How love, care, and compassion can foster climate resilience / Nikita Shiel-Rolle

Nikita Shiel-Rolle

For Nikita Shiel-Rolle, science is a tool we can use to advance climate solutions and social justice. Through her work with the Cat Island community, she is helping Bahamians learn to fall in love with themselves through the lens of the ocean.

Image © Photo credit: Nikita Shiel-Rolle

Nikita Shiel-Rolle

Image © Photo credit: Nikita Shiel-Rolle

Nikita Shiel-Rolle is the founder and CEO of the Cat Island Conservation Institute, a Bahamian organization seeking to reduce the barriers to accessing science. In March 2021, our incredible monthly giving community, The Tide, is supporting the Cat Island Conservation Institute’s Certified Community Marine Scientist program, led by Nikita.

Read on for Nikita’s story and become a member of The Tide today to support ocean changemakers like Nikita and projects like the Cat Island Conservation Institute.

Cat Island, The Bahamas · Photo credit: Alessandro Sarno

I have a backstory about how Eagleray Empress came into this world. I was born in Canada, June 11, 1987, as Nikita Shiel-Rolle to an Irish mother and a Bahamian father, and the ocean is a part of me.

We moved to The Bahamas when I was seven. At first, I hated it here. As a young child, the move took me away from everything that I knew, but over time I developed a deep love for our beautiful ocean nation and all of its nature. I have had the opportunity to explore The Bahamas and get to know its wild spaces, its trees and rocks, and its creatures that are so much older and wiser than us, and are an inherent part of who we are. Whether I am diving in the bowels of underground caves or exploring coral reefs, I am connected to the ocean in a way that I cannot 100 percent articulate, but it drives my very being. I have crystal clarity about what my purpose is: to spread ocean love.

Cat Island, where Nikita lives, is a resplendent, 150-square mile island located in the central Bahamas, nearly 300 miles from the coast of Florida · Photo credit: Alessandro Sarno
Spotted eagle rays can be found flying through the turquoise waters of The Bahamas · Photo: Cristina Mittermeier
The habitats created by coral reefs are home to a wealth of life. Exploring ecosystems in the deep blue of The Bahamas during her childhood set Nikita on a path to spreading ocean love · Photo credit: Cristina Mittermeier
Nikita entered marine conservation because of her love for the ocean. Now, she works on climate justice for her community on Cat Island and for all Bahamians · Photo credit: Nikita Shiel-Rolle

Each of us is born into time and place. This impacts how we see ourselves, our fellow human beings, and our relationship with nature. Our childhood and upbringing has an effect on how we show up in the world, right down to the language or iteration of language that we use to communicate.

All of this matters. For those of us working on climate solutions, we must acknowledge that we all bring different perspectives to the table based on where we were born, the opportunities we were afforded, and how we were educated.

I entered marine conservation because of my love for the ocean. However, over the years I realized that a creature-centered approach would not save the ocean. This is why I started working to connect Bahamians to the ocean, as a remembering of who we are. Every human being deserves to live a life where they flourish, but our reality as an ocean nation with hundreds of islands and thousands of cays is that every decision we make has to have a clear and grounded focus on long-term sustainable development and climate resilience in all sectors, whether the conversation is about public health, biodiversity, or our economic recovery. The impacts of climate change are real and alive. Hurricane Dorian made me realize that I couldn’t have imagined the violence and devastation that hurricanes bring. It is what really propelled me into doing climate justice work.

When talking about small island nations like The Bahamas, I always quote the words of Dr. Adell Thomas: “Half a degree of global warming matters. Each year matters. Each choice matters.” The UNESCO Caribbean Youth Network on Climate Change, of which I am part, has a sentiment, “do or we die.” We decided to “do,” and we need everyone to work with us.
Hurricane Dorian propelled Nikita into doing climate justice work. It struck in 2019, and remains the most intense hurricane to have ever affected The Bahamas, devastating the Northern Islands · Photo credit: Cristina Mittermeier

There is a serious paradox that exists for Bahamians when we talk about the ocean.

We’re surrounded by it. It gives us the food we eat, the cultural items that resonate with our hearts, like the conch. You don’t even understand why you’re so attached to it, yet you are. That’s part of your cultural identity. We’re on islands surrounded by water, but most Bahamians don’t know how to swim. There are reasons for that. There’s a lot of fear associated with the ocean. There’s a lot of ancestral trauma associated with how most Bahamians’ ancestors arrived on these islands. We have not had equitable access to quality education, so you have a population in The Bahamas and across the Caribbean that doesn’t have skills that are transferable to the emerging blue economy.

