When Severn Cullis-Suzuki ’02 attended the U.N. Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, at the early age of 12, she never expected to speak to all of the delegates or receive a standing ovation. But after her powerful six-minute speech, Cullis-Suzuki became a frequent invitee to U.N. conferences.
As a lecturer, author, recipient of the United Nations Environment Program’s Global 500 Award, Cullis-Suzuki has had a long history of environmental activism.
Although Severn said she was soft-spoken until the age of 11, she had little time to be nervous before her first U.N. speech. While leaving the conference in a taxi with her three other Vancouver schoolmates — all of whom had raised money to go to the conference — she got a call telling the group that another speaker had dropped out.
“I was scribbling a speech in the back of the taxi while the Brazilian taxi driver drove crazily,” Cullis-Suzuki remembered.
She ran back in, gave her speech to close the Plenary Session, and received a standing ovation.
Severn said she urged world leaders to match their actions with their words.
“I am only a child, yet I know that if all the money spent on war was spent on ending poverty and finding environmental answers, what a wonderful place this would be,” said Cullis-Suzuki, then 12 years old. “In school you teach us not to fight with others, to work things out, to respect others, to clean up our mess, not to hurt other creatures, to share, not be greedy. Then why do you go out and do the things you tell us not to do? You grown-ups say you love us, but I challenge you, please, to make your actions reflect your words.”
After the speech, a man approached her and praised her words as “the best speech at Rio.” Cullis-Suzuki’s dad later informed her that the man was then-Sen. Al Gore.
She said she traveled to developing countries and learned that privilege comes with responsibility.
“I spent a lot of time with our [nation’s indigenous people] on different reserves, and saw how people are connected to the Earth,” she said.
Cullis-Suzuki said she found the circumstances of her education contradictory — to live in a poor American city while attending an Ivy League school. It was challenging for her to live in New Haven because the lifestyle was so different from that of Canada. She said she is mindful of the contradiction and added that the Yale experience brought her insight.
During her freshman year at Yale, Cullis-Suzuki rowed in the bow for the crew team. Despite all of her worldly accomplishments, Severn said she was most proud of rowing for an entire year.
“[Coaches said] ‘You’d be a good rower if only you were taller’ or ‘you are doing so well for your size’,” she said.
Cullis-Suzuki majored in ecology and evolutionary biology and said her favorite class was “Arthropods,” taught by professor Marta Wells.
“It was a class about bugs,” she explained.
Professor Wells said Cullis-Suzuki was a great student who always had interesting questions in class. On an overnight trip to collect arthropods, Professor Wells said Severn was one of the best students at catching the “large, faster dragonflies” that she swore were museum quality. Wells said Severn gave the bugs to her father as a Christmas gift.
But life at Yale was not all hard work.ÊCullis-Suzuki said she found time one late night to get dragged to a “naked party.”
“I was walking home from the library one Friday night — like a good girl — and my screaming, slightly intoxicated friends forced me to accompany them,” she said. However, Cullis-Suzuki said the party was fun since she was with all her friends and was completely unexpected.ÊShe said it was the most “unsexual” party she has ever attended.
Cullis-Suzuki was a Sillimander and lived on campus her first two years.
“I always looked forward to a day when I knew I was going to see Sev,” Silliman College Master Judith Krauss said. “She was probably the most positive and upbeat activist I’ve known. Her commitment to environmental issues — particularly global issues — was legendary, but so was her commitment to friends. She was serious, intense and fun all at the same time. And, besides, she wore the funkiest, best hats I’ve ever seen!”
Before graduation, Cullis-Suzuki and her friends — with help from the Yale Student Environmental Coalition — drafted a pledge for young people to hold themselves accountable for environmental policy. The pledge, called the Recognition of Responsibility, also challenged elders to lead by example.
Cullis-Suzuki, author of “Tell the World,” has also been published in numerous magazines and newspapers, received the United Nations Environment Program’s Global 500 Award, and given many speeches to schools and corporations on environmental issues.
But she is most proud of biking across Canada her sophomore summer in a campaign for clean air, living in the Amazon for two months to protect forests threatened by unsustainable logging, and maintaining strong personal relationships with loved ones.
Though Cullis-Suzuki has been attending conferences and maintaining her “Skyfish Project” this past year, she said she is tired of conferences because that is not where the action occurs.
“The inspirational changes occur at the grass roots with individuals taking action,” she said. “Addressing world leaders is not sufficient — I agree with Gandhi that ‘We must become the change we want to see.'”