"Who are you?" This is a question Rachel and I like to ask ourselves and others. We realized that we both like to ask questions, so we created this blog. In our interviews, we ask inspiring people questions about their fields of expertise, their personal philosophies, and their views on society. I hope you learn something about yourself or society at large from reading these interviews.-Tiffany
Rachel found Sarah Rasul’s work through Faze Rug’s house tour, where her Kobe and Drake paintings were displayed. She reached out to Rasul through her website and learned about how art has shaped her as an individual. Rasul has been featured as a Rising Artist in Art Sante Fe, and has been featured in Metro Woman Magazine.
1.Describe your upbringing. I was born on July 3, 1986 in Phoenix, Arizona. When I was 3, my family and I moved to Southern Missouri where I spent the remainder of my childhood and most of my adult life. I was raised by a hardworking single mother who encouraged my creativity from day one. Looking back, my work ethic today could be attributed to learning from her strength and determination, and from my time playing competitive basketball. From an early age, I also immersed myself with music and art, playing the cello for years and taking every art class I could get my hands on. I attended Kickapoo High School where I continued playing sports and furthering my love and skill set in creating art. I attended Drury University for a short while and soon decided to totally focus my time and energy on building my art career.
2. What was your parents’ jobs? My mother worked many jobs to support our family. Before she retired she sold insurance for the Sisters Of Mercy in Springfield, Missouri. My father worked in construction.
3. Would you say you enjoyed school? Yes. I enjoyed school growing up and managed to be a good student, although most of the time I was only interested in sketching and drawing in my notebooks. I was very fortunate to have some amazing art and music teachers that kept my creative mind alive and growing. Without art and music classes, it would have been a very different experience for me.
4. Have you always enjoyed art? From the age of 4, I started spending hours everyday drawing. I started out drawing my favorite Disney or cartoon characters that I would watch on TV. I would draw the characters from the moving scenes. From a very early age, I had found my calling and never stopped creating. After school when most kids would hit the playground, I would be studying science or anatomy books that I would check out from the library at school, and practice drawing from the photos I saw in the books.
5. When did you truly start to immerse yourself into art? I knew from a very early age that art was an inherent part of who I was. As I grew up, the concept of art grew to become a way I could express myself. My career “aha” moment happened in middle school when my artwork was featured in Times Square. It made this personal thing in my heart that I loved and understood more than anything else, and made it a tangible answer when I was asked what I wanted to do when I grew up. That experience inspired so many possibilities and dreams for my future. I knew in my heart that I was and always will be an artist.
6. What were your plans after high school? I attended Drury University for about a year and then decided to shift my focus to take on art full time. I had several part-time jobs during that time as I started selling my artwork. My goal right out of high school was to turn what I loved to do most into a career that I could make a living at. I never saw myself doing anything else. Fast forward to today and my art has been collected in homes, businesses and galleries across the globe. It feels surreal to look back and see that my wildest dreams have come true and that middle school self was right.
7. Was your family supportive of your dreams growing up? My mother was very supportive of my art endeavors. even through the rough patches and “struggling artist” moments in life. She provided me with art supplies when I needed them and later on helped me run and set up my LLC. My siblings have always been supportive as well and my support network has grown as they have blessed me with extended family. My cousin and her amazing family have invested in my career giving me the jumpstart to launching a dream into a career. I wouldn’t be where I’m at today if it wasn’t for my family’s generosity.
8. What are your favorite mediums of art? I am an artist that doesn’t shy away from using any medium. Drawing was my first love. Over the years I have used pen and ink, watercolor, graphite and charcoal, acrylics and have within the last few years started teaching myself the power of digital art.
9. Describe your career journey. I will start off by saying that the art world is not the easiest or steadiest career path to choose. It takes a lot of self determination and willpower to push through the ups and downs. The art world doesn’t have a clear one size fits all equation to becoming successful. In my 20’s I spent a lot of time experimenting and teaching myself different mediums. I probably created close to 2,000 works during this time as I found my artist’s stroke and points of strength. Collectors started buying my work but it wasn’t a steady income yet. By the age of 30, I started to see larger commissions coming in, more gallery shows, and my collectors increased in number. In 2019, I was asked to be a rising artist at the Santa Fe Contemporary Art Show. I had the amazing opportunity to have my artwork in the same show that showcased works by some of the worlds most successful artists such as Andy Warhol, Yayoi Kusama, and Banksy. Since that show my art career has really flourished and I have been working on commissions for private clients, interior designers, and business owners.
10. What have been your favorite and most exciting moments of your career? I would definitely say that my experience at the Art Santa Fe was one of the most exciting and educational experiences so far. I pushed myself and learned tremendously. Not only about the art world, but about my personal capabilities. I am more confident and have said “yes” more to things that push my comfort zones and help me grow. It is amazing what the world gives back to you when you open up to it!
11. What have been the hardest moments of your career/life? There are moments in most artists’ lives where they think of giving up or going out to find other work. I guess I just chose to be hardheaded and never give up. I lost my mother in 2019 to a hard fought battle with stage IV cancer. She was my biggest fan and it’s been a painful year. Since her passing, I have had some amazing opportunities come my way and I have been submersed in my work. I made the choice to honor her and what she saw in me as an artist by pushing myself as hard as possible and it has paid off.
12. How does art make you feel? I suffer from anxiety and depression and art has always been that escape and therapeutic element for me. If you look back through my artwork that I have created over the years, you could probably see the state of mind that I was currently in depicted in the styles and subject matter I would use.
13. What have been some obstacles you have faced? I think every artist or creative professional experiences obstacles on their way up the ladder. You have to have a “tough chin” sometimes. If a gallery or a person doesn’t see the value in your work, move on to the next. I have learned that finding the right places to show your work is as much about what they think of your art as it is how you and your art can speak in that space. When the right eyes land on your work, good things will come.
14. What have been your favorite pieces/exhibits? I really don’t have any specific favorite pieces. I put a lot of love into everything that I create and each piece is very meaningful to me.
15. Any stories of memorable clients? I have had the opportunity to create artwork with some world class interior designers, entrepreneurs and clothing companies. I recently created artwork for an upcoming movie that will be released later this year which is something I never imagined possible as a child. To be honest I have a lot of “cool” collectors. I am thankful to each and every person that has supported and collected my work across the world.
16. Do you have any fun stories about any of your artwork? I lived in Hawaii for several years and often had the opportunity to do live body painting events for fashion shows that would travel through Honolulu. It was a neat experience to work on a living surface and collaborate with creatives from the fashion industry.
17. Describe your artistic process. My artistic process differs with each new medium that I use. In short, I am inspired by the world around me. Because different subject matters are best suited for different mediums, when an idea pops into my head of a potential new piece to create, I usually go straight in on my canvas or paper. I don’t like to pre-plan with sketches of the idea. I go in with a certain color palette or subject matter in mind and I let the piece develop as its being created.
18. How does art affect your personal life? Being a full-time artist takes a lot of dedication and self discipline. This career can be an isolated gig most of the time when in the studio. Being your own boss requires you to be on call at all times. While it is important to stay diligent and create often, it’s also important to take time out and step away from creating to recharge my creative energy.
19. Do you have a a partner/kids? I have an amazing supportive family. I also have a partner that is supportive of me following my calling. Oh and I can’t forget the silver Labrador that is one of my best friends!
20. How have these relationships impacted you?
I am very fortunate to have a support system like I do. I wouldn’t be where I’m at right now in my career without their love and guidance.
21. How has COVID-19 impacted you? I was looking forward to a new fresh year in 2020 after losing my mother in 2019. 2020 didn’t turn out to be the year that I was hoping for that is for sure. When the pandemic hit, I had a lot of anxiety about being a business owner in the atmosphere that we all had to adjust to. I shifted a lot of my focus to doing digital artwork for clients. This medium allowed me to send artwork files digitally which reduced material costs and allowed for a no contact business model to emerge with my customers. It also allowed me to stay at home through quarantine and not have to visit art stores and print shops for art supplies. As with most entrepreneurs, this year has tested my goals and ultimately taught me the importance of resilience. If we cannot pivot, we cannot grow.
Rachel met Kat Echazarreta through Instagram and soon realized that she was someone who could serve as a unique addition to PeopleLifeCo. Her interest in STEM has pushed her to receive a a degree in Electrical Engineering degree from UCLA. She advocates for female involvement in STEM due to her past experiences involving limited representation. She is currently working the Europa clipper Mission, which involves studying Jupiter’s Europa to see if can sustain life.
When were you born?
I was born in 1995. I am 25 years old.
2. Where did you grow up?
I was born in Mexico, but I grew up in San Diego for most of my life beginning in the 3rd grade. My memory is really fuzzy when it comes to my memories from Mexico. Despite not really remembering much, I still consider it very much my second home.
3. Describe your culture and upbringing.
Mexican culture is very family-oriented. Despite not growing up in Mexico, my family maintained a lot of the traditions such as celebrating Dia de los Muertos. The food my mom cooked was also primarily Mexican and my family spoke Spanish at home. We were very close, especially because we felt somewhat lonely without any extended family around.
4. Would you consider the US your home?
I do consider the US my home. I don’t remember living in Mexico so to me, this is all I truly know. While my family was waiting for our permanent residency, we went through a period where we were not supposed to leave the country. Throughout most of my childhood, we couldn’t visit Mexico and family couldn’t visit us. It was like my family was in a small bubble. Although we were distant from a lot of family back in Mexico, we grew stronger and closer as a small family as a result.
5. Do you have religious beliefs? How are they similar/different from your parents?
I do not have any religious beliefs, but I am very respectful of all cultures and religions. My parents each had their own different beliefs (even from each other), but they never imposed them upon us and always encouraged us to make our own decisions. I think that’s one of the big reasons I am so confident today since my parents always encouraged me to have my own views and opinions about everything going on in the world.