Bahamians are surrounded by the ocean. It gives them cultural items, like the conch, and is part of their cultural identity. Yet at the same time, because of the history and legacy of colonialism and racism in the former British colony, there’s a lot of fear associated with the ocean · Photo credit: Nikita Shiel-Rolle

Conservation has historically been and continues in many places to be led by a top-down, colonial approach. This applies to the world of ocean activism.

We must be honest that we lack humanity and come from a position of privilege when we ask people to prioritize a seemingly intangible future, when most Bahamians are operating in “crisis mode” and have never put their faces underwater. To paraphrase a respected fisher friend, “When all you see is darkness, you can’t imagine a light.”
Ocean conservation has historically been and continues in many places to be led by a top-down, colonial approach. The solution, says Nikita, centers on Bahamians from all walks of life being long-term, active participants in the creation of their resilient island communities · Photo credit: Cristina Mittermeier

I fundamentally believe that Bahamians from all walks of life must be long-term, active participants in the creation of our resilient island communities.

For this to happen, we need to remove the barriers to participation in science. The problem is that the people collecting the data are missing huge perspectives. This is where the paradigm shift is required.

We must ask ourselves, “How do we have these conversations within our science and conservation community in The Bahamas, which is very foreign, to make sure that there is this attentiveness to equity and that we can lovingly resolve disparity? How do we tangibly establish resilience in communities in ways where the communities are the ones leading these conservation programs?”

Having that critical lens, and the ability to observe, is very powerful for problem-solving. We need a nation full of problem-solvers. That is how we will address the climate crisis.

Nikita’s organization, the Cat Island Conservation Institute, is establishing the first community conservation laboratory in The Bahamas to help close the gap between science, society, and policy · Photo credit: Nikita Shiel-Rolle

I see research skills as a tool to advance climate solutions and social justice. This is at the heart of the work we do with the Cat Island Conservation Institute. We have to pump resources into our communities, even something as simple as one of the programs that we’re launching and establishing here, such as certifying community scientists. We are training community members to be able to work as co-researchers. This may be someone who didn’t graduate from high school, or is a farmer, fisher, or hotelier.

When our entire community becomes scientists and participates in exploration, data collection, analysis, and the communication of science, this allows all of us to invest in our collective future.

We need to slow down in our science spaces so that we can really ensure that we are having equitable conversations and are able to bring people to the table who haven’t had a voice before. We critically need their voices to make better-informed decisions.

Nikita sees her job as helping Bahamians learn to fall in love with themselves through the lens of the ocean, including teaching community members how to swim and dive · Photo credit: Nikita Shiel-Rolle

What my job is, is that I am helping Bahamians learn to fall in love with themselves through the lens of the ocean, through nature.

It is a reclamation of sorts. It makes me feel warm and fuzzy inside to be part of the process of inspiring other Bahamians to one day swim into the ocean, or to become cave divers and explore the bowels of our islands. Ocean love looks like building and nurturing meaningful relationships and equitable partnerships with people from all over the world, knowing that research and resources are not being unethically extracted from our country, but are rather being used to help us all thrive.

A hopeful future for Bahamians and for their ocean will involve building and nurturing meaningful relationships and equitable partnerships with people from all over the world. Nikita dedicates herself to the Guardians of Planet Ocean and celebrates the life of Romon Newbold (second from the left) who passed away in March 2021 at the age of 17 · Photo credit: Nikita Shiel-Rolle

Mending, or really establishing, this connection between science and communities is going to be critical for us to achieve the 2030 Sustainable Development Goals. I firmly believe that the three Cs concept of “creative arts, creative communications, and cultural diplomacy” should play a key role to inspire individuals to engage in data collection initiatives that provide clear local indicators of each of the Sustainable Development Goals. Effective communication requires self-awareness. Those of us in ocean spaces, we can’t just be so focused on the science that we forget our humanity. And we need the Global North to be hand in hand with us as we move forward. I’m not talking about an approach based on shame, blame, or judgement, because that won’t get us anywhere.

Lovingly, we must become aware of when we’re in a position of dominance and use the privilege that we have to create opportunities, to help, uplift, and support each other. That requires each of us to develop the skills to listen, take a beat, and move away from our head and into our heart. This is why I spread ocean love, care, and compassion.

As Bahamians, we will remember that we are one with the ocean. That’s how we are going to make communities climate-resilient.

Ocean love, care, and compassion is at the heart of Nikita’s work and life, and is intrinsically linked to finding climate solutions · Photo credit: Nikita Shiel-Rolle
Nikita Shiel-Rolle
Conservation biologist & climate justice advocate
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