Fierce Female Interview No. 21: Tori Tsui, The Intersectional Climate Activist
• • • Tori Tsui, originated from Hong Kong and now resides in Bristol, has educated herself about Environmental activism and has her platform as a communicator to inspire and educate others. We chatted about her journey of activism, the Sail for Climate Action Project and her thoughts of diversity and the momentum of the Black Lives Matter Movement.
Can you tell me a bit about yourself, your background and journey in terms of how you got to where you are now?
I’m Tori Tsui, I am based in Bristol in the United Kingdom but I am originally from Hong Kong. I would classify myself as both an intersectional climate activist and also mental health advocate because I feel like there are so many different things that overlap here.
I started getting into climate action quite young and early on when I was living in Hong Kong. Hong Kong is not necessarily the greenest place on the planet and being in close proximity to mainland China, which has a lot of pollution and manufacturing, it was something that I felt couldn’t be ignored easily. I remember trying to engage in conversations about waste, air pollution and the effects that it was having on people and the environment. It wasn’t until university when I started studying Ecology and Conservation Science when I thought, this is something I want to get into, and the first immediate route I thought of was academia. It got to the point where I was lined up to do a PhD and I just thought, I’m not really sure academia is for me. I have so much respect for climate scientists and environmentalists out there but I felt like so much of my work was very much based on communication and not necessarily research.
I moved to Bristol with the intention of getting into Science Communication – specifically filmmaking at the time, and with a series of different events happening, it kind of took me back to my roots as a child where I really started caring about the environment. Obviously I know so much more now and have a lot more passion than I did back then but environmentalism, for me, is something that people seem to think is only associated with what we see and our natural environment, affecting animals and visible things to do with fossil fuels when it’s so much more nuanced than that.
I would say my work explores the sides of activism and the sides of environmentalism that doesn’t necessarily come to the floor when people talk about this subject.
And it’s all about the connection isn’t it, I guess in terms of knowing more about environmentalism now, it started with that connection, didn’t it…
It did. I think that so much of environmentalism, activism and environmental work is very hard to do. The climate crisis is something that is incredibly hard to tackle because there is no right answer, one answer or solution to tackle this problem. It is a multi-faceted beast. When people talk about the ozone layer and how easy it was to get behind healing the ozone, as we knew that there were certain substances and chemicals we had to ban to stop the ozone hole from growing.
People always say, ‘we managed to fix that, why can’t we do that with the climate crisis?’. Then you begin to realise that this is an issue that really requires so many different lenses and different perspectives. It is also very rooted in history, in the way we run the world and the systems that exist, colonial history in particular and capitalism more currently. So much of it is owed to what we don’t necessarily think of it at first glance. I definitely feel like intersectionality is absolutely important when it comes to talking about this topic.
We’ve been reading up on your work with the Sail for Climate Action Project – could you elaborate on the project a bit more, its aims and the rationale behind it?
To understand Sail for Climate Action, I have to go back to a year ago. I had this amazing opportunity to work with a sustainable fashion designer called Stella McCartney and Stella was somebody who had a lot of interest in using her brand, her expertise and her platform to amplify the work of climate activists. I just so happened to be one of those climate activists and what ended up following was she sponsored me to sail across the Atlantic Ocean to go to the UN Climate Conference COP25. Now, sadly COP25 was relocated from Chile to Spain and our team who had sailed decided we were going to continue to South America and work remotely.
In hindsight, I have a lot of thoughts about this project and how things could have been better, that I didn’t think much about at the time, that I am reflecting on now. If there is one thing that was nice to have been born from that is the fact that one of my friends, she turned to me and said, “You know it’s such a shame, we’ve sailed for three months to get to South America and this ship will just return in three months time. Wouldn’t it be a good idea to make something of this, to turn this into a project?”. I think it’s really important to note that while that may have seemed like the primary motivator, actually it was much deeper than that. We both had this really big longing for climate justice and we also realised how unfair the global North’s climate movement was in homogenizing this movement, making a lot of people from the global South unheard.
