With a completely different career on an opposite coast, no previous experience or connections, and two young children in tow, entrepreneur Hema Persad knew the significant risks in moving her family halfway across the United States — from Florida to Los Angeles — to pursue new passions that would motivate and reward her. She did it anyway, forgoing comfort and stability, to mold a work/life balance on her own terms. In the city of dreams, Persad’s self-taught career in fashion expedited her business ownership and launched her into collaborations she never envisioned.
Born to Indo-Guyanese parents in Toronto, Persad immigrated to Florida at the age of 12, after her parents’ divorce, to live with her siblings and mother. A strong work ethic was ingrained in her from an early age.
“Having parents who immigrated to Canada, in the ’70s, to attend university is probably where I get my work ethic from. They were both really focused on education and independence, so that was always a big priority in our household. My maternal grandmother was also entrepreneurial — her husband died and she was left to raise 12 kids so she ran multiple businesses (a grocery store, renting properties out to tenants, etc.) to make ends meet. After my parents divorced, my mom as a single mom reinforced this idea of independence and education in me and my sisters. She made a few career pivots herself so the example has always been there for me. There’s definitely been this underlying message that I had to be educated and work hard so that I wouldn’t have to rely on anyone else to provide for me.”
Persad eventually became a lawyer and settled in Florida with her husband and daughters, but found herself unfulfilled professionally. In conversation with Brown Girl Magazine, Persad speaks on developing creativity and being forced out of her comfort zone.
You were an established attorney. Why did you leave your career, family and friends to move to Los Angeles and pursue a new passion?
At first I liked being a lawyer, but over time I became burnt out and unhappy. There was no one at my firm whose career or lifestyle I felt inspired by. Everyone was just miserable or worked all the time. I started to think about other things I wanted to do and fashion was definitely at the forefront. I did some research and decided to give styling a try. We sold our house in Florida and moved to LA so I could pursue it and it all moved pretty quickly after that.
What was your family’s response to you seeking a career not often sought by Indo-Caribbean children of immigrants?
They definitely thought I was crazy. I had a stable career and was making good money so it didn’t make sense to a lot of people. No one really knows what people who work in fashion do, unless you are also part of that industry. But since we do have a lot of entrepreneurs in my family, I think they ultimately figured I was a smart person so I would make it work.
Crediting her husband’s partnership as crucial to her new endeavor, Persad believes that her roles as a wife and mother were actually strengthened by a change in career that re-energized her.
What were the reactions of your husband and daughters? How did you persevere as a family unit during this new chapter of your lives?
My husband was and continues to be my number one supporter. He just wanted me to be happy and even now supports me in my interior design business. My girls were really young so they had no idea what was going on. I’m glad they don’t remember me as a lawyer — I was not the mom I am today.
When I was an attorney, I found it really hard to disconnect from all the negativity at work. I represented banks and lenders during the great recession of 2008, so I felt like I was just ruining people’s lives all day. When I came home to my kids, that stress and unhappiness was always in the background, and sometimes I found it hard to connect with them. Now that I’m doing the work I enjoy, with a purpose that feels good to me, I’m a happier and more connected mom. I can also nurture my kids to do the same — what feels good for them, not what looks good for society.
It takes courage to intentionally step away from one’s comfort zone, despite the ambiguity of the outcome. Persad knew greater possibilities were available and did not allow a lack of formal training or networks to prevent her from embarking on her goals.
You also have no prior experience in the entertainment and fashion industries. How did you break into the design industry?
I made a very bare-bones resume saying I had a law degree and a car, and I was willing to intern with any celebrity stylist who needed help on their team. I sent that out to all the styling agencies here so they could share it with their roster of stylists and pretty quickly started getting called to intern on jobs. Stylists are always looking for good help because it’s very hard to find — it’s a hard job and not a lot of people want to do it once they see what it takes.
