Serve the World and Let the World Save You

Leadership-in-Action Project: Volunteer Together for Birds Intern at the American Bird Conservancy, Washington DC
Serve the World and Let the World Save You

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My Leadership-in-Action project consisted of 5 and a half weeks of learning how to best serve communities affected by environmental justice issues in Washington DC in the United States. The project was about understanding how people relate to the places that they live, breathe, and play in. Due to my background as a birdwatcher (birder), I looked at how birds could be seen as the envoy for nature leading to a greater connection between the human and non-human worlds. It was a combination of all my favourite topics.

It was a testament to the time I spent looking for the right organization and the right supervisor. In Naamal De Silva, the Chief Diversity Officer at the American Bird Conservancy, I found an awe-inspiring mentor and visionary. To say that previous trips away from home had gone badly would be a massive understatement. My previous homesickness while away made me think very carefully about my L.I.A. and indeed my whole application for Laidlaw. I knew I was not just embarking on an academic journey but a deeply personal one as well.

Planning my trip was at times a challenge with delays to a lengthy and costly Visa process meant I had to leave later than was ideal and then wait another day after the plane was cancelled due to technical failure. Nonetheless, I found myself strangely calm throughout all these processes. This I attribute in part to the sessions I had at UCL surrounding Leadership to the Laidlaw Conference’s talks by Grace Lordan on cognitive diversity and Gina Miller on ethical leadership.  I felt a greater appreciation and understanding of myself and the world around me. I was doing a trip that would have been inconceivable even in Christmas 2022 now was happening apace.

The project would turn out to be rewarding in more ways than one. Academically it was incredibly stimulating as I soaked up American culture and the history of place-based identities. The project grew from its initial conception, and we agreed I would write the chapter for the eBook called Together for Birds after I returned home.  What surprised me about this trip was working with other interns. My accommodation at the American University had always seemed like accommodation to me, but speaking to American Interns I not only found a sense of community and belonging but also some great people to bounce my ideas off. I found that my style of leadership was to observe others and think critically about how decisions are made. I found a lot of peace within myself that I had never felt before. I came up with little mottos that summed up how I was feeling, and I wrote poems describing my experience. I helped support a Pride/ Latino Outdoors Bird walk and conducted interviews about places, birds, and Environmental Justice. I had always thought my observer style of leadership allowed me at times to be walked over, but here I found people valuing and respecting my advice and views.  I found my history background made me curious to truly know the place that I was residing in expanding on the modules I had taken about the US at University College London (UCL).

In this process, I learnt the art of listening to how people want you to serve them rather than parachuting in to save them. This was a crucial goal of my project to learn the ways in which people can connect in a reciprocated dialogue rather than one merely of taking and not giving. After all, as Naamal said to me on our final in-person trip to Anacostia Park, you cannot expect to save the world, you can only serve it.

Serve the world and let the world save you. This will stick with me for the rest of my life, as a motto for my ethical leadership style to acknowledge the privileges that got me where I am today and to use them to listen rather than dedicate the terms of my service to the world. In working on diversity and inclusion I have realised the importance of cognitive diversity even more. That is the importance of accepting many ways of knowing not just into bird conservation but into human understanding.

I left the US after a week of travelling feeling bittersweet. I loved the project so much and looked forward to the future but will remember my moments in Washington and will use that moment to fuel my life with it allowing me insight into what it takes to be an ethical leader.

Thanks to everyone who supported me, especially Naamal De Silva, Chris Cullen and Dave Carter as well as the Laidlaw Foundation and the American Bird Conservancy.

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Go to the profile of Grace Feng
10 months ago

WOW Keir, what an amazing reflection! Though I'm surprised to read about your apphrehension of traveling abroad. You seemed very much in your element during the Arboretum walk, with sharing your knowledge and interviewing the other birders. I can't wait to read your chapter of People and Birds! 

Go to the profile of Keir Chauhan
10 months ago

Thanks, Grace. I felt like I really grew as a person going to the States and it was an absolute blast to meet up with you while you were back home.