Young conservationist and author Mya-Rose Craig discusses activism, burnout and racism in the environmental movement
Birdgirl, aka Mya-Rose Craig, is a British-Bangladesh ornithologist, conservationist, writer, speaker, and race activist. Born in 2002, she was the youngest Briton to receive an honorary doctorate when she was presented with a DSc HC from the University of Bristol in 2020. Her memoir, “Birdgirl,” was released in the United Kingdom in June 2022. She has also authored other books, one of which is ”We Have a Dream.” To provide nature camps for kids of black and ethnic minorities, she founded the non-profit Black2Nature. That effort earned her an honorary degree, as did her work advocating for children and adolescents from visible minority ethnic (VME) groups.
Her wanderlust began early, and by the time she was 13, she had been to all seven continents, providing her with a unique global viewpoint on biodiversity and the concerns of indigenous groups. She began the renowned Birdgirl blog as a child. At 17, she had already seen half of the world’s birds. Craig has worked with about 50,000 children and teenagers from a wide range of ages, ethnicities, and socioeconomic backgrounds on environmental concerns. In 2014, she was recognized as one of Bristol’s most influential young people, along with musicians George Ezra and Maisie Williams of “Game of Thrones.”
Craig was a speaker at Billie Eilish’s 2022 Overheated event and featured on a panel moderated by Emma Watson alongside Greta Thunberg last year. She’s also shared a stage with Thunberg in Bristol. In an interview with SEEMA, she talks about her inspiration, passions, and life.
Your love for birds is where your journey as an environmental activist began. How did you come to love them so much?
My mum is a second-generation British Bangladeshi. My Nanabhai and Nanu loved being outdoors and took their five children every Sunday to the local park or to the Clifton Durham Downs, a big open space above the Avon gorge. Mum will say that she was only drawn into birding by my dad, who is white and British. Before I was born, my parents and older sister Ayesha, were obsessive birders. So, for me, birding has always been about family. It was how I spent time with my parents and Ayesha growing up. When I was young, I loved watching birds fly, glide, hover, and preen their feathers. Humans have spent millennia trying to fly, so as a small child, being fascinated by creatures that flew seemed normal.
Who has been your greatest inspiration in terms of environmentalism?
Growing up, my sister Ayesha was my greatest role model. She is 12 years older than me, cool, and most of all, she loved nature and wanted to save birds.
In terms of outside influences, I loved Steve Backshall and his children’s program, “Deadly 60.” Each week, he would showcase a dangerous species, many of which were critically endangered. I loved it, and between ages 4 and 10, I watched it on repeat. I went to see Steve live when I was 10 and was totally inspired by his advice for children wanting to follow in his footsteps. It was therefore a dream come true to contribute to Steve’s book.
When you started the Birdgirl blog, did you have a goal in mind? What led you to start the blog?
Back in January 2014, when I started my blog, I was 11 years old. That’s what people did back then. I didn’t have a plan for it other than that I wanted to write about birds. It was only when there was an oil spill in the Bangladeshi Sundarbans in October that I realized I could do more. I wrote an article for the American Birding Association Blog and raised $35,000 for the clean-up. That was when I realized that, even as a young child I could make an impact on saving the planet.
What was it like to be the youngest Briton to receive an honorary doctorate? How has breaking that glass ceiling inspired you?
When I received the email from the vice chancellor of Bristol University, I thought it was a hoax, until my mum phoned the next day and got confirmation. On the day, my name was trending, and it was strange to have 10 film crews rush into the auditorium to film me receiving my honorary doctorate.
There are some absolutely incredible things that have happened to me that I’m like, “Oh, eventually, it must sink in.” And it just never does. The doctorate is one of those things. So in that sense, it has had a big impact. I went to the Arctic with Greenpeace later the same year, and photos of me carrying out the most northerly youth strike for climate appeared in 200 media outlets worldwide — again, unbelievable!
However, I think that despite achieving everything I have done, I still suffer from impostor syndrome. There is a lot of racism in the environmental space, which impacts my confidence.
What was the inspiration behind the Black2Nature, and what are some of its most memorable initiatives thus far?
Growing up and spending all my time out in the countryside was strange, as I loved being there with my family but also always felt out of place. We never saw anyone who looked like myself, my mum or my sister, who were visible minority ethnic groups. Not rarely, but never.
