by Danielle Sherrill
When I first applied for the Redfish School of Change last winter, I yearned to better understand how to more effectively mitigate some of the complex social and ecological challenges plaguing my home in Dallas-Fort Worth, Texas. Among these problems are extensive habitat loss and fragmentation, water and air pollution, rapid gentrification and unsustainable urban sprawl, police brutality, and the rising unaffordability of the costs of living. Connecting with concerned citizens, passionate students and learned activists about the various ways to catalyze and sustain change appealed to me for this reason, particularly as I approached the tail end of my time at the University of Victoria and the encroaching and daunting prospect of returning home.
Yet, soon into embarking on our journey, a different, equally pertinent goal began to take precedence in my mind, one of a far more internal nature. At the beginning of Redfish we were introduced to the term “personal ecology,” which can be understood as one’s own individual health and wellbeing and ability to practice self-care. Deriving from the notion that one cannot possibly contribute to the world in a positive and sustainable way without taking care of one’s self first, personal ecology emphasizes the importance for activists to recognize their own unique responsibilities and capacities, without carrying the immense weight of the world’s problems on their own shoulders.
During our time in Redfish, many of us have experienced grief over the scale of ecological and cultural loss and devastation that besets our planet. Even as we’ve encountered inspiring leaders and participated in tangible change such as environmental restoration projects, I have found myself emotionally overwhelmed by the extensive array of challenges that face my generation and those yet to come. Many of us have felt a culmination of motivation, inspiration and anxiety throughout this month, all the while questioning what unique niches we might occupy in order to meaningfully contribute to positive change.
Several of the leaders we have met have planted seeds in my mind about how it is that one can be an activist while avoiding feeling disheartened, inadequate and burnt out. One particularly inspiring conservationist named Misty McDuffey spoke about her experience conducting field work and writing educational pieces about the threats to salmon populations and the endangered Southern Resident orcas. Fueled by veneration for these species and distraught over the devastation their communities are experiencing, she highlighted some of the impacts of fisheries, dykes, dams and the aquarium trade. When a student finally asked her about how she studies such a heavy topic without burning out, she emphasized the importance of cultivating gratitude in our day-to-day lives. She encouraged us to appreciate the awe-inspiring beauty of our world that still remains, and to try to leave behind our narratives of loss and despair in these moments in order to be fully present and reverent. In other words, Misty stressed that we must continually appreciate and love the planet wholeheartedly, without letting our understanding of its destruction hinder our ability to be grateful.
On top of this, Redfish has affirmed to me how truly communal sustainable change is. There is no lone mythological superhero that can lead us into the progressive sunset. Instead there are networks of people, diverse and unique, with different skill sets and capacities, strengths and weaknesses. We collectively change the world. We cannot independently create the world we want.
In the same vein, we should hold each other gently while recognizing that change is not always straightforward or immediate, mistakes will be made, our goals will need to be re-evaluated and adapted. In the midst of realizing this, I am learning to hold myself gently, to take care of my own “personal ecology” as if I were my own teeming, complex universe, but also to humbly accept that I am one mere piece in this infinitely complicated planetary puzzle.
While immersed in our Redfish community, I have been reminded, time and time again, of the power of solidarity. I have been reminded of the pivotal need to practice self-love and self-care, to know what I can do and what I simply cannot do, and to recognize that what I cannot do, another might be destined to do. I have been reminded to hold myself and those around me gently as we create the kind of world that can nourish and sustain us into the indefinite future.