Written by Sofiya Shukhova
I am a Caucasian married woman working in conservation. The first image I give to strangers is of a white wealthy privileged person who can work in conservation because she does not have to worry about making a living. Well, indeed I happened to be born white-skinned, not much of the rest. So, let me tell you my real story: the way I paved to become who I am now.
I grew up in Russia, a big mysterious country in the middle of a map. But in reality – a country that is stuck somewhere between the developed and undeveloped world and I am not referring to its geographical location here. I finished school totally convinced that biology is the most boring subject in science or even in life. I have no clue how anyone can still think that the current education system is good, as it cannot spark an interest in the most important subject in the era of climate emergency and sixth mass extinction.
With school subjects being of different shades of boredom and family having strong traditions in architecture, there is no wonder that I entered architecture school. I left Russia and moved to France. In the place where I am from, people may judge you if you study abroad: you are automatically considered rich and oh, apparently, it is something bad, it is something to be judged for. Every time I did mention that I studied in France I had to justify myself saying that education is free there. Apparently, I still feel that I have to do the same. Otherwise, why would I write this paragraph?
Three years later I graduated with a degree in architecture, still empty-headed, yet trying to find a job in the domain where I did not want to work. I spent almost a year attempting to get an internship or position in architecture agencies and art galleries. Thank god, or whoever you believe or do not believe in, I was rejected everywhere. To say that I was upset means to say nothing, I was devastated.
Thanks to my parents, boyfriend and occasional freelance projects, I made it through the year and, even better, finally started to slowly understand what I want to do in my life. I started to paint and fast enough I realised that my favourite subject in fine arts is wildlife. As they say in Bahasa: ‘Tak kenal maka tak cinta’, literally meaning ‘To not know is to not love’ or simply – you cannot love what you do not know. Well, I would say you also cannot paint what you do not know. Hence, I started to learn about my favourite subject – wildlife: reading tonnes of articles, books and watching documentaries about conservation. That is when everything has started.
Reading articles was not enough and I went to Durrell Conservation Academy for a short basic course on conservation. Following that I decided to volunteer. You know how poor the conservation world is and NGOs are constantly looking for volunteers so that they can save funds. At the same time, since volunteering is so common, you can hardly get a full time job if you do not have any work experience. So, no matter what your financial situation is, you have to volunteer before applying for a position in conservation. Besides, many organisations would ask foreigners to pay a volunteer fee. This is of course a great strategy fundraising-wise, but unfortunately it may put off many people who are just starting in conservation.
Being not able to afford short, fancy volunteering programmes, I just packed my stuff and moved to Thailand for four months, where I could volunteer for free if committed long-term. Four months later I moved to Vietnam, where I was invited as a professional artist to paint an education room for the kids in a conservation centre. Again, I was finding ways to volunteer for free. What a privilege! Concurrently, I was continuing to paint, hold exhibitions and occasionally sell my artworks.
Finally, one year later I found a job in a wonderful NGO in Singapore where I was treated with love, respect and almost always taken seriously. I consider it to be my first real work experience that gave me both: an opportunity to contribute and a chance to learn and to self-develop. However, being a hard-core believer in the cause, I wanted to do more and I felt that I will not be able to do so without a proper education in conservation. Master degree became a priority on my to-do list.
I could not get any scholarship to cover my study, because, well, I guess I am too white for it. It is hard to admit, but nowadays, the education system has a sort of reverse racism. You are not eligible for the majority of scholarships or grants if you were born or reside in a developed country. And I am not trying to ask for a pity here or claim that I somehow need the same level of attention as people dying from hunger. I don’t. But I am simply saying that living in a developed country does not necessarily mean having a spare 25 thousand dollars to cover a one-year education fee.
It took me two years to save enough money for the chosen master’s programme. Saving from a small conservation NGO salary is not easy. However, with the help of my family I could afford to pay my education fee and made it through a year of full-time study. I feel really lucky. How many young people want to be trained in conservation, so that they can save the world for all of us, but they simply cannot afford it no matter what race they are?
So, here I am now: still white outside, privileged, married, with a great education and work background, and an empty bank account – trying to get a job in conservation in Asia. Unfortunately, I will always need extra time and effort to convince local communities not to pigeonhole me as a wealthy white woman who cannot relate to their problems before I can even open my mouth about conservation. But I try to stay positive about it, because I know that when I achieve something, it is actually twice as big. It is always about equality, fair treatment and co-existence: whether it is between different social groups, races or species.
Would you say #whitepeopleproblems? I say: inequality hits both ends.
For more of Sofiya, check out @sofiya.shukhova on Instagram