Amy Vedder '73 and Bill Weber '72
Bill: First, I would like to thank President Smith, the Board, and the faculty for this remarkable honor. If there is anyone more surprised than me at this award, it would be those who knew me as a student at Swarthmore. And I use the word ‘student’ loosely. With a dual major in psychology and lacrosse, courses affectionately known as “Engineering for Idiots” and “Physics for Poets” helped get me through the science requirement; courses where I could write papers rather than take exams kept my grade-point out of the danger zone; and ultimately, my father lost his $100 bet with my brother that I would never finish college.
Read more in the Philadelphia Inquirer: "They fell in love at Swarthmore College, then went on to help save Rwanda’s mountain gorilla from extinction"
But I was a good student in many ways that Swarthmore favored and facilitated. The world of the late ‘60s, early ‘70s was a tangled mess of warfare, civil wrongs, and environmental degradation. And Swarthmore was a great place to try to comprehend the tangle and its interconnections as a whole, without always trying to break it down into - maybe - more understandable parts. A smorgasbord of social science, literature, and history classes made their contributions, some through readings but more through discussion, debate, and argument — in the best sense of the word. In the process, I gained confidence in what I knew — and awareness of what I didn’t know. Ultimately, Swarthmore’s underlying Quaker activist culture encouraged us to use that knowledge and those skills as we left the womb to take on some of the real world’s problems, failed models, and received wisdom.
Amy: I, too, would also like to thank those who nominated us, as well as the other awardees here today. Marianne and Karama have shown life-long dedication to social changes that impact us all, based on essential principles of equity and sustainability. Thank you so much!
As to our award – we are honored as a pair, which I know is unusual. We have worked in tandem, across individual differences (I worked hard at my science degree; there were labs to be completed, Bill); but most importantly across disciplinary lines: combining different ways of thinking, analyzing, seeing the world, and bringing skills to bear: me as an ecologist, Bill as a social scientist. It is this combination of our work that I consider key to any success we feel in conservation. And we deeply appreciate the honor as a two-some.
But back to Swarthmore. I came here as a small-town girl, and this naturally beautiful campus and thinking community offered me new ideas, new knowledge, new and unexpected companions in life and windows on a world that was BIG, complex, with still so much unknown. I studied biology – genetics, developmental, cellular: all but ecology (which wasn’t yet taught; it was a small school). I learned many scientific facts, but also that it was OK to ask questions, to test ideas, to not have answers, and to seek new ways of looking at life. I was encouraged to apply any knowledge gained: “go do something about it” was a refrain we heard from the College as we went on strike during the Vietnam war: Do something.
Bill: Post-Swarthmore, two years as Peace Corps teachers added novel contexts of environment, culture, and languages in what is now the Democratic Republic of Congo. Rural life was hard, wildlife a luxury. Time to travel exposed us to the iconic savanna parks of East Africa: centers of great biological wealth and diversity; wildlife spectacles unmatched on Earth. Yet these same parklands were often surrounded by areas of great human poverty.
The juxtaposition was jarring, raising issues of justice that needed to be addressed. It was also an opening for me as a social scientist to contribute to a conservation field for which, at that time, local communities received either negative or no attention. This was still the case in the late seventies, when Amy and I went to Rwanda to assess the critically endangered status of mountain gorillas in the Virunga volcanoes shared by Rwanda, Congo, and Uganda. While western media brought stunning images of gorillas into people’s homes, a colonial era approach to conservation that saw local people as the enemy and armed guards as the solution was not working. Half of the volcanoes park had been cleared and 40% of the gorilla population lost in the 20 years before our arrival.
Amy: Five years after graduation from Swarthmore, I was sitting in the midst of a family of mountain gorillas. My aim was to study the food and habitat needs of the population. Forest clearing and poaching had reduced their number to barely 260 individuals, leading many to proclaim that their extinction was inevitable. 2,000 hours of direct observation later, I had solid evidence that sufficient habitat remained to sustain and restore their population. What they needed was protection.
