The Power of Storytelling to Create Representation | An Interview with Jasmine Qureshi
Wildlife conservation is all about protecting and celebrating biodiversity. But, when we look at the industry’s workforce, we see a heart-breaking diversity deficit. Making work in the conservation sector accessible and equitable for all will require equally diverse solutions, and improving representation is a key step.
“Nature is all about spectrums and understanding differences”.
I recently had the opportunity to chat with Jasmine Qureshi about the importance of role models and the power of storytelling as a tool for creating better representation. Jasmine is a Researcher at the BBC Natural History Unit and BBC Earth, Engagement Officer for A Focus On Nature and an Ambassador for the Bumblebee Conservation Trust.
They are also a writer, journalist, wildlife filmmaker, activist, marine biology graduate and a speaker/presenter. As a queer person of colour, her work centres around intersectionality in the wildlife conservation sector.
What inspired you to work in conservation?
“I grew up in a flat above a shop in central London with no garden and no reserves nearby. It was such a closed-off space from the stereotypical idea of what nature is that people are often surprised that I’m interested in nature at all.
“So, my start in nature was urban wildlife; it was small creatures that you can only find if you’re looking closely. I especially love bumblebees, butterflies and other pollinators. Because I was home-schooled, I had the time to go and seek out wildlife in the city; I think it’s overlooked that time isn’t made in school for children to explore nature.”
“People are often surprised that I’m interested in nature at all”.
“Watching wildlife documentaries and seeing wildlife in books made me want to go and explore what was beyond the cityscape environment. I was really inspired by whales and dolphins and that’s what made me want to do marine biology.
“When I went to university near the coast, I found that the ocean was so calming to be beside all the time. I love the ocean; it’s vast, it’s unexplored, and it’s become a central part of who I am.
“There was obviously a slight problem with the kinds of wildlife media I was seeing as a child because most wildlife documentaries don’t include any city wildlife. I began to think that I was not engaging with wildlife in a way that would enable me to do it as a job.
“Two aspects stayed with me from these experiences: my love of urban wildlife and my interest in making it a more filmed and talked about sector of wildlife and conservation, especially in the UK.”
It’s interesting that you brought up urban wildlife straight away because it’s under-represented, but it’s not what people generally think of when we talk about diversity. People like David Lindo (The Urban Birder) were not on TV when we were children.
“That is a massive issue. About 80% of the UK population lives in cities, and a lot of those people are people of minority status. The fact that wildlife media and natural history television is mainly focused on the countryside and more elite areas doesn’t get a lot of people involved.”
You wear many hats, but could you give our readers an idea of what your work involves?
“I do a lot of things! But my general day-to-day is working at the BBC as a Researcher. When I started, I wasn’t completely aware of what I was going to do in my job. I knew I would be putting together stories about wildlife conservation and making it accessible to the public in a way that would spark their interest in wildlife and keep that interest up because that’s the point of wildlife documentaries.
“But I didn’t realise how nuanced it is and how varied it is. I am constantly researching different subjects, but most of my day is focused on wildlife. Sometimes the research can feel like it’s going slowly, but I keep at it because it’s something that I’m really, really passionate about. For people like us who love wildlife and conservation, it’s so cool to be able to do that all the time.
“I’m a storyteller, and underlying everything is the idea of intersectionality”.
“The work I do as an ambassador for the Bumblebee Conservation Trust is mostly giving talks. I’m a storyteller, and underlying everything is the idea of intersectionality. Linking things together and seeing intersectionality is the only way I’ve been able to keep up with all these different jobs.
“For example, if I’m writing an article and it’s not on a wildlife specific topic I’ll try to use some of the ideas that I’ve researched in that or vice versa. Even if I’m talking about something like fashion and queer culture, it’s surprisingly easy to bring that into the fold of environmentalism and activism and then bring that into my love of wildlife and conservation.”
I think the idea of finding the links in your work to develop a cohesive career will be helpful for a lot of conservationists because many of us have multiple projects on the go at once!
What have been your favourite moments of your career so far?
“There are a few of them for different reasons. Getting to talk about starfish on CBeebies was fun. Afterwards, I looked back at it and realised there were no other trans people of colour on CBeebies doing that kind of thing. It was nice to be able to dress in the way that I did and understand that kids would be seeing me and realising that it’s ok to be interested in wildlife and want to dress like that.”