While interning, I was still working remotely for my firm on the east coast so I would do all my work in the morning and then intern the rest of the time, whenever I could. Initially I worked for free but the styling business is really small so I kept getting jobs by word of mouth because I worked hard and was really professional. That eventually led to paid assistant jobs which I did for a few years before starting to take on my own clients. I always thought of it as a paid education in styling and I think anyone who wants to break into styling should learn from other people first through interning/assisting.
Opportunities snowballed after Persad’s internships and assistantships. Now, she counts several celebrities as her former styling clients, including the Kardashians, Kristen Stewart, Kate Hudson, Madonna, Neil Patrick Harris, Daniel Radcliffe and many more. She has worked on magazine shoots assisting Edward Enniful for British Vogue and W Magazine, as well as ad campaigns with Jane Fonda and Maggie Gyllenhaal.
Oftentimes, initial goals shift and different thought processes arise. While styling proved successful, Persad realized that she ultimately needed something else. Again, she followed her instincts knowing that she did not want to settle for stagnancy, even if unsure of her next step.
Pinpoint a fundamental moment when styling that set you on your current path.
I think a big moment was helping style Andy Samberg to co-host the 2019 Golden Globe Awards with Sandra Oh. The whole thing — pre-show rehearsals, all the publicity shoots, backstage during the live broadcast, etc.
It was an exciting job, probably one of the biggest I’ve gotten to work on, but it also helped me realize that styling was not going to be my long-term goal. It felt like I was at the height of what people dream of doing as stylists and I still wasn’t 100% fulfilled. It was actually after the Globes that I started thinking about another career pivot. I didn’t plan for interior design — it never crossed my mind and I actually thought about going back into law. I guess the universe had other plans, a year later.
How did you begin interior designing?
My client Deepica Mutyala asked me to help design her new apartment. We had her place professionally photographed and once those pictures got around, more people, including some of my other clients, started asking for help with their homes. It got to the point where I couldn’t do both — styling and interiors — anymore. I was honestly burned out from styling anyway — it’s a really tough industry with little growth potential for me — so I chose to focus on interiors.
One unplanned moment skyrocketed Persad into a full-time business, Sagrada Studio, fueling her to capitalize on her entrepreneurial spirit.
What was the inspiration behind Sagrada Studio? What services does it offer, and what can clients expect when booking you?
The word ‘sagrada’ means ‘sacred’ in Spanish and to me the places we live in, work in, and generally spend time making memories in, are the most sacred spaces in the world. They deserve love and intention in terms of design. I picked a word in another language because all of our designs have an element of something global or international in them. I really think that ‘timeless’ means something different depending on what part of the world you’re in. When clients book us they can expect professionalism and a very well-oiled machine. They can also expect collaboration and open communication. I’m just trying to help them bring something to life that’s even better than what they imagined.
Summarize your process as you design a space. In your opinion, what successfully brings a room together?
I always start by asking clients how they want to feel in their new space. Rooms are about a feeling more than anything else – how do you feel when you walk in? After that we do moodboards and settle on a few reference images. Then we get into specifics and sourcing — we are a full-service firm, so we do everything from CAD floor plans to renderings to construction management, orders, logistics and more. Ultimately what brings a space together is good use of light and space (it has to function above all) and an overall feeling of warmth and cohesiveness. Everything we do is intentionally placed, right down to the last coaster.
Describing her style as “warm, natural, and eclectic,” Persad’s flexibility and openness, combined with her global influence to designing sacred spaces, often leads her to partner with other diverse businesses.
Persad also designed the studio space for the modern bridal wear brand KYNAH.
How was your experience working with KYNAH, another South Asian brand as an Indo-Caribbean woman?
I’ve worked with many South Asian clients and brands and it’s always nice because there’s a level of explaining that we just DON’T have to do. For example, I already knew that lehengas are heavy and take up space so the racks needed to be sturdy and spaced farther apart than they would in a regular boutique.
Colorful lehengas against neutral walls, natural elements and custom racks, Persad transformed a previous smog shop into an inviting, bohemian Indian bridal boutique.
