a youth delegate to the UN Climate Change Conferences (COP21 & COP22). These experiences provided my first glimpse into the international climate justice movement, with an emphasis on building solidarity across Native rights and fights against extractive industry. I learned about movement building, media creation, and on the ground action, while getting a taste for what policy spaces hold. 

Kailea reads to her son, photo by Adam Loften.

You were a spiritual ecology fellow with Kalliopeia, a foundation that supports initiatives interweaving spirituality, culture, and ecology. Describe how Earth is ‘Ohana came out of that immersive fellowship.

The fellowship tasked us with coming up with a few projects to workshop as the program was oriented around incubation. I applied and was accepted based on previous ideas, and then went to COP21. It was because of that intensive experience being on the streets of Paris that the idea for Earth Is `Ohana came about. I wanted to figure out a way to bring this experience home for my community. I piloted the project for 10 weeks with a few participants in the spring of 2016 before I started the fellowship in the summer. In nine more months, it was fleshed out even further. In some ways, the prompt of the fellowship supported me in thinking more deeply about what I wanted to create, but the project itself came directly out of other lived experiences and my desire to better serve my communities through grassroots education. 

I’m currently in the midst of broadening Earth Is `Ohana into a space that is about offering my specific services through facilitation, consulting, and writing, while still remaining fixed on addressing the intersections between climate justice, spiritual ecology, and resilience thinking. 

Drawing on a guiding question from the Earth Is `Ohana workshops, “How do we practice returning home to our landscapes in order to regenerate our relationship with Earth?” Why is this re-imagining of activism so essential?

The practice of placemaking is a core part of understanding yourself as part of a specific ecology and social system. It’s important work that helps to ground us in a story of self that transcends the usual linear notions of success and instead brings us into relational interdependence. This type of placemaking is not generally part of the mainstream environmentalist movement and often leaves us working on a shallow level instead of addressing issues at the systemic level. I didn’t fully understand this having grown up in such a small community, embedded so directly in the landscape that raised me. Naively, I thought that most of us carried this level of personal relationship to land and community. Stepping into climate activist spaces away from Hawai’i was a huge culture shock; one that I’m still learning to navigate. It became obvious to me that we would need to re-imagine how we practice activism so that we are able to sustain this work for the long arc of life. Burnout is a prevalent problem that doesn’t allow our movements to retain long-term investment from individuals, but beyond the logistics of losing people, burning out is also a spiritual problem. When we invite people into a culture of practice that depletes the inner self, we’re mimicking aspects of the extractive industry we’re fighting. 

How do intersectionality and interpersonal communication come into your practice, especially as a person who identifies as womxn, First Nations, and African American – those groups on the frontlines of the climate crisis?

Because I am a mother, because I am Black, because I am First Nations, because I grew up in the Hawaiian Islands, because I have a parent who works in the extractive industry, because I currently live in a predominately white city, my work must always remain intersectional and therefore inclusive. I have known all of my life that I carry within me, just by the nature of who I am, many bridges to often divergent worlds and people. In the course of my 29 years on Earth, I’ve interacted, lived among, and been in kinship with many different types of people. My privilege is intersectionality as a lived experience in my own bones, and I say this because it has made me grow capacity and perspective. It is an ever-expanding lens that allows me to see and hold connections that might not be obvious to most, which also means it’s one of my greatest responsibilities, making those connections for others. My vision is that, one day, our larger social, political, and environmental movements will work in greater cohesion through understanding the intricate ways they are interwoven. Less divisiveness, more nuance, that’s my prayer. 

Kailea and her son amid palms, photo by Adam Loften.

In collaboration with Kate Wiener of Loam magazine, you released your first book, Compassion in Crisisbraiding together interviews and resources for learning to live in the Anthropocene. What was that process like? Has motherhood influenced your perception of life in these times of social, political, and environmental instability?