The whole point of the project was to take the sailboat and allow 30 Latin American, Indigenous and Caribbean youth to sail to the UN Climate Conference in Bonn, Germany which was due to take place in June. So Sail for Climate Action was essentially a project trying to amplify the voice of these youths in places of power. And because of my involvement on Instagram –and perhaps my content and my presence being quite accessible online, a lot of people have referred to me as the ‘founder’ of this project, and I’m definitely not. There’s a team of about 6 to 10 of us, we’re kind of fluctuating and then we have over 20 amazing participants from Latin America and the Caribbean who have taught me so much about activism that I honestly feel like half the time or most of the time I feel like they should be doing this., they should be talking about their work. But as somebody who had a role in facilitating this project I want to be able to share their perspectives and their light without taking ownership or responsibility and say, “Oh, I’m the reason that you’re able to share your stories” because there is so much unfairness in the world and all I want to do is use my privilege to help in some way, so that is Sail for Climate Action and I’m one tiny piece of a very big puzzle.
But as somebody who had a role in facilitating this project I want to be able to share their perspectives and their light without taking ownership or responsibility.
How has your relationship with nature, wildlife and particularly the ocean has shaped your concern for the environment and journey as a climate activist?
It’s interesting because I would say that first and foremost before I started delving into climate activism, wildlife and the natural world was my utmost priority. I always saw everything as: we’re affecting wildlife, it’s our fault, we’re polluting the ocean and consuming plastics. Then after getting into intersectionality a lot more, I realized it wasn’t as straightforward.
When I grew up in Hong Kong, my family travelled quite a bit and it’s something I look back on in hindsight and think it wasn’t that great – I’m grateful for the experience and knowledge it gave me, but if I ever have children one day, I don’t think I’d necessarily want to impart that lifestyle on them. The point that I’m trying to make with this: I remember travelling to some parts of South-East Asia and looking at some people’s infrastructure with regards to recycling and trash management… The sad reality is that in the UK we can talk about being zero waste and we can talk about being able to go to our zero waste store or recycling, putting out your boxes once a week with your separated recycling. This just isn’t really the reality for a lot of people all over the world, and I think that previously, when I was thinking about straws and single-use plastics, that were affecting a lot of marine wildlife, I automatically thought, well it is simple, we just need to stop buying plastics.
But when I look back at these experiences that I had as a child –and also spending three months in Colombia–and realising that you see people burning trash on the side of the road and inhaling these toxic fumes… That is a systematic problem, that is not necessarily a problem that is solely on individuals. I would say that while my love for the ocean and conservation is still there, it’s a lot more nuanced and I think about my love for the ocean not in terms of individual responsibility but in terms of societal responsibility, and the systems that we have in place.
I think about my love for the ocean not in terms of individual responsibility but in terms of societal responsibility, and the systems that we have in place.
It makes me think a lot about how in the UK we were pioneered as champions in this zero waste movement, but we send the bulk of our plastic trash to South East Asian countries and it got to the point where Malaysia was telling the UK to stop sending this trash, we’re being overloaded. Even in Asia, where they don’t necessarily have comprehensive recycling schemes available to all households, they have to cope with our trash because we’re paying them to dispose of it because you know ‘it’s the dirt off our hands’. It just makes me realise that it’s so nuanced.
But sailing across the ocean definitely got me thinking about the plastic situation more. I’m just very briefly going to talk about something that we were encouraged to do when we were on board. We would have weeks before we would reach land and be able to offload our trash and of course, you try to be as zero waste as possible but there was a lot of conflict in me, realising that living on a boat and having to eat long-lasting food, with a lot of it came in plastic packaging. All the while I’m thinking this whole ocean is filled with plastic trash and we’re also part of the problem, but we also realise that this is a systemic issue that requires a lot more thinking. We can do everything we can in our individual actions but it’s a lot bigger than that.
