Following the 2021 award ceremony, Miho was willing to sit down with Estrella Risinger, AEOE's Executive Director, and expand on her background and teaching approach. We hope you will enjoy learning more of Miho's story and are inspired as we are!
Please tell us a little bit about your background and what brought you to this work. Your name is especially powerful. Would you be willing to share?
I was born and raised in an urban industrial area in Tokyo. As a curious and athletic city kid, I always loved being outdoors and finding nature in the concrete jungle. I remember discovering a family of rats living under the pavement on our street. I tied a piece of cheese with a string and sent the bait into a hole in the pavement. I waited and slowly pulled the cheese out of the hole. I saw nothing. I had to be more patient! I did it again and waited longer. Sure enough, this time I saw a mouth and whiskers following the cheese as I pulled it out! With excitement, I pulled the cheese too fast and the rat went back in. On my third try, I pulled the cheese out very slowly until I could see the body of the rat. My hypothesis was accepted. And I moved on to a bike ride without cleaning up. When I came back, the entire neighborhood was out. Apparently, the rat family came out to feast on the cheese that I left. I got in big trouble for that.
When I was in high school, I watched a BBC program called Yellowstone in Winter. The program showed a bison which was struggling to survive over the harsh environment. There was a woman park ranger next to the animal, explaining that her job is to witness the dying bison, not to rescue the animal because the park is there to protect the entire ecosystem that allows nature to do what it's supposed to do. I was so struck by that concept, thinking that someday I would work in a US national park teaching people about nature. I'm sharing this story because some of us environmental educators were furloughed or laid off from in-person teaching during this pandemic and had no choice but to adapt to delivering online lessons, potentially feeling less effective. But know that the media and online learning could be inspiring and a potentially life changing experience for students. It certainly was for me.
My dream to work as an environmental educator in a national park came true. And I think this vocation was determined when I was born. Japanese parents make a wish for their children and embed it in the characters of their child’s name. My parents named me Miho with the character 民 (“mi”), which means “people,” as the first part of my name. Inherent in this character is a reference to democracy where all people’s voices are heard and valued. The second character, 穂 (“ho”), means “rice,” the staple food of Japan. The year I was born, the Japanese government passed a law that discouraged Japanese farmers from producing rice in an effort to grow the market for imported produce. As proponents of local, sustainable agriculture, my parents fiercely opposed this law. They valued rice fields as a symbol of reciprocity with nature that has shaped Japanese way of life and our culture. By giving me this name, my parents hoped that I would become a protector of people, culture and environment. In addition, my birthdate is the day that the US Congress officially recognized it as Women’s Equality Day.
With my name and my birthdate, I was put on the path to seek ways of being and living that value what I call 5Es- Empathy, Equity, Environment, Education, and Empowerment. When I think about it, my career as an environmental educator and an advocate for increasing outdoor access and opportunities for all people, especially for women and Black, Indigenous, and People of Color embrace all of these 5Es. I love seeing you work with young people and the way you bring such case and compassion to your work, striving to meet them where they are at and provide an inclusive learning environment. Can you share about your teaching philosophy? (Maybe share your ABCs)
It's really important to meet my students where they are for a few reasons. First, it calls for a practice of a student-centered approach and as a result, I can better provide what they need to feel connected to themselves and to those around them, including nature. Second, it changes the power dynamic between teachers and students. We can exist in the dynamic of dual responsibility to meet our mutual goals to teach, learn, and grow together. I use what I call Miho's ABC, a simple & kinesthetic accountability practice, to hold ourselves accountable. "A" stands for Aim high, do your best, "B" stands for Being in the moment, "C" stands for Care. I introduce this at the beginning of my teaching and consistently use it as a way to assess where we are and how we want to be as a group. Third, it pushes me to seek understanding of people coming from all different social locations and experiences with a constant self-evaluation of my own assumption and bias. It requires empathy.
You talk a lot about representation and the importance of centering the perspectives of Black, Indigenous, and People of Color in this work. I absolutely agree. There is so much work we need to do as a field in building a more just and sustainable movement. Can you talk about the importance of directing resources not just towards hiring and recruitment, but towards developing an organizational culture where staff of color truly feel like they belong? I've been seeking the answers to the question and I will share what I think it's important to pay attention to.
Your question makes me think of this quote by Maya Angelou: "people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.” I remember how my co-workers and supervisors took their time on the job or off the clock to show curiosity and genuine interest in who I am and to learn my stories. They made me feel that I matter, that I am part of the community and that my voice counts. I felt seen and valued, and have a place in this community. I felt encouraged to bring something that makes this place better and I have people who have shared values and interests. These are a few examples of a sense of belonging. It's a feeling that is created in relation to one another. In order to create the sense of belonging, the individuals and organizations must value and invest the time, energy, and resources to cultivate the relationship with one another in various spaces. Affinity space is very critical for both white and staff of color. White affinity space can be used for learning/unlearning ways of being, knowing and thinking of white people (i.e. history, white supremacy culture, etc.) instead of talking about how to help people of color. I want white people to talk about whiteness, not about me, and interrogate themselves, realizing that we all need to be free to liberate all people.
In addition to being an educator, you are an activist, a filmmaker, a cyclist, a leader. What gives you hope and keeps you engaged in this work?
I am driven by purpose, not by hope. Hope is externally driven so you seek out and grasp on it. You can lose hope when the outcome is not what you expected. On the other hand, purpose is internally driven. No matter what the outcome is, you have a reason to pursue your purpose and you continue to work towards what you are destined for. For me, my purpose is written in my name - a creator of greater democracy and protector of people, culture, and environment - so all the various roles I play whether I am an educator or activist, are manifestations of how I meet my purpose for the greater good.
I learn this way of existing from nature. During the pandemic, I became obsessed with learning about honey bees, particularly Japanese honeybees. I learned that an average honey bee will make 1/12 of a teaspoon of honey before it dies. To me, it is so insignificant as an individual. But I don't think the individual bee contemplates whether their contribution is too small or worth it. Or they debate with each other whether they should keep doing what they are doing or not. They just get to work until their wings can no longer carry them. Yet as a collective, they make up to 100 pounds of honey. That is more than enough for their siblings they have not yet met to sustain the hive.
Learning about the honey bees assures me that I'm part of the collective movement that leads us to liberation for all beings. Knowing that my contribution has a place and meaning is good enough for me to keep going. Change takes time. The process is nonlinear. I need to relax. Pace myself. Smell the flowers. Climb the mountains. Collaborate. And...let's get to work!