OCEAN HEALTH: REFLECTIONS ON REPRESENTATION
This year marks the kick-off of the United Nations’ (UN) Decade of Ocean Science for Sustainable Development (UN Ocean Decade). For those who may be hearing of this for the first time, the context of this global campaign is rooted in providing impetus to the Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) 14 – “Life Below Water” as the SDG deadline of 2030 is fast approaching. The UN Ocean Decade’s slogan is “The Science We Need for the Ocean We Want” and I had the opportunity to speak at various ministerial and high-level kick-off events to discuss the implementation of this slogan.
Leading up to these conferences in preparation for my engagements with global leaders, I spent a lot of my time reflecting on my journey in ocean science – all the intersectionalities (Some examples include: Am I a tool of tokenism? How much agency do I have? How much harder have I worked to be where I am? What emotional journey did I go through leading up to these conferences?) that come with being a young black womxn in a world that has always seen me at the bottom of the pecking order. Minoritised. Not minority. I name how I exist in this world, not as a divisive action, but as a liberation to self and to give myself the ability to show up for others in my personal capacity but certainly also in the professional space that I move in – our beloved ocean! And so, I will share a couple of the thoughts I took into these conference as we, in South Africa, celebrate our womxn today – womxn who faced their own iterations of intersectionalities when marching to the Union Buildings in 1956.
We want a healthy and resilient ocean, but what does that actually mean?
As a global society, we have been feeling the pressure of restoring the health of our oceans. They and their inhabitants are struggling in many ways – unsuitable temperatures, acidification, overexploitation, habitat removal and all kinds of pollution. For so long we have been living in parallels with our natural environment, using it to meet the monetary bottom line at whatever cost. And now, we face increasing natural disasters, massive food insecurity and a decline in human health. All this can largely be attributed to the current profit model we subscribe to as a global society. It has created a way of living that is aggressively widening the gap between the “haves” and the “have nots” and using resource distribution as its main tool. My takeaway here is that we can never remove economic and social justice conversations from that of ocean conservation. They are inherently linked. If we want to work towards healthy and resilient oceans, it is “high tide” we start working towards equality and representation in all their manifestations.
What does increased representation look like in Ocean Science and how to take the steps to make it happen?
Increased representation in ocean sciences means that we increase our chances of finding robust solutions to the challenges we face in our marine environments through inclusion. By bringing in expertise from different walks of life, it is natural that there will be varying perspectives on how to address challenges. I use only the word “inclusion” as I intend to clarify that diversity is simply not enough. Representation is not simply about diversifying the workspace, it is about giving weight to those who previously did not hold weight and doing so through understanding that their opinion is a vessel of representation. And not doing so purely because it prescribed by policy.
And so, what we see here are the levels of application of transforming representation – individual, institutional and governance. But I have always believed that the individual level holds the most influence – if we all could take the time to understand our unconscious or implicit biases, I do not doubt that many more of us would see the need to make the needed changes in our engagements within the professional spaces we move. A couple of spaces come to mind in ocean science specifically for the increase in representation of (black) womxn – conferences, field work, marine technical work, scientific cruise leads and documentary hosting (For example: Growing up, I only saw men hosting documentaries on National Geographics).
The Global Ocean Science Report (2020) reported that 38.6% of ocean researchers are womxn, 10% higher than in any other natural science. This may make you think that things are not so bad, but before allowing statistics to govern your opinion, consider the following: what are the demographics of these womxn?, do these womxn have agency in their positions?, what kind of abusive treatment are they subject to in their workspaces?
The work to transform always starts with the commitment of the individual who holds privilege to take a step back and spend time for introspection through various avenues such as naming your privilege, understanding how you exist in society with those privileges, unlearning, learning through listening and holding space for those who do not hold the same privileges you do; and using your privileges and agency to implement change.
The value of you, my fellow womxn
Sometimes it is difficult to resolve the meaning of this month and this day. There is so much to it and honestly, my thoughts evolve every August. But there is one constant – that our worth as womxn in the global society is unequivocally invaluable. With that being shared, I would like to offer some everyday affirmations that allow me to show up for myself and for others, including in my professional space. I am sharing them with you because I see you and hope they bring you some love and some support in especially moments of difficulty. I hope they remind you of your beautiful fierceness, your grace and your absolutely undeniable contribution to a better ocean, and a sustainable and inclusive global society:
– I am a multifaceted, layered and beautifully complex being.
– I am worthy and valued.
– I am more than my trauma and deserve a full life. It’s important to nurture my energy.
– I deserve more than the bare minimum and should not allow myself to settle for less.
– My value is not based on my achievements.
– Be proud of the silent battles you have fought and the challenges you have had to overcome.
– Operate from a place of abundance instead of scarcity and fear.
– My time/energy is precious, so I let go of people and things that no longer bring me peace, serve me, hold me.
– I love the colour of my skin, the shape of my body and the texture of my hair (space for my fellow BIPOCs).
– I must not shrink myself for other people’s comfort.
– I vow to stand in my truth and use my voice/platform/privilege.
– Give yourself grace (that you often generously show to others).
As we take the day off in South Africa in commemoration of our maternal forbears, who created frameworks for the global society within which we now operate; I offer you a call to action for today: how do you exist in the world because of those frameworks? What is the power of you, as an individual, in community? Can you use self-awareness to strengthen those frameworks? Can you use self-awareness to expand on those frameworks?
About the author: Thando Mazomba
Thando Mazomba is a qualified marine biologist, oceanographer, and environmental scientist. She currently works at a metocean (meteorological and oceanographic) consulting company as a marine manager and freelances as a consultant for NGOs and the public sector. Thando is also an ambassador for South Africa to the All-Atlantic Ocean Research Alliance under the European Union, where the ambassadorship spearheads both local and global initiatives. You can find her on Instagram @thandomazomba and on Twitter @ThandoMazomba.