“Another achievement was writing for GAY TIMES Magazine (I came out as using they/she pronouns on International Women’s Day). It really was quite monumental because it made me see that I can do both wildlife and LGBT+ activism.
“One other huge achievement that I’d wanted to do since I was little was writing for BBC Wildlife Magazine. That was incredible for me because it was an article that took about fifteen hours’ worth of interviews and months and months of working with the editor. When it finally came out it was so surreal.”
Your work with CBeebies brings us to the topic of representation when we were younger. I was trying to think of who my conservation and science role models were, and there were a few trailblazers like Michaela Strachan and Liz Bonin, but otherwise there was very little diversity. Chris Packham is now a great role model for autistic conservationists such as myself, but he didn’t know he was autistic when I was younger.
Who were your role models when you were younger, and did you see any representation for yourself in them?
“It was exactly the same for me. I thought I wouldn’t be able to work in wildlife and conservation because I didn’t see myself in any of the people I watched on TV or saw in books.
“The people I did see growing up helped with my passion and interest in wildlife because I thought they were quite cool. My role models were people like Chris Packham, Nick Baker, Steve Backshall, Steve Irwin, obviously David Attenborough and definitely Jane Goodall – I love Jane Goodall.
“Unfortunately, they are all white and cisgender and heterosexual. I grew up with them and took what I could, but I couldn’t take all that I wanted. I am grateful to those role models, but I understand that the only reason I feel like they gave me any sort of representation is that they were the only ones visible.
“I know very few people of colour in the wildlife media industry. There are a few gay people like Dan O’Neill, but I don’t know any trans people. We’re still at that point of transition from what was considered “the norm” to a more progressive, open place full of diverse perspectives.
“I think that’s so important because when I meet people who have multi-dimensional lives and multi-faceted views on the planet and on people (as a lot of LGBT+ people do because we have to reflect on ourselves a lot when we’re growing up) it makes them a better wildlife enthusiast. Again, it’s that idea of intersectionality.”
“I thought I wouldn’t be able to work in wildlife and conservation because I didn’t see myself in any of the people I watched on TV or saw in books”.
“I don’t think we’re there yet by a long stretch. But I know people who are trying to open up ground for more different people and who are very good allies, so I’m hopeful for the future.”
I hope that once we get more representation out there it’s going to start a positive feedback loop: the more representation there is the more people will see themselves represented and will feel encouraged to join the sector, and so on. This is also something Nick discussed with Lynn Mento, CEO of Conservation Nation, in a recent podcast episode.
Did not seeing yourself in role models challenge you in your career?
“Yeah, definitely. Multiple times in my degree I was going to drop out and do something that would allow me to express myself in the way that I wanted to, like English or drama.
“A really important part of who I am now is my expression and my identity. And this happens a lot with LGBT+ people because often we’re limited in how we’re allowed to express ourselves when we’re growing up.
“That means when we finally get the chance to express ourselves, we’re never letting go of it. And I thought I would not be allowed to express myself and identify in the way that I do comfortably in a scientific field.”
(If you resonate with this, check out the 500 Queer Scientists website).
“At that time, I was being pushed away from nature as well. I was remembering how uncomfortable it felt to go into reserves; I’d get weird looks and racism was part of that as well. Places that had been a source of comfort were turning on me. I felt like I didn’t want to be on reserves anymore and I didn’t want to do that as a career.”
“The lack of representation said to me “You don’t belong in this sector”.
“The lack of representation said to me, ‘You don’t belong in this sector’. Which I now understand is complete rubbish! But I had to really fight to get through that and rediscover my passion and love for nature and wildlife. The fact that I got through that was good, but a lot of people do drop out and follow other career paths because they don’t feel like they belong in this sector, and that is a real big problem.
“It’s bittersweet because the lack of representation and discrimination did put up obstacles and it did stop me from wanting to be who I wanted to be, but it did also make me value it a bit more. But identity and your interests shouldn’t be something you have to fight through so many walls for.”