South Asian and Caribbean heritage is rich with design in their textiles, art and fashion. How does your background impact your eye when styling, and what influences can be seen in your own home?
I use diyas and lotas as shelf decor. I have a pink/terracotta sofa that’s very Jaipur, and my walls are limewashed to look like places I’ve visited in India and the Caribbean. I love to travel and I love color, so every design I put out has an international or historical influence, even if it’s subtle.
In celebration of Diwali, Persad utilized traditional brass against vibrant floral centerpieces.
Persad is ready to show the world her work on a global stage, recently taking an Art Director/Lead Designer role on the show “Forever Home,” associated with the Property Brothers.
Tell us how you landed the opportunity with Property Brothers and what you will be doing. How does it feel to be presented with such a significant position?
I thought it would be really cool to work on a TV show because of my background in fashion and working on so many shows and campaigns. I sent my portfolio in on their casting page, interviewed on Zoom with the production team, and a few days later I was hired. I work to design the homes for our homeowners on my episodes. I don’t think I’ve stopped to think because I dove right in and really have not stopped. Our timelines are really short and it’s so much work — there hasn’t really been time to take it all in.
Self-doubt and fear still permeate Persad’s whirlwind of a journey, but she continues to push through it, focus on her work and internalize the belief that her gifts are meant to be shared, not hidden. Parenting and family also keep her grounded in her ever-changing and fast-paced career. With a little faith, self-efficacy, and perseverance, she believes that anyone has the capacity to receive payoffs from the risks they take toward a more fulfilled life.
What do you want people to take away from your story? What’s your advice to others pursuing their passion?
If I can do it, anyone can. You just need to have a plan and start somewhere. You can’t control what opportunities come your way but you can be prepared and you can force yourself to say yes, even if it scares you.
Through grit and determination, Persad has obtained personal and professional successes by grabbing opportunities in spite of the fear of the unknown. Leaving a comfort zone can be scary, but sometimes all it takes is one unexpected opportunity to advance a person’s true potential.
Haider wades his way through Karachi’s expansive beach, climbing and tumbling over rocks, in Mumtaz’s memory. The vast landscape is perfectly encapsulated in the 4:3 aspect ratio — an unconventional yet welcoming choice. He vanishes into the sea, leaving his storyline open-ended. The screen fades to black. The film comes to a close. The gentle humming and lapping of the waves disappear. However, I stay put. Stumped, and unable to comprehend the masterpiece that Saim Sadiq, director of “Joyland”, has blessed Pakistanis with.
“It’s so important to narrate these stories in today’s world, where we’re often divided and seldom united,” says producer Apoorva Charan during an exclusive chat with Brown Girl Magazine.
It’s her feature film debut as a producer, and she’s justifiably beaming with pride.
Joyland is such a win for South Asia, but particularly, Pakistani storytelling. Every person I met, I felt like there was some characteristic or quirk about them that mirrored our characters in the film.
Set in the depths of androon Lahore, “Joyland” primarily revolves around Haider (Ali Junejo) — a meek, unemployed house husband in a borderline, passionless marriage. He’s happily helping Saleem bhai (Sohail Sameer) and Nucci bhabi (Sarwat Gilani) raise three kids, while the fourth one breaks Nucci’s water in the opening scene. Another girl is born, despite the ultrasound’s previous declaration of a baby boy.
“If I were to receive an award based on my character in “Joyland”, it’d definitely be for “best at single-handedly increasing the population of Pakistan,” says Gillani, as we howl with laughter during our spoiler-riddled chat with the cast of the film. “I think that, combined with the ‘coolest bhabi’ — those two will have my name on them.”
But Nucci’s wasn’t just a bhabi who pumped out a new baby every year. Sarwat’s character was given some level of agency — a woman who reminisced about a career in interior design before marriage and kids while smoking a cigarette in secrecy.
