Healthy Eating + Active Living (HEAL) Hawaiʻi Island is driven by the work of partners: from food systems to worksite wellness, partnerships make light work of broad, diverse, and ever-expanding community change. One of Hawaiʻi Island’s HEAL partners is PATH, People for Active Transportation Hawaiʻi [formerly, People’s Advocacy for Trails Hawaiʻi]. Jessica Thompson, PATH Executive Director, recently sat down with HEAL Hawaiʻi Island’s Community Coordinator, Lisa DeSantis, to talk about the built environment, PATH’s approach to diversity, equity, and inclusion, and Jess’ dreams for the future of Hawaiʻi Island’s built environment landscape.
Interview edited for length and clarity.
PATH works with a team of dedicated staff, board members, volunteers, and partners to deliver on their mission to safely connect people and places on Hawaiʻi Island with walkways and bikeways. PATH stewards the popular and growing HIBike bikeshare program (yes, the blue bikes!), advocates for better active transportation policy and infrastructure, and leads Hawaiʻi Island’s Safe Routes to School efforts. Every year, PATH loads a trailer with 35 bikes, helmets (that students keep), and a team of staff and volunteers. This mobile bike school travels all over the island to teach Hawaiʻi Island 4th graders the joy of biking and how to ride safely.
What are your job responsibilities?
As Executive Director at PATH, my number one job is to partner with volunteers, our board, stakeholders, and partners such as HIPHI to advance our organization’s mission to safely connect people and places on Hawaiʻi Island with pathways and bikeways. Additional responsibilities include fiscal management, which includes fundraising, grant writing, individual giving, campaigns, and contracts, working with partners like HIPHI and government on advocacy issues to improve biking, walking, assisted mobility on right-of-ways that advance safety and convenience for people on Hawaiʻi Island to get around, and working with our board committees to ensure success in each committee area. PATH has two major programs: Safe Routes to School (SRTS) which includes our popular bike education program in schools, and HIBike, our bikeshare program, and I ensure the successful administration of these programs. All of my additional responsibilities support our number one priority.
What are your qualifications?
I was hired as PATH’s Executive Director in November of 2020. Daily walks have been a part of my fitness routine from Cornell College in Iowa to graduate school at Portland State University to my days as a public school teacher and instructional coach, and as a nonprofit leader. I came to PATH from Oregon Walks, where I served as Executive Director. At Oregon Walks, I helped pass Portland’s comprehensive Pedestrian PDX Plan, served on the steering committee for Portland’s first bus-rapid transit lanes committee, and was a member of Portland’s Vision Zero Task Force. My favorite projects included co-hosting hundreds of community walks with our partners. My husband Chris, a Registered Nurse, and I, are thrilled to have relocated to Hawaiʻi Island where our adult son, Akeke, lives.
PATH recently changed their name! Congratulations! What is PATH’s new name and can you explain the significance of this change?
People’s Advocacy for Trails Hawaiʻi is now, proudly, People for Active Transportation Hawaiʻi. This is part of a fundamental transition that has occurred at PATH, Hawaiʻi Island, and across the world in the last thirty years. All the data shows that the more we can design environments for people to be and feel safe walking, using a mobility device, and/or biking (essentially using the right-of-way for both exercise and transportation), the healthier our bodies, land, and communities. As such, there has been a real movement both here and abroad to create safe, convenient and accessible ways for people to get around by assistive mobility device, walking, or biking.
Can you explain active transportation? What does it mean?
Active transportation really means getting around using the power of one’s own body. That’s the “active” part. We know active transportation creates safe, convenient and accessible ways for people to get around by assistive mobility device, walking, or biking. The public right-of-way is any route that is used by people to move from one place or another: by biking, walking, scootering, assistive mobility device, swimming, boating, driving, or by train.
Can you share the programs and strategies PATH uses to create change here on Hawaiʻi Island?
First of all, this is the long game. It is our job to work towards as much policy, programming, and infrastructure improvements that promote walking and biking in the right-of-way as possible in our lifetimes. As far as programs, PATH stewards the popular and growing Hawaiʻi Island Bikeshare/HIBike (yes, the blue bikes!), advocates for better active transportation policy and infrastructure at county and state level, and leads Hawaiʻi Island’s Safe Routes to School efforts. One of my favorite programs at PATH is the Bike Education Program. Every year PATH loads up a trailer with 35 bikes, helmets (that students keep), and a team of staff and volunteers. This mobile bike school treks all over the island to teach Hawaiʻi Island 4th graders the joy of biking and how to ride safely.
Can you share about your partnerships in this work?
Currently we have close partnerships with schools, HIPHI, the County, and the State. In the future, I hope to establish more grassroots-focused partnerships and relationships with an emphasis on partnering with people and organizations who have been most negatively impacted by land use planning.
What is the role of the built environment in people’s everyday lives?
