New Intern Alert! Meet Riley!

We are excited to share that we are working with an enthusiastic new bunch of interns from various parts of the world! We will be introducing them to you in a series of posts. Today, it’s time for you to say hi to Riley Place!

“Passion rebuilds the world for the youth. It makes things alive and significant.” -Ralph Waldo Emmerson

It is virtually impossible to answer the question “Who are you?” This difficulty is in part because many people struggle to understand themselves. As the eyes cannot see inward, we find ourselves judging and qualifying ourselves through comparisons with and the reactions of those around us. The resulting impression is not a true self-image, but rather a distorted reflection. Furthermore, people perpetually grow and change as they gain new experiences and are exposed to new ideas. This is illustrated in Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland when Alice is asked “Who are you?” by the inquisitive caterpillar. Alice responds by saying, “Well, I hardly know sir, I have changed so many times this morning.” Despite the challenges to understanding oneself posed by introspection and continual growth and change, I believe one can be understood by themselves and others through their passions. In the words of Emerson, passions make us “alive and significant”; they are the things that drive us and motivate us to do all we do. My three major passions are experiencing nature, traveling, and running. These three heavily interconnected passions have driven me to where I am now in my life and situate me well for my role as a FIN intern.

My greatest passion is for the natural environment, and the preservation of the environment is the main focus of my life. I feel most alive and clear-headed when I am climbing up a mountain, hiking alone through a forest, or running along the shore in the early morning. I have had this passion as long as I remember. Growing up in an apartment building in Chicago right across the street from the city zoo, I would hear the elephants and other animals calling each morning. As a baby, my mother would take me on walks to the zoo almost every day. As I grew older and my thought developed, I began to appreciate the uniqueness of biodiversity, the interconnections between organisms, the complexity of natural systems, and finally the dynamic changes of the environment through its interaction with humanity. I began to take action to protect the environment in my final year of high school. I organized an event at my school, where speakers from three local environmental activist organizations gave presentations on their work and on the hard skills, participants could use in their own lives to advance the issues important to them. Some of the activists I met while putting on this event invited me to join a coalition for carbon pricing in DC made up of environmental activists, concerned citizens, policy analysts, and labor, faith, and community leaders. I represented the youth in this coalition and gave speeches and participated in lobbying. My passion for nature led me to continue advocacy work for carbon pricing in college and to pursue a course of study focusing on the environment.

Another major passion of mine is traveling. Over my lifetime I have found myself living in some pretty exciting places, such as in a Maori meeting house in New Zealand, with Colombian fashion models in Barranquilla, Colombia, and in famed gangster Al Capone’s apartment building in Chicago, USA. I have been blessed to be a part of a family able to travel for work. My Dad got a job in Southland, New Zealand, next stop Antarctica when I was 12 and I spent the next couple of years here. The islands of New Zealand are populated with some of the worlds most unique and exciting birds owing to a couple of million years of evolution in isolation. This includes the world’s only alpine parrot, the kea, notorious for stealing tourists’ shoelaces and rubber from the tires of their cars, and the kiwi, a flightless, nocturnal, long-billed bird that has become the mascot of the New Zealand people (they prefer to call themselves kiwis as opposed to New Zealanders). It is in New Zealand that I became passionate about bird watching and conservation, a hobby and passion I took back with me to the US. This year I have been privileged to backpack around Portugal and Spain for a month and then study abroad at Maastricht University in the Netherlands where I was connected with Dr. Shyama Ramani by one of my tutors. I believe that the people I have met while traveling and the interesting perspectives I have learned has significantly developed my worldview.

It is through my love of travel that I developed my third passion: a love for distance running. When in a new place, the best way to see as much as possible is by running. I awake at dawn and run through the sleepy streets or along a mountain road, seeing as much of a new place as I can before starting my day. I began running when I first moved to New Zealand, living behind the small-town hospital with the morgue, hospice, and sexual health clinic as my only neighbors. The hospital backed up to native forest land, what the locals down under refer to as “the bush”. I would take daily runs through this bush and witness the stories of nature one can only see if they are in the right place at the right time. Once I ran to the sea and encountered sea lions, which chased me away. Another time I found an injured bird, a tui, which I took to a nature sanctuary to be nursed back to health. Eventually, I ran down to the track and found myself a coach and began to run competitively. The grind of training, the endurance of pain, in pursuit of a goal, a faster time, taught me discipline. It is this discipline I bring with me in my pursuit of conservation, in my work to pursue my greatest passion, the natural world.

After meeting Dr. Ramani on Skype (before the quarantine when skype meetings were cool), I found inspiration. Dr. Ramani’s passion for and work in actualizing sustainable development, particularly the visible success of her work with the Friend in Need Trust, aligned with my own goals and passions. In order to learn from Dr. Ramani and FiN, I sought an internship with the organization. In my role as an intern, I am analyzing patterns in international trade of hazardous waste. Ultimately, I will produce a workshop to convey the ecologically and socially harmful implications of this trade in hazardous waste to others.

It is my belief that my passion for the environment, my understanding of the world as interconnected and interdependent gained through travel experience, and the discipline gained through distance running prepare me to undertake my internship with FIN. After completing the internship, I will continue in my study of environmental science and economics at the University of Richmond. Upon obtaining my degree, I intend to join the Peace Corps, a sustainable development program run by the US government that sends volunteers all over the globe to implement education, sustainable agriculture, and conservation programs. Following my two years in the Peace Corps, I intend to continue my studies and pursue a career in creating and implementing public policy. The experience I gain with FIN will aid me greatly in these pursuits.

One of my heroes, US distance runner Steve Prefontaine, said, “To give anything less than your best is to sacrifice the gift.” It is my best I intend to bring to the internship to play my part in improving global wellbeing.