Meet 2010 Do Something Awards Finalist Robin Bryan

Growing up without electricity or running water in rural Canada, Robin spent the majority of his childhood in the forests of Manitoba. As the world's largest single land storehouse of carbon and most abundant source of fresh water, the boreal forest of the East Shore Wilderness Area of Manitoba is critical to protect. Robin led the way in a landmark campaign that effectively banned logging in the four of Manitoba’s five provincial parks, protecting one million acres of forest.

We caught up with Robin to ask him a few questions about his project that may win him $100K. What person or experience sticks with you from the beginning of the process?

Robin Bryan: The amazing people that contributed to my education from a young age will always resonate in my memory. From camp counselors to teachers to parents and parent’s friends, I honestly feel I owe a great deal to my elders who instilled the values I am grounded on as I work to defend our natural heritage and the people who call it home.

DS: How did you feel when you first learned of the problem you’re addressing?

RB: The first steps that I took toward positive inspired action were fueled by angst and driven by frustration. As I approached my young adulthood, like many youth, I began to look at the world around me and notice greed, natural beauty being senselessly demolished, people being oppressed, challenged and marginalized, slipping into cycles of abuse, addiction and depression. Like so many other youth that begin to awaken to the harsh realities facing humanity on this planet, I wasn’t happy about it, I was frustrated. I learned that forests were being demolished en masse along with the traditions of ancient ways of life in my home province and worldwide just so wealthy nations could enjoy cheap, disposable paper products. In my angst I looked for someone to blame and settled on consumer complacency, corporate greed and governmental incompetence. How else could the great lungs of the planet, the largest source of fresh water be demolished for such trivial gains?

DS: How do you feel about it now?

RB: I’ve matured in my world view toward these problems and now know that the issues I’m working on affect and involve all people of our society from young activists like myself to struggling logging communities to average citizens. I am truly privileged and blessed with the ability to speak out and build a livelihood around striving for a sustainable, healthy, transparent and equitable future for all Manitobans, the great forests we share and the entire planet that relies on this forest.

DS: Who is your inspiration to keep going?

RB: I’m not inspired necessarily by a single person, I’m inspired more by my belief in manifesting the dream of creating a network of interconnected protected areas surrounded by sustainable, community-driven economies in the East Shore Wilderness Area. Within this dream there are countless people who give me hope and inspiration, from our 70 000 supporters who give out of there pockets for us to do our work, to the First Nations elders working to protect their territory to the members and leaders of organization also working toward similar goals.

DS: Can you describe the moment you knew you were actually making a difference?

RB: That moment would have to be when the Manitoba Provincial Budget Speech of 2008 announced an end to the practice of clear-cut logging within the boundaries of our Provincial Parks and any provincial park created in the future. I had been working single-mindedly toward this outcome for five 5 years, since my mid-teens. I felt that if this were possible to accomplish by age 20, the sky is the limit for my young adulthood.

DS: What was the most difficult roadblock you faced when you tried to start your project?

RB: The most difficult roadblock has been maintaining my determination to work day in and day out for the sake of something outside and bigger than my self. Young people are surrounded by and encouraged to become a part of a culture of self–indulging and pursuit of material gain. Choosing to dedicate myself to this cause certainly never helped me pay the bills or contribute to any sort of material gain. Choosing this life is the hardest and best choice I ever made and remake on a daily basis. The other major roadblock is the apathy that pervades so much of Manitoba when it comes to making progress on environmental sustainability and social justice.

DS: What about when you were trying to grow your project?

RB: In trying to build a larger and stronger support base and encourage people to get active on protecting our province’s wild beauty, I find my biggest challenge is avoiding burnout. Doing this kind of work makes it hard to take space away from it and I find it very difficult sometimes to prevent my work from carrying on into my life’s other activities, like studying, socializing, eating, exercising and sleeping which I need to survive and thrive. I often have trouble falling asleep because I can’t stop strategizing, planning and emoting over the way forward to protecting this natural wonder and cultural haven that is the boreal forest.

DS: What’s been the biggest lesson throughout the process?

RB: The biggest lesson has been that working to create positive change and building healthier communities has to start with one’s own mental, physical and emotional health. If I want to make the biggest change and impact possible within my lifetime, I have to get better at building focus, mental clarity and balance into my life so that I can work through the apathy, frustration and personal burnout that can plague those who attempt a life of active citizenry.

DS: What has surprised you the most about the journey that has taken you here today?

RB: What surprised me most is that after almost eight years I’m still doing this, despite how much easier it would have been to focus more directly on my needs as a young adult, paying my own way through university, living expense and young life. There have been dozens of instances where I’ve tried to convince myself to use my talents toward something that would be more lucrative, less of a constant challenge, but my need to live by my ideals and seeing the amazing change that has already taken place due to my actions has always been able to trump these other considerations, despite the resulting lifestyle of near-poverty.

DS: What advice do you have for other kids who are having a tough time getting their ideas off the ground?

RB: Expect and accept the challenges that will arise. Be adaptable to the range of challenges that need to be overcome to reach your goals and always welcome criticism and new perspectives as potential sources of strengthening knowledge. Whatever you do, don’t accept those opinions that seek to derail your quest for positive change.

DS: If you could have done one thing differently based on what you know now, what would it be? Why?

RB: What I regret is not immediately taking time to assess those shortcomings and build a plan for avoiding those results in the future. To err is human, but to continue making the same assumptions leading to the same mistakes is avoidable and an important area to work on in improving the effectiveness of my work.

DS: What’s next for your project?

RB: My work is shifting toward creating opportunities for remote communities in the East Shore Wilderness Area. By building community gardens, trail-building and eco-tourism opportunities we can help these communities benefit from economic activities that are community-driven and compatible with their interest in conserving their forest home. This work will also help explore this area and appreciate one of the world last intact, true wilderness areas which will help build support for the area’s protection.