I think my philanthropic work plays a part in how I started saying no to bechari roles. How can I be a role model to these women I’m trying to help, while playing the same characters? The change came about with “Churails” and I vehemently stuck to it. My characters need to have a voice; a backbone.
On the other hand, Haider’s wife, Mumtaz (Rasti Farooq), works as a beautician at the local salon, busy dolling up brides in Lahore’s unpredictable load-shedding.
Both Haider and Mumtaz seem to have a relatively stable marriage based equally on societal expectations and gender-flipped roles. While Haider stays home, helps in the kitchen, and attempts at searching for a traditional job, Mumtaz carves autonomy and independence for herself. This is in spite of an oppressive family life characterised and dictated by Haider’s overly conservative, traditionalist father and patriarch, Rana (Salmaan Peerzada), who wishes for the couple to procreate a cricket team of just boys.
But Rana, known as Abba Jee, is also layered with his own 50 shades of grey, struggling with loneliness and a lack of intimacy, mirrored in his relationship with next-door neighbour Fayyaz (Sania Saeed). His emotional desires are symbolised by his physical impediments — the former handicapped with “what will people say”, and the latter with a wheelchair. The rules that he has for his children are the same that his children have for him, bound by tradition, norms, and society. They are not allowed to stray from what is considered “normal”.
The film’s women are strong which is pretty much a reflection of the women in Sadiq’s life. While Abba Jee shuns the love and companionship that Fayyaz offers, she stands her ground until firmly asked to leave. The complexity of each person’s emotions versus expectations is what makes “Joyland” relatable on a human level.
Alternatively, Mumtaz’s relationship with Haider is based on convenience and habit, where two people share the same bed but sleep facing away (partially because one of Saleem and Nucci’s young daughters crashes with them every night, illustrating the confined space both Haider and Mumtaz are allowed to be themselves in). The dynamics of their marriage drastically evolve once Haider’s eye catches Biba (Alina Khan), covered in blood as she walks numbingly into the hospital where Nucci gave birth. The introductory scene mirrored the brutal reality of violence inflicted upon Pakistan’s trans community; one of “Joyland’s” most haunting moments.
Mumtaz is asked to quit her job once Haider lands a gig as a “theatre manager” — a cover-up for his job as a background dancer at the nightclub Biba coincidentally performs at. The film portrays the traditional Pakistani marital social dynamic; men must work, and women must housekeep. Even when some level of independence is allowed to a married woman, she must forego her right to a career later in life. Understandably, it leaves Mumtaz devastated.
“It’s so strange how that’s just an acceptable act in our society,” Farooq chimes in, voicing Mumtaz’s thoughts. “Even if a woman is good at a 100 things, ultimately, she’s expected to quit her job to be a homemaker because that’s ‘her job’.”
With time, Haider falls into a routine and rhythm of working at the theatre and spending more time with Biba, allowing him an insight into the widespread transphobia she’s regularly faced with. Biba confides her innermost desire to be what she termed as “a complete woman” in order to land the same dancing opportunities as her counterparts.
Haider’s daring closeness to Biba leaves Mumtaz — who at this point is reliant on him as a best friend more than the physical intimacy he fitfully provides her — alone, isolated, and depressed. For Haider, it is liberating to leave problems at home and escape into a secret world centred around his deepest desires. He doesn’t want to be a bad person. He doesn’t wish to hurt or leave his wife. But his happiness now seemingly lies in dancing and exchanging stolen kisses with Biba. Farooq agrees:
I think Mumtaz and Haider were best friends at this point. They had an unspoken love for each other, which stemmed from the sanctity of their relationship. They might not be in love but they did love each other. In the eyes of our society and otherwise, they were married, but they’d drifted so far apart. There was love but it wasn’t possible to return from how distant they were.
