Photograph by Dorothy Hong
For Tsechu Dolma ’14, the simple question of “where are you from” would elicit a complicated answer. She came from Tibet, which has had a tumultuous political relationship with China ever since its annexation by the Chinese Communist Party in the early ’50s. Dolma’s mother, who has been a Tibetan community leader and activist, and her family were eventually exiled for political dissent when Dolma was 5. They spent the next 10 years in Nepal and India before finally moving to the United States. Influenced by her unusual past and education, Dolma has been an active leader in the fight to give the deprived and ignored local residents of environmentally delicate areas power and control over their own environments.
Before coming to Barnard, Dolma attended a progressive high school with a curriculum centered on environmental stewardship, sustainability, nonviolence, and advocacy. She soon realized, “When you connect with your environment, you begin to feel responsible toward it, then this sense of responsibility gets broadened to your community members and that inspires you to become an advocate for your community.”
Shortly after Dolma came to the Morningside campus, she went to Ecuador to work on digital education related to environmental issues. Last summer, as an East Asian studies and environmental policy double major, she interned as a research assistant at the Office of the Dalai Lama in Dharamsala, India, and studied the social aspects of environmental degradation on the indigenous people of Himalayan communities. “My interest is expanding community rights over natural resources, a problem mostly encountered by the indigenous people, whether in Tibet or Ecuador or anywhere else,” says Dolma. Last spring, she and a dozen Tibetan graduate students started a new club on campus called Plateau Engage, whose goal is to foster deeper understandings and directly support initiatives “in and of Tibet.” “Most of the policies are made by central governments very far removed from the local situation,” she notes. “I believe the local people, who know their community, should have agency and rights over [what decisions are being made about] their region.” Plateau Engage will run a waste-management project this summer in Tibet where modernization efforts and increasing tourism have resulted in a massive amount of garbage that Tibetans do not yet have the knowledge or equipment to process.
“It’s the first time Tibetans are dealing with things like TVs and batteries, and they don’t know that there are things that should not enter the water supply,” Dolma says. The Tibetan plateau’s environment is the source of water for several major rivers in Asia including the Indus and the Yangtze Rivers, and the plateau’s pollution would be disastrous for the local residents and the billions of people living downstream. “They have done nothing with the garbage yet, especially in the remote, difficult to access areas,” says Dolma, recalling a photos in which piles of trash stood in stark contrast to the beautiful mountains in the distance.
With support from faculty and researchers, Dolma and a teammate will travel to a Tibetan village in Sichuan, China, to provide basic information on waste management. Her plan materialized in Professor Diane Dittrick’s course “Environmental Leadership, Ethics, and Action” (ELEA), which encourages students to take the leadership skills and topical expertise developed in class to a larger local, national, or global arena. Dolma, whom Dittrick calls a “poster child” for the course, will lead informal and interactive youth development workshops to empower local young people to become leaders of their own communities and continue this work.
“An important thing about being a leader is not imposing your values on other people.... You need to observe, listen, speak, and then act,” says Dolma. “I believe my role is not to lead anyone, but to give people the resources so they can become leaders instead.”