At this point, in our current world, we are all aware of the multitude of environmental issues that we are facing. And with climate change and sustainability being such hot topics in our media, we are all aware of at least a few solutions to these problems, such as conserving and restoring ecosystems, making a just transition to net-zero emissions, or increasing inclusivity and environmental justice. But what are the best ways to approach these issues?
There are actions that individuals can take at the household level, such as planting native species in your garden or taking public transit. There are also actions that people can take at a collective level, such as organizing litter clean-ups. And then there are actions that people can take at a government scale, such as advocating for greener policies and voting for individuals who represent positive environmental and social change. All types of approaches are important and needed to address the slew of issues, but what happens when the laws and policies in a given area restrict certain sustainable actions at the household or individual scale? What if there are policies in place that perpetuate unsustainability? For these problems, the government scale is needed to make systemic changes. This starts with people who advocate for change to their local government as well as representatives of the people who translate their hopes into action and change. Our local politicians are these representatives who hold the power of listening to their community members, addressing their concerns, and implementing change to allow our individual and collective sustainable actions to continue.
This week’s hero for our Every Day Eco-Hero series is Shefaza Esmail, a researcher, teacher, nature-lover, and down-to-earth human who is passionate about making steps towards systemic change for the environment and for people. Through Shefaza’s studies in engineering and environmental studies, her PhD research experiences, and her teaching experiences, she has developed an understanding of the importance of politics and system-level change in the environmental movement. That is why she has decided to run for office in Waterloo as the Green Party candidate for the upcoming provincial election. This article shares Shefaza’s story of why she decided to take the path of politics to approach the systemic changes she wants to see happen in local communities, why she is an Earth Day hero, and what her hopes are for this election to work toward a sustainable and just future.
Shefaza’s educational and environmental foundations
Born in Tanzania, Shefaza moved to Canada with her family in 2001. She started her undergrad at McGill University in the Arts and Science program. Her curiosity and enjoyment of learning fueled her studies and she realized she wanted to continue learning in a new area. She found a unique program called “bioresources engineering” in the Faculty of Agriculture and Environmental Sciences at McGill, based at their MacDonald campus.
Not long after joining this program at MacDonald Campus, she realized that she was part of a strong community. It was a smaller campus with smaller class sizes and the classes were taught by professors who really cared about their students. One professor who particularly inspired Shefaza was Dr. Robert Bonnell, who created fun assignments that got students excited about engineering. Shefaza remembers having to power something using only rubber bands or only a flame, and also making sumo robots that would battle each other. Learning in this hands-on and creative way fueled the way Shefaza decided to teach when she became a teacher later on.
Shefaza did her Master’s in Chemical Engineering and worked a bit as a Facilities Engineering Intern before moving on to do her PhD in the Environment Faculty at the University of Waterloo (UW). She felt very excited about environmental engineering, but realized that there was more to learn about the social sides of environmental problems.
“The issues at the environmental level cannot only be solved by engineering solutions. We need to look at the policy, the economics, the social aspects – the social aspect is a really big aspect and I didn’t have a lot of grasp on that, so I came back to Environment [the faculty at UW], but this time, I brought the engineering and wanted to learn the other parts. That’s why I chose this interdisciplinary department, the School of Environment, Resources and Sustainability (SERS).”
From PhD researcher and teacher to politician
Shefaza’s PhD research focused on agriculture and food waste in Tanzania. She saw a lot of potential in Tanzania for a circular-based economy. Once beginning her research, she realized that Tanzania had a strong urban agriculture community of folks who did not want land to be idle but who wanted to give life to land and have that life sustain them and their communities. She noticed that lots of people were growing a variety of crops, but it was a volatile business given the fluctuating market prices and by-laws that restricted urban agricultural practices. She saw first-hand groups of people who were interested in doing sustainable, community-based projects for themselves, but there were laws that prevented them from doing those things and from being sustainable.
During her PhD, Shefaza also got the opportunity to teach, which she continues doing at UW and loves. She has met many students who are eager to share great ideas and have strong interests in improving their understanding of the world. These students inspire her to show them new ways to see the world, for example, through field ecology courses that immerse students in nature.