This point of no return brings Haider to a crossroads — one where he is torn between his loyalty to Mumtaz and his love for Biba. Ultimately and ironically, in a particularly passionate moment, it is his curiosity pertaining to Biba’s sexuality that drives her to throw him out of her life. Defeated and guilt-ridden, he comes face-to-face with a pregnant and non-confrontational Mumtaz, who, by now, is aware of what Haider has been up to but doesn’t have the mental capacity to verbally digest his infidelity alongside a child she doesn’t want.
Her apprehensions about bearing and raising children are indicated throughout the early days of her pregnancy. The clutching of her stomach, the tightening of the rollercoaster belt during a visit to Joyland park, and her unease during the ultrasound are just a few examples of Mumtaz’s angst.
Abba Jee’s 70th birthday was the straw that broke the camel’s back. Mumtaz, surrounded by family and friends and feeling emptier than ever, takes her own life. A tragic full circle where one life ends as the other begins. Her suicide is harbingered by Rana’s birthday speech as he recalls a palmist once saying his bloodline would end with Haider.
“Joyland” is replete with polarity. There is a seamless hand-in-hand flow of happiness and devastation, longing and antipathy, birth and death. Pakistani society’s struggles with misogynistic gender roles are depicted in the most gentle, sensitive, and nuanced ways. The struggle is also ironic, considering Pakistan has one of the most progressive transgender legislations in the world. Trans people have the right to self-identify their gender in Pakistan – a right still denied to the trans community in many progressive countries, such as the UK.
A deeply reflective film with memorable and emotional characters doing justice to their performances. It’s currently running in cinemas here in the UK, and we highly recommend watching this poignant piece of art.
It is the strength of both British and South Asian cinema that every few years, and with increasing regularity, a film comes along that is able to successfully and thoughtfully bridge the highs and lows of both cultures. With the recognisable cross-cultural DNA of films like “Bend it Like Beckham”, “Bride and Prejudice”and others before it, Shekhar Kapur brings to the silver screen an honest and comedic representation of East meets West with “What’s Love Got To Do With It” — an exploration of love and marriage across international norms.
Written and produced by Jemima Khan, the film draws from elements of her own experience of marrying then-Pakistani cricket star and now ex-Prime Minister, Imran Khan, and relocating to the country for 10 years.
“Particularly in the West, Pakistanis would quite often be seen as terrorists, fanatics and backwards,” says Khan, as she reminisces about her time spent in Pakistan over Zoom. “My experience of living in Pakistan was very colourful, vibrant, and fun. I always felt like the rom-com side of Pakistan was more surprising than anything else.”
A film not just about the heart, but with a lot of heart of its own, “What’s Love Got To Do With It” touches on South Asian families, culture, individuality, and marriages in the 21st century. Set in the UK and Pakistan, this is a feel-good and fun story about childhood best friends and neighbours, Zoe and Kazim, AKA Kaz. And as the narrative unfolds, new light is shone on their friendship and questions are asked about the cultural norms and practices we have grown to accept.
It isn’t your usual ‘boy-meets-girl’ tale. On the contrary, they’ve known each other forever; the fabric of their lives intertwined. Kaz is a British-Pakistani doctor of “marriageable” age, opting for an “assisted” marriage set in motion by his own desire rather than parental duress.
“I think we’ve replaced the term “arranged” with “assisted” because South Asian parents now trust their kids more to make the right decision for themselves,” said Shahzad Latif, sitting next to Lily James, who nods in agreement. “It’s still a process. Some parents may have more confidence in their kids than others, but we’re getting there.”
Zoe – played by Lily James – is a professional documentary maker living on an inexplicably fancy houseboat (bit of a stretch for somebody having difficulty funding projects, but, at this point, a crucial ingredient for London rom-coms). As a white British woman, her method of finding love isn’t one that involves parents or family.
“It was a no-brainer for me to be part of the script,” says a smiling James in response to whether any culture shocks were encountered during filming and table reads. “Pakistani culture is so rich and colourful, and it was important for me to showcase this side of the country. So no, no culture shocks per se, just more singing and dancing in comparison to British culture!”
