|Victoria Hermann, clearly not in the Arctic in the photo at left, warms up, above, after a traditional Inuit dinner on a cold Canadian night in January. Photo by Victoria Herrmann|
Last year, Victoria Herrmann of Paramus set off for Canada to study how indigenous communities in the Arctic have been affected by climate change, and how they are using the human rights implications of climate change to create a voice for themselves in the international community.
While the topic is complex, Ms. Herrmann’s motivation is not. A member of Temple Avodat Shalom in River Edge, she always has been very interested in human rights. Indeed, she said, she was inspired to care about others by her grandfather, the late Sigfried Herrmann of Fair Lawn.
“My grandfather was an Auschwitz survivor, the only one from his family to survive,” she said. “He came here with nothing, but despite it all he taught me less from his experiences in Germany and more from the person he became after that.
“He still cared for humanity. He taught me that it was important to volunteer in the community and to make a difference in the world.”
The 23-year-old scholar, who was awarded a Fulbright grant last year, has split her time between Ottawa and Iqaluit, meeting with local communities and studying the Inuktitut dialect. She has accomplished much over the past year, and now, having been awarded a Gates Cambridge scholarship – which will take her to England in October – she hopes to do even more.
The scholarship program was founded by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation in 2000, and recipients pursue their research at Cambridge University. According to its website, the goal of the initiative is to “build a global network of future leaders committed to improving the lives of others.”
Ms. Herrmann, who learned just last week that she had won this award, said that 40 American students have won scholarships for the coming year, and 55 international students will be selected by May.
Over the past year, Ms. Herrmann has narrowed her initial focus somewhat, “now focusing primarily on the visual narrative” generated by indigenous groups and presented at international negotiations. “They’ve played a more significant role,” she said of the pictures, videos, and other forms of art used to illustrate the consequences of climate change.
“Minority groups bring a lot of different images to climate negotiations,” she said, citing, for example, a photo of a polar bear on a piece of floating ice. She has been “blessed” to go twice to the Arctic to work with some of these groups, she added, and that has given her opportunity to see the kinds of images they brought out of their communities to conferences in Copenhagen and South Africa.
As a Fulbright scholar, Ms. Herrmann has presented at a number of conferences, “from Halifax to Montreal,” and now she is planning one in British Columbia. Some, she said, are science-focused; others concentrate on policy.
“They don’t know much about the visuals in terms of the people who live in the Arctic,” she said of the groups she reaches. They don’t know “how important these pictures are to the people who live there. I’m bringing the stories of these communities to larger audiences.”
At Cambridge, where she will work towards her Ph.D., “I’ll be pursuing the same work, but on a larger scale.” While she’ll still look at visual narratives of Arctic communities, her work will take in the entire Arctic council region, which encompasses Russia, Greenland, Iceland, and the Nordic countries.
“I will look at governance issues as well,” she said, touching on subjects such as oil drilling and the rights given to indigenous groups. “A lot of these countries are not very friendly to indigenous rights.” She noted, though, that many Arctic council countries have become much more active and are now “much more open to talking” with the affected groups. “There’s a lot to be done but there’s also a lot of positive signs,” she said.
Ms. Herrmann will work with an adviser at the Scott Polar Institute who will focus on narratives in the Arctic. She will continue to focus on the visuals.
“There’s not anyone working on this at Cambridge but I hope that by doing such a comprehensive project instead of a narrow Ph.D., future researchers will pick up on parts of this to work on,” she said, adding that after she published a few articles on the topic, she got a good response from other researchers, particularly in Nordic countries.
The job of new leaders should be “to work to challenge the status quo,” Ms. Herrmann said. “For a while, particularly in the previous generation, leaders were looked upon to continue American prosperity in a variety of fields. Now we look to them to push beyond what we already have and find innovative solutions to push us forward.
“It may not equate to prosperity, but it will push humanity forward for generations beyond ourselves – particularly with things like climate change.”
When she finishes her work at Cambridge, Ms. Herrmann would like to do something with the research she’s completed, perhaps a publication or some kind of exhibit.
“I have some background in that,” she said, pointing out that she had studied both international relations and art history at Lehigh and had internships at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York and at the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C.
“I would like to go back to curating, at least with this project,” she said, though “down the road, I want to get back into policy and work on climate issues in the Arctic.
“The U.S. is known as ‘the reluctant Arctic power,’ but last week the State Department said it would create an Arctic ambassador’s office. Things are changing.”