Emerging Leaders – Birdgirl: Conservation and Activism

Resource type:

In the first episode of our Emerging Leaders podcast, we speak to Dr Mya-Rose Craig, known online as Birdgirl. She talks to us about what motivates her work in conservation and the barriers she’s faced along the way, and shares her advice for young people wanting to get involved in social activism.

You can find out more about our work to help young people develop ethical leadership skills here.

You can subscribe to Cumberland Lodge’s podcasts on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, SoundCloud, and other major podcast platforms.

Episode transcript

00:00 – 00:41

Munny Purba

Welcome to the Cumberland Lodge Emerging Leaders Podcast. In this series, we meet a host of talented individuals doing exciting and inspiring work to question, challenge, and understand some of the most complex social issues facing us today. In our first episode, we will be meeting Dr. Mya-Rose Craig, who you may know as Birdgirl. 21 year-old Mya-Rose describes herself as a birder, writer, environmental and climate activist, and we are privileged to be able to speak with her on how she found her beginnings and her hopes for the future.

00:41-01:04

Prof. Melissa Butcher (MB)

Mya-Rose thank you very much for your time today.

Dr. Mya-Rose Craig (MRC)

Hello, Hi.

MB

So Mya, let’s start by just thinking about your motivation. What drove you to become involved in conservation?

MRC

I think for me, it felt like a very natural progression of my interests in that anyone who knows me knows I’m very into birds and bird watching and spending time outdoors and I have been since I was very, very young.

01:04 – 01:22

MRC

And I think that combined with, you know, kind of being of a generation that has always been very aware of, you know, environmental issues and threats to nature and the environment. It felt like as someone who cared about those things, I kind of had to get involved in conservation, like it almost didn’t feel like an option, I suppose.

01:22 – 01:50

MRC

Did you aim to become, I guess, a leader in your field, or was it just something that grew? I guess you started very young, didn’t you, in your birdwatching days, and so it just kind of grew out of that?

For me, the reason I started because my original thing online that I was doing was a blog, and that was literally just because I wanted to form a community of other kids who were kind of the same age with me, who had the same hobbies as me.

01:50 – 02:05

MRC

And it was almost happenstance that people seemed to enjoy what I was writing about. And I gained kind of a following. And it was kind of through this online platform that I started to realise that I did have a voice and the things I cared about did matter and I could make a difference and in some shape or form.

02:05 – 02:28

MRC

And I think learning that especially a young age is very empowering because I feel like as a kid, you’re kind of constantly told, you know, your voice doesn’t matter and your opinions don’t matter. But having that platform very much enabled me to do the things that I wanted to do in terms of campaigning.

MB

Did you have any particular role models or people encouraging you to kind of continue with this work and to take a leadership role in this work?

02:28 – 03:03

MRC

Yeah, I’d say actually my biggest kind of role models and supporters were my family, in that I think a very big influence when I was very young was my older sister, who is a lot older than me, and I just thought she was very cool, like I wanted to be like her in every way, you know. And so, seeing someone who is, you know, a teenager and cool and also very into birdwatching, I think was very influential in terms of me staying with that hobby as I kind of started to get older and realised that it was a bit weird and then I think actually throughout my teens, both my parents are also massively into nature and the

03:03 – 03:17

MRC

environment and the support that they gave me in terms of my campaigns and in terms of the various things that I was trying to do and achieve, it was incredible. And that was massive. And I genuinely think that’s one of the reasons that I was able to do a lot of the stuff you know, I’ve done that is great.

03:18 – 03:37

MB

So what were some of the barriers that you faced?

MRC

I guess the first one being like, like I mentioned as a young person, I felt very much like I didn’t have a voice. There were all these issues that were going on in the world, and I was very upset about all of them, but I kind of felt like a spectator, like I couldn’t do anything, which was very frustrating

03:37 – 03:56

MRC

because it felt like everyone was doing all the wrong things all the time. And so, I think there was a campaign in particular that stirred the oil spill in Bangladesh, where I was about 12, where no one in the West really cared that it happened so I ended up raising a lot of awareness and a lot of money, actually. And that was kind of when I learned that actually I could, as corny as it is, like I could be the change that I wanted to see.

03:56 – 04:21

MRC

And I think also the biggest difficulty was because I had gained this platform through the Internet. That of course meant that I had to deal with people on the Internet and throughout kind of my teens and stuff like horrific amounts of trolling and just like really vile stuff online, which I think kind of when I first entered that space especially was really difficult and really unpleasant.

04:21 – 04:40

MRC

And I do think you have to grow quite a thick skin to kind of spend that much of your time online. Although these days I kind of feel like if people have such a vitriolic reaction to what you’re saying, you’re probably going in the right direction.

MB

How did you manage that? Apart from developing a thick skin? How do you manage that, that trolling, that vitriol?

04:40 – 05:03

MB

Because that is one of the things, I guess, that might worry people about becoming a leader if you put your head above the parapet or if you make a statement on social media, there’s always that little fear perhaps, that they’re going to be criticised or worse.

MRC

Yeah, I think partially. Unfortunately, the nature of social media is if you’re saying anything ever, let alone anything controversial, but if you’re saying anything, someone will have an issue with it.