Zoe’s camera is the vehicle through which the film examines Kaz’s “contractual love”, as she trawls dating apps while following her best friend down the assisted aisle.
Emma Thompson’s Cath plays the comedic matriarch to Zoe, eager to witness the conclusion of her daughter’s swiping days by being with someone suitable. She’s found a family in Shabana Azmi’s Aisha Khan – a more layered mum — one that is embracing both tradition and modernity. It would be fair to say that Azmi successfully sells cinema-goers on the difficulty of that struggle.
“Today’s society is slowly coming to terms with providing children the space they rightfully require and deserve to make decisions,” says Azmi, reflecting on how scripts and films have evolved over time. “Gone are the days when parents would blackmail their children into marrying the first person they come across. Just because they are their kids doesn’t mean they are actually children. They are adults with views and minds of their own.”
Kaz is then introduced to Maimoona (Sajal Aly); a shy introvert from Pakistan, unsure about the idea of moving permanently to London. She’s dealing with internal battles of her own; battles between personal desires and societal expectations.
“Maimoona may not have verbally said much, but her face said everything,” explains Aly, looking beautiful and radiant as ever. “She is torn between what she wants and what society silently shoves down at her and eventually, she goes with what the latter expects.”
The film navigates between London and a fabricated Lahore filmed in the suburbs of the British capital; a feat that comes as testament to the film’s production design. Kaz and Zoe’s jaunts across Lahore, backdropped by its magnificent architecture, set the stage for Pakistani music legends to shine, including the mesmerising voice of Rahet Fateh Ali Khan.
And if this wasn’t enough, Nitin Sawhney and Naughty Boy add further melody to the film’s music, as they talk about their experience of creating appropriate tunes such as the foot-thumping “Mahi Sona”.
“It was a great process and experience to create an appropriate language and expression of music which added elements and flavours to the film,” says the duo enthusiastically. “It’s also an ode to our South Asian heritage.”
Even though the tone of “What’s Love Got To Do With It” is distinctly feel-good, the film thoughtfully explores the unconventional ways that relationships may be built, and what multiculturalism can teach one another. Is it, in fact, more sensible to be practical about relationships? Is it possible to learn to love the person we’re with? Is love really the only ingredient needed for a successful marriage? Why was Kaz’s sister shunned for marrying outside of their culture? And do Western relationships draw more on the ideas of assisted partnerships than we realise?
A clever reference is drawn from the moment Prince Charles shattered many royal dreamers’ hearts with his dismissive “whatever in love means” comment upon his engagement to Princess Diana, thus proving that these notions may be closer to home in the West than one might believe.
James and Latif are a charismatic pair, with Zoe married to her independence and Kaz gently questioning her prejudices. The film is also a vivid demonstration of British talent, with Asim Chaudhry playing a hilarious yet questionable rishta uncle, comic duo Ben Ashenden and Alex Owen appearing as a pair of TV commissioners with a briefcase of ridiculous ideas, and Nikkita Chadha as the confrontational Baby — the film’s feisty rebel, in love with dancing.
“It’s incredible to be part of such a diverse and stellar cast,” smiles Chadha animatedly, while sipping on tea at Soho House in London. “My character is defiant and nonconformist — perfectly conflicting with the name “Baby “. I’m really excited for everyone to watch the film.”
Divorce is still stigmatised in South Asia — a theme often carefully avoided in desi films and television. Khan gently addresses it as a twist in the film – with a reminder that be it love or assisted marriage — amicable and mutual separations are a possibility.
As a complete package, “What’s Love Got To Do With It” deftly wraps up all the emotions associated with love and family in its joyful, musical, and vibrant 109-minute runtime. With its cast, music and direction, this classic rom-com is set to make you laugh, cry and, even more importantly, make you think about the multi-dimensional nature of love within and across cultures. The film is now showing in cinemas worldwide, and we highly recommend it.
