Celebrating Pride: On bringing your whole self to the effort of protecting the planet

Environmental Scientist Justine Ammendolia chats with WWF's Alex MacLennan about the intersection of conservation and identity

two women crouching down on a rocky shoreline examining rocks

Justine Ammendolia is an environmental scientist and science communicator based in Toronto, Canada. A marine biologist by trade, she is currently focused on the impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic on plastic waste. 

Alex MacLennan helps guide WWF's storytelling work across WWF channels. 

In recognition of June's global Pride month events in support of the LGBTQIA+ community, the two talked about the intersection of conservation, their identities, and bringing their whole selves to the effort of protecting the planet. They also explored the values brought to conservation work through the inclusion of a broad and diverse set of staff and partners—and ways to invite new conservationists into the fold.

Alex MacLennan:
As a gay man and member of WWF's newly established LGBTQIA+ employee resource group, I'm grateful to work somewhere that not only respects me as a human being but also believes in the value of diversity in many forms—biological, ecological, and in our workplace community. Could you share an experience where a commitment to diversity has made your conservation work either more or less effective? And why?

Justine Ammendolia: I think having different voices in the room is always a great thing. In science, unfortunately, I feel like we're oftentimes siloed into this belief that you leave your personality and your experiences at the door, and let the science speak for itself. But ultimately, there's always a person behind that science and that conservation work. Having different voices, having people with different experiences and perspectives tackling really complex global challenges like loss of biodiversity, pollution, and overfishing, is beneficial because you can have innovative ideas that drive solutions from different perspectives.

AM: And can you speak a bit about times in your conservation community where being queer may have made you feel like an outsider, or put you at risk?

JA: When my partner and I were doing fieldwork out in Eastern Canada, one aspect that was quite difficult in being queer was having to stay more or less closeted for safety. Yes, we were working with smaller communities that had a more traditional view of these things, but maybe more importantly, however, is the fact that we never received any kind of training, or pep talks, or safety protocols on the issue. We were kind of on our own. Unfortunately, that's still a hallmark of a lot of work in conservation and environmental sciences, where there are not enough resources in terms of how to prep students before they go out into the field.

AM: When I travel to countries with less supportive—or even dangerously anti-gay—cultures, I either take off my wedding ring or put a photo of a female friend on my phone's lock screen. I don't want to lie about who I am but know that being honest could put me at risk. WWF has a great system to protect us if things go wrong, but no guidance specifically for the issues queer people face.

JA: Exactly. It makes me think of this statistic out there that says about 40% of people would rather stay closeted than talk about relationships at work. That just speaks to the need for more education and engagement. There is always a risk for people who are "different." But it just comes to a point where you just have to be yourself and not hide.

AM: The part about not hiding really strikes home. As a kid who other kids knew was different, I spent a lot of time alone. I always loved nature and could lose myself in the small woods behind my house for hours, exploring and playing make-believe games. I loved nature documentaries. I loved the zoo. I often think that being gay—or closeted, long before I even knew the word—led me to the safety and comfort that nature provided. It offered solace that people couldn't. What does nature provide for you?

JA: I totally get that. As a kid I was quiet, I was shy. By kid standards, I never really fit in. Nature was definitely my escape. I feel like nature provided me the space to learn how to be more outspoken and extroverted and to learn how to really develop as a person. I want to say that space was really important to breathe, both literally and metaphorically.

AM: And how did that lead you to marine biology? And from that to your work on plastics. I understand that during the pandemic, you and your partner locked down in your hometown. How did that all play out?

JA: [Laughs] Well, my original research focus was on behavioral ecology and the movement of birds. Then I moved on to marine invertebrates like sea stars and sea cucumbers. But as I bounced around between different animals, I became more and more aware of plastic issues in the oceans as one of many stressors they face. That stuck with me, just the sheer complexity of the problem. And plastics was an area where you could actually find solutions—policy, advocacy, etc.

When the pandemic happened, my partner and I were stranded in Toronto, and what was supposed to be a pit stop between fieldwork became a way to nerd out and make local change. We chose to concentrate on personal protective equipment (PPE), a specific category of plastic. We realized that everyone has seen a mask littered in their community. They get it, they think about it for a while. And that makes it's easier to dive into more fundamental questions—like why we're disposing of 129 billion masks per month around the world—and consider how we can improve the system while keeping people safe.

A woman standing on a stage in front of a row of flags, presenting to an audience of children with their hands up

AM: WWF has a major campaign to rethink plastic use across its lifecycle, from how it's produced, to how it's used, to how it's recycled. Could you speak a bit about your findings and, in particular, how the life cycle of plastics disproportionately impacts people who lack the economic advantages many of us in the US and Canada enjoy?

JA: What a lot of people don't realize is exactly what you touched on—there's a whole system behind this issue. It's not just a matter of a couple of litterbugs throwing their straws or masks on the ground and the trash ending up with sea turtles.

You have cheap oil production, for example. Subsidies for the fossil fuel industry. You have a lot of disposable material being in ways that benefit the powerful the most. Unfortunately, the places in which the resources are extracted, refined, and produced fall within the realm of a lot of communities that face barriers and experience environmental racism.

A lot of queer scientists are doing plastics work and I think a lot of us relate to this field because of our own experiences. I don't think it's too much of a stretch to say that a lot of us empathize with the systemic injustice and inequity that people face as part of the plastic pollution crisis because we've faced our own set of systemic injustice and inequity because of our identities.

AM: WWF's mission is to create a world where both people and nature thrive. But it's also more than that—we need to help people reconnect with their love for and commitment to protecting the planet. How would you put those ideas together in the context of a more inclusive world for LGBTQIA+ and other communities? What will it take to reach that goal so that it includes all people, rather than just a lucky few?

JA: I think, really, it's about making sure that those of us with power are living up to what we say about amplifying voices giving people opportunities in a way that's profoundly uplifting them as opposed to making ourselves look good. It's about being selfless in a lot of ways.

We need to partner and collaborate across the world in a way in which you're respectfully giving people opportunities to research in their own backyards. Those of us with access to power can provide support. We can make sure that their voices and their names are acknowledged.

Personally, I try to mentor diverse students or early-career scientists and give them the opportunities they need to gain credibility in the field. It's the only way to offer access to where these decisions are being made and to diversify who has influence and power. That's what science and conservation need.

That's ultimately what we all need. We need people—folks of diverse and intersectional backgrounds, more specifically—to get in these positions and make decisions. That also extends to the queer community—making sure that we're represented in the room and that the tools that we need are given to us.

Follow Justine Ammendolia on Twitter and Instagram.