05:03 – 05:22

MRC

And I think to an extent you have to learn to make your peace with that and make your peace with the fact that not everyone is going to love what you’re talking about all the time. But I think also I would say firstly, like it’s not like it’s always kind of washed over me. Like I said, I found it really difficult and there were definitely times I think the worst of it was in 2016.

05:22 – 05:54

MRC

So, when I was about 14 and I was genuinely asking myself like, is this worth it anymore? But I think also on the flip side of that, for me at least, like I form such a lovely community of people online and, you know, like so many people within that community are willing to support me. And I think kind of knowing that people have your back like that is, is really helpful because you know, there are people who suck but there are also people who are really lovely, and I think it’s kind of important to remember that.

05:54 – 06:17

MB

So apart from the thick skin, what, what other qualities do you think a leader needs? The key qualities of leadership?

MRC

I guess being very resolute in your beliefs and what you think about things is always important if you’re leading people in a charge. And for me at least, I’ve always felt like we’re best quality in terms of the campaigning

06:17 – 06:45

MRC

stuff that I do is just I’m very, very persistent, very, I think, tenacious. Probably what my mum would call me instead, but probably a bit annoying. And that was a period in terms of my diversity campaigning where I was trying to meet with various CEOs of various NGOs, and a lot of them obviously weren’t very interested in talking to me and I think I literally bothered them until they agreed to meet with me and I could say the things that I wanted to say.

06:45 – 07:12

MB

Why do you think they weren’t interested in meeting with you to hear what you had to say initially, at least?

MRC

God, a couple of reasons, I think. One being when I first started doing kind of equal access and diversity campaigning, a lot of people in the nature sector really didn’t appreciate that. And this is like probably eight years ago now, I think partially because the attitude was very much like, you know, we’re not barring ethnic minorities from entering the countryside, so we’re not doing anything wrong.

07:12 – 07:35

MRC

So this isn’t an issue for us. I think it made actually a lot of people very uncomfortable talking about race. Obviously, this is like pre, you know, that Black Lives Matter moment where a lot of people had to confront those conversations and a lot of people are still ducking, dodging. And I think also it just wasn’t seen as a priority by a lot like they didn’t understand why they should be interested in even bothering.

07:35 – 08:07

MRC

I think various things have shifted since then. One, just being actually a few people have retired and, you know, there’s a very different attitude towards race and diversity, but also I think personally through the work of me and my charity, there is now an understanding of why they should care about these issues, whether that is because people deserve access to green spaces in terms of mental and physical health, or whether that’s because it means that these organisations can have more members so they get more money, you know, whatever it is, people are now engaging in these conversations.

08:07 – 08:40

MB

So this is particularly the work you’re doing with Black to Nature. So, how would you encourage more young people to become involved in campaigns for change or social activism that’s on a very small scale or national level? What do you think we can do to encourage more young people to get involved?

MRC

I mean, I genuinely think the people who already care about these issues, the biggest issue is feeling very disempowered and disenfranchised because I think there are definitely a lot of people who feel like kind of activism, campaigning.

08:40 – 09:04

MRC

There’s no point because you can’t create these big waves of change, which obviously to an extent it probably is true. But I also think these campaigns are causing so creating so much change behind the scenes. And I, I think for a generation who, you know, there have been studies, they think a lot over 50% of people in my generation think the world is doomed.

09:04 – 09:27

MRC

You know, one of the biggest things you can do to deal with those feelings is to go out and do something. So that can be as simple as like in your local area, doing things to try and improve, even if there’s literally litter picking or on a bigger scale, getting involved in political campaigns and activism. Because I promise whatever issue you are thinking about, there will already be people who care about that as well.

09:27 – 09:45

MRC

And I think finding that community of like-minded people who are also passionate about those issues is just fantastic for your mental health. So, I think like start looking around in your local town and city and see if people are already doing it. If not, at least try and like link up with social with people on social media who care about the same issues as you.

09:45 – 10:06

MRC

And I’d say start from the ground up as well. Like in that it’s very easy to be like, I’m not like a MP or like, you know, I don’t know people in government, so I can’t create change. But actually, I also think change a community level is really important that genuinely improves people’s lives and wellbeing. So, no campaign is too small, I guess is what I’m saying.

10:06 – 10:33

MB

So what do you think will be the main campaigns for the future?

MRC

I think at the moment the biggest things I’m talking about and unfortunately I suspect I will be continuing to talk about is climate change and biodiversity loss, which I personally kind of think are two sides of the same coin really. And, in particular, I’m spending a lot of time talking about global climate justice, intersectionality, and loss and damages within these, because I do think at the moment this is the most important issue.

10:33 – 11:00

MRC

And obviously I’m going to try as hard as I can to do my bit within all of this.

MB

Great, Dr. Mya-Rose Craig, thank you so much for your time today.

MRC

Thank you.

Munny Purba

Thanks for listening. You can find out more about the work we do at Cumberland Lodge with young people and beyond by visiting cumberlandlodge.ac.uk. You can also find us on social media at Cumberland Lodge.