Desk bound by day and travel bound all other times – Queenie thrives on her weekly dose of biryani and chilli paneer. She recently released her first book called The Poor Londoner, which talks about comical expat experiences people face worldwide. With degrees in Journalism and Creative Writing, her work and research on gender inequality in the travel industry is taught in universities across the globe. Her travels and everyday fails can be found on Instagram (@thepoorlondoner) and YouTube (The Poor Londoner).
Originally from Karachi, Pakistan and now blended into the hustle-bustle of London, Marium is a trainee technology consultant, by day and sometime also night, and also finishing her bachelors in Digital Innovation. In the midst of striving to be someone, she enjoys dreaming about the impossible (impossible according to desi standards and sometime Harry Potter impossible as well), and writing about them. She enjoys baking, decorating things and a cup of chai!
Emily Harwitz is a journalist, photographer, and podcaster whose work focuses on making the outdoors a more inclusive place. Coming from a background in chemistry and ecology, Harwitz uses her knowledge to tell stories about the environment. She has written for many publications including High Country News, Hakai Magazine, Mongabay, Chemical & Engineering News, and more. Harwitz is an ambassador for Girls Who Click which is a nonprofit that empowers women to forge their paths in conservation photography. Her creativity does not stop there as Harwitz is also the host and producer of the Save the Redwoods League podcast: “I’ll Go If You Go.” Harwitz has explored a range of topics such as forest bathing, skateboarding, and building an inclusive community in the outdoors. Her stories do not stop there as Harwitz is always on the move looking for her next story. Continue reading to learn more about Emily Harwitz’s journey.
The term inclusion when it comes to the environment and outdoors does not always go together. How can we make the outdoors a more inclusive place?
The outdoors is inherently inclusive because, the moment you step outside, you’re outdoors, regardless of who you think you are. What needs to change is how we think about who is and isn’t “natural,” or what’s a “natural” way to behave. The natural way to be is however you are.
How have your personal experiences in nature affected the way you look at the rest of the world?
When I’m in nature, I feel the smallness of my being in the context of the bigness of the natural world. But the amazing thing is, when I slow down to look around, smell the air, touch the dirt, I feel like I’m a part of that nature, too. It’s really comforting to feel connected to something so vast outside myself. I no longer think it’s hoaky to say that appreciating nature’s beauty is spiritual for me. It just feels so good to look at water sparkling in the sun, or a dusting of purple and yellow flowers in a gently waving field of grass. Watching how animals and other creatures seem to flow through their landscapes is also a spiritual experience. How perfect they seem! And wow, I’m an animal, too!
This brings up some important questions: In what context do I exist that effortlessly? How can I foster that feeling for myself in my daily life? How can I foster that feeling for others? And how can I connect other people to that feeling of “I love being alive!”? That fuels so much of my work—wanting to share the feeling of what I experience in nature with others.
As you have covered many stories for various publications as a reporter, is there one that specifically calls out to you that you would like to expand upon?
I just wrote a story about biophobia, or the fear of nature, for Hakai Magazine and it got picked up by The Atlantic. I’m pretty stoked about that because this is a really important topic. The story’s about how certain aspects of modern life, like urbanization and the ensuing lack of daily nature experiences, are driving people to feel increasingly disconnected from nature. This not only impacts conservation, but also human health because nature provides so many benefits to physical and mental health. Here’s a good article introducing a growing body of research about the health benefits of nature immersion. Nature also provides the opportunity to feel connected to something bigger than ourselves, which I believe is an important thing to experience.
As someone who is in the field of environmentalism do you feel this influences you to follow a vegetarian or even vegan diet which is more supportive of animals from all walks of life?
