Back in September, Mya-Rose Craig spent three weeks onboard a ship exploring the arctic with Greenpeace UK.
The voyage was to bear witness to the moment when the sea ice reaches its annual minimum at the end of summer, before temperatures turn again and the ice thickens.
But never one to pass up an opportunity for raising awareness about the climate crisis — Craig decided to hop onto the ice one Friday and hold up her “Youth Strike for Climate” sign, resulting in a stunning image of the 18-year-old protestor surrounded by melting ice stretching to the horizon.
“I was actually on the ice for quite a long time, about five hours in total that day,” Craig tells Global Citizen. “I really wanted to experience being on the ice, as we had mostly been on the boat. I sat down and I could feel the sea underneath and hear it crackling.”
It wasn’t as easy as just standing and getting a quick photo, either, Craig says that everyone on the trip was worried about the possibility of roaming polar bears — and she was the only person who was left on the ice by herself. But despite this, she feels it was worth it.
“It was an amazing experience, really special, I felt like I could be out there for so long because of the adrenaline,” Craig continues.
The expedition, and staging the world’s apparently most northerly climate protest during it, cap off an impressive year for Craig.
Known as Birdgirl to her thousands of online followers — due to her avid blogging about her bird watching trips — Craig has crammed a lot into her teenage years and her efforts to make environmentalism more diverse are gaining recognition, as well as, she hopes, driving lasting change.
In February, she even became the youngest person in Britain to receive an honorary doctorate, from the University of Bristol in acknowledgement of her efforts.
.@BirdgirlUK is only 18 — but she's already done so much for the climate movement, including sharing a stage with @GretaThunberg! ✊— Global Citizen UK (@GlblCtznUK) April 29, 2021
For the latest episode in our #LeadersOfTomorrow series, she talks to us about diversity, campaigning in a pandemic, and how anger can be useful. pic.twitter.com/2oj4V4Jw29
Craig’s environmental work kicked off when she created her organisation, Black2Nature, at age 14 in response to wanting to see more people from ethnic minority communities exploring nature and enjoying the countryside.
As a British-Bangladeshi teen who loves birds and spending time in nature herself, she was disappointed to find that many of the UK’s major nature reserves weren’t doing much about the lack of diversity among their visitors.
From then on, Craig has been a champion of racial justice and of protecting the natural world, two important areas of work that earned her a nomination for the Global Citizen Prize: UK’s Hero Award presented by Vodafone — a Global Citizen Prize award category that celebrates activists who have been a hero for their local and national communities throughout 2020.
In the UK, the award winner has been announced as Fatima Ibrahim, co-founder of the UK’s Green New Deal movement; while Mikaela Loach also received a nomination, alongside Craig.
“Being nominated was a super pleasant surprise,” Craig says. “It’s exciting for me, because I do really care about my work. So it’s nice to feel recognition of that, and it means people are listening.”
Craig explains how her work started and why it means so much to her. “I’ve been into bird watching since I was tiny,” she says. “My parents and my older sister are also big on bird watching too, so I always had a strong relationship with nature and I live in a really rural area too, and so I’ve always spent a lot of time outside.”
At 13, Craig decided to start a weekend camp to find some like-minded people her age to join in with her family’s tradition of spending time in the great outdoors — and, while it was great for her at first, it began to feel to Craig like something wasn’t quite right.
“I read an article, which was about the US but it related to the UK, which said that there weren’t many people from minority ethnic backgrounds who were birders and it struck a chord with me,” she explains.
“I realised that all the kids who had signed up to the camp I had set up were white, and the majority of them were boys,” she adds. “And I was like, ‘that’s ridiculous’.”
Craig took the initiative to find more young people to join, getting in touch with family friends in nearby Bristol to try and encourage teens from minority ethnic communities to come camping. “For me, I was really motivated at the time by the idea that having a connection with nature was really beneficial and I wanted other people to experience it too,” she explains.
After making a few connections and signing up some more people, she decided to create an organisation, Black2Nature, to carry on the trips. Craig then wrote to all the major nature organisations in the UK to find out what they were doing to break down barriers and make what they offer more inclusive.
“But they told me, in more words, they weren’t really doing anything,” Craig explains.
It was a disappointing moment but it led to Craig being invited to speak with various nature organisations who were keen to hear more about her work and how they could make their efforts more inclusive.
“I found it interesting because I was only 14 and not a race expert,” Craig says. Instead, she suggested holding a conference, called Race Equality and Nature, that she helped set up for the following summer, bringing in expert speakers and activists on the subject from different communities. And she has been pressing the various nature NGOs for action ever since.
Craig talks about the difficulty, and sometimes discomfort, in having these conversations about race. “Nature reserves are free and open, so organisations might suggest that they are not actively excluding anyone — when in reality there are so many other things going on.”
But while Craig now wants to see action, not words, she says at least a few of the groups she has been speaking to have got interesting projects planned to address the situation.
“I think the positive thing this year is that people have been much more willing to have those conversations about race, following the Black Lives Matter protests this summer, which has been very interesting to see,” she continues. “But again it will be a case of seeing whether that interest becomes sustained action.”
Craig says that being in nature was an adventure when she was a child, but as an older teen she finds it’s still so important for her well-being. “It’s my version of mindfulness,” she says, pointing to the fact that the NHS advocates spending time outdoors as important for health.
All the more reason, she says, that designated spaces to explore nature, like national parks, must make every effort to be inclusive and accessible to all. “There’s a massive mental health crisis among people from minority ethnic communities in the UK. They are overrepresented in the numbers of people getting sectioned, for example,” Craig continues.
Finally though, it’s important that access to nature is inclusive because “we’re losing so much of it,” she says. “We need to engage all communities in this issue and get as many people as possible interested in the movements to protect nature and the climate change movement.”
Speaking of which, Craig says she has already seen a change in the climate movement in the past couple of years, and that has made her feel more hopeful.
“Saying this makes me sound really old,” she laughs, “but the youth climate movements that have burst onto the scene in the past two years are what gives me hope — just seeing how many young people care about the issues is great.”
What are her tips for others who want to get involved? “The good thing is there is already a supportive community, it can be as easy as finding your local climate activism groups on Facebook or Instagram and just DM’ing them,” Craig says.
“FridaysforFuture are really welcoming,” she adds. “So go for it, it’s easy to think you might not have exactly the right skillset or whatever but it’s fine as you learn along the way.”
Join Global Citizen on December 19, 2020, to celebrate the leaders among us who have stepped up against a backdrop of unprecedented global challenges to take action for the world we want — a world that is fair, just, and equal.
The broadcast and digitally streamed award ceremony will also feature inspirational stories of human strength and unforgettable performances that will bring together artists, activists, and global leaders to remind each of us that, together, we will come out of this year stronger. Find out more about the Global Citizen Prize here.