6. Describe your goals growing up. Were your parents supportive?
I have always been fascinated by science and engineering especially as it related to electricity or outer space. Growing up I dreamed of being an astronaut and an engineer (even though I didn’t really know what an engineer did exactly). I have always known that I wanted my career to be related to space. I’ve gone through many different phases throughout my youth regarding my career goals. At first, I wanted to be an astronomer, then an astrophysicist, and eventually I decided to become an Electrical Engineer specializing in space systems.
My parents always took me to science museums, air and space museums, science fairs, etc. My mom was especially supportive in the most important ways. As I grew older and began to hear some of the common stereotypes regarding women and particularly a woman’s ability to perform well in science fields, my mom’s support was the most important. She always encouraged me and I grew up knowing that what I looked like didn’t have to stop me from pursuing my passions.
7. Have you always enjoyed STEM subjects?
Yes! I’ve always been fascinated by everything science and each science course I took always became my favorite one at the time! I think this passion is what ultimately always led me to perform very well in those subjects. I always had all kinds of questions and each new science subject allowed me to view the world in a different and new way.
For example, when I took Chemistry, I became fascinated by crystalline structures. When I took Physics, I was able to dive deeper with a completely different set of equations. Even today, I’ll sometimes look at an object and try to imagine the arrangement of atoms that led to the object’s exact composition and sturdiness.
8. Who or what has inspired you?
My biggest inspiration is my mom. I’m not sure who I would currently be without her. As a woman, we face many issues still prevalent in male-dominated environments. My mom taught me to develop some very thick skin and always knows how to get me feeling strong and confident again. To this day I can go to her when I’m feeling demotivated and she will quickly whip me back into shape!
9. When and how did you decide you wanted to be an electrical engineer?
I decided to become an Electrical Engineer when I was a senior in High School and I owe it to my Physics teacher. Physics was my favorite subject in school and this was partially due to the passion my teacher held for the subject. It was so contagious!
When we reached the Electricity and Magnetism portion of the class I was hooked! I wanted to know more and learn more. I became fascinated and I would borrow the classroom workbooks to do more problems at home because I wanted to know everything this field had to offer.
Ultimately, I chose Electrical Engineering because it was a great way to combine my passion for physics and technology with my passion for space and spacecraft!
10. Describe the jobs you’ve had.
I’ve had all kinds of jobs and all of them have taught me very important skills. I’ve been a McDonald’s crew member, Advisor for College Freshmen, Textbook store stockroom employee, Electrical Engineering Intern, and eventually full-time Electrical Engineer.
I’d like to talk about my job at McDonald’s because it offers a great juxtaposition with my current career. McDonald’s was my very first job in High School and at the time I was extremely shy, reserved, and introverted. This job allowed me to start breaking out of my shell and helped me develop great skills working with all kinds of people: angry or happy.
11. Why was NASA your dream job and how did you end up working there?
NASA has been my dream job for as long as I can remember. I didn’t necessarily know when I was a child what kind of specific job I wanted, but I knew I wanted it to be at NASA. I would find myself crying happy tears watching NASA documentaries and launch videos. You’d think I had just seen an Oscar winning film the way I cried of excitement every time!
I began working at NASA/JPL during my junior year in college as an intern. I gathered up the courage to apply during college and I applied about 3 times before I heard back for an interview many months later. My internship went well and I kept getting offered extensions until eventually I received an offer of employment upon my college graduation.
12. Did you face any obstacles while reaching your goals?
Definitely! I mentioned I loved physics, but that doesn’t mean I did great in the class. I had a very hard time keeping up sometimes and I would see others around me understanding the topics so quickly while I needed extra time, practice, and study on top of the regular study time I already put in.
This class wasn’t the only one I struggled in, but I was motivated to succeed and I didn’t let my own fear stop me.
13. Describe a moment of hardship. What did that experience teach you?
I experienced a lot of financial hardship. I didn’t have the money to pay for college so after High School I decided to attend Community College while I tried to figure out a plan. During Community College I worked extremely hard and achieved a near 4.0 which led me to obtain 2 full-ride scholarships to UCLA.
The biggest thing it taught me was to trust in myself and not give up on myself too early. I didn’t know how I would pay for college for three entire years at Community College, but I didn’t let that slow me down. Eventually, it all worked out, but it wasn’t the result of anything other than my hard work.
14. Do you have any regrets? (in regards to life or your career)
No! I think everything that has happened to me whether it be obstacles, hardship, etc, has taught me very valuable lessons. I love who I am today, where I am, and who I am with so I would not want to change anything. All things, even the bad, teach us many things and it is up to us to learn from those lessons or not. I choose to learn, always.
15. What are your hobbies?
I love to read science fiction, psychological thrillers, and horror novels! I also love to create valuable content for my followers so that they don’t feel as alone as I did when I first began my journey to Engineering.
I also have an Electronics Lab at home where I like to fix broken electronics, create new projects, and continue to learn about my field by trying things out in the lab!
16. Would you say you enjoy art?
Absolutely! Art is so valuable in our society and I’m a huge fan of theater, literature, film, painting, and architecture!
17. What are your current goals?
My current goal is to obtain my Master’s degree in Electrical Engineering and continue working on sending new spacecraft to explore the cosmos!
Tiffany met James via an American Battlefield Trust workshop on political lobbying. She later reached out and requested an interview. James Liska is a government affairs and legislative professional with eleven years of experience in Congressional and state legislative affairs, public policy, education, and partnership building. His past work includes 7+ years at The Washington Center for Internships and Academic Seminars, at which he developed and led an academic public policy program which helped 1350 – 1500 student interns per year learn about the legislative process through small, formal visits to Capitol Hill. He also successfully lobbied state legislatures for appropriations, arranged educational briefings at embassies and think tanks, delivered civic engagement lectures, and liaised with university presidents, provosts, and professors to build partnerships and deliver first-class academic programs including seminars on national security, cybersecurity, politics and media, and on-site programs at the Democratic and Republican National Conventions.
Why were you initially drawn to politics?
I didn’t grow up in a super political household. My parents never discussed any of that stuff, not out of any sense of false propriety, it just wasn’t a frequent topic of discussion. My grandmother was very political, however, and she really formed my political upbringing. I was in high school when 9/11 happened, and the events immediately thereafter impacted all of us. I started thinking more about it and opposing the war in Iraq, and my grandmother gave me a book by Al Franken called Lies and the Lying Liars Who Tell Them. It was all about the Bush administration after 9/11, and after reading, I became very concerned with the state of politics. So immediately gobbled up as many political books as I could, studied philosophy, and read opinion pieces by both the right and the left. When I got to college, I immediately joined the College Democrats and supported progressive causes. That’s how I got started. I definitely think George W. Bush and the war on Iraq drew me to politics.
What advice would you give someone?
Be yourself. Take some time to find what in life is interesting to you. Seek out new opportunities and be as multi-faceted as possible. Try to travel if you can. If you can’t, read a lot. Try to get as wide of a perspective as possible. Always be open to new opportunities. And be flexible. There’s this old saying that says, “No plan survives first contact with the enemy.” That’s true in the military and also in life. No matter how far we plan, things may not always go the way we want it to. So it’s critical to just be flexible. In the real world, no one cares about your GPA. They’re going to care about your experiences, how well you can write, what you did, and what excites you. You should have a passion, show your interest in something. Be able to speak articulately about a certain topic or a certain perspective. Be open to changing your viewpoints. I think that’s probably the best advice I can give.
What are some of the things a person should evaluate a potential politician on?
I would say a person should evaluate how they treat other people, their honesty, and how well they can communicate their ideas. You can be a wonderful orator and not say anything. I think it’s important to be honest and straightforward. The best ones have a sense of humor but are also straightforward. They don’t do political doublespeak, they don’t couch their viewpoints in some grandiose thing. Some Members of Congress on Twitter just post tweets where they talk about the reasons why they voted for or against a bill – I think that’s great.
I think another thing to look at is how they staff their office. Seeing how they treat their staff is important. There’s a website called Legistorm. It tracks the actions of the Members of Congress, including their staff, their expenditures, who gets hired, and where they go. They just sent out an email about a representative hiring a new chief of staff – her 5th chief of staff to serve in her office since last summer. This is a huge red flag for me because chiefs of staff can sometimes spend 3 to 4 years with a Member of Congress, if not more. 5 in a year is insane and it reflects poorly on that office. I’ve heard other stories where the same Member had 4 or 5 schedulers in short succession. Staff longevity and treatment of staff are other factors I would use to evaluate a politician.
Does religion have a strong influence on politics in the United States?
Yes, to a significant extent. Ever since the founding of the country, religion – specifically Christianity – has played a huge part in our political system. And in the last forty or so years, not for good, either. Back in the 1950s, the Red Scare pushed people to say, “In God We Trust” and really affirm religiousness in the country. That phrase doesn’t show up a lot before the 50s, but with the Red Scare, everyone had to affirm that they weren’t communists. In the interim, that focus on overt religiosity has morphed into a toxic movement that inserts itself in our political culture in damaging ways. Many use their so-called “traditional” religious beliefs to enforce a right-wing tyranny of so-called morality that echoes in mega-churches, the assault on women’s rights to their own healthcare, and the restriction of “family values” as the barometer for a successful society. It’s sickening and damaging to us.
Is political correctness a result of a society that values (thinks and acts in accordance to) reason?
Yes and no. I don’t like the term, “political correctness”, because it implies that there’s some sort of constructed sensitivity here. You find that the term is used by older people in a negative context. It’s always pejorative. When someone says they’re not politically correct, they’re just angry that the racist, discriminatory terminology they grew up is being called out.
As we keep going to honor and embrace diversity, you’ll find that there will be more terms that are more encapsulating and more reflective of the people. Native Americans are still known by some as Indians. People still use that term because they are resistant to change. They are so angsty and angry that they are forced to confront a past that is, now, unacceptable.
Are institutions such as the International Criminal Court or the UN effective at instituting and enforcing universal concepts of global justice? Do they even represent such an idea?