“There is life that we can give to students connecting them back to nature, but also they are the ones who have these ideas of how we can make the world a better place. The systems we have are going to prevent that, similar to the folks who are trying to do urban agriculture in Tanzania.”
Through all her educational experiences and teaching, Shefaza learned that we need systemic change at the policy level. Then, she was approached by the Green Party twice. The second time, having finished her PhD and having had time to think about herself in the role of a politician, she decided that it was time to take that leap and run.
What made Shefaza say “yes” to politics?
When I asked her if she had ever imagined herself to be running for a political party 5 years ago or even 1 year ago, she quickly responded with the following:
“I did not. I never imagined myself in politics because I found it all very confusing. I still remember grade ten civics learning about the first-past-the-post system and not understanding it, and I was a good student! I understood things very quickly.”
Her confusion led her to feel turned off from politics in her early career.
“I wonder if other people feel the same way because it’s politics – it’s supposed to be decisions that affect our lives and I wonder what emotions that brings up in people. For me, the shame of not understanding led to guilt because I didn’t understand the first-past-the-post system and I also didn’t really understand the party system. I felt like I pushed away from that … Then, in university, Jack Layton was running for NDP and he made things accessible. I just remember understanding what he said and that made me feel like I had a chance at understanding what the politics were like here in Canada and that I could make a difference. After that, I lost interest again… but it came back when I was teaching … I learned a lot about it because I had to teach it.”
As Shefaza was teaching and learning, she was getting more involved in politics and getting to know the liberal, conservative, and NDP sides of issues but still didn’t really know much about the Green Party until she was approached to be a candidate. At this point, she learned about the Green Party’s values, federally and provincially, and found that they aligned very well with her own.
“I hadn’t really seen myself in a political point of view and I think that’s the problem with politics. We think that politics is about politics, but it isn’t. It’s supposed to be about people and I’ve always been a people person, and by translation, I could be a voice for people, which would make me a politician – a representative of the people.”
Shefaza’s vision for the future
“We can achieve a communal sense of being through sustainability. We just need to be able to envision what that looks like and that’s what politicians are supposed to do – to see where we are going, and to make decisions and set the roots for us to be able to get there. It isn’t about buying votes or a popularity contest or a tug-of-war, it’s supposed to be envisioning a future together.”
Shefaza has a vision of a better future for the people in Waterloo. Part of this vision stems from her time at MacDonald Campus during her undergrad at McGill University. MacDonald Campus was a “self-sustaining eco-hub”. It had a farm, a student-run composting initiative, and a student-run “happy belly” program where students would go to grocery stores on stocking days, take the food that would be thrown away, cook it all, and serve it for free to anyone on campus the next day. All of these initiatives brought people together and fostered a sense of community, creating an “in-built sustainability ethos”, which inspired Shefaza by showing her what life could look like – what a future could look like for other places.
“People want to have space to connect, to walk, have things to do, cook good food that is locally available and affordable … We can achieve a communal sense of being through sustainability. We just need to be able to envision what that looks like and that’s what politicians are supposed to do – to see where we are going, and to make decisions and set the roots for us to be able to get there. It isn’t about buying votes or a popularity contest or a tug-of-war, it’s supposed to be envisioning a future together. And we trust our politicians to do this for us, which is why we vote for them to make those decisions on our behalf. But that is not happening and it needs to happen.”
Politics is not just for the politicians
As I prepared for this interview with Shefaza, I reflected on my own limited knowledge of politics in Canada. My only formal political education came from grade ten civics class, which I didn’t enjoy and don’t remember much from. In my university studies, I began to learn a bit more about the importance of politics in a more indirect way and I am now just beginning to understand our political system and what it means to me as an individual. When I shared this with Shefaza, she said the following:
“Every decision that a politician makes has an impact, not just on you, but on your family, friends, neighbours – everyone.”
“It’s interesting that you bring up grade ten civics because it is the power of a teacher to either teach you well or turn you off completely, and even if they do teach you well, the system is still very confusing and there’s a chance you may turn it off anyway … But it’s funny because schools have student associations and you vote for someone to be your representative in those, so even though you’re not learning about politics in a structured way, you’re actually taking part in politics in high school and university.”
