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Reflections on Earth Day 2024

Updated: Apr 22

Tomorrow, I will be stepping into the role of Interim ED at the Georgia Strait Alliance. It’s a short term role to support the organization through an ED transition and I’m excited to join the team for this time together. 

Given that it is Earth Day, I'd love for folks who don't think too much about oceans to take a moment to search for a map of the Georgia Strait and the body of water called the Salish Sea - the one that crosses international boundaries.  Turn the map on its side and you’ll see the most incredible image of networks of river basins flowing into the Pacific Ocean. These are incredibly important bodies of water supported by diverse communities and the GSA has been working tirelessly for 30 years to keep them thriving. Christianne Wilhelmson, the outgoing ED and I met studying Rufus hummingbirds while we were completing our Masters in Ecology degrees at UBC. Our shared supervisor was Lee Gass who taught me how to ask good questions, how to ideate while biking and subsequently got me hooked on the art of teaching. 

I recently reconnected with Christianne while I was co-teaching my last term at SFU - the Semester by the Salish Sea with Sarah Hay and Ginger Gosnell Myers.   It was an amazing term taking a group of interdisciplinary undergraduates on field trips all over the lower mainland to explore the importance and significance of the Salish Sea. I’m pretty sure it was the first interdisciplinary university course in Vancouver to focus on the Salish Sea. Of course there are other courses focused on oceanography and local ecosystems but few that allow students from ANY discipline without prerequisites to explore why oceans matter to everyone no matter what discipline they are studying.

Our students collaborated with the GSA and went on to support the Year of the Salish Sea program.  I’m excited to begin tomorrow in supporting the organization, its programs and amazing staff.  I look forward to meeting the team, learning more about the great work they are doing and connecting networks of change makers to this important work. I thought it might be fun to look back this morning on how I have been working in the field of marine biology since my undergraduate degree in the early 1990’s. What a wild journey.

I was 10 years old when I stood beside a stranded, decaying humpback whale on the shores of Pacific Rim Park on the traditional territories of the Nuu-chah-nulth First Nations. I will never forget the size of that whales body and gazing into the immense eye of this magnificent mammal. I would return many years later to spend a summer at Bamfield Marine Station, walk the West Coast Trail and find the roots and tendrils of the west coast forests slowly tugging at my being. 

In my undergraduate degree in Marine Biology, I found myself writing papers exploring questions like “why do whales leap?” and in my final year “why do groups of whales show up dead on beaches?”. Scientists at the time were investigating the relationship of red tides to marine mammal strandings and that led folks to start asking questions about why red tides were increasing in frequency. These studies led to more questions about how red tides could be linked with sewage outflows and increasing eutrophication. If cities were pumping out raw sewage into the oceans, it was possible that this would increase red tide occurrences and could this potentially be linked to the death of whales? I started to understand the complexity of ecological issues but I was not finding that my education had prepared me respond to them. 

The ecologists were talking to other ecologists and not spending as much time with the business experts, the social scientists or the educators.  I started to understand that building better cities could be one way to help the whales.  I left the world of ecology and walked across campus to the buildings where urban planning and curriculum studies were taught and began a lifelong journey of understanding how we might learn to live together in cities in a way that didn’t destroy our ecosystems. I focused my work on changing universities so that more folks might learn about complex systems in an effort to save the whales. 

I spent most of my career imagining university programs that allowed all disciplines to think about communities in a way that had students asking big questions about why things are the way they are. Isn’t that what education is for? To ask the big questions?  To spend time together exploring the questions that come after the questions and dig deeper into why? To not accept the status quo of ‘the way things are’. I found that so many solutions already existed but very few made it to the implementation stage. Learning and experimentation needed to be practiced in government and this was rarely supported by community and voters. 

I spent 20 years teaching courses about the concepts of sustainability, social justice, urban systems, dialogue, community and focused on process and collaboration.  My focus was helping young folks imagine and implement projects in the real world. I say the ‘real world’ because academic institutions spend a lot of time talking about ideas and theories and not as much time learning about the difficulty of implementation. It’s easier to criticize government than to work in community creating programs & policies that support folks on the ground.  

Something magical happens when you try to implement an idea on the ground. Students with big ideas learn that you have to collaborate, that you need to build relationships, that you need to meet deadlines and that you are going to fail over and over again before you succeed. We also learn that there are a very small number of people in cities who show up to create change. It’s often a small world of change makers in a big city and once you get connected folks will understand more about how things work - the door is open if you are ready to walk through.  Folks also learn that it is really hard work to be a change maker and that there are many ways to support change that are not always directly on the ground. 

Getting an idea from a brainstorm sticky note all the way to implementation means learning about decision making, power, politics, policy and how things actually work. Hint: it’s not always what the website says. You actually need to meet people in person so they will share with you how the things you want to change actually work. Its a lifetime of relationships and networks that can create change. 

So on this earth day maybe spend some time with the big questions in your work and consider what ways you are working for the whales and check out the amazing work of the Georgia Strait Alliance. I look forward to this latest journey.

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