I’m not familiar with how those institutes operate so I can’t really speak on the ICC or the UN. But I can speak on the idea of global justice as a concept, and whether that idea is workable. I think that concept should exist. As we begin to mature and connect as a global society, it has really brought to light a lot of human rights injustices. The lack of access to clean water, the unequal education of women and girls, and the way people are treated in conflict areas are just some of the examples. We can see these things now. Unfortunately, the UN is kind of toothless and I think there needs to be a more effective mechanism by which war criminals can be tried.
Is it better to have a bad government than no government at all?
I don’t think it would be possible to have no government. Even in the absence of any formal government, I think people will still band together and create informal governments, however rudimentary. Social constructs will still exist. About bad government – assuming this means bad government is fascist or something autocratic, I would say it’s better to have “no” government because, as I said, some element government will still exist. These small communities can agree on a certain set of conduct whereas bad government is the face of systematic oppression. A bad government is something that is either super corrupt or autocratic. So I would rather be a villager in Pennsylvania, living in the woods with my family than living under a police state which oppresses my every freedom.
What role does dark money play in elections?
It rules the roost. Dark money fills the whole system. The US political system is pay to play. Money is pretty much politics these days. Dark money is essentially unnamed donors who set up shell companies or create a PAC with soothing patriotic names to funnel untold billions into the system. Dark money could be foreign sources, which is against the law. Either way, that type of money means that the candidate is beholden to someone we don’t know. I would like to see a full, itemized list that includes anybody who has donated to a candidate. I would like to see no super PACs.
How did the US political system become a system that rewards the people who spend the most money?
That’s a good question. There was a Supreme Court decision known as Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission that basically allowed corporations and other organizations to spend as much money as they want. It partially came from the ballooning costs to run a campaign. Though there are monetary limits for individuals, there is no limit for PAC contributions. I could give $2200 but I could also give $10 million dollars to an organization that’s willing to run someone as a candidate. Since there’s a lot of rich people in this country who want to continue being rich, they use this system to amplify their voices.
How do you think the coronavirus will change US politics?
It’s changed advocacy. Members of Congress can interact with people virtually. I think it’s changed for the better because people who can’t afford to meet their representative can call them about an issue.
The second way coronavirus will change US politics is that the virus has laid bare the inequalities in our society. We’ve seen how many people in this country are uninsured and teetering on the edge of financial ruin after losing just one paycheck. I’ve worked at an organization for 7 1/2 years where I taught lobbying. The pandemic came, and I got laid off along with a good portion of the company because of how much the industry relied on travel.
I was pleasantly surprised that the CARES Act was passed. It showed that, when faced with an enormous crisis, Congress can come together to provide massive, sweeping relief. Why isn’t more of that happening? There’s also the role of the government supporting people. Healthcare is tied to a job in this country and millions are laid off because of a health-related thing. It just shows the inequality there and the room for growth and improvement.
Tiffany met Ashley via Digital Exchange Project, a virtual study abroad program that Ashley started. Ashley has led a student organization of 45,000 students, established a nonprofit bringing online cultural exchange programs to 300 students in 30+ countries, mentored dozens of high school entrepreneurs around the world, and served as a U.S. Youth Ambassador to Uruguay. Recently, Ashley became a National Geographic Young Explorer. She received a $10,000 grant for her nonprofit, Digital Exchange Project.
What are your goals?
I’m on a mission to make cultural exchange and quality education more accessible to students around the world through edtech entrepreneurship and education policy. It is my goal to work on exciting projects that align with my passions, strengths, and values, which will allow me to empower other young people/strengthen communities/make the world a better place!
2. Who are your role models?
3. What are some life lessons you’ve learned so far?
Start clubs. When you start a club, you are essentially organizing people. You’re creating a space for people to come together over and over again for something they care about. Club building is about power. When you have a club, you are able to make decisions together and leverage your collective voices for change!
Create experiments. Life is a series of experiments. Change comes from experiments. Don’t feel the need for things to be perfect the first time you create it. The goal is to create something, take it out into the world, get feedback, break what you made, and rebuild it into something better.
Don’t let the world just “happen” to you. Especially as a student, I used to think school just “happened” to me. We all have to go to school right? I have no choice. Wrong! Take ownership over your decisions and where you spend your time. Engage in school the way that YOU want to. Don’t let other people make decisions for you, just because you’re “a kid.”
4. What have you learned from your failures?
How to not take myself too seriously. Failures are a critical part of the design process, and everyone fails. Your failures should not define you. More than once, I’ve felt like the ultimate failure because I didn’t succeed in x—and a year later, I look back and think, “wow, I totally blew that over proportion.” You’re not going to be perfect, nor should you want yourself to be. The time after failure: reflection, self-discovery, conversations with mentors, new realizations, are some of the most beautiful moments.
5. What advice would you give to someone starting a business?
See create experiments above. Also, learn from and listen to the people you are trying to serve. Build products WITH them, if you want those people to adopt your solutions. Customer discovery is key.
6. What fostered your interest in culture?
My family immigrated to the United States from Hsinchu, Taiwan when I was five years old. As a child, learning about other cultures at school brought clarity to my identity. As a result, I’ve always wanted to study abroad, but I never thought I’d have the opportunity. It was always financially out of reach or otherwise inaccessible.
In 2018, I had the life-changing opportunity to serve as a U.S. Youth Ambassador to Uruguay, my first-ever study abroad experience. It helped me realize the importance of study abroad not just to help students clarify their own values and promote intercultural understanding, but to empower students to learn from and work with people who are different from them to tackle global challenges like climate change or gender inequality. When I came back, I knew I had to do everything I could to help others access this experience! This is why I founded Project Exchange (www.myprojectexchange.com), an international 501c3 nonprofit that run a free, 12-week online cultural exchange program for middle & high school students in 30+ countries!
7. Does language shape how we perceive the world?
Yes, definitely. There are certain words and emotions in Chinese which I cannot find words for in English, and vice versa. I think language is shaped by culture and culture is shaped by language. We create words and ways of expressing what we think is important. The subtle differences and tendencies of language reveal our values, which provides the lens in which we view the world.
8. What fostered your interest in business?
Realizing that nonprofit missions are so powerful — but are financially so unsustainable. In the nonprofit world, you are reliant on donors. You spend so much time on fundraising events, donor relationships, etc. When something like COVID hits, many nonprofits doing critical work (perhaps now needed more than ever!!) are shutting their doors. I initially became interested in business, social enterprises in particular, because of their ability to drive systemic change while being financially sustainable. At the end of the day, individuals and organizations aren’t able to take care of themselves (much less serve others) without financial security.
9. Are all levels of inequality consistent with a healthy, well-functioning democracy?
I believe that a healthy, well-functioning democracy is one where people have a sense of political efficacy, they understand their responsibilities as citizens/engage in civic life, and actively contribute to their communities through service and mutual aid. I believe in a world where we invest in communities & build healthy democracies, we will also live by the idea of “what goes around, comes around.” When one of us is better off, all of us are better one. There is more than enough to go around.
10. Do you have anything to say about the Black Lives Matter Movement, Coronavirus, or any other current events in the United States?
Continue your activism while social distancing. Organize digitally! Educate yourself and your friends & family! Have uncomfortable conversations with others about the current events going on in the U.S. — especially with those who disagree with you. Listen to their perspective and advocate for your own. Ask those people questions. Make them defend their positions. Be open to saying “I don’t know” and changing your mind.
Amir Bageria was 14 when he was cast as Baaz Nahir in the show Degrassi: Next Class. He was also Zayn in the 2019 short film, Resolve. He will be in the Netflix show, Grand Army. Grand Army tells the story of five high school students as they struggle with sexual, racial and economic politics and fight to succeed and become somebody.
Why do you act?
It comes down to the first time I ever performed on stage. I was in Grade 3, and I was playing Macbeth in a version of the play that was meant for kids, and I just remember the feeling of being out there with everything on the line and feeling completely in tune with the moment. Since then I’ve just been chasing that euphoria. (Shout out to Ms. Potts for casting me.) I’m a super anxious person, not going to lie. My thoughts run a mile a minute. Acting feels like one of the only times in life where I truly focus and just be in the moment.
I’ve learned to also love all the possibilities of where things could go. Either in a single scene or in the grand scheme of things. I find that I’ve never really wanted to live a traditional life. The traditional route for a young person is to go to post-secondary, and find a job. You start at the bottom and you work your way to the top. And that path is set out for you. I just wanted to do something where I wouldn’t know where I would be ten years from now. I always felt that wasn’t exciting enough for me. Not to undermine how much hard work is required to go through post secondary I just knew it wasn’t the path that would make me happy.
The analogy I always use is: Some people know where they want to go and they have a concrete road. Some people look out and see an open prairie. I wanted to see a dirt road. I kind of know where to go. But there could be a tornado, rain, or snow. So that road could change and I need to be able to adapt. Doesn’t really make sense but hey, it’s been working so far.
In short, I’m in love with it. I keep finding reasons to do it.
What is one thing you like about acting?
It’s always such a heuristic endeavor. I always come out of an acting experience knowing a little more about myself, and other people. That’s really cool to me.
How was filming Degrassi for you?
It was overwhelming to be on it. I was completely out of my league. It was daunting to be there. I think I was the second youngest on the cast. I was 14 and hanging out with these young adults who were so cool. I listened to them talk and I wanted to be like them one day. I wanted to impress them and fit in; it wasn’t that different from being in a regular high school. I can also say that everyone was incredibly supportive. People did a very good job of trying to make me feel included and treated me with respect. They built me up, and I’m grateful for that. It was also the best film school I could have gone to. I learned so much about the technical process of camera work and working with crew. It’s an experience that will always have a really special place in my heart.
What do you do when you feel a lot of pressure?
Honestly, I just take a step back and tell myself, “Hey, at least I’m not a brain surgeon. In my job, no one dies. In the worst case scenario, they’ll have to edit a scene differently, the director won’t like it, or the audience is just not going to respond, and that’s ok. I’m cool with these issues.” That’s really it.
Do you have any rituals you undertake before acting?