There are still many people, not only young people, who don’t fully grasp the importance of politics, likely because if our grade ten civics class does not teach us this importance, we have to find these lessons elsewhere, but some people may not find themselves in places where those lessons are taught. So, I asked Shefaza what she would say to someone who doesn’t fully understand why politics is important for them.
“Politics makes the decisions for your everyday life. They decide where money that you are giving as a tax-payer will be spent … From your income, there is a portion of it that goes to the government … It’s important to think ‘where is my money going once I don’t get it?’ First, your money is going to a government body that you are entrusting to spend well. If they end up going on a shopping spree with your money, will you feel good about it? Probably not. Although, it depends what they buy … Every decision that a politician makes has an impact, not just on you, but on your family, friends, neighbours – everyone.”
Eco-anxiety, youth, and politics
Shefaza is passionate about getting young people involved in politics as well as teaching youth the importance of connecting with nature. Having done several partnerships and Earth Day events with the Waterloo and Kitchener public libraries as well as the City of Waterloo Museum, she has been able to connect with several groups of youth in the region to teach them about nature and spark their curiosity.
“It’s really important to get the youth involved and not just the ones who can vote. It’s important for youth to be informed of the values of the people who are representing them or who want to represent them, and see what they stand for and make that informed decision at the polls. It’s time we voted from our hearts.”
Considering the importance of youth getting involved in politics and how youth are being severely impacted by eco-anxiety, I asked Shefaza what she had to say on these topics.
“With climate change, there is a potential for apathy and there is a potential for empathy, but it really depends on whether or not you’re acknowledging how you’re feeling with every piece of news that comes. And that is the first step to understanding what you can actually do about it.”
“When talking about the environmental movement to youth, it’s a bit like learning from them rather than telling them about it because they are living it. We’re seeing news of more natural disasters, fires, droughts – in places there didn’t necessarily used to be. And it’s not just a current effect but will be a future effect. I think the youth are already acutely aware of that. So, I wouldn’t say that there is anything I could tell them about the environmental movement except one thing: really understand how it’s impacting your emotions. In the way we live right now, emotions aren’t talked about as freely as opinions, and opinions are very much based on emotions … With climate change, there is a potential for apathy and there is a potential for empathy, but it really depends on whether or not you’re acknowledging how you’re feeling with every piece of news that comes. And that is the first step to understanding what you can actually do about it.”
One of the courses that Shefaza has taught at UW was on climate change and films. With each film, Shefaza had the students reflect on their feelings and thoughts as they watched. From conducting a research study in tandem with teaching the course, Shefaza learned that the students feel and think a lot about climate change. This experience really reiterated for her the power of a teacher to be able to guide students through their feelings.
“It is important to acknowledge the times that we are making them sad and help them through that, and it is important to acknowledge the times when they are inspired to show them how they can channel that inspiration into action.”
“We need to be able to support them on this journey as they are feeling things related to climate change, especially as we’re teaching them about climate change. It is important to acknowledge the times that we are making them sad and help them through that, and it is important to acknowledge the times when they are inspired to show them how they can channel that inspiration into action … Creating that support network for students is really important as we start talking more about climate change, not just in the Faculty of Environment, but in all Faculties.”
And this is why Shefaza is an eco-hero. Not only is she actively pursuing positive environmental change at the policy level, but she also aims to guide, inspire, and teach youth about environmental change and help them through eco-anxiety. Shefaza has explored environmental solutions in many spaces through the diversity of educational and professional experiences she has accumulated. The political space is her next challenge, which she is approaching with compassion, curiosity, and commitment. I can’t wait to see how she uses this political platform to share her visions for a sustainable and just future, especially around Earth Day. I hope to see many more people like her – people who see unsustainable, inequitable systems that need improvement and feel driven to change them – taking that leap and running for office in the coming years.
Note: Alternatives Journal chose the eco-hero to spotlight. Earth Day Canada is affiliated with the series, but is not a political organization and does not endorse the Green Party in this piece.