With applause comes responsibility

By Amanda Vincent

In 2000, I was given one of the best awards in marine conservation, a Pew Fellowship.  It came with generous funding, which we applied towards work on non-food fisheries and towards obtaining the first global export controls on marine fishes (for seahorses) under CITES.  It also came with the most wonderful gift of a meeting each year.  But not your ordinary meeting…

Every (northern) autumn, the Pew Fellowship in Marine Conservation gathers for what might best be called a  think tank.  Fellows, Advisors, and a few expert guests spend three full days debating, discussing, brainstorming how to improve the future for our ocean.  Because we only add five Fellows most years (and a few Advisors and guests), our community is very tight knit and hugely collegiate. That closeness allows us to plunge straight into the intense stuff, pausing only to hug our old friends and check that all is well with them personally.  Because Pew Charitable Trusts foots the bill – so so so many thanks – all Fellows from around the world can be there, fully.

I’ve been part of this magic since 2000 and am deeply grateful for the family feeling. The first evening, when we gather, is a bit like relatives (you really like) gathering for Christmas. There’s such joy and anticipation and hope in the air. There will be delightful surprises, warm offerings, fantastic gifts, some dud moments, a certain amount of jostling and a sense of reliable support. We just know that we are going to get some help with thorny problems and reap the reward of helping others with their challenges.  As one of my friends put it, we can take more risks because we know this community will be there to back us if we need the help. And that is more precious than gold dust in the challenging business of putting our world to rights.

The 2017 Pew Fellows meeting, in Chilean Patagonia, turned out to be a bit different from so many others.  Each year the gathering has a certain flavour.  This time, we spent many hours exploring how best to support everybody in marine conservation to do the best work they could possibly do.  That might sound obvious but the emphasis was hugely different, driven forward by the #MeToo momentum.

On the first evening, before the meeting really started, a bunch of us were discussing how best to acknowledge and respond to women’s emerging stories of abuse, aggression and stress in professional and personal lives.  This was a deeply personal topic for pretty much every woman sitting in the Chilean gathering.  As we probed and reported and shared emotions, it gradually dawned on us that our community could be part of the solution, if we were bold enough to embark on a voyage of discovery about ourselves, our work and our institutions. After all we were meant to be leaders in ocean conservation, and with applause comes responsibility.

It speaks volumes for just how tricky this topic is that my great buddy, Steve Palumbi, and I felt deeply anxious and apprehensive about speaking up on the first morning to suggest collective engagement.  If we could feel this vulnerable and exposed in a gathering of good friends with similar aspirations for ecological and social justice, then the topic really was (and is) a Big Deal. As with society at large, however, we seemed to hit the right nerve at right time, and our mates were generous in their response.  Many of us ended up setting aside time to share and analyse women’s bad experiences… and to consider how best to avoid some of them in the future.

Our casual and focused exchanges on women’s empowerment were meaningful and valuable, and a vital complement to the many technical and policy consultations that ran through the meeting.  We certainly realised that our ponderings should also respond to the bad experiences of colleagues and friends across different races, religions, physical capacities, sexual identities… and more.  Over days of talking, some really good suggestions emerged, from the specific to the general and from the lofty to the practical. Now to take these ideas forward, backed by our rich community of women and men. Send me your own thoughts.