If it’s an early day on set, I need a big old cup of coffee. Stretching and deep breathing helps. It helps me make sure that I’m loose and comfortable in my own skin which is important. It’s just kind of listening to myself.
Breathing can also help. For example, if you’re breathing faster, it sets up a response in your body. If your character is supposed to be calm, your breathing is going to slow down and center your body. My coaches have been stressing breath control for a long time.
How do you balance acting with family, school, and social life?
It’s like any other job. I think you just have to take a look at your immediate priorities and plan accordingly. For a long time, it was pretty much just school, acting, and family. My social life took a toll then. That was a sacrifice I was ok with. I really just wanted to pursue my acting goals more than anything. I still feel like I’m figuring it out. Nowadays I’m just trying to pace myself and work on some relationships. I really just try to focus on a gut feeling that I’m doing enough to meet my own goals, and that I’m preparing myself for future opportunities while respecting those that love me. I’m only 19 years old. I know that I’m going to move out one day and that I’ll have to leave some people I really care about behind. Life is probably going to have some big change eventually. Right now, I just try to enjoy what’s in front of me. Both the work of acting and also just my family and friends. There’s going to come a time when career fully takes over. I guess I don’t know haha. Again, it’s just a gut feeling of what it is I need to do now in order to meet my needs.
What are your favorite films?
The Dark Knight is my favorite. I remember watching it in theaters at 8 years old and thinking it was amazing. Even now, there are so many things I pick up that make it even more profound. It’s a great middle ground of matching the excitement I felt when I was a kid with looking at it and appreciating it as an adult.
Your favorite film is important. The things that inspire you are important. Her by Spike Jones is great. I watched it when I was young and it had a profound impact on me. Good Will Hunting affected me. As a young man, I found it extremely important. The secret life of Walter Mitty by Ben Stiller is a really good film and Django Unchained by Quentin Tarantino.
Who are your role models?
I have so many. I have so many people I look up to, literally there’s an Alex Ovechkin Jersey to my left, and a Muhammed Ali poster to my right. My favorite actor is Ryan Gosling. My father and my brother inspire me. My friends are amazing people who inspire me every day. As a young person I have to say Bo Burnham and Matty Healy. Those two really helped me a lot. Being a young man born in October from Degrassi it’s needless to say I want to be like Drake one day. My mother is an incredibly empathetic and caring person. She’s really poetic and I try to take a lot from her. I think the cool thing about life is that you can find inspiration in everyday people who have managed to build good lives for themselves based on their own values. Anyone who can build a good life while remaining true to themselves is a role model to me. I want to be just like that one day. I find inspiration in everyday life. There’s so many role models I want to emulate one day.
What books do you recommend?
There’s a book by Jenner Fisher who plays Pam in the Office. It’s called The Actor’s Life: A Survival Guide. Her book reassured me of my own individuality and how to deal with those circumstances so well. The other book I would recommend is A Life in Parts by Bryan Cranston. Both from an acting standpoint and from a life standpoint that book taught me so much. The Intent to Live by Larry Moss is a must have for acting.
10. How do you study acting?
Do it first and foremost haha. Perform as much as you can. Find a coach, somewhere where you can work out your acting muscles. If you keep working at it, the difference from where you started to where you are now will be night and day.
Also, look at the resources in your area for acting. Classes, workshops, productions. Have fun with it and do the best that you can. If you enjoy theater, do it. I need to do more theater. It is an incredibly difficult medium, and if you can master it the screen will be easier. I was in New York from January to March of this year studying Shakespeare and let me tell you, Shakespeare kicked my butt. I’ve been acting my whole life and that made me feel like I just started. That is the type of stuff that will make you a well rounded actor.
Also, YouTube is your best friend. Study your inspirations. There are so many good acting podcasts out there. There is so much out there to learn. You could watch footage of actual sets. The world is really in the palm of your hands when you have an internet connection. I would also recommend Masterclass. I took the acting class by Natalie Portman, and Samuel L. Jackson and I learned so much.
11. How do you become a character?
Oh boy. I really can’t tell you haha. It’s an amalgamation of everything I’ve learned so far. There’s so many mind games, and technical processes, and life lessons it takes to become someone else. I really couldn’t tell you how exactly. I just pull from everything I’ve studied and hope it works. I treat it like a hockey game. You study the theory the best you can. What to do when the play starts, where everyone’s going to go, what system’s you’ll implement. At the end of the day, when you step out and play the game it’s just instinct, and you hope the preparation kicks in.
12. How are other people involved in the creation of a character?
There are so many people that are adding to the persona of a character. For example, your costume designer is creating the look of your character. Your makeup artist is adding to that. Your writer is tweaking the words, and the director is going to challenge the way you see this character. Sometimes it doesn’t all make sense, but when you actually start performing, there’s going to be something there. It’s all in the script as well. You make informed decisions and you listen to the script as much as you can.
13. How do you make it in the industry?
I have a good anecdote for this. The first time I went to formal training, my acting coach laid down three pens on this desk in front of me and he said, “One of them is talent, one of them is luck, and one of them is hard work. Pick two to make it.” I was fifteen at the time, and I think I chose talent and hard work. So he put back talent and brought hard work and luck forward. Then he said, “If you’re going to make it here, these are the two things you need.”
What I remember as daunting for that age was the luck aspect. Luck is this omnipotent force which you have no control over. And that really freaked me out. The work ethic, I knew I had.
My teacher once shared a quote with me though. He told me, “Luck is what happens when preparation meets opportunity.”
Ever since then, I always just feel like I’m preparing for the opportunities that are yet to come.
14. How does one stand out as an actor?
It doesn’t matter who you are, where you come from, or who you identify as. None of that stuff matters. It’s just about individuality and authenticity. Be true to what makes you happy, and work your butt off.
15. What advice would you give for aspiring actors?
In terms of what advice I have for aspiring actors; it would be to first just have fun. You really owe it to yourselves to enjoy it. Because it’s liberating, and that drives you. The feeling of euphoria that you feel in your bones or whatever it is that drives you…Just find that feeling and become in touch with it. Because that’s going to keep you going.
And just be curious. Ask questions, be enamored with how people get themselves to these positions. Watch movies and tv. If there’s ever a scene that inspires you; study it, figure out why it works so well. You’re only going to learn more about yourself and what you are capable of.
It’s really important to practice. So go out there, attend some classes, and find a coach. That is going to further the development of yourself.
Short answer is: learn while you love it, stay curious, and prepare for the opportunities that are yet to come, and find inspiration. Learn from your heroes. Research the people you look up to and try your best to emulate them. That’s what I do.
16. What are some things you’ve learned from life so far?
I try to say yes to experiences. I really try to live a full life. Because no matter what, that’s going to give you experiences to draw on. The more of a life you’ve lived, the more life you’re going to see in the characters you portray. You’re going to have more experiences to be empathetic, sympathetic.
17. How has acting changed you?
It’s allowed me to see the world in a completely different light. It’s allowed me to meet some people that really inspire me and change my outlook on life. It’s taught me to be a better person. It’s given me everything and I really just hope to do right by it.
I love to do this. If you feel the same way, I really recommend giving it a shot.
Tiffany met Hikaru when she participated in Digital Project Exchange, a virtual study abroad program. Hikaru was the facilitator. Hikaru has gone on two study abroad programs: the Kennedy-Lugar Youth Exchange and Study (YES) Abroad program in North Macedonia and the AFS Chinese Summer Language and Culture Program in rural northeastern China. Among a litany of positions he’s held and is holding, Hikaru is the Deputy Partnerships Director of Climate Cardinals, an international movement to translate climate research and information in an effort to make the climate movement more accessible to those who do not speak English. He is also a Macedonian language instructor for Wave Learning Festival.
1. Do you think languages are a comprehensive enough description of the world and everything in it?
Languages are the tool through which the knowledge and history of its speakers are shared and transferred from generation to generation. Without languages, there would be no way to communicate, or describe the world, and as languages begin to fade, we are losing the knowledge and history of civilizations around the world.
2. Why did you decide to go on multiple exchange programs?
I studied abroad on two programs: the Kennedy-Lugar Youth Exchange & Study (YES) Abroad Program in North Macedonia, sponsored by the U.S. Department of State, and the AFS Chinese Summer Language and Culture Program in rural northeastern China. I never intended to go on multiple exchange programs, but I saw both programs as a way to step outside of my comfort zone, while following my passions and joining a mission that fits in with my values and beliefs: to build a more understanding world which values intercultural and interpersonal communication and development. In addition, through both experiences, I learned many important life lessons and I acquired skills that cannot be learned in a classroom. It was not only an enlightening experience in terms of cultural and linguistic education, but an opportunity to grow personally and learn more about myself.
3. What are some lessons you learned from your experiences abroad?
Firstly, people are people everywhere! Everyone, no matter their geographic location, strives to live a happy and fulfilling life. This is a lesson that everyone does know but is sometimes hard to accept and realize. Oftentimes, we see people as a reflection of their communities’ portrayal in mass media. Of course, people are different around the world, but in general, I found locals in my host communities to be open-minded and willing to reach out and build friendships. Secondly, stepping outside of your comfort zone is another lifelong lesson. The key to growth and personal success stems from new experiences. Finally, intercultural and interpersonal relationships are the building blocks for a more prosperous world. In fact, citizen diplomacy is a cost-efficient form of diplomacy. Study abroad, and other forms of citizen diplomacy, do not only benefit individuals, but both the home and host communities.
4. What advice would you give to students who want to pursue their studies abroad?
Committing to study abroad is difficult. It entails leaving your home community for an extended period and becoming a part of a new and different community, which often has distinct cultures and values from your family and home. It is important to realize that study abroad is hard. In any new situation, you will be forced to learn and adapt. I would advise that prospective exchange students do not set unrealistic expectations for themselves. Expectations will almost never be the reality and can sometimes be overwhelming. Very few prior experiences will prepare you for study abroad, and you should prepare to grow as an individual. Also, it is important to be open-minded, and to not misjudge differences in your host community through your perspective and experiences from your home community. As I mentioned before, people are people everywhere, and when it comes to nondiscriminatory cultural differences, many exchange programs encourage students to apply the following mantra: “It’s not good or bad, just different!”
