Monday, April 6, 2009

International sustainability expert has local ties

March 26, 2009

A rich part of the heritage of Perry County is the Goree family. While doing some research, I came across a descendent of this family whose work tries to benefit the lives of people around the world. I contacted Langston James "Kimo" Goree VI, and he was gracious enough to talk to me about his family history and his work.

Goree is the Director of the International Institute for Sustainable Development (IISD) Reporting Services and one of the founders of the Earth Negotiations Bulletin. His base of operations is New York City, but he travels throughout the world. Goree was born in Honolulu and raised in Berkeley and Walnut Creek, California. He received his nickname "Kimo" (pronounced “Keemo”) from Hawaiian tradition. According to Goree, everyone born in Hawaii gets both a Christian and a Hawaiian name that has become its equivalent. “Kimo” is the Hawaiian version, then, of James, his middle name.

Kimo Goree’s great-great-great-great grandfather, the first Langston James Goree, was one of the early settlers of Perry County and one of the founding fathers of Judson College. Kimo’s great-great-great-great grandmother, Sarah Williams Kittrell Goree, was matron of honor at the wedding of General Sam Houston and Margaret Lea in 1840. The Goree family moved to Texas by 1850, living first at Huntsville where they rented the Houstons’ Woodland Home. The Gorees then built their own plantation, Trinity Bend. After Langston Goree I died in 1853, Sarah Goree moved her family closer to her brother, Dr. Pleasant Williams Kittrell, a physician and former trustee of Judson. Dr. Kittrell was also at General Houston’s bedside when he died in 1863 and was later the author of the bill that established the University of Texas. In 1858 Sarah Goree and her family purchased Raven Hill Plantation from General Houston.

Perhaps the most famous Goree of this period, though, was Kimo Goree’s great-great-great uncle, Thomas Jewett Goree. Born in 1835 in Marion, T.J.Goree attended Howard College before moving with his family to Texas, where he attended Baylor College, becoming a lawyer. In 1861 Goree left his law career and set out for Virginia to join the Confederate Army. Along the way, he met James Longstreet, later lieutenant general under Robert E. Lee. Goree served as Longstreet's aide-de-camp throughout the war. After the war, Goree became superintendent of Texas prisons and acquired the family plantation lands for the prison system, which continued to work them in the old manner of labor-intensive agriculture until the middle of the 20th century.

Kimo Goree only became aware of the depth of his Southern roots after his father returned from Southeast Asia in the late 1960s, where he was a civilian attached to U.S. military operations. Goree says that it was only when he moved to Texas that he fully appreciated his family history. Once, for example, he was at a café in a small town, and an older lady heard him introduce himself. She told him that his great-grandfather, a dentist, had fixed one of her teeth.

From 1971 to 1989, Goree worked as a professional actor doing stand-up comedy, film, TV, and radio work. He is a member of the Screen Actors Guild and American Federation of Television and Radio Artists. He even became a popular entertainer at children's birthday parties in the Dallas, Texas, area from 1975-1989 as "Kimo the Clown."

How did the scion of one of the first families of Texas find himself in show business? “I didn’t get into Stanford,” quipped Goree. He had done theatre in high school, so after not being accepted by the college of his dreams, he joined an improvisational comedy group in San Francisco. Later, his nightclub act helped him pay for college in Texas as well as his travels into Central and South America.

In between gigs and travel, he earned a bachelor’s degree from the University of Texas in Dallas in 1984. In 1986 he completed a master’s degree in Interdisciplinary Studies at UT Dallas and moved to Austin to pursue a Ph.D. at the Institute for Latin American Studies.

From 1977 through 1989, Goree traveled extensively in Central and South America, where he learned to speak both Spanish and Portuguese. In 1989 he began his environmental work in Brazil at an applied research institute in the Amazonian rain forest. Goree assisted local non-governmental organizations with technology and programs that discouraged slash-and-burn methods of agriculture. This, says Goree, is when his interests in technology and helping people improve their lives came together, especially around the time of the 1992 Rio conference. “A lot of the things we do in life aren’t so much planned as they are serendipitous,” said Goree.

In 1991 he created the Earth Summit Bulletin, which was renamed the Earth Negotiations Bulletin in 1993. Kimo Goree has been employed by the International Institute for Sustainable Development as the Director of the Division Reporting Services since 1993. In this job, he travels about 240,000 miles a year to attend and report on international, multilateral United Nations conferences.

Goree is unabashedly passionate about his job and the idea of sustainable development. “Sustainable development means improving the lives of people without destroying the resource base and the health and wealth of future generations,” said Goree. He believes that much of the resistance to the concept of sustainable development is simply because people haven’t had it fully explained. He wants people to understand that it includes “renewable resources, protecting biodiversity and the climate, and increasing the well-being and health” of people around the world. Much of the problem, according to Goree, is “inefficient and wasteful” energy policies that not only harm the environment and people’s lives but also weaken our national defense due to our reliance on foreign oil.

When asked about what the concept of sustainable development means for poor counties like Perry County, Goree replied that community leaders should look to scientists and technology to improve the lives of poor people and protect local resources. He explained that in the last 100 years there have been three scientific revolutions that have greatly improved the lives of people around the world: pesticides, fertilizers, and bio-engineered crops. He also pointed out that his own family history is a cautionary tale of the dangers of land degradation. His family left old lands back east in North Carolina and Georgia to move to new farming lands in Alabama before exhausting them and moving to Texas. Goree also believes that the current economic downturn is the perfect time for communities to embrace more responsible and efficient practices and values.

“The concept of sustainable development is much more nuanced than that of environmentalism. Environmentalism is focused on the environment. Sustainable development is concerned with the well-being of the individual but not at the expense of resources needed in the future. It is human centered.”

Goree has been married to Pamela Chasek since 1994 and has two children, Sam (born 1995) and Kai (born 1998). There is no Langston James Goree VII yet because Goree’s wife is an Ashkenazi Jew, and their tradition does not allow living family members to share the same name. “I broke a tradition by using a tradition,” joked Goree.

His interests outside of work and family include cycling and technology.

Kimo Goree has never been to Perry County, but he says that it might be time to rediscover his Alabama roots. “I may have to load up the wife and kids and come on down,” he said.

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