Daphne Matter

STUDENT – VIPs Fund & Graham Sustainability Scholar

“So I’m from Seattle, Washington. I love my hometown. I grew up in the city, but Seattle is also a very nature oriented place in that you’ve got lots of waterways and lakes and you’ve got the Olympics to one side of you and you’ve got the Cascades to the other side of you. And you have all these islands and rivers and amazing biodiversity in all of those places, both like terrestrial and aquatic. And I probably say that because my mom is a fisheries biologist. She works for NOAA. And so she’s been doing conservation work for forever. I remember going with my mom to do studies in Longfellow Creek to uncover the salmon reds and [other] stuff that they wanted to study. 

Now I’m like–I’m that adult who never grew out of their animal phase as a kid. I loved going to the zoo as a kid, Woodland Park Zoo in Seattle. People can say what they say about zoos, [and] a lot of zoos are pretty trash, but there are some zoos out there that are pretty good. I like to think Woodland Park Zoo is one of the good ones. Actually –[when I was] in first grade– I saw one of those little ads that’s like, oh, ‘adopt a tiger from the zoo.’ I [thought] ‘Oh my gosh,’ you can adopt a tiger for $60–what a steal. Like, I can have a tiger for $60? And so I made a bunch of little oil pastel paintings. I sold them to my parents and my friends and family and teachers and whatnot. I eventually got the $60 and I adopted the tiger and, you know, I was six. I didn’t realize that there was only one tiger at the zoo. I [just thought] ‘oh, obviously that’s my tiger, right?’ And so my mom called the zoo and she was like, hey, so my daughter thinks she owns your tiger, can you play along with it in whatever way? So then I got to go behind the scenes and feed her condensed milk and all this stuff. And they’re like yeah, this is Hadia, this is your tiger. I’m like no way that’s so cool. And so I’ve kind of been doing this stuff since first grade. We took a big break from 2nd grade to 13th grade, but you know, now I’m back and now I’m making art to raise money for the animals.

“That’s what I started two years ago when I started crocheting. When I was a small child, my mom and my grandma wanted to teach me how to knit and stuff. I was never good at it, because I could knit and I could go one way, but I couldn’t purl and go back the other way so everything just turned out lumpy and gross, but then [I tried] crocheting. I started making little, like, crochet stuffed animals for my friends and stuff. And eventually, it just turned into a lot more. Now [VIPs Fund] is like a whole brand [and] a nonprofit organization. A lot of my friends were very supportive of that and I found a lot of support from even strangers on campus that had heard about what I was doing. And so some of my friends and I came together to establish a club within the institution of the University of Michigan and about this time last year, we got registered as a 501c3 nonprofit by the IRS. 

There’s a lot of intermingling between the fund and the club and [both help] come up with our conservation projects, and our collection themes and our marketing strategies. We’re [also]  trying to build a new website. So we have lots of volunteers on those different committees within the fund. And VIPs fund, the organization, pays for acquiring all of the materials, with the expectation that if you use the materials when you come to those meetings, then you donate it back to the fund when you’ve finished your piece. Sometimes we have little presentations on various environmental justice issues and sustainability and a lot of fashion industry stuff because people don’t think about it a lot, but it’s 10% of greenhouse gas emissions. Lots of pollution, lots of microplastics, all of these things. And there are just piles, and piles, and piles, and piles of textiles that are sitting in warehouses and dumps and deserts and all these things that are wearable, but we just keep demanding more and different ones. I think that if I could ask everybody on campus to do one thing it would be to stop buying fast fashion…[ I’d tell them to] be curious, be inquisitive, be creative, and change the world! And shop from VIPsfund.org.

A lot of what we do, too, [is to also spend] time thinking about how can we engage in conservation in a way that doesn’t overstep our bounds, that empowers the people who need to be empowered, and that doesn’t further perpetrate the colonial legacies that created all the national parks and everything everywhere. And I think a conclusion that I’ve come to is that it’s about providing platforms, pathways and opportunities for those who might not have them otherwise? I think it’s a lot about, like, if certain people are considered experts in the field of the environment, right? Just because a kid in Ranomafana, Madagascar doesn’t have access to a college education, to a PhD program to get published in a scientific journal, doesn’t mean that their knowledge about the ecosystem that they grew up in is invalid. That’s the narrative that is portrayed pretty often– that scientists know best and it’s like, well, there are people who never got opportunities to become a scientist. [I want to be mindful of that.] And now, I have two majors: PITE, program in the environment, [with] a specialty in human wildlife interactions and [a] double major in evolutionary anthropology. And I think that what I mainly want to do with my work is reject that dichotomy [between humans and nature]. Make people see that it’s false, that humans are a part of nature, we come from it, we return to it. And any solutions that are going to actually work in conservation, environmentalism in general, are going to have those two things come together, rather than separate them apart. So you know, it’s still my passion, like animals are still my thing, a lemur is my favorite animal and all, but I also want to bring in that anthropology aspect of it so that we can reconcile humans as a part of nature. We need to find ways to approach ecology and wildlife conservation that protects and empowers the entire ecosystem and that includes the people that live there, you know?

As part of the LSA Year of Sustainability, LSA Dean’s Fellow Cherish Dean sat down with a range of students, staff, and faculty across the University to illustrate the various relationships people across campus already have to this work, to showcase ways people can get involved, and to highlight the reasons that this work should matter.

To view an abbreviated transcript of Cherish’s full conversation with Daphne, click here.

Cherish can be reached at cherishd@umich.edu. To contact the LSA Year of Sustainability Team as a whole, please contact sustainable-lsa@umich.edu

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