5. What would you describe as America’s culture?
American culture is a salad bowl of various people, ideas, cultures, and histories, which together form American culture and identity.
6. Do you think nationalism can be beneficial or is it something to be avoided?
It depends on how it is defined. In contemporary society, nationalism has been described as an ideology which promotes one nation and culture as superior to all others. If nationalism is to be defined in this way, I believe that patriotism is beneficial. Patriotism describes one’s support and love for their country, without asserting superiority or self-promotion. In my home country, the United States, the best patriots and the most impactful changemakers are those who love their country and are willing to make our country a better place for all citizens. Among those patriots and changemakers, I see individuals such as the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., former United States Representative John Lewis, and Rosa Parks, among others. The goal of society is to constantly progress, and we must progress by fighting for a better future, not by asserting superiority and ignoring our problems.
7. Do you think your interest in culture stems from growing up with parents from two different cultures?
Yes. I have, in many ways, grown up in the intersection of several different cultures. Primarily, American, but also Japanese, immigrant, suburban, urban, etc . . . My mother is a first- generation multiracial Guyanese American, and my father is a Japanese emigrant. Growing up in a multicultural, multiethnic, and multiracial family and community from various socioeconomic backgrounds has provided me an opportunity to learn more about myself and contextualize and clarify my own identity. However, for me, my passion for culture is not only an interest, but a lifelong commitment to deepen and inform my global perspective by learning about different cultures.
8. Who are your role models?
9. What book would you recommend?
Most recently I have read A Thousand Splendid Suns by Khaled Hosseini, To Kill A Mockingbird by Harper Lee, and Freakonomics by Stephen J. Dubner and Steven Levitt.
10. What are your current goals?
To feel content and satisfied at the end of each day by positively impacting others, and always attempting to do my best under any circumstance.
1. Do you believe you reflect any country’s values?
I am American, born and bred.
11. Why did you decide to become a facilitator for Project Exchange?
Like most youth, my plans were significantly altered by the pandemic. My program in North Macedonia would have ended in June, however, due to the global outbreak of COVID-19, I returned to my hometown in March. Upon my return, Ashley Lin, the CEO of Project Exchange, reached out to me, asking if I would be interested in working with Project Exchange on the Spring 2020 Digital Exchange Program.
12. Do you think you have a purpose in life? If so, what is it?
I do. My purpose in life is the same as my current goals. I want to work on the grassroots level and to be able to help others directly, and to feel that in every aspect of my life, I am doing my best to positively impact the world.
13. Do you have a personal philosophy?
Work your hardest, learn every day, listen to those around you because everything and everyone has a story, and a smile always brightens the day.
14. Is there a life lesson you think everyone should know?
Education and happiness are an investment in yourself and your future.
Tiffany met Anagha through Project Exchange, a virtual study abroad. Anagha has been a part of the 1000 Girls 1000 Futures Mentorship Program of the New York Academy of Science. She currently serves as a member of the Girls in Science 4 SDG’s platform under the aegis of the United Nations. She is also a co-founder and editor of ‘Mind Champs’, an e-magazine to promote mental health awareness. She is the co-founder of Nuclear 4 Peace, a comprehensive outreach program to spread awareness about the peaceful use of nuclear technology.
Her poems have been published by ‘Learning and Creativity’, an international platform for budding writers. For the past five years, she has been a member of the TKMCE Gavel Club affiliated with Toastmasters International. She has represented her club at national and international level speaking championships. She has also volunteered with various organizations such as Wings of Angelz, Students for the Earth, Dubai Cares, Serve the Heroes, Books to Benefit, Volunteer in UAE and so on.
On top of all of that, she also gave a Ted Talk on the basic design for a device that can detect Alzheimer’s at the earliest possible stage using debris from nuclear reactors.
1.Are there any major events or people that heavily influence you?
I take inspiration from everyone and everything around me. Nature is my first inspiration. My family and friends inspire me to keep going despite the roadblocks. Mahatma Gandhi inspires me to fight for justice, Jacinda Ardern (Prime Minister of New Zealand) inspires me to become an empathetic leader, writers Agatha Christie and Jeffrey Archer inspire me to use my words to make a difference.
2. What do you hope to accomplish in your lifetime?
I have a plethora of dreams in my bucket list. I want to study at Oxford University, write detective fiction, travel the world with my best friend, take my e-magazine MindChamps to a million readers and become the prime minister of India. I also want to initiate a safe space where high school and university students can express their opinions about political, economic and other international issues without fear of judgement. I would also want to grow a forest of my own and create a sustainable mentorship program for girls in rural India.
3. What do you like to research?
My research interests lie on a broad spectrum. I like to research about economic policies, political history and international affairs. I am curious about reading autobiographies and research about the lives of political and social leaders. I also love researching about nuclear physics and quantum biology.
4. Why did you co-found MindChamps?
In today’s fast paced world, our mind is overworked and yet undernourished. While physical health tops our priority charts, mental health often takes a backseat. A year ago a group of young girls, who were a part of the 1000 Girls 1000 Futures Mentorship Program of the New York Academy of Science, were having this virtual conversation. We realized albeit painfully that in spite of the fact that we come from diverse cultures, we were all facing a similar challenge- the stigma surrounding mental health.
We were fueled by a passion to make the world a safer space to talk about mental health. That is how MindChamps was born.
MindChamps is an e-magazine for the youth by youth. It offers youngsters from across the globe to speak up about mental health issues through articles, poems and works of art. Through interviews with experts, our magazine seeks to demystify various symptoms and impacts of the demonic conditions that plague our minds. By highlighting youth led initiatives in the realm of mental health awareness and the positive impact it has on their communities, we seek to inspire more and more youngsters to break the shackles of shame and champion for change.
5. What is the impact of culture on mental health?
A lot of cultures around the world stigmatize mental health issues. It is a taboo in most societies. Individuals diagnosed with mental health issues are considered mentally weak and unfit to take on roles in society. This prevents a lot of people from opening up about mental health.
I also believe that cultural appropriation fuels mental health issues to a large extent. When your culture is being misrepresented (for instance, cultures of refugees are being depicted as primitive cultures), people of that community feel isolated. In their attempt to fit in, they are often forced to compromise on their identity and beliefs leading to issues such as depression.
6. Do entrenched ideas about gender roles impact the diagnosis and research on mental illness?
Mental illnesses such as depression are more prevalent among women than men. This is largely because women are primary care givers in almost all cultures across the globe. They also face domestic violence (leading to post traumatic stress) to a large extent and are forced into low paid jobs.
However suicide rates are higher among men globally as compared to women. This may be because women are more prone to seek help for mental health issues while men tend to bottle up their feelings owing to social expectations.
So we can see that gender-based stereotypes definitely has a terrible impact on mental health regardless of one’s gender identity.
7. Is there a relationship between psychiatry and a perceived idea of morality?
I don’t think I can give a very definite answer to this question. So I would prefer not to answer it
8. What is the relationship between the mind and art?
Art is a form of expression. For many it is a refuge in the face of a chaotic reality.
Art is being increasingly used in psychotherapy because it has the power to heal. I know of several individuals who used art as a means to achieve inner peace while suffering from devastating illnesses or to overcome the grief of losing a loved one.
In the face of the pandemic the role of art has amplified several fold. People are using art to send messages of love and hope, spread awareness about social issues that matter.
9. What have you learned from your extensive volunteering experience?
Volunteering is the biggest source of happiness that I have experienced. To be able to give back to society makes my life meaningful. Also volunteering gives you an opportunity to connect with like minded individuals, forming the kind of networks that the world needs today.
10. Should volunteering be incentivized?
I believe that volunteering should be incentivized in a meaningful way, in the form of social benefits. For instance, when you volunteer at an old age home, you receive credit that adds on to your school fees. So you have to spend less on your fees now.
These kind of incentives will not only encourage more people to step up to volunteer but also will ensure equitable access to education, healthcare and other social requrements of an individual.
However, I strongly believe that volunteering should not be given monetary incentives which can lead to people using the money obtained through volunteering to promote anti-social activities.
11. What are your views on wealthier countries funding projects in less developed countries (ex: the Belt and Road Initiative)?
I strongly support investments made by wealthy countries in less developed countries because it enables the latter to build their economy. However these investments should be made into programs that are beneficial for ordinary citizens of the country. For instance, wealthier countries should invest in food security schemes instead of spending on developing a military base in a country that has high levels of poverty.
Also projects like Belt and Road Initiative of China have raised eyebrows owing to security reasons. There are allegations that China is utilizing this initiative to gain access to classified information of the participating countries which can lead to these countries losing their sovereign rights.
12. Do the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few?
Definitely not. Majoritarianism is a concept that has led to catastrophic situations in several countries across the globe, including but not limited to Sri Lanka, South Africa, India.
When a government or a social system excludes the minorities they are actually failing to recognize that the human race is not a homogenous one. The cultures, beliefs, faiths of minorities need to be protected while ensuring that the majority needs are not compromised. For instance, reservations were introduced in India for the upliftment of the so-called ‘lower’ caste people who had traditionally been discriminated against. However over the years reservation has become a burden because a lot of people from lower castes have now become rich but continue to exploit the privilege of reservation.
13. What are the principles around which we should organize our social structure?
I don’t think there is a ‘one size fits all’ approach to building a social structure. This varies from one culture to the other. It depends on the history of a country, the geography and the political structure. But I believe that there are certain values which need to form the basis of any social structure:
a. Equity (This will ensure that everyone has an equal opportunity to participate in decision making and fulfill their aspirations)
b. Empathy (Every individual needs to be empathetic towards the sufferings of fellow beings so that we can build a community where no one takes unfair advantage of others)
c. Transparency (Governments and other state level bodies need to be as transparent as possible to prevent crimes and make the community a safe space for all)
d. Culture of Collaboration (We need to promote a culture of collaboration over competition. Of course, competition is essential to build competitiveness of institutions and businesses but collaboration is a healthier way of existence because there is so much we can learn from each other)
e. Sustainability (We need to ensure that our way of living is in harmony with nature and that our practises of education, health and economy building is sustainable. We need to strike a balance between needs of the present and future generations)
14. Do you have anything you want to see about the events that are happening in United Arab Emirates or around the globe?
