Nyeema Harris: The reward of choosing passion over precedent

For Black History Month, the British Ecological Society (BES) journals are celebrating the work of Black ecologists from around the world and sharing their stories. The theme for UK Black History Month this year is Time for Change: Action Not Words. Nyeema C. Harris—Director of the Applied Wildlife Ecology Lab in the Yale School of the Environment, USA—shares her story below.                                

Measuring hair on a black bear cub. Thanks to Virginia Tech (credit: Nyeema Harris)  

Some choices in life are just easy, especially when there is a clear guide to order your steps. Others, like choosing a career devoid of same demographic role models, is laden with opposition. Imagine a little Black city girl telling her family that she wanted to study lions, tigers, and bears. Sadly, such a statement was met with confusion, doubt, and uncertainty. Sentiments roared that what I loved wasn’t meant for someone like me: “that’s not what Black people do.” However, all I could think in response to this was “why not?” Why didn’t I see people like me in nature shows on Animal Planet, Discovery, and National Geographic? These channels flaunted the seemingly singular narrative of who gets to explore wild places, who gets to ask cool questions, and who gets to have awe-inspiring animal encounters. Even though I stubbornly persisted, “do not pass go”, “whites only”, and “not for you” signage permeated my vocation. Again, I was haunted by the question of why… Why isn’t wildlife an inclusive, diverse, and just discipline, especially given the cultural, economic, and social significance of animals across geographies and generations? Preceding slavery, my African ancestors had a deep and intricate connection to land, wildlife, and place. Surely this should mean that I have an inherent right and guaranteed access?

Lion track from Senegal, Niokola koba National Park (credit: Nyeema Harris)

Life’s common adage implores us to do what we love, which has almost become a universal principle. As a naïve adolescent, I didn’t realize that this philosophy was only supposed to selectively apply to those from the “right” background. Barriers inflicted by culture, society, or even self-doubt, compromise one’s ability to navigate life guided by doing what one loves. For some, discovering what you love takes years with many trials and tribulations. Discovery is only the first step though—determining how to realise your dreams can be fraught with even more challenges. For me, a middle-class Philadelphian, the discovery part was easy, one might even say innate. The love and passion for wildlife emerged early and learning random fun facts has always brought me so much joy. Having an opportunity to view bountiful wildlife in person—first at the zoo, and later in East Africa—affirmed and reaffirmed that ecology was my calling.

I didn’t know at the time that starting and pursuing my career trajectory would be met with such resistance. At 11 years old, I declared being a vegetarian, thereby rebuking the southern cooking of my family roots. Then, at 14 years old, I expressed my desire to be a wildlife biologist; but not just any wildlife biologist, I specifically wanted to work with carnivores in order to help contribute to their conservation. “You want to do what!?” emphatically echoed all-around me, explicit and implicit disbelief stained my atmosphere. Afterall, Black communities often have a very narrow definition of success that basically translates into only becoming a medical doctor (now I suspect first lady and vice-president will suffice as well). Even my beloved late grandma quickly humbled me at the age of 27 by stating “[I] wasn’t saving any lives”, after being the first in my family to get a PhD. However, the truth is that I am able to (or at least can) save lives. I work hard to expose underserved communities and underrepresented groups to opportunities in ecology which could literally rescue a family from poverty, or change the trajectory of a Black man discriminated by a society that sees black men as a threat. Additionally, components of my research directly relate to promoting coexistence between people and large carnivores that can help reduce human mortality and consequences to livelihoods.

My first wild tiger, central India landscape in 2022. Thanks to Fulbright and the Wildlife Institute of India (credit: Nyeema Harris)  

Despite persistent disappointment, these have only served to motivate me to keep on working hard and aspiring to continue achieving more. I suspect that, as a result of my stubborn Taurus nature, I have always been driven to pursue what I love. Self-agency or Kujichagulia—Kwanzaa’s second principle of self-determination—remains the governing principle in my profession. Though I have achieved much, much still remains outstanding.

Full circle back in Kenya in 2022 (different protected area though) after my transformative experience over 25 years ago that set my career in motion, Amboseli National Park.

On this road, certainly a path less traveled by people with my background, I continue to press towards the mark. Doubt creeped in as an undergraduate—being the only Black student my classes—with one of my first jobs involving walking along the eastern coast looking for piping plovers—a bird! Wait a minute, you might say! I wanted to study carnivores, but I very quicky realized that I had to learn multiple components of the system in which they interact—the importance of carnivores cascade through ecosystems. Therefore, I focused on building a broad knowledge base with a diverse skill set, embracing the failures that only helped to sharpen me. I entered my vocation working to sustain myself in an environment where I seemed critically endangered, now I focus on maximizing my services to ecosystem engineer!      

Enjoyed the blogpost and want to reach out to Nyeema? Find her on Twitter here!

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