Gorilla field work challenged me in many ways: climbing mountains at high altitude, in the cold, wet, and mud; tracking alone day after day; staying focused as gorillas chowed down massive amounts of food. What struck me was that the experience was far more than the science alone. I often sat a few feet from wild, free, powerful creatures that allowed me into their world; who treated me as kin; in whose eyes I saw curiosity and concern, awareness and attention – so much like my own. There is nothing in nature like gazing into the eyes of a gorilla. I saw youngsters wrestle and play tag (and was invited to join from time to time), maternal and paternal care of infants, a full range of personalities revealed. It is a realm of existence so rarely experienced by others, and I felt tremendously privileged as a result. Gorillas opened my eyes - my heart - to ever deeper recognition of the wonders of life on this earth.
My science was essential in providing hope, but Bill’s work was transformational. He surveyed people from top levels of government to those who farmed small plots of land alongside the park. He found that local people were not the enemy, but in fact were favorable to protection of gorillas. At the same time, though, they saw no direct value from the park or its charismatic creatures; and they needed jobs, income, and productive farms. How could conservation be done with, for, and by these people?
Bill: Drawing on Amy’s research and my surveys of local needs, we worked with government officials to start an ecotourism program of controlled visits to gorillas: one hour, once a day, for no more than eight visitors, accompanied by a professional Rwandan guide. It worked. Gorilla tourism today brings in $25 million in direct visitor fees each year - 10% shared with local communities. Thousands of new jobs have been created. An estimated $250 million of gorilla-related revenue is further generated each year at the scale of the regional and national economies: funds which have contributed greatly to rebuilding Rwanda in the wake of its horrific 1994 genocide. And conservation is proudly led by Rwandans from national to local levels. As for the gorillas, their population has more than doubled to nearly 700. And still climbing.
After nearly a decade in the field, we returned to the States with our two young sons and moved into senior leadership positions in conservation non-profits focused on African, North American, and ultimately global issues. We brought our experience from Rwanda to those positions, not as a model in and of itself, but as an approach: to listen, learn, collaborate, and especially to bring local people into the conservation equation. To open the windows to new ideas; and to open the doors at these organizations — long bastions of white male exclusivity — to more diverse colleagues: women, African nationals, and Native Americans.
Amy: I’m often asked what it was like to be a woman in the field, or in leadership positions. In our early work, gender stereotypes meant that people assumed Bill was the ecologist, I was the social scientist. When Bill was hospitalized after misbehaving with a silverback gorilla, I stepped in without a second thought – to many peoples’ surprise. Later in senior staff meetings, I was frequently the only woman in the room. There certainly were aspects of discrimination, but I mostly got a kick out of it; I was there, I could speak, I could act! And I could hire more women. This is my story, and opportunities did arise for me. But each pathway to counter underrepresentation – to have a role and a voice – is individual. Gender discrimination remains, but great strides have been made (including conservation being more and more populated and led by women). But the pathway to change is far less clear for those of other races, other nationalities, other cultures, and rural, marginalized people across this globe. There is much left to do.
In the midst of the opportunities, I have to admit that I found myself shielding a portion of what drives me, what is me – my passion for the existence of the many, diverse forms of life on this earth. As a scientist – but particularly a woman scientist – I felt that letting my sense of the wonder, the awe, of these other beings be more visible might reduce my “credibility” and thereby close some ears to what I had to say and contribute. It took me decades to let that out - to let my humanity be visible as I work. Don’t wait so long! I encourage you to bring whoever you are to whatever you do. The world is changing, and you will help change it.
Bill: Amy and I have served in several positions of conservation leadership. Someday many of you will be in comparable positions of privilege within your chosen fields. We encourage you to be mindful of that privilege and its origins; but also to put it to good use. You will be in positions to break down barriers to greater participation, to bring in new ideas and people.
Privilege is one of several key issues confronted by our graduate students at the Yale School of the Environment, where we teach today. Another is complexity: the intricately interrelated challenges of biodiversity loss, environmental injustice, economic inequality, and the existential threat of climate change. They – and you -- face a far more tangled mess than that which we confronted on leaving Swarthmore and a dark cloud over personal and professional futures. The prospect for some is paralysis. But there is one source of light in this: great complexity brings endless possibilities for action. For us, we added some social science and applied ecology to the conservation equation. Today, many disciplines and career outlets — biological, social, technological, legal, arts and media of all forms, and the still-too-tentative greening of the business and financial worlds — offer entries to action and impact. You came here with much to offer; Swarthmore has certainly added new experiences and skills. Pick a field, follow your passion, engage. And do so with an active openness to other perspectives, unusual collaborations, and lasting partnerships.