By Melanie Stirling

Welcome to the third and final part of our three part blog series, celebrating and amplifying the voices of water leaders of colour in our community. For part three we had the opportunity to speak with Anuradha Rao, or Anu for short. Anu shares her personal connection to water, the wonderful work she does to protect our waters which is strongly intertwined with First Nations, and her perspectives on different issues that POC face.

Anu is a conservation biologist whose work focuses mostly on marine conservation and restoration and has largely, and most recently, been to support Indigenous organizations towards their stewardship goals in the marine environment.

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Anu snorkeling. Photo: Anu Rao.

Connection to Water

It was when Anu was finishing volunteering on the East coast in Nova Scotia and boarding a train to Ottawa when she realized that being by the water is where she truly wanted to be. She recalls looking behind her towards the water as the train left, and with the shore moving further and further away, she thought about how she wanted to be out there next to the water.

“I took a train to start a job in Ottawa, it was quite a while ago, and as the train left I just was looking behind me, leaving the water and thinking “I think I want to be there”.” - Anu Rao

However, she fought the urge to turn around as she was quite interested in where she was heading and the environmental work she would be doing in the intercultural, international, and social justice aspects within the environmental field while in Ottawa. Over time, as she pursued a whole bunch of different possible careers, she realized that working on ocean issues was really where her heart lay, so she made the decision to focus in that area, ultimately finding her way back to the water.

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Anu out on the water driving a boat. Photo: Anu Rao.

Anu’s Watermark

One of Fraser Riverkeeper and Swim Drink Fish’s initiatives is the Watermark Project. Watermark stories highlight a specific moment of time when you connected to a body of water and why that moment is important to you. Anu has two special watermarks that ultimately had a lasting impact on her, both occurring in the Caribbean while interacting with different marine animals.

The first of these two interactions was when Anu worked for the Canadian International Development Agency and she went to visit one of the ongoing projects in Grenada. This project involved an organization that was working on sea turtle nest monitoring amongst many other things. It was here that she encountered giant leatherback sea turtles for the first time when they were laying their eggs at night. She recalls feeling the presence of such a large yet peaceful animal as a very special moment to her.

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A leatherback turtle nesting during the day. Photo: Brian J. Hutchinson.

The second unique interaction that Anu remembers is that before she started her Master’s degree, she had a list filled with things she wanted to check off first. One of the items on her list was to return to Grenada to volunteer. It was here again in this special place that she had another unique aquatic encounter. She was doing one of her favourite activities, walking offshore and going snorkelling, and when she was out in the water swimming she found herself completely surrounded by forage fish on every side. She then realized that she was engulfed in a ball of glimmering fish. She recalls this special encounter as an incredible moment.

“All of a sudden I looked to my right and there was some small fish, I know now that they were forage fish, and then I looked to my other side and there were more of the fish, and I looked in front of me and behind me and above me and below me and I was surrounded by this ball of fish and it was just incredible.” - Anu Rao

Having these special moments where Anu was able to connect to marine life is what makes these incredible water adventures her watermark stories. To share your own watermark story, click here.

Burrard Inlet Water Quality Objectives

In 2016, Anu was contacted by a staff member of Tsleil-Waututh Nation asking if she would be interested in doing some contract work, to which Anu replied with an ecstatic “Yes!”, as she was eager to help in any way possible. She was assigned to coordinate a project on water quality objectives for Burrard Inlet.

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Map depicting the city of Vancouver and its waterfront. Photo: Georgia Strait Alliance.

This project involved Tsleil-Waututh Nation taking the lead while working in collaboration with the province to update what clean would mean for the Burrard Inlet. It also took into consideration things that previously weren’t, such as Indigenous cultural values, like being able to consume fish and shellfish from the Inlet.

Anu shares that this project combines what she enjoys doing, which is taking direction from and working with Indigenous Nations directly. She shares that from past work experience, a lot of organizations try to engage First Nations into projects that their organization is designing, which never felt quite right to Anu. However, Anu now gets to work directly for a First Nation on a project that they are directing, which is how Anu believes it should be done.

“Tsleil-Waututh brought me on to coordinate this big giant project and it’s only gotten bigger and more giant overtime. But for me it combines what I enjoy doing, which is taking direction from and working with Indigenous Nations directly.” - Anu Rao

For this project, Anu brought together a bunch of different people from different sectors to decide what it means to improve water quality in and around Burrard Inlet with an Indigenous lens imposed over top of it all, which is also ultimately the foundation for the project.

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Wordmark and logo lockup of Tsleil-Waututh Nation. Photo: First Nations in BC Knowledge Network.

Anu is looking forward to the Burrard Inlet Water Quality Objectives Program becoming more integrated into how decisions are made regarding what is done around Burrard Inlet, how people treat the watershed around it, and how people work with First Nations while also considering and being respectful of their own perspectives on how they should be integrated and have their knowledge applied. She shares that this program can showcase how a diverse group of people can make big collective decisions about how to do things differently and better while also acknowledging and reintegrating the wisdom that the Nations have had for millennia around the water that flows into the Burrard Inlet.

This project has offered a great challenge for Anu as water quality is not her typical background. Her background consists of ecosystem species and restoration projects more closely related to habitat, so everything she knows about water quality she has learned in the past few years. This has brought Anu into a whole other world, but still one that links back to everything.

POC Protecting Our Planet

From being in all different environments during her career (school, field work, offices, etc.), Anu has found herself as the odd one out and very different in many ways from her peers, especially racially.