We can do everything we can in our individual actions but it’s a lot bigger than that.
Absolutely, I often think to myself that plastic pollution is a ‘gateway’ into environmentalism. People can see plastic, it’s a physical thing and it’s not too scientific to understand. So once people’s interests are piqued, they will take it a step further… maybe into more climate-focused concerns.
I have always believed that the first thing people get interested in is individual changes and swaps –and like you said, it is a gateway to thinking about the bigger problem and systematic issues but it’s funny and I completely agree with it. It’s really interesting because over the last few weeks–especially with the Black Lives Matter movement, I’ve been thinking more about individual actions, and I’ve always said that systematic change is the ‘be all and end all’, that we need to focus on that. But realistically, I know that it is a bit of bottom-up and top-down change as well.
When it comes to racism and how intrinsically it is linked with the environmental movement. I do think that we have a responsibility to dismantle these forms of racism and these racial barriers that we see in our everyday lives. I would say that is one of the exceptions where I would say ‘yes there is systemic racism that exists but there is so much power that individuals have to rewrite the narrative of how we treat other human beings and how we allow our environmental movement to be more intersectional’. So in the frame of environmental racism, I see it as a very equally weighted bottom-up and top-down change.
What are your hopes for how the current momentum around BLM will influence and create a more diverse and inclusive climate movement? There is a lot more to it than that but from a climate point of view, what are your hopes?
So one of the things that I think is good to reference in this question is Sail for Climate Action intends to bring these Latin American, Indigenous and Caribbean youth to places of power and even though the project ceased to exist in its sailing form it’s still working towards getting these youths to Germany and it’s a very exciting project that we are working on. I can’t reveal too much more than that because obviously things change and we also have to think about the Coronavirus but with this momentum of Black Lives Matter, I’m hoping that people really see the value in having these voices represented and also part of the decision making process.
So much activism with Black Lives Matter, a lot of it is really performative, unfortunately, and that’s not to say that people aren’t trying and that they don’t want to address the existence of systemic racism within their organisations, their companies or their societies but it’s much more than slapping a label or putting diverse people on a package or putting them on your Instagram feed. It requires a lot more nuanced and a lot more thinking about what you can do to dismantle racism. I’m hoping that the Black Lives Matter Momentum continues and people are actually putting in the steps to do the work to assess how they can get their companies to become more diverse, how they can support more initiatives that champion BIPOC folks, and how they can tackle environmental racism and think about environmentalism from an intersectional lens. I’m hoping that momentum encourages people not just to think about what appears on the outside but also what happens on the inside.
Yeah, absolutely and I guess it all comes down to policy as well. Not just in government but also in companies, you know, there’s been a lot of controversy in the fashion industry recently around that and a lot of people have been called out. There’s a lot of noise and a lot of loud discussions, a lot of movement. What I’m most nervous about, from a fashion point industry point of view is the whole on-trend culture is this something that is just a trendy, “in the now topic” to be discussing and is it going to blow over and people are just taking part in the conversation or are people really going to change their company culture and company policies because it’s one thing governments making a change but you know, capitalism does have the power and it really does filter down just to echo your words on that…
You’re completely right and I have a few thoughts on that, I do think a few fashion brands are acting quite performative at the moment, showing solidarity for Black Lives Matter but also you can totally tell who is putting in the work to try and address these issues and who is just trying to act like they are. One of the things that I’ve noticed in particular with regards to brands that care so much about, you know, their image and talking about Black Lives Matter and talking about racism. I wonder if they’ve thought about how they are complicit in it, how they pay their garment workers, how they treat their black employees, how they try to promote inclusivity within their companies and this is one of the things I think is really important. I have a few friends who are kind of in a similar realm to me, talking about anti-racism work and I think companies need to hire anti-racism consultants.
