When people think of their childhood, they often remember their time spent outside. For many of us, that looked like wading in creeks, playing outdoor games like tag and baseball, riding bikes and finding fireflies.
For Akilah Chatman, a Biodiversity, Earth and Environmental Science (BEES) graduate from Drexel University, every day was a new adventure: climbing waterfalls, jumping from cliffs, exploring rainforests, befriending frogs and lizards, inspecting flora, gardening with their mother and so much more. Their grandparents’ beachfront restaurant offered ample time for Chatman to learn the ways of seaside life — catching fish, frying them — and between their two homes in Jamaica and Florida, they essentially grew up outside.
Now, as a Drexel alum and Fulbright Fellow, Chatman is about to begin their next journey — to create and uplift a new green space in Cambodia.
Opportunity Knocks Twice
Initially, Chatman didn’t plan to apply for the fellowship at all.
“I applied for a different fellowship, and I was a semifinalist, but then I didn’t get it. So I thought there was no way I was applying for Fulbright,” they laugh.
But Leah Gates, senior associate director of undergraduate research and enrichment programs, who was working with Chatman at the time, encouraged them to apply.
“One of the things Fulbright looks for is independence and adaptability, the ability to follow your own compass while dealing with the unexpected,” Gates says. “Akilah has made so many choices over the course of their education to create their own path and pursue what they wanted to learn in creative and impactful ways that build connection across their communities — and that is a big part of the ethos of Fulbright.”
What concerned Chatman most was how realistic it would be to find an organization in a country on the other side of the world that would agree to host and work with them. Shortly before the pandemic began in March of 2020, they were prepared to fly to Cambodia for an international co-op. However, a week before they were scheduled to depart, Drexel shut down and the co-op was cancelled.
“Akilah had told me how excited they were for co-op in Cambodia and how heartbroken they were when it was cancelled,” Gates says. The two started discussing the idea of working with the same organization on a Fulbright project.
The co-op would have situated Chatman in schools, planning and building gardens with native plants, designing basic lesson plans and helping with trash management. But with schools closed for at least a year, their original plan wasn’t an option. Chatman reached out to one of their contacts and learned of a new initiative: A non-profit called The Idea Consultants was working to rethink the National Olympic Stadium area in Phnom Penh as a green space to better serve the community there. With this perfect opportunity to get involved, Chatman began the process of drafting their Fulbright application.
“I read a lot of applications as an adviser, and I can count on one hand the times that I’ve read something in a draft that stopped me short, that was just immediately impactful and gripping,” Gates says.
She describes a paragraph from Chatman’s statement of grant purpose that focused on the genocide in Cambodia, and how that had systematically disconnected people from their land. Making it possible for people to rebuild those relationships is an essential component of restorative justice.
“It was so insightful and compelling, and it was the moment I really ‘got’ what their project was about, and how it brought together everything they were interested in,” Gates notes. “This project really is everything Fulbright is about — bringing people with different skills and experiences together to create something that benefits everyone.”
The Future of Environmental Education
When Chatman was in elementary school, they were deeply invested in science and even placed as the school representative for the Reduce, Reuse and Recycle initiative. However, aside from conversations around climate change, Chatman didn’t learn much about environmental justice in school.
“In general, my friends and I just spent a lot of time outside, so it wasn’t something we felt disconnected from,” they say.
Much of the research Chatman gravitates toward has a strong educational component to it, especially in not confining lessons to a classroom. They note that, particularly in urban areas, it’s critical to have spaces in which children can engage with native plants.
Chatman has been working remotely with Cambodia since they reconnected about Fulbright in September, and has assisted with putting together a project proposal, drafting community engagement surveys and brainstorming aspects of smart design for the park. They explain that the base of the park is expected to be composed primarily of plants native to the area.
“As part of the Olympic Stadium proposal, we’re working with the ministry of education, so that the new green space serves as a place where children and classes can go outside and learn about the natural landscape of Cambodia,” Chatman says. “To have the support of the ministry of education in that is really exciting.”
The in-person aspect of the Fulbright fellowship will begin in September 2022 and extend until June 2023. Chatman hopes to travel across Cambodia to explore the many geographical regions — rice fields, elephant sanctuaries, mangrove forests — and investigate what people value in green space there.
“Being able to incorporate that research into any of the programs we would eventually have at the park would be really cool.”
Making Room for Diversity in the Field
It wasn’t until moving from Florida to Massachusetts for college that Chatman started to see the ways in which race affects their day-to-day life. Before that point, they’d grown up in the largest Jamaican population outside of Jamaica and had been surrounded by people from various Caribbean countries. Upon moving to Philadelphia and transferring to Drexel, they noticed that very few Black people pursued environmental science, and it became a mission of theirs to change that.
“The people that I have interacted with at Drexel have aways been very intentional about the space they take up, and they’ve made sure that they’re promoting me to do things that are valuable to me,” Chatman says of their time in the BEES department.
They became the student lead for the Inclusion, Nondiscrimination and Inequity Committee, and were successful in starting a mentorship program within BEES. As a mentor, Chatman focused on working with other Black students, taking them on hikes and hosting dinners.
“Akilah was a great student in BEES,” says David Velinsky, PhD, department head. “They were a leader for social and environmental change.”
Still, Chatman knows there’s more work to be done, and that cultivating access to outdoor spaces earlier in children’s lives could improve the future of the field. They recently led a research team on urban ecology, specifically diving into the relationship between minority children and access to parks. Philadelphia has the largest amount of green space out of any city in the U.S., yet it’s not necessarily accessible to everyone.
“We’re also one of the poorer cities, and it’s great that we have public transportation,” they say, “but because a lot of people don’t have cars, it’s not easy to get to places like Wissahickon or Fairmount.”
Chatman’s research group decided to approach this issue through the lens of schools, focusing not only on the personal, mental and visible benefits of green space, but also on what the academic benefits could be.“I started doing research into how being able to spend free time in nature as a child helps you eventually think about that as something that you can study and work in,” Chatman elaborates. “Therefore, the project became centered around matching schools with accessible green space and thinking about accessibility based on the different grade levels.”
Chatman plans to create a lesson plan and discussion guide to encourage students to think about environmental justice. They’ve also given several lectures at high schools and are even helping a group of students design and realize their own environmental justice project.
“In general, when I’m doing research, things that I always ask myself are: ‘How do you incorporate education?’ and ‘How do we make sure that it’s serving very specific communities?’”
In the future, Chatman hopes to work across the globe, but particularly in Jamaica. One of their friends there is starting a science summer camp at her primary school—something right up Chatman’s alley. In fact, one of the high schools they’re working with is considering ways to get involved with international work.
“I think the way I view the world and the changes I try to make are because I recognize that I’ve had such an incredibly privileged upbringing,” they smile. “Not only am I the child of an immigrant, but I come from a poor background and I’m Black — yet I’ve still done all these things, which, to me, I don’t think are that extraordinary. I’m just lucky to have people who believe in me. So, in my work, I try to shift that perspective to ‘How can other people have what I have had?’”
This article originally appeared on Drexel’s website, and was written by Liz Waldie, associate director of marketing and communications for Drexel University’s College of Arts and Sciences.