By Melanie Stirling

People of colour are underrepresented in many professional fields, including environmental conservation. Here at Fraser Riverkeeper we want to highlight and celebrate the incredible work done by POC in Vancouver to protect our waters and share their personal connections to this vital natural resource. As we advocate for our waters we also want to help provide a platform where the perspectives and voices of POC can be amplified.

In this first part of our three part blog series, we had the pleasure to meet with Dr. Elaine Leung to discuss her work, connection to water, and her perspectives on POC issues. S0200332.JPG

Dr. Elaine Leung holding seaweed next to the ocean. Photo: Sea Smart.

Elaine is not only a marine biologist, but also the founder and Executive Director of the Vancouver-based charity Sea Smart. Sea Smart’s mission is to inspire and empower people of all ages to love and protect our oceans.

Connection to Water

Even though Elaine actually gets seasick and isn’t the best swimmer, she has always known how amazing the oceans are and has had a magical connection with the water that ultimately led her to pursue a career involving water. She shares how fortunate she was to study marine biology in the co-op program at the University of British Columbia as it led her to working with UBC’s Marine Mammal Research Unit on sea lion research. After this experience, she fell in love with marine biology and never looked back.

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Dr. Elaine Leung kneeling next to a beach full of lounging sea lions. Photo: Dr. Elaine Leung.

“My first job out of high school was doing sea lion research for UBC’s Marine Mammal Research Unit. I fell in love with marine biology, and never looked back.” - Dr. Elaine Leung

Elaine’s Watermark Story

One of Fraser Riverkeeper and Swim Drink Fish’s initiatives is the Watermark Project. Watermark stories highlight a time or moment when you connected to a body of water and why that moment is important to you. Elaine’s watermark story is a special moment from a few years ago when she had the opportunity to go snorkelling in the Galapagos. She shares a vivid memory of four juvenile sea lions showing off their acrobatic skills by performing loops and twirls around her to check her out. 

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Dr. Elaine Leung snorkelling in the Galapagos with juvenile sea lions twirling beside her. Photo: Dr. Elaine Leung.

Her partner was trying to perform underwater sign language to get her attention, but when that didn’t work, they popped their heads out of the water. Her partner shared how he was seeing the remarkable playful connection between the sea lions and Elaine, saying they were thanking her for her actions to save them! Elaine recalls this as a special and hilarious moment that she was able to have in a magical place, making it her watermark story. To share your watermark story, click here.

“It was just so cute between the sea lions coming and my partner recognizing the connection we had and trying to decipher underwater sign language, it was hilarious.” - Dr. Elaine Leung

The Creation of Sea Smart

Elaine has dedicated half of her life to ocean conservation and doing research for different governments, universities, and NGO’s on some of the world’s most threatened marine species, and how to help them. 

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Dr. Elaine Leung photographing a pod of dolphins. Photo: Dr. Elaine Leung.

While completing her PhD, she realized that over 30 of the species she studied or engaged with would go extinct within her lifetime. She realized that the research she was doing with governments and universities wasn’t resulting in conservation action fast enough. Knowing that kids are our hope for our planet’s uncertain future, she was concerned that they weren’t empowered with the tools, knowledge, and skills to deal with this global problem that they didn’t create. With most kids spending the majority of their time indoors behind a screen with a limited connection to nature, Elaine recognized this as a huge problem because you only protect what you love. Elaine’s approach to solving these big problems was to start Sea Smart to get kids excited about our oceans, helping them to foster a connection with nature, as this can lead to kids protecting what they love. 

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Dr. Elaine Leung showing a group of children a humpback whale figurine. Photo: Sea Smart.

Elaine believes that building this connection to nature while teaching kids about various ocean issues with an action-oriented and solutions-based approach helps make kids feel empowered to take action rather than feeling overwhelmed and hopeless about the scale of the problems.

“Most kids are spending the majority of their week hours indoors behind a screen, and they don’t have a connection with nature, which is a huge problem because you only protect what you love.” - Dr. Elaine Leung

Role Models for POC and Women in STEM

Being a person of colour in a white dominated industry wasn’t something that Elaine ever thought about when choosing a career path. She says that she didn’t really become aware of it until she received a letter from a seven year old girl in Texas. This little girl had to do a school project for female history month and she wanted to feature it on an Asian woman who looked like her. Doing online research to find an Asian woman in conservation proved to be a challenge, but eventually this little girl connected with Elaine.

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A hand drawn picture of Elaine that a young girl included in a letter she sent to Elaine. Photo: Dr. Elaine Leung.

This interaction made Elaine want to be a role model and try to do more educational series with POC, especially marine biologists, to inspire more students who are non-white to pursue conservation. However, she couldn’t think of any other marine biologists who were also POC. This led to Elaine wanting to encourage people of all backgrounds, and especially girls (Sea Smart has a very inclusive definition of the word “girl”, referring to anyone who identifies as a girl), to consider pursuing marine biology and other careers in STEM. 

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A group of girls collecting seashells next to the ocean while participating in one of Sea Smart's programs. Photo: Sea Smart.

She recognizes the need for more role models in these fields in order to change the representation of women in STEM. She would love to be a role model herself for kids to help let them know that your skin colour and ethnicity should not be a barrier to pursuing a career that they love.