It’s beneficial not only for the company but also for their image and it’s so glaringly obvious for myself as well as somebody who is kind of invested in this work when companies are actually trying and you know it is a trend in so far as people are trying to market it but it’s not a trend that is going to go away in the long run, you know, the movement is only going to get stronger and we’re only going to see marginalised people be honest regaining their power and regaining you know the platforms that they need to make this change in reality and yeah I’m seeing a lot of performative activism online and you know companies are being called out and rightly so. It’s really sad that we see calling out for a better world as shaming and blaming and you know all of this stuff. But call-out culture is a tool designed by marginalised people designed to get their voices heard. So I think anti-racism consultancy if companies have the capacity and desire to do so is essential really. It’s going to be something that a lot of companies look into over the next few months I can guarantee.
That’s so exciting and a whole new industry, a whole new market. I mean it’s been there but it’s not been prominent enough and you know and it’s only going to grow, so I’m super excited. I think personally, I need to educate myself on that because I wouldn’t have even known that these consultants exist, I mean we’re not big enough yet, I think we’re better off having a conversation with people but you know that can really change the world when you’re bringing in consultants at a leadership level and how that can filter down into company culture.
So the next question, if you knew the next campaign or project you work on would 100% be a success – what would it be?
100% successful in terms of a climate campaign or partnering with an organisation?
Anything, impact-focused, if you were kind of given the green light to start a project with goals related to your cause and you knew it was guaranteed to be a success – what would that look like?
I have two things in mind, first off related to the Sail for Climate Action Project and how there needs to be more opportunities for global South climate activists to be in places of power. I feel like that is something that a lot of organisations and companies and initiatives are actually interested in championing and as a result, we have gotten the interest and a bit of money from the German government in hopes of doing that and I definitely think it will be very, very promising and very powerful.
The other thing that I was kind of thinking about from my own personal perspective is thinking about for me. I’m really interested at least in all these intersections and I’m actually really interested in the way that companies structure themselves and the way that companies present themselves and talk about their inclusivity or their goals and their promises. For me, I’m starting to see my value a lot more as a communicator, and being able to consult with people whilst being able to provide information and consult with people and also saying look if you really want to have this image or you really want to promote this kind of world, this is what you need to do. I’m not necessarily saying that I’ll go into consultancy but one of the things I was thinking about was starting some sort of platform to provide resources and information for people to think about these sorts of things. So it’s hard to say, my following on Instagram is growing quite rapidly at the moment, in ways that I’m a bit like “ok I need to ease into this”, but I wouldn’t be surprised if down the line my Patreon was running or something and I had resources on YouTube or on my podcast which I’m launching soon, you know just different social media platforms. I’d like to hope that my skills and my resources would be something that I could actually do for a living.
That’s really cool and the ripple effect that something like that would have because of all the different touchpoints I can imagine that being super high impact.
Yeah definitely, definitely.
Cool and what piece of advice would you give to someone who is thinking about dedicating their full time to climate activism, the way you have?
That is something I have so many thoughts on because I realise how privileged I am and to, you know, talk about this topic and make this a full-time thing because realistically it’s not something that everyone can do. Not everyone has the capacity or the time…it’s a very ableist thing in many respects but I would say if you are interested in becoming a climate activist or you are interested in going into this form of work you can do that alongside the life that you lead. You don’t have to be any specific person with any specific qualifications. You can be somebody who works part-time jobs or full-time jobs or just in any industry or form and championing some form of activism is really encouraging. And I encourage everyone to be an activist to some degree.
I feel like people’s existence is a space in which they can be activists. So I would say, think about from a perspective of what you can do step by step. It’s not an overnight thing. It took me a long time to really think that this is what I want to dedicate my life to and I’m privileged enough now to start monetizing things, you know, that I participate with online or offline and you know it’s not to say that I’m rich or whatever, I’m not at all…I’m very poor as an activist but I’m very, very privileged that my influence is growing and that I know that I can monetize this to an extent one day. So it’s very, very important to think about striking a balance and obviously realising that this is a privileged thing to do and I also just want to check myself, you know, I said “I’m poor”, I’m not poor by wealth standards.