I arranged my first camp in 2015 when I was 13 years old, which went really well. Black2Nature now holds lots of camps each year, but it would be fantastic to see more Pakistani and Bangladeshi children attend. It is always the young people themselves who make the camps memorable. I like their joy when they first hold a bird or moth or see a planet in the night sky.
Sustainability should fulfill demand while preserving resources. What are some practices you’d like to see adopted globally?
It is important that we tackle biodiversity loss, habitat loss, pollution, and climate change all at the same time. We need to stop plundering our planet, and start giving back to it. This means stopping the extraction of fossil fuel and other things such as minerals and gold, stopping the destruction of habitats such as forests and peatland, stopping the growing of palm oil, banning all single-use plastic, and banning the use of poisonous pesticides. Not that complicated, really.
What was it like sharing a stage with Greta Thunberg?
The first time I spoke on the same stage as Greta Thunberg was in Bristol, where I live, a week after being awarded my honorary doctorate. There were 40,000 young people there. I met her beforehand with other local young climate activists, and she was really lovely. After the speeches, I got to march with her. There were lots of girls in pigtails and yellow coats, and thousands of children were chanting “Greta.” It was an incredible day!
What was the inspiration behind your book, “We Have a Dream.” What concerns does it address?
I had been aware for years that there were few young environmentalists of color from around the world even mentioned in the Global North media. It seemed that it didn’t matter what young people of color were achieving; they were being ignored. I experienced a lot of racism and felt I had to do 10 times more to get the same recognition. Then I had been talking to a tiny sustainable children’s publisher called Magic Cat about the book. I remember that I signed the contract on the day I received my honorary doctorate. My aim for the book was to inspire children and teenagers of color to get involved in environmental activism by inspiring them with the people in my book.
You’ve collaborated with 30 other young activists in “We Have a Dream.” How did you discover and choose them? How long did it take you to find your collaborators?
I wrote “We Have a Dream” during the six months of lockdown and interviewed the young environmentalists by Zoom. It was really hard to find them due to the lack of profile they were given in the media.
Also, many young environmentalists were actually privileged within their countries, being from wealthy families and having studied abroad. So, I first focused on indigenous campaigners (I found 11), made sure there was an even split between boys and girls (which was hard as there are so many more girls), and chose a range of areas of environmentalism.
When I interviewed Vanessa Nakate, she had recently been airbrushed out of the photograph with Greta Thunberg before she became well known herself. I contacted lots of international organizations, such as Survival International and Greenpeace, to find the young people. Some told me that nobody had ever asked them about their campaigning, and we talked for five or six hours, sharing our stories.
What does your latest book, “Birdgirl,” entail? What inspired you to write it?
“Birdgirl” is about my life. It seems strange to call it a memoir, but that is what it is. About my life for the first 18 years. I wrote “Birdgirl” during lockdown, during a gap year. I had been thinking about writing a book about our birding travels since I was eight years old, and some of the chapter names were ones I coined back then.
The book evolved into a very personal story of being a British-Bangladeshi dual-heritage child growing up with a mum with severe bipolar disorder and how we used birdwatching trips abroad to cope as a family.
What are some of the challenges of being an activist?
The biggest issue with being an activist is that environmental organizations want to engage with you to bring publicity to their work. So, the bigger your social media following, the more interest there will be. I am not an influencer or just an activist, as I do practical nature work, such as diversity work with Black2Nature and bird research work.
What’s your support system like?
My mum, dad, and sister Ayesha are always there for me, making Black2Nature what it has become, supporting me through writing three books during my lockdown gap year, and helping me keep organized. My aunts have also been race activists for 30 years and have been there to inspire and advise me. I am also really lucky to have close friends from school and university, as well as supportive cousins.
When you’re not helping protect the environment, what do you do for fun?
I love reading, music, films, and spending time with friends and cousins, especially going to gigs and music festivals.
Do you have any advice for the youth out there who want to help preserve the planet?
My biggest advice is to look after your mental health. I’ve seen lots of activists come onto the scene, and then burn out a year later.
What’s the way forward for you regarding diversity activism?
That’s a tough one. A university lecturer once advised me to just disrupt, disrupt, disrupt. That’s hard in the environmental space, as it is so white and racist. I try to raise awareness about racism when I experience it, but there are always minority ethnic people who are prepared to sell out or just don’t get it.