Ashoka Fellow incorporates environmental sustainability into Chinese cultural traditions

Claudia Li, Bard Suen, and Kevin Huang (right).|by Simon Yee

Claudia Li, Bard Suen, and Kevin Huang (right) | by Simon Yee

Social activism at the local level and environmental sustainability on a global scale have a new visionary in Claudia Li.

Li, 27, is the most recent recipient of the Ashoka Fellowship and the co-founder and co-director of Hua Foundation. The Hua Foundation is a non-profit organization whose mission is to bring together cultural heritage and environmental sustainability. Ashoka is an organization that awards and recognizes social entrepreneurs who have unique and creative ideas and solutions to a social problem and the dedication to implement those ideas into the real world.

“Ashoka invests in you financially. They also surround you with high impact people that can elevate your work, consult, market, and find an audience,” says Li.

Nominated in 2011, Li described the selection process as being quite demanding with many applications and interviews in order to determine whether she fulfills Ashoka’s five criteria for potential candidates: a new idea, social impact, entrepreneurial quality, creativity, and ethical fibre. One of the questions posed to Li during that process that stood out to her was, “What makes you special? What are you doing that nobody else in the world is doing?”

Li’s response: “Engaging young ethnic Chinese people in Canada in a way that makes them feel empowered to be a part of the environmental conversation.”

Combining Chinese culture with Western sustainability
Li’s maternal grandmother was a formative influence on her environmental sensibilities.

“She always told me not to waste a grain of rice because that’s a drop of sweat from a farmer,” says Li.

Consequently, Li self-described herself as being a bit neurotic when it comes to waste. But she never thought about it in any systematic or holistic way until she went to university where she graduated with an honours bachelor degree with a focus on sustainability. In 2009, after viewing a documentary on shark hunting practices, she founded Shark Truth, a conservation program dedicated to promoting shark awareness and reducing shark consumption throughout the world. To date, that program has saved approximately 8,000 sharks.

Before starting Hua Foundation, Li worked at ForestEthics where she attended environmental conferences and youth rallies. One thing she noticed was that she was often the only person of colour there. Furthermore, when she brought home Western vegetarian organic food, her parents expressed dismay.

Li’s parents would ask, “Why aren’t we eating the food that makes us feel at home?”

Furthermore, Li thinks mainstream media portrays Chinese youth as environmental culprits, not environmental leaders which may lead youths to be ashamed to be proud of their culture. Li has felt this shame personally.

Current projects at Hua Foundation
To Li, the notion of being forced to choose between Western sustainability and Chinese culture is a false dichotomy, leading Li and her friend and colleague, Kevin Huang, 28, to start up the Hua Foundation. They are currently working on The Choi Project, an food literacy programme that educates Chinese youth on how to buy organic Chinese produce like bak choi. Bard Suen, 25, program officer at the foundation, is heading up the project and working on a seasonal produce guide.

“Claudia is energetic, vibrant, and a great speaker. She speaks from a place of personal experience and tells stories that make sense on a human level,” says Suen, who loves working with Li.

The team is working on intergenerational cooking workshops where elders prepare traditional dishes using organic ingredients. The team is also working on building relationships with local merchants and green grocers, such as helping them include English text on Chinese products in order to attract youth to their stores. All of these projects aim at educating Chinese Canadian youth who may not have experience with traditional Chinese cooking and buying Chinese products.

Reflecting on her Ashoka win and the work she does, if there’s one bit of advice Li would offer to future leaders and visionaries is to do something you love and try it, no matter how unique, unusual, or difficult it is.

“I can’t count the number of times I made mistakes doing this job, and if I gave up after every try, we wouldn’t be where we are today,” says Li.