The process of birthing Compassion in Crisis alongside Kate was a fruitful experience. When we initially started the project, I told Kate I wanted to write about death. I’ve thought about the closeness of death every day since becoming a mother. As soon as you start growing a child, you realize how precious and vulnerable life is. I went through pregnancy half in awe and half in fear over this new life I was suddenly responsible for. This was heightened as a few days after I found out that I was pregnant, a town 20 minutes from my house lost whole neighborhoods to a wildfire. Not more than a month after my son was born, wildfire season started early. This was 2018 and we spent several weeks in the second half of that year living beneath smothering smoke that was incredibly hazardous to my newborn’s lungs. I grappled daily with debilitating fear. I was scared to go to sleep because I was worried a fire would break out in our town at night. My partner and I made detailed plans about what an escape would look like, who would carry the baby’s body, who would carry our dog. 

Compassion in Crisis was created from that place of anxiety. It was a project that helped me re-learn how to breathe again, as through the research and the interviews I really confronted and got intimate with the grief and possibility that surrounded disaster. I draw frequently on those materials as a way to help me keep showing up to the world we’re living in. As a parent, I think that’s all I can do. Keep showing up honestly. 

What are you envisioning and what are you hopeful for in the future? 

Recently I’ve been feeling hope through embarking on new conversations with friends and acquaintances who up until very recently have not considered themselves political. It has been affirming to me to receive questions about where and how to plug in, and even more enlivening when new faces actually show up! I feel like our movement spaces are gaining traction and the greater public is becoming familiar with specific demands being set forth. Ideas that just a few months ago would have been considered radical by most, like reparations, are suddenly catching on. Seeing others around me critically think, and deepening my own critical thinking capabilities, brings me a lot of hope! We’re sharpening our minds and that gets me excited. 

I’m about to have a piece published on the Center for Humans and Nature website as part of their section called “Resilient Future Questions.” The theme I’m working with is belonging. My essay is a vulnerable one, as it touches on some of the thoughts and feelings I had while waiting to find out the skin color of my child while I was pregnant. In 2018, one of my friends challenged me to not “be afraid to write ugly.” I spent all of last year slowly inching my way towards this concept of ugly writing, which I understand as deeper truth writing. This year, 2020, my goal was to fully step into this ugly writing, and this piece definitely touches on those parts of myself that I would consider unpleasant, yet deserve to be seen as much as the more palatable parts of myself. Because I’m mixed, and because my mixed child is white-passing, I feel particularly dedicated to widening space for us mixed people to inhabit. The middle space, which is ultimately a bridge space, is never easy to inhabit, yet we need to bridge people now more than ever. I’ll be sharing it when it goes live on my Instagram, which is the best way to stay tuned to my work and collaborative projects.

In closing, here is Remembering Back Into Ourselves with Kailea Frederick from For The Wild‘s Deeply Rooted, a nourishing poetry reading and guided meditation, cultivating wellness and fostering resilience.

(Top image: Kailea Frederick with her son, photo by Adam Loften)

This article is part of our Black Artists & Storytellers series.


Imara-rose Glymph is a student at Bennington College pursuing an interdisciplinary degree looking at multi-cultural identity, language, biology/ecology, and performative arts. Most recently, she was a media fellow with Global Citizen Year, documenting Indigenous Women’s agricultural stewardship, and a representative of Intersectional Outreach with Extinction Rebellion. She has been involved in the climate conversation since leading youth delegations in the GIN 852 conference Hong Kong, organizing bio-tours of mangrove conservation areas, and guiding students as an Arctic Hall Docent with the Smithsonian Natural History Museum. 


Artists and Climate Change is a blog that tracks artistic responses from all disciplines to the problem of climate change. It is both a study about what is being done, and a resource for anyone interested in the subject. Art has the power to reframe the conversation about our environmental crisis so it is inclusive, constructive, and conducive to action. Art can, and should, shape our values and behavior so we are better equipped to face the formidable challenge in front of us.

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