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  • Writer's pictureAshley Park

The Voice of Bow Seat Ocean Awareness Programs

Alyssa Irizarry, Senior Vice President of the Bow Seat Ocean Awareness Programs, shares her story as an environmentalist and artist and discusses the new Voteless Not Voiceless Campaign.

1. How did your passion for arts and the environment begin?

My childhood was shaped by water: freshwater streams of the Hudson Valley; the expansive Atlantic crashing onto New Jersey’s shoreline; and the vibrant, clear waters of Puerto Rico. I’ve also been drawing and painting for as long as I can remember, so the arts have always been an important part of my life, and nature and wildlife were subjects that I frequently incorporated into the artistic work that I was doing. As a young child, I wrote and illustrated a weekly newsletter about endangered marine species; in high school, I stayed after class to create scientific illustrations from observing the barnacles in my biology teacher’s saltwater tank.

My introduction to environmental advocacy was through the lens of art. While in college, I studied abroad with The School for Field Studies, and had the opportunity to live at a field station in a small coastal village in Baja California Sur, Mexico. For my directed research project, I looked at how murals were used for environmental outreach and sea turtle conservation in the region. As an Art History and Environmental Studies double-major, I was really curious about how public art could be used as an educational and community-building tool to empower people to protect the marine environment. In the words of those we interviewed, the murals called attention to, taught, inspired, motivated, and reminded viewers of the importance of sea turtles and local marine ecosystems. Many students explained that the murals helped them to develop an emotional connection with sea turtles, which served as the foundation for changes in their pro-conservation attitudes or behaviors. These murals were art “in action” and a means of advocacy: growing awareness of an issue, inviting dialogue, and building a sense of community around conservation to encourage viewers to participate in the movement.

This experience was a kind of spark that shaped my personal and professional work, which is grounded in the belief that artists and storytellers play a fundamental role in empowering communities and activating movements for environmental and social change.

2. Can you tell us about the mission of Bow Seat Ocean Awareness Programs and the new Voteless Not Voiceless Campaign?

Bow Seat Ocean Awareness Programs’ mission is to engage young people in ocean conservation and advocacy through the arts. Our programs focus on the arts because we believe that creative expression and imagination are powerful ways to help folks learn about and connect with the environment, and also tools to illuminate and communicate threats to our ocean, and inspire people to come together to care for our planet.

Through our annual Ocean Awareness Art Contest, Bow Seat has created a platform for young people to share artwork, stories, and ideas within a global community of youth who are concerned about the future of our planet and passionate about conservation, and we work to empower young people to give a voice to the ocean even if they live hundreds of miles from a coast.

The Voteless Not Voiceless campaign, similarly, is a platform for “voteless” teens (under the age of 18) to express their concerns about environmental issues that impact their communities and to share their visions for building a sustainable world. Even though they can’t yet vote, young people can use their voices to influence the hearts and minds of those who can. Voters have a responsibility to future generations and to our shared planet. We hope that, using the power of storytelling on social networks, this campaign can help increase voter momentum and turnout, and inspire voters to support candidates up and down the ballot who take the climate emergency seriously.

3. How will the 2020 Presidential election impact the future of our planet, and what is your message to young people?

We’re already about 30 years behind when it comes to enacting policies and practices that will safeguard a climate-safe future. We have the tools and technologies to slow the worst impacts of climate change; what we need is strong leadership at every single level of government and society—from the president and lawmakers to school boards and city councillors—that believes in science, is committed to justice, and puts the long-term wellbeing of people and planet over short-term profits. This presidential election is critical; however, no matter who is elected, our work is far from over. Our planet will continue warming for the next several decades even if we stopped emitting greenhouses today. So, with scientists saying we have about 10 years to make “rapid and far-reaching” transformations to all aspects of society… the next 4 years matter. A lot.

My message for young people is to believe in the long-term vision. I am reminded of that cartoon of a climate summit, and someone in the crowd asks, “What if it’s a big hoax and we create a better world for nothing?” We’re in this to create a better world; and truthfully, we may not personally live to see that world. But we have to believe it in, and to remember that our decisions and actions every single day are building blocks to create a society that does not harm people, land, water, and other species for economic gain. And we’re not in this alone! So find your people; find practices that help you process the setbacks and losses; and find and hold moments of joy. It’s an amazing time to be alive; there is so much we can create!

4. Do you have a quote or saying that you live by and would like to share?

This is adapted from an Australian ecological activist named John Seed: I try to remember that it's not me, an individual, trying to protect the planet. Rather, I am part of the planet protecting itself.

5. When you hear the term “generation green,” what comes to your mind?

I think of folks who believe in the resiliency of our living planet; who feel a responsibility to restore the damage that’s been done (and who reject narratives that it’s too expensive, too radical, or too late to do so); and who do this work through interconnected relationships.

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