The past few months have been emotionally pressurizing. The pandemic has disrupted the world as we know it. But thankfully we as a society is learning to live with it. All countries have taken precautionary measures and many nations have high recovery rates. All thanks to our frontline workers, we are gradually recovering.
The Black Lives Matter Movement in USA and similar movements in various countries is bringing to light the discrimination being faced by certain communities for centuries. I am glad that young people all over the world are raising their voices and trying to make a difference.
Climate change is another startling reality that many in power still fail to recognize. In the wake of the pandemic several governments have eased pollution control measures in an attempt to reinstate their economy. This is extremely terrifying. But at the same time there have been several innovative ideas being brought to the forefront to create more sustainable communities.
UAE is planning to launch its first Mars Mission titled Amaal (translating to Hope). This the first time an Arab country is launching a mission of this kind. Everyone in UAE is extremely excited for this launch.
Tiffany met Akhila during Digital Project Exchange, a virtual study abroad for teenagers. Akhila is a 2020 Coca Cola scholar, Ohio ThinkSTEAM Student Ambassador, and founder of Metro Girl Up at her school. Through her work there, she has raised over $10,000 and been able to fund the education of over 100 girls in countries such as Liberia, Guatemala, and India.
1.Why did you join Digital Project Exchange?
The main reason I joined was because I wanted to fill my time during corona with something. But also, I’ve done a study abroad before and I’ve heard about the DEP before because the girl who founded this actually did the same study abroad program I did. So I wanted to see what it was about.
2. What are your current goals?
My current goals are to go into the medical field and then become a surgeon of some sort. I’ve really liked neurosurgery for a long-time, but it’s a super long path so I don’t know yet. I definitely do want to go into the medical field.
3. Who are your mentors?
One of them is my principal investigator for my research lab, so I got to do a lot of biomedical research. The investigator really helped me explore what research has to offer. Other mentors are probably the people in GirlUp. I’ve looked up to a lot of them people and they really help me with stuff in my GirlUp club, and seeing what they’ve done, I take it as a source of inspiration.
4. What are some of the most meaningful experiences you’ve gone through in life?
I have two. The first one is that study abroad program that I did called WiSci (Women in Science and Engineering). It was hosted in the country of Georgia. It was a two-week camp and I got to learn about STEAM from a lot of different mentors. This included people from Google, Intel, American Society of Microbiology. We got to do a lot of different activities. It was just so unique because I got to bond with girls from Georgia, Azerbaijan, and Armenia, as well as the US. The time went by so quickly, but I got to learn a lot. The other experience that I got to do was an eight-week research program. It was here in Ohio, where I’m from. I basically got to do an entire research project and then present my research at the end, at a summer post-session. A lot of different scientists came to that and it was really exciting for me to share the research I did over the summer.
5. What is the most impactful thing you’ve done?
I was heavily involved with GirlUp throughout high school and I actually founded it in my high school. Our main event that we do is something called Doughnut Dash. It’s kind of like a spin on a 5K. For each lap that a participant runs, he or she gets a doughnut. They have fun participating because a lot of participants leave the event with dozens of donuts. It’s really fun because people are running and getting excited for a good cause. All of our proceeds that we get from our event go to supporting girls’ education and gender equality efforts. Over the past four years, we have raised over $10,000 and put more than 100 girls back in school. I think that that one experience has taught me so much about leadership, being a good communicator, and putting my efforts into one cause.
6. Can you point to any influences or experiences in your life that led you to pursue an interest in education of girls in STEM fields?
I don’t think there’s a specific event. My parents are both software engineers, so just seeing that they are heavily involved in computer science has pushed me to STEM fields. Starting in sixth grade, I’ve done so many different science camps, robotics, and so many different things that have no relation to one another. I don’t think I can point a specific event. I’ve always loved STEAM for the hands-on aspect of it.
7. Do humans have a duty to help fellow humans?
I think it depends on the situation, but overall I would say yes. If we had another person, than I would say yes we should.
8. Do you think society is constructed in a way that promotes altruism?
I don’t think in all places. Some places that are communist, I don’t think that would apply. In places that have more of a democratic approach, I would say that yeah. There is this idea that they have to help others. Here in the US, you see so many different non-profits and people try to give back to their communities.
9. Why did you found the Metro Girl Up club?
That just really happened because I’ve visited India a lot, because that’s where my family’s from. I noticed that girls are always at a disadvantage in comparison to boys. For example, my grandmothers were married at 14. That’s super young and also they couldn’t pursue their education because of that. That just really struck me and I knew I wanted to do something that would allow girls to say no to child marriage and to also get an education and get the resources. Just getting some more educational opportunities that will allow them to contribute back to the society. I knew that GirlUp does a lot of stuff with that, and that’s one of the main reasons why I started it.
10. Does school influence one’s perception of which genders belong in which fields?
I think right now, it’s diminishing. Right now, I do think there’s a strong push for schools to be more inclusive and showing girls that they are worthy of pursuing something in STEAM. But there’s still definitely a long way to go because I know when stereotypical comments are made, indirectly and not purposefully, people still don’t say anything. That kind of makes girls feel like they’re not included. But there’s still a lot of programs that are trying to push for girls to get into STEM.
11. Does school curriculum reflect the interests of any group?
I don’t know if I can say it reflects the interest of a specific group. I think that school curriculum, especially in history classes, doesn’t do a proper speaking. Especially in World History, I feel like they gloss over the last couple of units, which are really about other parts of the world. I feel like they focus on American history and the perspectives of white people. I don’t fell like they give enough importance to the other parts of the world that also should be discussed. I do think school curriculum prioritizes the white perspective, especially here in the US.
12. Have you experienced any opportunities that you think you were only able to experience because of where you live?
Yeah. Not all places have the same resources that I do. For example, the research internship I pursued was because I have a research facility near me. If I was living in a rural area 2 hours down-south of me, I probably couldn’t do the same things that I got to do. I think where I live does play a role in what I got to pursue, which is why it’s also important to do a lot of outreach events.
13. Do you think language influences a person’s perception of the world around them?
Possibly. I feel like seeing that English is the global language, you think that you can converse with anybody wherever you go. But I don’t think that’s exactly true because areas like villages and places that are less fortunate might not know English, so you can’t necessarily converse with them.
14. What role does culture place in shaping a person’s tastes?
Culture plays a big role because if you stay true to your culture you get to bring new perspectives into the conversation. Often times I feel like here in the US, people try to disregard their culture or pretend they were never a part of it. By bringing their culture to a conversation, you indirectly bring a new idea and give people a new way of thinking.
15. Do you have anything to say about the Black Lives Matter (BLM) Movement, the coronavirus, or anything else happening in the world right now?
I think the BLM movement is very much needed because I feel like it’s been happening for a long time but people haven’t actively spoken about it. I think it just happened at a time where more events that are unfortunate are happening. It’s kind of sad that it happened during corona because more people are vulnerable to getting sick. But I think it’s very much needed because it’s long overdue.
Deborah was a GripTape Challenger and took a class with Jamie-Lee Josselyn. Tiffany reached out to her recently. Deborah wrote Unleashing Your Innovative Genius: High School Redesigned, a book that redefines education and helps readers design a system where they thrive. Deborah is now a nursing student at the University of Pennsylvania. The following is an interview Tiffany conducted with her.
1. How did your culture and environment influence you as a child?
One of the biggest thing I realized growing up was that I had a big family. I had four siblings, so that’s five people in the house. I was always surrounded by people. I feel like I learned the values of humility and patience a lot more because I always had to wait my turn whether it was for attention, or for speaking with my parents, or for other needs that I had. Just by living with that many people, I learned that my opinion and my voices are important but they’re not the only ones in the world.
2. Who are your inspirations?
Two of my biggest inspirations are Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. I absolutely love her. She’s a Nigerian author, speaker, writer, model. She’s an incredible human being and I’m so inspired by her. The biggest work I first found her from was her 2009 TED talk, “The Danger of a Single Story.” I wrote a lot of my college essays around that idea because I realize that in so many areas I was interested in, I was always combating this single story narrative. She made it really clear to me from her TED talk that the single story narrative destroys the way people think because it tells them that this is the only perspective that matters. It just tries to stifle all the other voices and that’s what’s happening in education, in our classrooms, and in terms of the activism that is prominent right now. When you open your mind to different stories, you’re going to be so much more enriched and able to understand perspectives better, and I love how she talked about that in her talk. The second person would probably be Trevor Noah. I was watching his other TED talk the other day about the importance of reading in the black community and the TEDx speaker was a black man and he said, “When have you ever seen a black man reading?” And I was like, never. I’ve never seen a black man read in my entire life. He was talking about how when you’re working with communities of color, specifically the black community, you’re trying to encourage black boys and black girls about the importance of being readers. It’s hard when you don’t see yourself in those positions and that TED talk was just stressing the importance of representation and having that for yourself. I have realized that Trevor Noah has become something that I look forward to, something that I aspire to because having someone who is black give me so much value has shown my how important this perspective is and has given me the encouragement I need to continue to share my own stories.
3. Do you have any rituals you undergo before you write?
I don’t have any specific rituals but when I get into writer’s block, I love music. I don’t like having songs played over and over again but if I’m in writer’s block, I won’t listen to a different song until I get the content that I need down, which sounds crazy. But I remember when I was writing my book, the song by Alicia Keys, “Empire State of Mind” version III Jay Z or Kanye West, I played that song maybe a hundred times until I finished writing part three. I just didn’t want to move on until I finished that and I really got annoyed, and it motivated me to keep writing because I wanted to listen to a new song but I couldn’t until I got the content down.
