Mental Health & Climate Activist Tori Tsui
May 12, 2020
Tori Tsui, 26, is a citizen of the world in more ways than one. The product of an international childhood, she's found her calling saving the planet. Her activism reached new heights this past year when she was recruited to sail across the globe for the climate crisis.
Tori is also an outspoken mental health advocate who highlights the connection between environmental and mental wellbeing. She was generous enough to share with us a deeper look at her adventures on the water and in her own mind, now that she's landlocked during the COVID-19 crisis.
Tell us a little bit about yourself. Where are you from? What do you like to do for fun?
I am a climate activist and communicator based in Bristol, United Kingdom, but I’m originally from Hong Kong. I grew up in Hong Kong for the best part of 17 years until moving to the UK for my studies. I spent a lot of time during my childhood split between Hong Kong, England and Australia, so I’m no stranger so leading somewhat of a nomadic life and having a rather confused cultural identity.
Being part of the climate community seems to give me some solace amongst all of this. In many ways I find that what I do can be very fun, but to wind down I really enjoy painting (I integrate a lot of this into my activism online), photography and filmmaking. At some point I’d like to combine the latter creative elements into my activism.
You studied ecology and conservation for your masters degree and became a research scientist. But now, you’re a climate activist. How did you decide to make that change, and how did you figure out how to support yourself as an activist?
I’ve held two research jobs in conjunction with my research degree but after a while I became slightly disillusioned and worried about the climate crisis. I started by participating in direct action through street protests whilst working full-time. I have supported myself through a regular working life alongside doing freelance content creation jobs (specifically videography). Every so often an opportunity linked to activism allows me to pay my bills, but this is few and far between.
Stella McCartney sponsored you to sail to the UN Climate Conference COP25. Can you talk a little bit about this experience? What did the day-to-day look like aboard the ship?
I was asked to participate in a campaign with Stella after being scouted as an activist at an Extinction Rebellion protest and online through my Instagram. The partnership with Stella continued after I heard about an opportunity called Sail To The COP which aimed to take 36 European youths to the UN Climate Conference in Chile.
I lived onboard a three master schooner for three months which took me from Amsterdam to Cartagena in Colombia. As the COP25 had been relocated to Madrid due to civil unrest in Chile, we ended up remote conferencing in Martinique. We found out halfway across the Atlantic Ocean that the conference had been moved so we decided to sail on (the winds wouldn’t allow us to return in time).
On board the ship we would participate in a think tank that looked at sustainable travel and more specifically the de-escalation of the aviation industry. Alongside this we’d carry out "watches," which involved cleaning and sailing the ship. Watches last five hours a day and then in spare time we’d either be preparing meals on kitchen duty, or winding down.
Winding down often consisted of playing music, watching movies, journaling or socializing on board. Although in hindsight it was a truly brilliant experience, I found the journey quite tough emotionally and physically, not just because of sea sickness, but the confinement on board and being disconnected for that long was equally unique and magical as it was challenging.
Next you joined a project called Sail for Climate Action which aimed to bring Latin American, Indigenous and Caribbean youth to the UN Climate Change Intersessional SB52 — but sadly this was cancelled due to the COVID-19 crisis. How have young and indigenous activists impacted your outlook on the climate crisis?
Sail For Climate Action made it to Bermuda before having to be cancelled due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Nevertheless the project continues online, and our participants are working together to deliver workshops and produce outputs.
I’m very fortunate to be part of a project that helps bring key voices of the global south to participate in the climate conversation. For me, it’s highlighted the clear need for diverse voices and has given me a lot of insight into the intricacies of what tackling the climate crisis looks like.
The dominance of activists from the global north within the movement homogenizes and indirectly silences voices from the global south. And it is often the latter voices that will be hit hardest by the climate crisis, and hold many of the answers to solving it.
For instance, problems that we deem obstacles in the global north may not necessarily be the same in Latin America and the Caribbean, and vice versa. It’s important to understand these differences. It’s also extremely important to take on board the perspectives of folks who have been living in harmony with the land for millennia.
The COVID-19 pandemic has brought a lot of stress into our lives, compounding eco-anxiety and other mental health struggles many of us face. How have you coped with the abrupt transition from living nomadically to self-isolating in one place? What kind of practices help ground you?
Coming back from Colombia whilst working on Sail For Climate Action has been the biggest shock to my system. I went from working nearly 12 hour days, constantly surrounded by peers and fellow climate activists, for nearly six months, to isolating back home in Bristol without seeing my friends. Although the Zoom calls have been keeping me afloat, it’s safe to say this experience has had a huge impact on my mental wellbeing.
I’ve found that throwing myself into my work has helped a lot (when I have the capacity to do so) and spending time in nature has been really healing. I use my daily allowance to leave the house to sit in my local park. It’s a very grounding thing and makes me appreciate our natural world that much more.
Throwing yourself into your work can be cathartic, a way to release tension. What else motivates you to continue this tough work?
I think there’s a huge misconception that activism is undertaken solely for the enjoyment of fighting for what you love. So much of what I do has been fueled by fear and anxiety. Activism is laborious and sometimes feels like an uphill battle. But over the years I’ve realized that if I don’t raise my voice, nobody else will.
Also another thing I’ve noticed is that so much of the climate movement is pioneered by young women and members of the LGBTQ community. And I think it’s in part because our existence is an act of rebellion against the norms. It almost feels like you’re automatically an activist due to your existence.
What’s next for you? What is the first thing you see yourself doing when quarantine ends and a (somewhat) normal world resumes?
Sail For Climate Action will continue as a rebranded organization and we’re hoping to work with a German organization to host a three week event in conjunction with the UN climate conference. I hope to continue working on this project and fostering my own presence online. I know activism is seen as a very voluntary thing carried out by young folks, but I hope to create content on a variety of social media outlets and be able to live off this work.
In the next few weeks I’ll be launching a podcast called Bad Activist which explores the trials and tribulations of trying to be a perfect activist in an imperfect world. More specifically it looks at how being perfect shouldn’t deter one from being an activist and how we can achieve more when we focus on what we can do, as opposed to what we can’t do.