Some words from my eco-responsible role model

by Irene Kaloyannis, Science & Policy Exchange (SPE)

Last summer, I wrote a blog post about my environmental justice journey. I reflected on assumptions that I made, things that I learned, and how I evolved. Crucial to this personal growth was my good friend, Diamond Yao. Diamond studied Sustainability, Science and Society at McGill, minoring in East Asian Languages & Literature, and currently works as a freelance journalist. Over her years of volunteering, facilitating, and writing, she has accumulated myriad diverse experiences that have shaped her into the eco-justice activist she is today.

With her unique experiences and perspectives, she inspires me every day to stay educated and do better, especially regarding environmental issues. Therefore, I decided to interview her for this blog post. I hope her words speak to you and that you learn something new!

How did you become interested in sustainability? Was it always tied to your interest in social justice, or did they come together with time?

D: I have always been extremely curious about how people around the world lived, what sorts of issues they faced, and what is happening on the planet. Growing up in a neighborhood that was extremely poorly planned — where I couldn’t get anywhere without driving, where public transit was not well-developed, where there was next to no nature, where it was difficult to reduce the amount of trash I produced — really ended up getting on my nerves. My interest in human well-being evolved into an interest in sustainability. I would say that it is connected to my interest in social justice because my vision of sustainability has always been one that included the well-being of all human beings and one that is intersectional. I also found a lot of more traditional visions of environmentalism hard to relate to because they were extremely white and extremely connected to the protection of biodiversity at the expense of everything else — as a woman of colour who is from a major urban center, I found that vision of environmentalism a bit alienating. So for me, sustainability and social justice have always naturally fit together.

You lived and facilitated at ECOLE, McGill’s urban sustainable living space, for several years. What did you learn in your time there that aided your journey as an environmental advocate? What were the most memorable projects you remember your peers taking on over the years?

D: I think one of the most valuable experiences that I got out of my time there was the opportunity to live, to work, and to collaborate with so many others who are interested in sustainability in all of its facets. One of my favorite things about the organization is that it does not promote any unified vision of sustainability and thrives on the talents and perspectives of people who are very different from each other. Being around and living with so many different people also taught me a great deal about interpersonal skills and conflict resolution — I definitely learned a lot about anti-oppressive relationship dynamics during my time there, which are valuable principles that I continue to use in all my relationships to this day, and that I think everyone should learn.

Diamond Yao, a freelance journalist and passionate eco-justice activist.

Were there experiences you had that unexpectedly contributed to your environmental awareness journey, such as your position as Science Educator at the Redpath Museum Society or as a cook for the People’s Potato? If so, how did they do so?

D: I would say that every single experience I’ve had has contributed to me understanding better one particular facet of sustainability. For example, living next to and being involved with the Milton-Parc community has made me learn more about community-land trust ownership systems. This ties into sustainability, as the responsibility towards taking good care of the environment is one that needs to be upheld communally, as environmental systems and social systems are, by nature, connected. I have also learned a lot through anti-oppression training. In particular, I have come to realize and appreciate the vital place of Indigenous voices and perspectives within sustainability, something that I was not very aware of when I first started out. I am incredibly grateful to all Indigenous folks and their allies for helping me learn about those perspectives. Indigenous peoples in Canada and around the world have been at the forefront of many sustainability causes for decades, if not centuries, and have had their lands and waters stolen and polluted by settlers. Their traditional ecological knowledge comes from an extremely sophisticated understanding of the ecology of the environments that they have inhabited for centuries, if not millennia — it is the knowledge that is incredibly valuable in dealing with complicated modern sustainability issues. Continuously learning to be a better ally to Indigenous peoples has pushed me to new understandings of just how sustainability issues are embedded into the very core of the most integral facets of our modern society. Trying to build a more sustainable world isn’t just a question of environment or ecology, but would require us to do a serious dismantling of some of the most fundamental tenets of how we live in the twenty-first century.

What advice do you have for anyone just beginning their environmental journey, and what advice do you have for other veterans of sustainable living?

D: The biggest piece of advice that I have for anybody, regardless of how far along you are on your sustainability journey, is to stay open, to keep the attitude of a continuous learner, and to learn from your mistakes. I think it is incredibly important to always be learning about things and to continuously challenge your preconceptions of what sustainability is. No one knows everything, and everyone will get it wrong at times, but I think that an open attitude and the willingness to admit your mistakes and correct them will pay off big in the long run. Being forgiving of yourself for being misguided or misinformed while at the same time making it a point to always learn to do better is extremely important.

I acknowledge that intersectionality will make it so that being sustainable looks different to everybody depending on highly individual circumstances. A lot of traditional sustainability tricks and tips — like zero waste living, urban agriculture, low meat diets, DIY crafts, and reusing various items — are very inaccessible to large groups of people and I believe in a sustainability that is accessible and inclusive of all. Therefore, all I can suggest to readers who are on a sustainability journey, or about to embark on one, is to think about sustainability practices that fit the best with their situation, no matter how small they may seem. Everything counts, and everyone is on their own individual path!

A student-run non-profit that works to foster the student voice in science policy and evidence-informed policy-making in Canada. Based in Montreal.

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