4. What do you like to write about?
I love writing about culture. I think that’s one of the biggest things that encourages me when I write. And also history and how my perspectives relate to things of the past. One of my favorite poets, Natasha Trethewey, she writes a lot about historical context in terms of her life and her personal accounts and I found that to be one of the most prominent ways I liked writing. I like personifying years in the past, and trying to see what it would be like from a 21st century perspective to try and live in the 1800’s or the 1960’s. I’ve done that a lot with a couple of pieces. On my page, there’s a couple of poems, “I Am,” I wrote that as a tenth grader in 2018. That is a poem where I take the audience all the way from 1968 to 2018 in terms of racial justice and trying to get to what is a final frontier and what does it actually mean to have equality. Understanding through the different experiences of the past, how we don’t repeat them and can actually move forward to progress in the future.
5. Do you have any advice on writing or publishing?
Yeah I have quite a few things to say about writing and publishing. I’ll do writing first because it’s a little bit easier to tackle. One of the biggest things I usually tell people who reach out to me who want to write books, I would commit to writing t least three times a week. Whether that’s in your notebook, physically, digitally. I personally like physically. I think it’s important to get your thoughts down on paper, even if it’s just an idea. Get yourself in the state of always writing things that come to your mind, whether that’s something that’s creative or technical because it’s just a continuous reminder that you can create these new things just from sitting down and taking the time to do so. And also take moments where you sit and write. I feel like it’s a lot harder these days because of the hustle-bustle, but that’s kind of gone now with COVID-19 so there’s no real excuse. To write down your thoughts on paper and to take time out of your day, it doesn’t have to be an entire day, but at least half an hour to write would be very beneficial. And maybe invest in an accountability partner if you find yourself getting stuck often or you’re not writing as much as you would like to, just find someone who you could write with to become a fun little adventure you guys do together. And use the internet to your advantage. I draw inspiration from music, photos, my siblings because they’re always doing crazy things, and from my everyday life. You can also find inspiration from the Internet, so definitely use that to your advantage as well. And for publishing, I would advise that you ask yourself why you want to publish in the first place. There are so many ways to go about publishing, small big, or even publishing poems in a magazine, those different outlets. So determine why you want to publish because that will encourage you in terms of the market you’re trying to reach and it will help you in terms of your research of who to reach out to, who to ask questions to, and how to continue to be inspired. I buy books from small published authors instead of big published others because it’s about the representation of that. If you buy a book from a big published author and you see all the different things in their book, you can be inspired by it but at the same time you have to use something that is important to your process and your journey. For me, I publish with a small publishing house in DC and so I bought books from authors published by this house because I had physical representations of their success in my hands, which continued to motivate me through the writing process, that publishing wasn’t the impossible.
6. How did you book a nationwide tour?
I don’t want to say that it’s by happenstance because that’s not it at all. I had to do my own press. With a smaller publishing house, I’ve been encouraging them to work on including a publicist with a package that you end up fundraising or crowdfunding for, with the selling of the first hundred books. I was my own publicist because that’s not a role that exists yet for my publishing house. I was reaching out to local newspapers, local articles, everyone who could tell my story. Essentially, I got into a tech website called Technical.ly with a range from Delaware, Baltimore, DC, Philadelphia, and I think New York. Someone from Philadelphia read the article from Technical.ly Delaware and it was a husband of a school administrator, so he gave the article to his wife, who was the student coordinator at the school that I had my first tour day at. She was like, Oh my gosh this girl is fantastic. I want her to talk to my students. So she spoke to her principal, and the principal was like, No, no, no, no, no. She’s not just going to talk to your students, she’s going to talk to the entire school. It really was a matter of time and place, and that’s how the tour got into motion. From that day, it was actually a November, three months before I even published my book, they did buy books in advance which helped my motivation. I kicked the tour back up again after publishing in February, but then COVID-19 happened.
7. What is the relationship between art and activist?
I think that art can be a really good tool to fuel the resistance because I think people like looking at really aesthetically pleasing things. When something’s aesthetic, you are part of the resistance in some way that people will want to share. It’s not only pleasing to the eye, but it will also encourage people to listen to the message of it as well. I think art can very much amplify the words that we want to use to get people to take action and encourage people that it’s bigger than just the words, but also action. I also think that artists play a really key role in not just activism, but in mobilizing their communities in general because they learn the importance of using their mediums to communicate a message. Like that quote, “There’s a thousand things to say but one picture.” It’s kind of the same thing with different mediums for art. You can use that to communicate a really strong message.
8. What differentiates activism from other political actions such as voting?
I think that activism is a daily act of resistance whereas voting is just a singular, one-time thing or you can vote more than one time a year whether it’s local, state, or national elections. But those are usually things that happen at a specific time whereas activism is something that you want to do on a daily basis that you’re continuing to encourage people to do. You’re having conversations with your legislatures, you’re writing them letters, you’re donating, fundraising, you’re organizing, you’re protesting. Activism is so much more intentional and it’s something that people take on for themselves to commit their lives to, and to continue to. Voting has specific dates that you have to register and everything and you cast your ballot, and then you have to wait for the next time. But with activism, you don’t want to wait because there’s so much at stake if you just sit there waiting.
9. What are some problems you’ve seen with the US education system?
I guess I’ll name three to keep it short. One is expecting students to be absolutely perfect from ages 5 to 18. Then once we graduate, we’re supposed to magically know exactly what we want to do with our lives. The curriculum is incredibly one-sided. Our history books are white-washed and you can obviously tell whose stories matter based on the curriculum and what’s really enforced and its importance in the classroom. Not just teacher representation, but teacher flexibility as well, because I feel like for the most part, I could tell you two or three teachers I had that weren’t white. Maybe they were language teachers, but all the other teachers were white. When you have people in front of you who are giving you the knowledge to continue in higher education, it continues to show who has the power and authority to give off knowledge. That affects the students in the classroom. When white students never see black, Asian, or Hispanic teachers in the classroom. I’ve never had an indigenous teacher in my life. We’re not even talking about Native Americans beyond the atrocious things the white settlers did to them, and it says to Native American students, “This is my place in history and that’s it,” That’s all they’re being told and that’s wrong. I think teacher flexibility ties in with representation because once you’ve fixed the curriculum and allow teachers to actually teach what they’re truly interested in and passionate about and equip that to their students needs, then you can bring in teachers from all different races, backgrounds, ideologies, neighborhoods, locations, everything. And give them the resources they need to equip their students with the skills that they need to go on and say, “Yes, this is how I want to make a difference. I use the experiences that so-and-so taught me to actually understand what I’m interested in and this is how I want to go forward. I think one of the other biggest problems with education is, which we’re realizing now more than ever with COVID-19, is that it’s too long. I don’t think seven hours is a sufficient amount of time to relay information. When you tell students to sit still for that long and you expect them not to act out and be perfect human beings, it just doesn’t make sense. You’re not only stifling students’ creativity as they continue to go on, you’re telling them,”This is what real life looks like” when it doesn’t. We see that with the people who we surround ourselves with and the expectation of wanting to go to college because there’s so much more freedom. We see that with other controversial education systems, where the students aren’t in school that long and they have much more successful outcomes than the United States.
11. Is there systematic racism in the US education system?
Most definitely. I think that it starts with the expectation of everyone getting up at the same time and pretending like there’s no problems going on. Going through our education system and not thinking about the mental health problems that you may be having on the side. I feel like educators are putting so much pressure on students and burdening them with all these assignments, standardized testing and everything like that, and we never talk about their home lives. We never talk about the situations that may put a student in jeopardy in terms of their grades, and have them focus on something that matters more to them than the test that’s right in front of them. That’s never a conversation that we’re having, and it’s incredibly detrimental because what we’re seeing is that most black and brown communities live in places where there are food deserts, so they don’t even have fresh fruits and vegetables that they need to have a stimulated mind to pay attention in class. Then they get the most horrible reprimands in terms of discipline in class, and they end up getting suspended or expelled, and that leads them to thinking, “My place in the classroom is just to be someone to be disciplined and not someone to actually be learning.” That doesn’t encourage them to continue or to want to go to college in the first place. Then we have to talk about the socioeconomic barriers that restricts students from truly understanding and actualizing the interests that they have. We talk all about experiential learning in the book, but at the end of the day, it’s resources. You have to have the access to college courses that allow you to explore more than just what you’re high school curriculum is giving you. The funds to go across the country, if you want, to study in a lab, or just to pursue the interests that you’re genuinely interested in. It’s usually held off for students who have money, who can do that and decide to leave their families for two weeks in the summer and not have to take care of the younger siblings. There’s continuously a socioeconomic divide between what it means to be a successful student in the education system and how we bridge that gap in the first place.
12. Do you think African-American culture has been respected in the US? What about in the rest of the world?
I think that one of the biggest problems with American culture is they love black culture, they will steal from it, they will appropriate it all day long, but then they don’t actually care about black lives. I don’t know how it is in other countries because I’ve never been out of the US; I was born and raised here. But what I’ve seen from the consensus across the board is that people have now problem appropriating the culture, but then they have a larger problem of saying, “Let’s have a socioeconomic conversation about reparations. Let’s have a socioeconomic conversation about the climate, and how it affects black and brown communities a lot more than white communities. Let’s talk about how we continue to mooch off the creations of black people and not giving the credit that they deserve.” Rather it’s, “Look at the fashion and the trends, the raps and the songs and everything that we’re creating.” But what about the benefits? What about the profits from it? Only 4%, I think, in terms of the equity world, belongs to black people. This is the conversation that needs to be had.