“I would love to be a role model for kids to let them know that your skin colour and ethnicity should not be a barrier to you pursuing a career that you love.” - Dr. Elaine Leung

Mindfulness and Inclusivity at Sea Smart

When discussing what changes in the workplace need to be made to be more mindful and inclusive of POC, Elaine notes that Sea Smart has always had POC or people who are non-binary on their team and that they’ve been really lucky to have that. However, as a small team with limited resources, Sea Smart is ultimately restricted to who is the best qualified for the job and their applicants tend to be predominantly white. Sea Smart understands that POC and non-binary people have experienced a lot more barriers to getting the education and work experience needed to be considered qualified for different positions being advertised. To accommodate for this, Sea Smart tries to substitute minimum education requirements for advertised positions with lived experience. Elaine suggests that other organizations should consider the roles they’re hiring for and ask if they really need to list certain requirements such as Bachelor’s degrees or if these requirements can be replaced with options that are more accessible.

Elaine also mentions that Sea Smart is very welcoming of everyone and has always had a diverse group of students. To ensure their programs are inclusive and accessible with donations from generous donors and corporate partners, they are able to provide bursaries for anyone who wants to participate in Sea Smart.

Breaking Barriers

Elaine is using her voice as a POC to speak out and make a difference by raising more awareness about racism and systemic biases while getting out there and being a role model not only for POC, but also girls.

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Dr. Elaine Leung with one of Sea Smart's students. Photo: Sea Smart.

She shares that Sea Smart has been running a lot more girls only programs because they’re trying to get more girls interested in STEM since females are still underrepresented in STEM. Noting that these girls really appreciate the opportunity to meet someone who looks like them, showing them that it can be done. Sea Smart is also working hard to not only offer in person, online, and virtual programs, but to also ensure access to tangible educational resources as well because they have recognized that having access to internet and technology may be a barrier for some and they want to ensure that everyone can participate regardless of their access to technology.

Recognize It and Move Forward in a Positive Way

Elaine acknowledges that she is not an expert on how allies can help to build an inclusive environment for POC in the world of water, but she does think that people don’t always understand the systemic biases or personal biases they have and may not recognize that regardless of your skin colour, we have all benefited in some way from the racism and systemic oppression of other communities or races of people to get to this point. Providing the examples that our country is based on stolen land where Indigenous children were ripped from their families to have their culture erased and people from China built the most difficult stretch of the Canadian railroad for a fraction of the cost of white labourers. One worker died for every mile of track laid through the Rocky Mountains. 

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Workers laying tracks in the Fraser Valley for the Canadian Pacific Railway. Photo: CPR Archives.

She notes that having benefited from this herself from living on stolen land and having received education at one of the best schools in Canada, she has a lot of guilt about this and struggles to figure out how she can help turn the scale to something positive in order to help people move forward in a healing and positive way rather than being buried in the guilt of the privilege that we all have.

“I think we are all lying to ourselves, regardless of our skin colours, if we don’t say that we haven’t benefited in some way from all the oppression that has happened. At the same time, it’s important to recognize that but move forward from that in a positive healing way.” - Dr. Elaine Leung

One of the ways that Sea Smart is working to do this is by understanding how important reconciliation is. Sea Smart always tries to work with local Indigenous communities, as they recognize that Indigenous people are the traditional stewards of our land, and they want to work with them to collaborate, help, and share their traditional knowledge (with their permission) with youth and others.

Elaine encourages that we all have the power to move forward in our own ways to help with systemic biases and racism, such as stepping up to help if you witness racism, supporting organizations that help to support people who are marginalized, and fostering collaborations where you can with people who look different than you.

How Courage and Inclusivity Contribute to Diversity

Elaine truly believes that what inspires people to join things is when they see other people who look like them leading the charge. Sharing that when people have the courage to step up and go out there in places where people might not look like them, it helps to create more diversity. Those at Sea Smart try to be role models for their students by putting forth a diverse group of staff.

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School classes joining Sea Smart for a beach cleanup. Photo: Sea Smart.

“I really do think that what inspires people to join things, is when they see other people who look like them leading the charge. The only way to get more diversity out there is for people to have that courage to step up and go out there in places where people might not look like them.” - Dr. Elaine Leung

Sea Smart tries to make the world a better place through so many different ways, not only ocean conservation, but through the diversity inclusion work that they do to try and remove barriers for anyone wanting to do their programs. Thanks to the donations they receive, they are able to deliver free programming to marginalized communities, inner city schools, and any lower income families, ensuring that anyone who wants to learn about the oceans, is able to do so.

“We deliver free programming to marginalized communities, inner city schools, any families with lower income, and we’re able to provide a lot of bursaries through the generosity of our donors and corporate partners to ensure that anyone who wants to learn about the oceans, is able to do so.” - Dr. Elaine Leung

Protecting What We Love

Here at Fraser Riverkeeper, we value and recognize the importance of interconnectedness with all communities and backgrounds and how the sharing of personal stories and connections to water and knowledge helps us all to connect to nature. We’d like to thank Dr. Elaine Leung for her time and her thoughtful and inspiring comments on the work and actions that she and others at Sea Smart take to protect our waters and celebrate diversity and inclusion while doing so. We encourage you to check out all that Sea Smart has to offer and to join their educational programs so that you too can foster a connection to water and nature, because as Elaine says, we only protect what we love.

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