“From school to doing field work to being in offices, all different sources of environments during my career, I have found myself as the odd one out and very different in many ways from my peers, especially racially. That always stuck with me.” - Anu Rao

One day when Anu was in South Africa completing her Masters’ research, she was out for a walk with her friend, Dr. Mao Amis, who was also studying conservation biology in Cape Town, when Anu realized that his experience, even though he was a Black African man living in Africa, was very similar to her own as he also found himself as the odd one out. This realization validated Anu's personal experience and gave her that extra sense to do something about it. 

It inspired her to write her book, One Earth: POC Protecting Our Planet in order to connect with role models in the environmental field who were also POC and to share their stories in order to make her and others feel less alone and more appreciative and aware of how diverse the environmental movement actually is.

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Cover of Anu's book, One Earth: POC Protecting Our Planet. Photo: Orca Books Publishing.

She wanted to highlight how this movement contains many different perspectives, pathways, inspiring people, and the need to celebrate them and raise them up to allow their voices to be heard in order to do things better environmentally. Anu shares that we can’t just be considering or appreciating a single perspective, that we really need to be more inclusive, celebratory, and appreciative for all the different voices that are out there doing this work.

“We can’t just be looking at a single perspective or appreciating a single perspective, we really need to be appreciative and inclusive and celebratory for all of the different voices that are out there doing this work.” - Anu Rao

Anu shares that her journey to finishing her book was a very rewarding one and every time she told somebody about what she was writing, their eyes lit up and they got very excited about it. Anu believes that her book came at the right time because its focus is something that people hadn’t really been talking about. It’s a complex issue and it comes up in a lot of places in a lot of different ways, but it seems like one that people have been wanting to start talking about, and one that we need to start talking about, and to start addressing and figuring out how to change things for the future.

Making Necessary Changes in the Workplace

Anu believes that it is really worth every organizations’ time and effort to take a hard look at themselves and reevaluate their approach to work and education (amongst other things) in order to figure out how to have their organization or workplaces be more representative of society. She notes that making changes in the workplace to be more inclusive and mindful of POC is a much more systemic issue that needs to be addressed on a more holistic level. It requires a real fundamental rethink of how an organization has been structured and how its philosophies and approaches have been developed and how that may reflect a colonial system and how it can be shifted.

She wants others to know that it is not the job of POC to educate others on how to make a workplace more inclusive and mindful of POC. She shares that there are consultants and organizations who focus on providing insight and advice on making the workplace more inclusive, diverse, and mindful, and she encourages people to use these resources and engage with these specialized consultants in order to make any necessary changes in the workplace.

“It’s not the job of the people of colour who are on your staff, there are organizations and consultants whose job it is, and it’s really worth every organizations’ time and effort to take a hard look at themselves, engage these consultants who reevaluate their approach to work, their approach to education or whatever it is, to figure out how to have their organization or their workplaces or their academic environments more representative of society.” - Anu Rao

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Anu Venn diagram showing how when inclusion, diversity, and equity are all present, it allows for a sense of belonging. Photo: Krys, Medium.

Anu believes that this issue is an all pervasive issue and it will require some long hard looks at what has been the culture of an organization and who it is designed to support and who it is designed to exclude, whether that is overtly, covertly, or unknowingly, and it really needs a long hard look at these things and some really difficult and tough decisions to be made.

From Trying to Fit the Mold to Being Bold

When it comes to Anu using her voice as a POC to speak out and make a difference, she states that she does not speak for a culture, colour, or race, she speaks for herself with her own experiences as that’s all she can do.

She shares that since her childhood, she has found herself in the minority and has felt like she has had to downplay or hide aspects of herself in order to fit in and not be ostracized. She realized that she had to let this go and now chooses to be bold and be herself and not feel like she needs to assimilate herself into a mold that she has had to fit into since childhood.

“It’s my challenge to myself to be bold and true to who I am and to not feel like I need to assimilate myself into that mold that I’ve always felt like I’ve had to assimilate myself into from childhood.” - Anu Rao

Anu values the importance of surrounding yourself with people who will be welcoming and allow you to express who you are, and she has found that she’s able to do just that in her current work with First Nations. From working alongside other people whose culture and science are deeply integrated, this helps her to surround herself with positive people who she can support and who she knows will support her in return and that when expressing herself, whether that’s culturally or any way of being different from the mainstream colonial system, it will be okay.

Building an Inclusive Environment for POC

When it comes to recommendations to help allies build an inclusive environment for POC in the world of water, Anu believes that people must take the initiative to educate themselves and to not rely on POC to educate them on the issues they face. She suggests taking time to reflect on your own privilege and platform to see if your voice is dominating, and if so, take steps towards changing this and consider where you can help to open doors for others. 

“Step aside and understand what your platform is, understand what your privilege is, understand where your voice is dominating and step aside and let somebody else take that platform, let them take your place, give up something to make space for someone else.” - Anu Rao

For example, Anu mentions that you can offer your platform to others whose voices are not being heard, as this will help to diversify the conversation and perspectives that are out there. And remember to provide compensation to those who you offer this platform to in exchange for their time, effort, and knowledge.

Protecting What We Love

At Fraser Riverkeeper, we recognize the importance and value of including different perspectives from all communities and backgrounds as this provides the opportunity to increase diversity in the conversation. We’d like to thank Anu Rao for her time, the work she does to protect our waters, and how she takes action to provide a platform for others to help celebrate and highlight diversity and inclusion.

Want to read more stories from exceptional water leaders of colour in the Vancouver community? Read Part 1 of our POC Connections to Water and Perspectives series with Dr. Elaine Leung from Sea Smart here and Part 2 with Lina Azeez from Watershed Watch Salmon Society here.

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