13. Do you think certain groups are more subject to stereotyping then others. If so, why?
I think most definitely that there;s more racism or stereotyping and racial profiling base on the color of your skin, and it all goes back to systematic racism. There’s a video that’s been going around, I think Trump even used it for propaganda, of a little black boy and a little white boy coming together to hug each other. The thing that I got from that video is that racism is learned behavior. Babies aren’t born hating other people based on the color of their skin; it’s something that they’re taught in their environments. I definitely think people are taught to stereotype based on where they live, and in some areas of the country it’s so much more prominent which is why we see so many offensive things going on that seem like a shock to us, but for people who live there, that’s something they deal with every single day of their lives,
14. Do you have anything to say about the Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement?
A lot of people are saying that the BLM movement has been re-awakened but there was a comment that said people were trying to use George Floyd as another black person in part of the movement, to make him as the poster image of this re-awakening. The thing with George Floyd is that it was so gruesome and so terrifying to watch that video and to see the life being taken away from him. People are continuing to memify that video and watch it over and over again, but they’re not realizing that these injustices happen even without the cameras. Racism isn’t getting worse; it’s just getting filmed. People are seeing this in a more prevalent way. To me, the re-awakening part is ignorant because there has been an alarm clock that America has just continued to snooze over and over again. But Finally with George Floyd, it’s decided to not ignore the alarm and people are now trying to make amends in really small ways to rectify the racism that’s been going on. But it’s so much deeper than taking away Aunt Jemima, taking down the monuments, re-designing streets, or putting Black Lives Matter on it. That’s not what we’re asking for. We’re asking for real reparations in terms of socioeconomic justice, and actually solving the problem with the policing. That’s probably the most prevalent place where we see racial profiling and people being abused brutally just from the color of their skin.
15. Do you have anything to say about the coronavirus or any other current event?
I’m so angry about the coronavirus and not because of it’s existence, but because Americans continue to ignore it. I saw that chart where Australia has flattened the curve; they’re very much close to zero. But America hasn’t. The egotistical behaviors we have in this country, being so individualistic as opposed to being collective and wanting to make progress for everyone as a whole, is just despicable. I’ve seen people outside with no mask, taking beach photos all over my timeline. And I’m just like, You’re being incredibly disrespectful, not just to the people who you may live with who may have any existing problems with their health, but also just the community at large. You can’t get angry about your college deciding to say, “Nope, we’re going online.” when you decided to go to the beach! I stayed home. I’m doing my responsibility as a citizen. Whenever I leave the house, I always wear a mask and stay six feet away, but there are people who just don’t care. There was this incredibly great chart, it was like, “The fear of the coronavirus was so high in March, and the cases were so low. Now that we’re in June, the fear of the coronavirus is so low and the cases are even higher.” And I’m just like, “Somebody make this make sense!” How can Americans be so selfish and not actually do the work to show that we have a college experience next fall, or even just for students going back to school because virtual does not work for everyone. How can we make sure that the future isn’t continuing to be digital? And then they’ll complain about it, and then they won’t do the solution that is needed to make sure that we don’t go back to being digital.
In 2019, Tiffany and Rachel joined a school walkout for climate change. The strike was among a series organized by Wl Climate Strike. More than 300 people joined the strike as the crowd moved through Happy Hollow then Purdue University. Mayor John Dennis used the occasion to introduce a city promise to increase energy efficiency, reduce carbon emissions, and renewable energy use. The following is an interview conducted by Tiffany with the 3 founders of the movement: Ethan Bledsoe, Annabel Prokopy, and Lily Shen.
How did this group start?
Annabel: We started last year when we realized that there was no youth environmental group in our area. We were all really passionate about the issue and we wanted to make a difference in our community. So we decided that we need to step up and be the change.
What are your goals?
Ethan: One of our main goals is to increase the amount of people who are going to our strikes because we use the strikes to educate people on climate issues through speeches. The strikes also reach a larger audience. Another goal of our’s is to repeal the windmill ban that was imposed last year. We’re also pushing for the county to have a solar ordinance and intersectionality between the environment and other social issues. Last year, West Lafayette passed a climate resolution and we want to hold them accountable to the resolution they passed.
Are you planning on expanding to other social issues?
Lily: Our group is primarily focused on climate change. But other issues are intertwined with this. For example, climate change will have the most effects on minorities, people of color, and those with the lowest socioeconomic status. Although we know the most about climate change and we’ll be the most effective focusing on that one area, we are definitely open to partnering and supporting other activist groups such as the Black Lives Matter Movement.
If someone is trying to gain attention for a cause, what should they do?
Annabel: They should first reach out to their community and they should start to build a platform with people who share passion for that cause. Then they should look around them and see if there are even more people who are passionate about the issue. We’ve had questions from people asking if they can start their own group and we’ve given them tips and references. They should also prioritize their issues and figure out what they’re standing for so that they have a clear base.
Are all of you planning on careers that involve the environment?
Ethan: Many of us in the group do not want to go into careers that involve environmentalism. I know Lily has talked about going into food science and Annabel wants to do international relations. I have entertained the idea of going into something that is more environmental. I’ve thought about becoming an environmental lawyer. I think it would be pretty cool. We definitely do want to continue our environmental effort in the future, even in college. Like joining climate groups and attending local climate strikes.
What can someone do to mitigate climate change?
Lily: As an individual, the most important thing you can do is to use your voice. It is definitely important to educate yourself on climate change and also getting involved. This can be done through environmental groups, getting involved in the community, writing letters, meeting with your elected officials, and voting. We can’t, yet. But voting for environmental policies that support change is important. As for individual changes, you can eat less meat, use less fuel, and shop sustainably whenever possible.
Why do you think countries have been slow in implementing policy to mitigate climate change?
Annabel: First of all, there’s a lot of denial surrounding climate change. So trying to get things passed isn’t always super successful. Even some leaders are denying that the crisis is real. Secondly, it’s very difficult to mitigate climate change and you need commitment. Some countries just aren’t willing to do that.
What is the relationship between capitalism and environmentalism?
Ethan: Global warming is very deeply rooted in capitalism because capitalism is highly exploitive and has a desperate need for profit accumulation. This is the opposite of the environmental movement; you want to use as little as possible. You don’t want to use too much of nature’s resources. Another thing that goes along with that is that private companies are able to pass laws that benefit them or vice versa. So they’re able to deny laws that don’t help their company, even if these laws are trying to help the environment.
What should nations focus on in terms of mitigating climate change?
Lily: The most important thing to focus on is sustainable energy. That is a growing field and is very profitable. It can be achieved through a variety of policies. It can be achieved through carbon tax or emission caps on corporations. Because research is growing and we’re still learning about renewables, nations could also help by funding renewable energy research. So we can get more people on our side and show that this is something that needs to be addressed.
The United States and Europe have reaped the benefits of industrialization decades before other countries. How far can developed nations be held accountable for past emissions?
Annabel: Developed countries have a responsibility to identify the damage that they have made to the environment. And they need to work to reverse it and better themselves for the future. While these countries should be held accountable for all their past emissions, it’s more important that we hold a greater emphasis on their future actions for what’s coming. In addition, they should also focus on helping developing nations become environmentally friendly and try to reduce their emissions. That’s just part of a developed nation’s responsibility.
Do nations’ obligations now depend on the extent of our contribution to the problem?
Ethan: Every country should do the most that they can. Every country is in a different situation. Some countries have contributed more to the problem but we need to look towards the future and not necessarily towards the past. If we keep looking back, people will argue that they don’t need to do as much because some other country contributed more to the problem. Everyone should instead do their best with mitigating climate change. I think that the best way to do this is having a worldwide way that countries can get involved and stay accountable. The Paris Climate Accords and the Green New Deal are good examples of that.
Is the obligation to act on climate change a matter of justice, restitution, or insurance against catastrophe?
Lily: We think it’s a combination of all three. First of all, it’s our responsibility to keep the Earth clean. Especially after all it’s done for us. It’s the only planet we have and we’re not the only ones here. Fighting climate change is fighting for our lives and those of our children and grandchildren. So it definitely is important as insurance against catastrophe.
Is the environment only valuable because we derive benefit from it? Or is it valuable in it’s own right?
Annabel: I think that can go both ways. It’s valuable in it’s own right because humans aren’t the only species living on the earth. There are animals, plants, and a whole ecosystem. We can’t just save the environment for ourselves. But we also do derive a lot of benefit from it so harming the environment is a bad decision for us.
Is it okay for farmers to practice slash and burn techniques to clear areas for agriculture?
Ethan: We did a little bit of research prior to the interview and we found that it was a quick way to plant crops. Slash and burn is actually not sustainable at all and the land can only be farmed for a few years before it’s abandoned. So it loses it’s value as farmland. We don’t think this is the best way. Even if it’s quick and efficient, it’s not going to be valuable in the long term. One alternative we researched is Agroforestry and it’s where the forest isn’t removed. Crops are planted between tree rows. There is no loss of soil and it’s efficient. It’s efficiently is similar to open field technique.
In 1972, the Sierra Club sought to block the development of a ski resort in the Sierra Nevada Mountains. The Sierra Club, as a body with a general concern for wilderness conservation, challenged the development on the grounds that the valley should be kept in its original state for its own sake. Though they lost (no one in the Sierra Club was physically harmed by the development), this raised an interesting question. Should forests and mountains be given a legal standing and, if so, should they be represented in court by environmental conservation groups?
Lily: The way land and nature is treated as nothing more than property, is definitely an issue. And we do think that the rights of nature should be fought for. However, as you said, the Sierra Club did lose that battle. The current legal system, especially in the US, is just not adaptable to the rights of nature right now. In an ideal world, we would want nature to have it’s own rights. Right now, the best way for us to fight for the rights of nature is outside the courtroom.
Do you have anything to say about the Black Lives Matter Movement, Coronavirus, or any other events occurring in the US?
Ethan: On Juneteenth, we’re going to release our video about the Black Lives Matter movement and the intersectionality with environmental justice. It talks about how environmental justice is related to the movement and how we, as environmental organizations, can do better.
Annabel: Our group definitely stands in solidarity with the Black Lives Matter and George Floyd Protests. Although we do want to stay as an environmental group, we do want to make it clear that we do want to do our part to help fight against systemic racism.
Ethan: I think the best way to support other social movements is through supporting other organizations. This is because if groups are spread too thin, then they won’t be able to accomplish anything specific.