17-year old Mya-Rose Craig, better known as Birdgirl, recently became the youngest British person to be awarded an honorary degree by Bristol University for her work in conservation and campaigning to help minority communities access nature. She chats to Wicked Leeks about being a non white person in the environment sector, what coronavirus teaches us about what’s possible and meeting Greta Thunberg.
Congratulations on your honorary degree, Mya, how did that feel? And what are you up to now school and exams are cancelled?
Mya-Rose Craig (MRC): I thought it would have settled in by now but it still doesn’t feel very real! I was going to take a gap year anyway so I’m not too bothered about the exams being cancelled. I got a couple of uni offers and if I get the grades, I want to go to Warwick to study politics and international relations.
What got you in to conservation and environmental issues?
MRC: I’ve been into birding since I was a baby. My parents have always taken me out and they’ve always been very good at talking to me about problems going on in the world, so I’ve been very aware of it for ages.
Tell us in a nutshell how you started out.
MRC: Birdgirl was originally this blog I set up when I was 12, just because that was the thing that all the young birders did, back in like 2013 or 2014. It started off with me talking about the birding I was doing at the weekend, and it got a lot more popular than I expected when I started talking about topical issues. A lot of the stuff I’ve been doing more recently has been more people based – since 2015 I’ve been running nature camps every summer, Black2Nature, all about giving BAME and minority ethnic people, and teenagers, the chance to go out into the countryside for quite often the first time, and they’ve been really successful.
When did you become aware of the inequality in environmentalism?
MRC: Obviously I became aware of it because I myself am not white, so it was this growing awareness of the lack of other people who looked like me out in nature. I think in the UK, the links between class, race and the environment are really interesting in the access to the countryside. It’s always been that if you’re wealthy, you can afford to go away for the weekend and spend a very pleasant time away from all the smog, or whatever. I think there’s still this legacy of nature being a privilege that only some people can access, and a lot of the work I do is fighting really hard to make sure that doesn’t continue.
Other than simply having equality, what other benefits are there to diversity in sustainability and conservation?
MRC: I think access to nature is really important for the sake of it, and for the people who are gaining this access in terms of their mental health, physical health and quality of life, but I also think it’s really important in terms of the environmental movement. You need as many people involved as possible, and people aren’t going to start fighting for something that they’ve never experienced and learnt to love. Also I think it’s really important that movements that are fighting for change and for a better future, are hearing the voices of everyone. And for that to happen, we need a broad range of people involved in the environmental movement in the first place.
Do you think coronavirus has any lessons for us for conservation or sustainability?
MRC: I think a lot of things are being proven within this whole coronavirus period, in that a lot of things that we were told weren’t possible, it turns out they are possible. Stuff like the commute that people were told they had to do – it turns out their job can be done from home. I’m hoping that it will make people think a lot more about how much they travel, the way they consume food, the value of green spaces.
Are you doing any birding at home in isolation? Do you have any tips for how people can enjoy what’s out there in their own garden?
MRC: I’ve definitely been able to keep more of an eye on the garden and it’s been really nice to watch things coming and going. We stocked up on lots of bird food before lockdown. The birds appreciate it even if you just stick a feeder out of your flat window or put out some flower boxes. Animals will come, whether it’s a bird or a butterfly.
You were one of the youth activists who addressed thousands at the Bristol Climate Strike recently. How did that feel?
MRC: It was really amazing. I’d never felt such energy in my life. I didn’t think that many people would come because the weather was so vile, but there were just so many young people who were so excited to be there it was amazing.
What was it like to meet Greta at the march?
MRC: She was really nice – she was really sweet actually. She was really quiet and a bit shy. I had a chat with her. It was a shame, though, as she had to race off at the end because of all the journalists and stuff. I was on the banner at the front of the march and when we first went out it was really scary actually, they were all just trying to get their shot and there was a swarm of them all piling up to try and get a picture and refusing to move, so we couldn’t get through.
What one thing could the government do to help facilitate access to the countryside for BAME communities?
MRC: One thing would be the price of public transport, because I think it’s really outrageous that a lot of people literally can’t afford to move around. It costs around £9 for me to get to town on the bus, which is ridiculous. I was really shocked when my parents told me the bus used to be free in some places. Any movement away from that is essentially detrimental to poor people, and I think that paying as much as we do to get around, get to work, and get to the countryside, is just ridiculous. It’s something really simple that could change a lot of people’s lives.
Who do you admire in terms of world leaders or in the world of conservation?
MRC: Two girls my age, who I think are amazing. Autumn Peltier, who is indigenous and does a lot of work around rights to water – she’s just fantastic, she’s spoken at the UN and she’s just so strong. And there’s this other girl called Helen Gualinga, who’s awesome, and does similar stuff.
You are part of the Extinction Rebellion group, which has faced some criticism around diversity. What are your thoughts on that?
MRC: I think in terms of internationalism and diversity, XR has really solid foundations. But the kind of people it has attracted, which is mainly very middle class, very white, because that’s what the environmental movement has always been, has meant that has become distorted a bit. It’s just this whole thing of not having everybody’s voice in the mix.
Personally, I think the existence of XR has been really important in terms of normalising and deradicalising the mainstream environmental movement. Things that maybe three years ago were seen as really extreme, they’re not anymore, because you’ve got this group doing massive die-ins in the street and demanding that we’re carbon neutral by 2025. I think they’ve been very important in shifting people’s perception.
With such a passionate drive for change, would you like to go into politics in the future?
MRC: In some ways, staying in a lobbying or activism space is a lot more appealing, while being a politician so doesn’t appeal. But I guess someone’s got to do it!