Let’s think about that for a second because you know perhaps compared to other influencers online or people who use Instagram to monetize content – If I was a fashion blogger or a beauty Instagrammer or something like that and I had that amount of followers I’d probably have gigs left, right and centre that would be willing to pay me a couple hundred quid each post but the reality is I’m not. And as a climate activist you kind of say no to a lot of things but I also recognize my privilege in that I am somebody who lives in a country where I have a decent healthcare system, I live with a roof over my head, I have food, I don’t have to worry about my safety and that is something, that is very privileged. I think as a climate activist that is something I want to think about every day.
Fantastic, one last question which is for our audience as well at SLO we are very focused on promoting behaviour change within our community – What are simple steps that you would recommend to people who are currently not taking climate action or living sustainably but want to start doing so? And furthermore, what advice do you have on overcoming the feeling that one’s actions don’t have an impact on the climate crisis?
I think one of the most powerful things that you have is your voice and you know whether that’s online, through writing, through visuals, through spoken communication. Your voice is your most powerful tool in many respects and the way that you consume information and resources to formulate your beliefs and your belief system and everything that you stand for.
Previously I used to say things like reducing your meat intake, try to cut down on single-use plastics but I actually think that the World Wide Web is a wonderful resource and tool and if this is something that you want to be part of and you want to be part of the conversation try and find a niche for yourself in amongst this movement where you can start talking about things that you really care about and join in on the conversations, whether that’s via YouTube videos or being part of campaigns on Instagram or being part of, you know, different initiatives online it’s really powerful. I found that with growing my platform I’ve had a lot of young people reach out to me and say “hey I’m really inspired by the work that you do and it’s encouraged me more to read this book or to think about this topic and to start these conversations with family members and at school’. I think it’s a bit of a ripple effect, I would say try and get engaged with the resources that you do have on the internet.
Your voice is your most powerful tool in many respects and the way that you consume information and resources to formulate your beliefs and your belief system and everything that you stand for.
And to echo what you’re saying, say like one of the most rewarding things, and I’m sure you’ll agree with this, is when someone does come to you and says I’ve changed my behaviour because of what you said or because of what you taught me. That is, that is kind of what it all makes it worthwhile, isn’t it?
Yeah, it really does, it really, really does and you know, there’s always this tip-toeing between oh but one person can’t make a difference. Look at Great Thunberg, for instance, she started protesting and she created this Fridays For Future Movement which is very popular all over the world. They had Fridays for Future in the city that I was living in for three months in Colombia and I know that Greta is the example of “the climate activist” and there are a lot more members from the global South who have been doing this work very similarly, if not, for longer so it’s important to pay homage to them but she is a testament to the fact that you can be somebody with a voice and you can really have a lot of influence.
It feels wonderful when somebody messaged you and said “oh I’ve learnt so much from you” or “the resources that you’ve provided have really informed me”, especially with regards to me talking about my experiences at the moment as a mixed-race woman who is originally from Hong Kong. And kind of starting to uncover a lot of the traumas or a lot of the racism that I’ve experienced in my life, it’s allowed my brain to have a lot more compassion and free up a lot more space for environmental topics that I wouldn’t necessarily have had the capacity to think about. That for me is really important.
We need to think about all the people who really want to be part of this conversation but they’re working 9 to 5, with three kids, they live on the poverty line, how can they be part of a conversation and really champion these sorts of values if it’s not within their capacity to do so. And so for me, this sort of conversation is something that I take a lot of pride in and I think it’s really powerful to talk about, it actually creates a very safe space for people where they can start tackling some of these topics.
Oh wow, this has been so great hearing your story. I’m super excited about what you’re going to achieve after you’ve already achieved so much. Thank you for taking the time to share your story with us.
Watch our IGTV interview with Tori here.