On 20 February, the University of Bristol gave Mya-Rose Craig, Birdgirl, an honorary degree. It was a pleasure to nominate her with Amy Walsh and an honour to give her oration – shared below so that all can understand why she is so very deserving of this accolade.
It is my great pleasure to introduce Mya-Rose Shanti Craig, a birder, naturalist, conservationist, environmentalist, racial equality activist, writer and speaker; the youngest person on whom the University of Bristol has ever bestowed an honorary doctorate degree; and one of the youngest to receive this honour from any UK institution.
You have all worked so hard to earn your place here today, 3 to 4 years for those of you receiving BSc, MSci and MSc degrees and a lot longer for those of you receiving PhDs. We are so proud of all of you and honouring your achievement is a privilege and it is an obligation.
To bestow a comparable honour on someone who is only 17 years old is not a decision we take lightly. It is reserved for those who are leading truly special projects. Courageous projects. Transformative projects. Mya-Rose is doing exactly that.
I have known Mya-Rose for five years, ever since she served as an Ambassador during Bristol’s Year as the UK’s first – and still the only – European Green Capital. If you drove here, you know that Bristol did not receive that accolade for its lack of cars and congestion. It was awarded largely because of its people and their thriving, grassroots initiatives that have made Bristol a centre of environmental and sustainability innovation and leadership.
Even at 13, Mya-Rose was one of those people. She had already achieved international acclaim as one of the world’s youngest birders (and in fact, this past year, she became the youngest person to ever see 5,369 birds, half the world’s species). And at 13, she was leveraging that acclaim to advocate for a variety of environmental, conservation and climate change causes.
Those are impressive achievements, but they are not why we honour Mya-Rose today.
We do so because of how she has used her platform to campaign for diversity and inclusion – and because she resolutely and bravely continues to do so, despite numerous racial attacks.
It is not uncommon now to highlight the lack of diversity in the environmental movement. Mya-Rose, in 2016 at an age of 14, was one of the first to raise this issue as the one major failure of an otherwise lauded Green Capital year. She used her various platforms – from talks to festivals to social media – to draw attention to this lack of diversity in the conservation movement, especially the dearth of visible minority ethnic members.
Many applauded her for calling attention to it.
But some dismissed it as imagined or irrelevant.
Others told her to be quiet.
Some told her that she was undermining her own beloved conservation causes by pointing out these concerns.
Some blamed it on the marginalised communities themselves.
Some went further, hurling vitriol at her, attacking her ethnicity and perceived faith, her family, her citizenship and her ‘Britishness.’
Mya-Rose met these attacks with bravery and fierce resistance. She continued to highlight those issues; she called out esteemed institutions including our wildlife trusts, the wildlife media and universities. She called out this University. She called out me as Director of Bristol’s Cabot Institute for the Environment. She asked what we were doing or not doing; what implicit or explicit barriers had we erected; how were we going to tear them down?
But not only did she challenge, she created. She created fora where these issues could be shared, explored and debated. In 2016, she organised the Race Equality in Nature conference, to look at the barriers to VME people going out into nature, at what can be done to overcome those barriers and at our shared responsibility to create and provide platforms for role models. Including speakers such as Bill Oddie and MP Kerry McCarthy, it was one of the critical post-Green Capital conversations to explore the challenges of equity in environmental movements.
She hosted a second conference featuring Chris Packham, Bristol Deputy Mayor Cllr Asher Craig, and RSPB CEO Beccy Speight, in 2019. And she is now developing a third aimed at the Wildlife Media sector, focusing on how the conservation community is portrayed in magazines and on television.
Mya-Rose is not going to stop challenging institutions, but she does recognise that the lack of VME engagement is complex. And so, she has also organised nine nature camps, Camp Avalon for urban teenagers and Camp Chew for children, bringing more than 100 young people into our forests, wilderness and nature – often for the first time. She is organising more this year, even as she prepares for her A-levels.
Mya-Rose has formalised these efforts by creating Black2Nature, through which she has spoken on television and at numerous festivals. She speaks powerfully, directly and eloquently with intelligence and with wisdom. She does not hide behind social media but engages with groups and people directly. I am proud to know her.
Because of the unusual nature of Mya-Rose’s Honorary Degree, we’ve been asked a lot of questions. Does the University endorse everything she says? I’m not sure that can be answered unequivocally ‘yes’ for any Honouree, but the answer in her case is: ‘No. Of course not.’ The whole point is that she is provocative, challenging and bold.
We’ve been asked, ‘Is she just a symbol?’ Without doubt, she is symbolic of the need to tackle the Climate and Ecological Emergency, the vital importance that this effort be globally diverse, equitable and united, and the central role that youth have taken in demanding action. But no, we do not give awards for symbols. We give degrees to outstanding people like you who have earned them. We give honorary degrees to outstanding people like Mya-Rose, who have made great contributions to society.
Deputy Vice-Chancellor, I present to you Mya-Rose Shanti Craig as eminently worthy of the degree of Doctor of Science honoris causa.
NOTE: This speech rightfully focuses on and celebrates Mya-Rose. But her family has been a great part of her journey and all deserve to share in this celebration!
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