Naomi Devine decided to travel overland (mainly by bike) from Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada, to Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, for Rio+20 (the United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development). The ride has been an intense personal challenge, an opportunity to raise awareness about sustainability, and most importantly, to inspire people to take action to build a future that is better for everyone. As she says: "It is about finding your chance to shine".
Ogunte: Tell us about your inner drive and the wave you are making in the world at the moment?
Naomi Devine: My inner drive at the moment comes from a deep need for transformation. At this time in my life, I am in need of a new direction and to do something that I direct. I have been building my career working on issues that transcend boundaries, institutions, and cultures, and while that has been exciting and fulfilling I felt strongly that some time in other places was necessary. I needed to do something big in response to the immense challenges that humanity faces, and to help further prepare me to find the best way I can serve this mission once the ride is over.
I’ve always been driven by the need to work on global issues. That comes from time spent with my grandfather – my grandparents helped raise me – he always stressed the importance of being well informed about what was happening in the world and trying to affect the outcome for the better. We regularly discussed politics and events in the news from the time I was very young, and I was expected to have an informed opinion. You couldn’t BS him – you had to know your stuff, and that’s just the way it was.
As a result of this, I was always aware of the fact that the environment was in trouble. There was a creek that I played in as a child that was polluted with PCBs (polychlorinated biphenyl) therefore I wasn’t allowed to play in it. This was upsetting because I loved the aquatic environment (our summers were spent on North America’s Great Lakes) and didn’t like that my favourite place was being ‘hurt’.
Climate change is the biggest challenge my generation faces, and because of my upbringing I developed an interest in complex situations. Global responses to the climate crisis are some of the most intricate challenges we face, and it involves everything difficult you can imagine – politics, power, long-term thinking – and I am in search of effective solutions.
I was also raised to be adventurous – my grandparents immigrated to Canada from Scotland, and had originally intended to end up on Australia. Travel has always been important to me, and I intend to see the world in a series of interesting ways. I will forever be a seeker of solutions, wherever they may be.
What legacy do you want your action to have?
I’m fortunate that this journey has attracted an intense amount of attention. For an issue like sustainable development this is normally a difficult thing to do.
There’s a truth in saying that it is never too late to do what you really want, and people who have risked everything to follow their passion fascinate me. What are the requirements to do such things? How can we replicate them? A question that has always fascinated me in my career is this: how do you create the conditions necessary for people/organizations/institutions to make the leap? I am always studying those conditions.
It is important to me that we show people that they have an immense ability to affect change. A key problem that I have identified in my work, and that has been confirmed by the ride, is that we have ‘professionalized’ too much about sustainability, and that has created significant barriers to widespread action and change. If people continue to think that the experts are the ones that are responsible for driving change to sustainability then we are in real trouble.
I encountered this from town to town and person to person when I was on the road; they would ask me about what I was doing, I’d mention sustainable development and I would watch people think about what that really means. Mainly people associate it with green initiatives only and that is a real shame to me because the complexity about sustainability is that it is about making our lives better from a holistic, integrated approach – making the best decisions that consider the social, economic, and environmental consequences in concert rather than isolation.
We haven’t cracked the code on how to communicate that effectively. I want to help fix that.
What did you learn about yourself?
The biggest lesson is that I am capable of more than I thought I was, and that if I had an organizational partner to help me with some logistics, I could have ridden my bike the whole way to Rio.
I respond well to daily challenges that seem impossible, and have an almost endless appetite for that. In fact, this is the type of environment I need to thrive and feel like I am making a worthwhile contribution.
Also – while I enjoy riding up a big, challenging hill, I don’t enjoy riding down it with all the weight on the bike! This made for some interesting days where I rode up and walked down some hills.
And lastly, continuous improvement is a journey that we are all on; I’m not a failure for not being perfect – I’m human. This last point has taught me compassion for myself when things don’t turn out exactly as I would have liked.
There is always a journey back home after a campaign, somehow... how will you shape this?
I am taking some real time to figure that out. The conference was ultimately disappointing, but we cannot stop this work, so for me it becomes a question of strategy. How will we respond in a manner that excites people to continue to respond, and how do we do this in a way that teaches people that it is not all about the experts?
The way around this is to encourage the young people who are in this arena to go into politics. Many of them naturally seek out work in civil society (non-profit organizations) and as social entrepreneurs. This is fantastic. But if you want to make scalable change, to create better conditions for civil society and social entrepreneurs to thrive and take change further, then politics is the only game in town that matters. The positions with the biggest levers for change are held in elected office. That’s why the fights to get those seats are so vicious.
Getting back to creating the conditions necessary for change – 20 years ago we had created better international conditions and received a better response in terms of international commitments for action. What ended up happening was that we spent 20 years as a global community learning how to obstruct, fight, and largely do nothing. The fight here is not about making commitments – that has been done. The fight is in the implementation, and I have seen that consistently in the work that I have done at the international, provincial, and local level.
A key example of this is the very exciting high-speed rail project from LA to San Francisco in California. This is a game changer with respect to transportation in North America, and was very exciting when it was announced (commitment). However when I was there, politicians were fighting to reduce funding, change routes, and largely make it something that many felt would be bound to fail. The truth is that North America is so woefully behind when it comes to high-speed rail (we have none – such a joke) that this project needs to be completed so that it sparks more like it in the years to come.
Young people today essentially get this – and want to see these projects done. Once they begin to take political office, I believe we will see a sea change of transformation.
What questions would you have loved someone to ask you at the beginning of your journey?
To be honest, they were all asked. I just needed to get on the journey.
One curious thing that happened is that I was regularly called ‘crazy’. It is funny to me that we live in such a world of disconnect that we teach our children to follow their dreams but when they do we call them crazy. That says something about our society.
The biggest thing that happened, from when I announced it, was to see the split in confidence that people expressed for my ability to do this. Some people didn’t think I could do it (that’s natural) and others tried to lobby a friend to convince me not to do it at all. What I learned is that I became a lightning rod for other peoples’ expectations and perceptions of themselves. I learned that many people didn’t see me as someone who could do something like this. And that’s ok. What’s important is that I didn’t let their perceptions stand in my way.
What networks work best for you?
The usual suspects: Twitter, Facebook, Tumblr, Instagram. I am lucky to be networked with great people in British Columbia and across Canada who are doing brilliant social change work. And now, I am networked with people across the Americas who are also engaged in building a better future. I love networking because it is about relationship building.
Who are three amazing women social leaders you want us to watch?
Janet Austin, CEO, YWCA of Vancouver. Janet is working to ensure that Canada has a fully funded national childcare program. The YWCA of Vancouver has a long history of implementing programs in Vancouver that help women and children get the programs and services they most need, and helping along the road to economic independence. They are the most effective organization I have ever been a part of and their leadership doesn’t get enough attention.
Donna Morton, CEO, First Power. First Power is a social enterprise and certified B Corporation that is revolutionizing the way we power communities. They focus on working with First Nations (Canada’s indigenous peoples) to create community owned renewable energy systems that take the community off fossil fuels. They constantly innovate and are the first business I’ve seen that has managed to incorporate art into renewable energy projects.
Zoe Caron, Climate Specialist, WWF Canada. Follow @zoecaron. She’s a fellow youth climate leader who has written "Global Warming for Dummies" and continues to innovate in the non-profit sector. I think she’s someone who will end up in public office one day, and we need more people like her to do just that.