Realising that we are role models for the next generation of conservationists, how can we ensure we are providing good representation? Can storytelling be a tool for creating that representation?
“Storytelling is so incredibly important, and I’ve found a good story is one of the most powerful forms of communication in terms of how we change people’s perspectives and allow them to build a different narrative”.
“A good story is one of the most powerful forms of communication”.
“The way I try to become a better role model is by bringing more people in to be role models. When I go on to panels, when I write about issues or when I’m asked questions, I am generally the only person there representing what they want me to represent.
“And that is tokenistic and becomes very individualist because it is literally just me and I only have my experiences backing me. I can learn about other people’s experiences, but I can’t talk about them – instead, I can uplift their voices.
“I think it’s very important to show the next generation not to stand alone when you’re talking about issues, and to get everyone’s perspective on things.
“We’re still in an environment where a lot of people can’t express themselves in the way they wish to and keep the job, family or even safety that they have. But I think if you’re in a place where you can present authentically and show people that it is possible to be comfortable in your expression and still do things you’re passionate about – even if society tells you that they just don’t go together – then I think you definitely should.
“Even simple things make an impact. Once when I was making videos for the Wildlife Trusts, someone reached out and said they didn’t know you could work in wildlife and be accepted wearing clothes like mine and having multiple piercings. That was really cool to hear!
“It is a tricky one because it does come from a place of privilege in certain cases – there are a lot of people who can’t do that. But again, if you are in a place where you are a role model and you can then I think that’s a good thing to do.”
How can our colleagues and conservation organisations support us?
“Don’t just ask one person in a community”.
“When you go to communities to talk about issues, go to loads of different people – don’t just ask one person in those communities. It is important to be bringing more people into the fold to talk about their experiences because everyone has a different perspective on the same issue, which makes for far more interesting and nuanced discussions.
“If you want to be a good ally, consider what privileges you have and how much you can influence the sector. Use that privilege! A lot of people get kind of terrified of saying or doing things because they are told all the time that they can’t speak about these issues, so they say nothing at all. But what that should mean is that you push other people to the forefront who can talk about these issues.
“Sometimes in the board rooms of big organisations in the conservation industry, it’s a lot of the same people talking to the same people. They don’t really know how to solve some issues because they haven’t got the experience or the understanding they need. Getting people who understand those issues into board rooms and into areas where they can speak about them means that decisions can be made based on real experience.
“Often people congratulate me on overcoming all those barriers. But it shouldn’t have to be an achievement to simply want to work in the wildlife conservation industry and still be working in it.”
What advice do you have for people wanting to work in conservation, especially if they don’t see other people like them in the sector?
“On one hand, I got through it by reminding myself how much I love wildlife and the fact that I really couldn’t work anywhere else. I was trying to work in other places alongside it, but I could never leave it alone completely and I kept coming back. I think that passion and love for conservation at its core are really important to hold on to. But on the other hand, it is a bit of a struggle, and it shouldn’t be a struggle.
“Finding a support system is important, especially when you are in an industry that really doesn’t represent you and often rolls over a lot of the things that you talk about. I think local representation can be super useful if we don’t see big-time representation. There are tons of groups now who help people who are marginalised and are interested in wildlife and conservation, and we need a whole lot more to represent different types of people.
“I’ve met so many people who don’t feel like they belong in this industry anymore because of what people have told them about how they can’t dress like this or talk like this or be like this or look like this and still work with wildlife, and it’s complete and utter rubbish. Nature is all about spectrums and understanding differences”.
“You do belong here”
“Remember that you do belong here. I think that’s a really important thing to hear every day”.
Jasmine recently starred in a photo shoot and short film alongside Bimini Bon-Boulash, Dan O’Neill and Noga Levy-Rapoport as part of the #SeaOurFuture project. This work and the accompanying article in Attitude Magazine beautifully illustrate the power of storytelling to create representation, encourage a feeling of belonging and inspire conservation actions.
Some Inclusive UK Wildlife and Outdoors Groups:
All photographs copyright of Jasmine Qureshi except where otherwise stated.
Author Profile | Jenna Woodford
Jenna is a freelance writer, poet and natural sciences graduate. Wildlife and conservation are at the heart of their work, and they aim to make nature more accessible through their writing.