Mya-Rose Craig is a 20-year-old birdwatcher, environmentalist and activist. She is also an author, whose book Birdgirl, a memoir dedicated to ‘these extraordinary creatures’, was described by Margaret Atwood as ‘lyrical, poignant and insightful’.
A birder since birth, Mya-Rose became the youngest person to see half of the world’s species of birds by the age of just 17, as well as the youngest person to receive an honorary doctorate awarded to her by Bristol University less than a year later. She is vocal about her vision for a more diverse nature sector and is a prominent voice in youth climate activism.
In the first of our Featured Fellow series, Mya speaks to us about making the change she wants to see happen, how she got started in activism at such a young age, why the sustainable cities cannot be achieved without equity and putting the world to rights with Hermione Granger.
The RSA is a community of changemakers. What inspires you to be a changemaker?
I don’t see myself as a changemaker or someone setting out to make a change in the world. For me, it’s more a case of seeing things happening in the world that I am deeply unhappy about and then feeling that I have no option but to try and take action to make things better.
I have always been like this. My parents have spent their lives trying to change things and taught me that every person has a voice, and every person can make the world a better place.
Can you describe a project or achievement that you are most proud of?
I started writing the Birdgirl blog in October 2014 when I was 11. Earlier that year, I had seen posts on social media from Bangladeshi birdwatchers that I had met over there. They were highlighting an oil spill in the Sundarbans; a huge, beautiful and important UNESCO heritage site in the southern mangroves of Bangladesh. This area is the last remaining habitat for mangrove-living Bengal tigers, masked finfoot and river dolphins. I waited to learn about the oil spill in the UK media but didn’t hear anything at all.
So I started to write blog posts about the oil spill. It had happened because the Bangladesh government was allowing boats carrying oil to travel through the area heading for Dhaka. I then wrote an article for the American Birding Association newsletter and raised $35,000 within two days of the blog post being published. This raised the final money needed for the clean-up by Water Defense. This was when I realised that even as a child, my voice could reach across America.
The following year, in February 2015, I was interviewed for the UK Bangladeshi TV station, Channel S. The following week I went to Bangladesh to help with the survey of a very rare bird, The spoon-billed sandpiper. The day before I arrived, the interview was shown in Bangladesh on a 24-hour news station.
When I was in Cox’s Bazar, the nearest place to where I would be looking for the birds, I went into a beauty parlour with my mum. A young girl was working there who asked me what my name was. When I then told her my name, she asked me if I liked birds. I couldn’t understand how the girl, Shelly, knew that about me! When I said that I did like birds, she said that she had seen me on the news the night before when I was talking about going to see a rare bird close to where she lived in Cox’s Bazar and how it was really important to save the bird, which had a spoon-shaped bill. It made me realise that even as a young girl I could influence the world. From then I realised that I could try and do whatever I set my mind to.
You were at COP26 with other young female changemakers such as Emma Watson, Greta Thunberg and Malala Yousafzai. What did you take away from that experience that you will take forward in your activism and work?
Emma Watson was incredibly kind and generous as well as supportive of the young women on her panel. Being on a panel with such brilliant and powerful young women made me understand how important it is for us to work together and support each other. It was one of the most fantastic experiences that I have had the opportunity to take part in.
In 2018 you spoke at a Future Sustainable Cities Conference about sustainability and the future of cities. What do you think is key to creating more sustainable and equitable cities?
This was a really interesting event and I learnt so much from George Monbiot, Caroline Lucas and Dr Richard Pancost. I also spoke a few hours later about the racism and inequality in cities which has to change.
I think there are lots of organisations talking about what we need to do to create sustainable cities, but I believe that an unequal city can never be a sustainable city. The same goes for cities that do not practice or take into account the need for global climate justice or work towards a just transition. These ideas were very new back then.
How did you come to this advocacy, and why is it so important to be intersectional about this work, as opposed to separate areas of activism?
Working towards sustainability and ending climate change is closely linked to racism, colonialism, and inequality.
Growing up birdwatching, I was lucky enough to see beautiful areas of countryside within the UK. In my memoir, Birdgirl, I talk about travelling to lots of countries to birdwatch. This has helped me understand the issues for indigenous peoples around the world and how conservation organisations were not prioritising their needs. Instead, many focus solely on the needs of animals. These two should have been considered together.
Being in the British countryside with my family made me very aware of the fact that those spaces at that time were only enjoyed by white people. My family stood out for being British-Bangladeshi. The next natural step was to start my nature camps, Black2Nature, for minority ethnic children and teenagers. It seemed like the natural next step, was to fight for equal access for minority ethnic people to get into the countryside and work with countryside organisations to promote diversity within their ranks.
What one major change would you like to see happen for society to make considerable advances in your areas in the next 30 years?
An end to using all fossil fuels and an end to racism within the conservation and environmental sectors worldwide.
What does being an RSA Fellow mean to you?
The RSA is incredibly important in the wider promotion of the arts.
Lots of people who campaign for the environment study sciences. When I was choosing my degree, Human Social and Political Sciences at Cambridge, lots of people were surprised that I was not studying Biological Sciences. I had to explain that I loved the arts, and my activism was very much linked to the arts. I have always read widely and prolifically, danced, played instruments, written poetry and stories, and loved art, theatre, film and music.
That is why being an RSA Fellow means so much and is really important to me. Outside of work, I am really interested in the arts outside of my activism.
Mya-Rose Craig became a Fellow of the RSA in 2022. Find out more and stay up to date with her work through her website and social media channels:
Our next Featured Fellow Q&A will be with tech entrepreneur and gender equality activist, Anna Brailsford. You’ll be able to read that inspiring conversation in November.
Is there a Fellow you’d like to see interviewed in an upcoming Featured Fellow blog? We’d love to hear from you. Leave your suggestion in the comments box below, along with any thoughts that may have been inspired by Mya’s story so far.
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