The built environment is a fancy way of saying, “the things people build and how the things people build either promote or hurt peoples’ ability to be safe, healthy and thrive in their environments.” Examples of built environments are parks, buildings, where schools are located, and the infrastructure created for folks to get around (trains, busses, bike paths, sidewalks, boats, airports).
What do diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) mean to you and why are they important to you?
To me, DEI work acknowledges that too many institutions on the continent and here in Hawaiʻi are operated by and for people who have the most access to power and privilege. The hoarding of power and privilege means institutions are centered too often on very limited perspectives. DEI work in institutions, whether it’s government, a private business, or a nonprofit like PATH, acknowledges that we must lean into learning and constantly challenge ourselves and others to ask: whose perspective is not included at the decision-making tables? Why are certain perspectives not at the table? How can we learn to truly value diversity, equity, and inclusion as critical to creating the kind of change we want to see and be in the world, both as individuals and in organizational cultures.
What is your approach to understanding the perspectives of residents who all hail from different backgrounds?
It’s so complicated. Part of the job of PATH is to connect people and places. One of the ways we want to do that is to build trusting relationships with people of different experiences of getting from one place to another on the island. It’s listening to people and believing people when they share their experiences on walking and biking. Some experiences are community-experiences (if it’s unsafe to walk to school the whole school experiences that). But there are ways in which people’s experiences are different, and our job is to listen to as many people and build trust with as many people as possible all over the island, responding to their needs and perspectives instead of coming in with a predetermined solution.
How do you advocate for diversity, equity, and inclusion at PATH?
PATH is at an inflection point. We have a long history of service: creating bikeways and pathways and promoting walking and biking in Hawaiʻi County. We recognize that in order to continue growing into our mission, we need to consciously lean into learning from people who have different experiences biking, walking or using an assistive mobility device in Hawaiʻi County. For example, we started in Kailua-Kona and slowly expanded around the island, specifically within school communities. We are committed to consciously building partnerships with people and communities who may not see themselves as “walking advocates” or “biking enthusiasts”, but who still want safe places to walk and bike and want carbon-free transportation options.
What do you envision for Hawaiʻi Island as it relates to active transportation and the built environment?
I envision a Hawaiʻi Island with open pathways that are utilized by residents to get where they need to go, without dependence on vehicles. It would be great to see a robust transit system that offers bussing, bikeshare, and carshare options so that people have more (and less expensive) mobility options. Full electrification (hopefully generated by solar) for electric vehicles, no matter where you are, Kaʻu to Kohala. But again, this all needs to be created by people from every corner of the island to make sure it is meeting the needs of our people with a variety of experiences getting around.
PATH is fundraising for a new vehicle! Why should folks donate and how can they do so?
PATH has one of the oldest bike education programs in the nation. One of the ways the organization shares its mission is generationally: the work we do today will benefit generations to come. Part of that means we need to equip our youth with skills and confidence to get on a bike. We bring the bikes to schools, we load a van and trailer with volunteers and 35 bikes and helmets, and truck all over the island and meet with over 1,200 fourth graders over the course of a year. It’s a three day course which includes lessons in basic bike safety, bike maintenance, hand signals, rules of the road, and the importance of wearing a helmet. Keiki love these classes; we have more people interested in this program than we can deliver on. Eventually, the children we’re teaching will be the people using the paths we’re advocating for and then they’ll be the folks advocating for safety measures and additional pathways. We’re trying to raise money because the van we use to bring the bikes and classes to the students has reached the end of its life. The trailer is huge and heavy and we’ve put many miles on it and the van that pulls it. We have funding for new bikes, but we need a new trailer and a new van; they’ve been operating together for 10 years and it’s time. Raise the Ride for Keiki is our fundraising campaign and folks can donate to the program here.
How can folks stay in touch and connect with you?
Also, a plug for our bikeshare program, HIBike, which is doing great. We’re seeing double the ridership numbers we’d seen pre-pandemic, and have two campaigns to promote HIBike for HI County residents. People 50 and over can get a free HIBike membership through our Silver Streak Program, and in a partnership with mass transit, anyone that has a mass transit monthly pass receives a free HIBike, so they don’t have to walk that last mile or two from where they’re going. If you’re interested in participating in HIBike, please visit our HIBike website.
Anything you’d like to share as closing words?
Yes! Shoutout to HIPHI for being such a close partner and shoutout to Hawaiʻi County and local school communities. Special shoutout to Tina Clothier for being such a great PATH Executive Director for many years and now a personal friend and mentor.
If anyone wants to talk walking, go for a walk, or show me their favorite place to walk, I would love to meet up and talk story. I can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
HEAL Hawai’i County invites you to get involved in Healthy Eating + Active Living in your community! Whether you participate in HIBike, ask for bike education in your child’s school, or are focused on a different piece of community change, we invite you to reach out. Contact Hawaiʻi Island HEAL Coordinators Lisa DeSantis (email@example.com) and Sally Ancheta (firstname.lastname@example.org).