Absolutely. Animals from all walks of life, I like that! I eat a pretty pescatarian diet and try to use Monterey Bay Aquarium’s Seafood Watch to look up the seafood I eat. I feel strongly about what I put in my body and where it comes from. Beyond the sustainability and health concerns of factory-farmed animals, I am deeply disturbed by the conditions animals are subjected to in factory farms. If you don’t know what I’m talking about, look it up. If you do know what I’m talking about and you’re still eating conventionally-raised factory-farmed animals, I’d urge you to take another look. We all exist in systems, though, and I know it can be hard for people to totally overhaul their diets—especially with things like ag-gag laws in the US blocking the spread of information about the conditions farm animals are raised in. It’s a privilege to even be able to consider where I’m getting my food from, considering the vast food deserts in the US and how inaccessible fresh produce is for many. So, my hope is for a growing collective consciousness about our food systems that eventually leads to regenerative agriculture that’s healthy for all of us on this planet.
Are there any brands we can support which push the message of inclusion?
How has Girls Who Click empowered you to get into the field of nature photography?
Girls Who Click connected me with an incredible filmmaking mentor, Dewi Marquis, who is also mixed Asian American. In addition to practical advice for film shoots, we’ve talked about work and life as women of color and the importance of listening to our own intuition during the creative process. Dewi’s involved with some great filmmaking organizations that I think the Brown Girl Magazine community would be interested in: Asian American Documentary Network, Brown Girls Doc Mafia, and Film Fatales.
As you have explored a range of topics on the Save The Redwoods League Podcast: “I’ll Go If You Go,” what are your plans for the newest season and how can we help support?
Thanks for this question! This new season is all about building community outdoors—hearing guests’ stories about how they started and grew their awesome community groups and organizations. My hope is that people can hear these stories and then go foster their own communities, wherever they are. All of our guests started with the desire to connect more with nature and others who can relate to their experiences as BIPOC and/or LGBTQ2S+ folks in the outdoors. If you identify with either or both of those categories, this podcast is for you! It’s by us, for us. The best way to support would be to listen, rate us 5 stars (if that’s how you feel), and share with friends. You can also follow the podcast on IG at @illgoifyougopodcast.
What is the Emily Harwitz starter kit for going camping or hiking?
I love this question! For hiking, aka a big walk outside, I always bring: a least one 32 oz. water bottle, a thermos of tea (oolong or green), a notebook or sketchbook, a pen or pencil. Sometimes I’ll bring a book that I don’t end up reading (how can I when there’s so much pretty nature to look at?), a tub of strawberries or other in-season fruit, my camera (currently shooting on a Sony alpha 6300 and a G200-600 lens). One of these days, I’m planning to bring my flute and a field recorder (Zoom H5). For going camping, I’d say: Make plans with a friend who already has lots of gear and likes to plan camping trips! Or there are lots of organizations that host camping trips you can sign up for. One day, I’ll go solo-backpacking, but I really enjoy camping with friends.
If you could go hiking with anyone in the world who would it be and why?
My Chinese grandpa who recently passed away. He loved nature, especially flowers, and I would love to go for a hike with to appreciate the beauty of nature together.
Who are your conservation heroes?
Personally: my grandmother who worked as lawyer to protect the environment in Florida, where I grew up. She introduced me to the whole world of conservation at an early age and I have so many joyful memories sifting through sargassum weed with her for tiny little shrimp and crabs, or looking for monarch caterpillars in the garden.
Thinking globally: Indigenous peoples around the world who steward and protect the lands they live on—including 80% of the world’s biodiversity. There’s growing recognition of this, and I hope to see more respect, protection, resources, and political action dedicated to Indigenous peoples who are doing this important work.
Do you feel that we will see a change and more representation in the outdoors?
Definitely! It’s already happening. Social media has actually been really beneficial in this regard because people can form their own communities online and share media and resources relevant to them. The outdoors industry is moving slower, but I’m seeing more initiatives to diversify marketing and such. The industry will have to adapt to include the people of the global majority if it wants to survive.
What do you see as the future for the outdoors?
Biodiverse (including humans!), inclusive, healthy, thriving, accessible experiences for adaptive skill levels. I am optimistic!
The sweet smell of petrichor, a cup of tea, and the redwoods. What more could you ask for?
True! Maybe an animal in the bushes nearby and a human friend to share it all with :)