Meet Soraya, she is a sustainability professional who is passionate about taking a holistic approach to improving our planet. As well as previously working as our Operations Manager at eXXpedition, Soraya also joined the crew onboard leg 2 of the North Pacific voyage in 2018. Her focus is on sustainability and how there is more to it than just the environment, it also encompasses culture and diversity; the concept of which has forged the path she is on now.

Picture Credit: Sophie Bolesworth

Can you tell me a bit about yourself and how you would describe your superpower?

My name is Soraya and I am a sustainability professional, award-winning writer and artist. I was previously the Operations Manager for eXXpedition. I have worked with eXXpedition since 2016 and became the first official employee in 2019! In August 2020, I set up a non-profit called ‘All The Elements’ which is a network for people creating change and diversity within the UK outdoor community.

My relationship with nature has always been present throughout my life. I recently found a photograph of me as a toddler, wading through a river with my grandad.

I’ve always been quite immersed. I used to feel my superpower was  ‘sustainability’ but more recently I feel that it’s evolved into my ability to connect people to each other and nature!

You founded ‘All the Elements’ can you share what that’s about and how it came to be?

I’ve always been writing and used to work as an equestrian journalist. Over the years, I began writing more on my own platforms. This included writing about diversity in the UK outdoors – something people had continued to ask me about. Doing this sort of work is tough, as you are sharing research but also lived experience. It takes a lot of energy and I wanted to connect with other people doing similar things, who understood what that was like. 

I reached out to others working in the space to ask where they connected to each other – the answer was that it didn’t exist but that they thought it was a great idea. 

It was meant to be just a newsletter, but rapidly evolved into a strong community. It is a space where people connect, network and access resources. We help people connect to each other, funding and opportunities that help them do even more great work. ‘All the Elements’ is now a community that offers a UK intersectional space including race, ethnicity, sexuality, gender identity, invisible and visible disabilities, mental health, age, limited financial means, different body types – the list goes on!

Picture Credit: Kike Agunbiade

What role do you feel diversity has to play in spreading awareness of the state of our environment?

The straightforward answer is that if you’re not talking to a diverse range of people then you are never going to have the full picture. And without that, you cannot make informed decisions.

If people have access to the outdoors and the benefits it brings to your health and wellbeing, then naturally they will want to protect and help regenerate it. But the primary focus for currently excluded groups is to make sure they can overcome the barriers to access. They should already have access to the benefits – protecting nature is a byproduct, not the end goal. 

Picture Credit: Frankie Dewar

The straightforward answer is that if you’re not talking to a diverse range of people then you are never going to have the full picture. And without that, you cannot make informed decisions.

What has been the most surprising “element” to your work with All the Elements?

The first thing that surprised me was about the community and how amazingly positive it is and the sheer amount of energy the members have. It’s one of the few spaces that I’ve been in that has been so positive, even when discussing negative topics and events, it’s a safe and constructive space. 

The second element is from a broader perspective. It always really confused me that nobody had set this up before! With all these huge outdoor brands or organisations that have financial backing and resources, why has it never occurred to anyone to create a space like this, when there has clearly been a need for it?! It feels like only now diversity is being bumped up the agenda – which is exciting but it’s just surprising that it hasn’t happened sooner. 

How important is collaboration within your work? And how can that impact environmental issues more widely?

Collaboration is the key. It’s something that was always really important within eXXpedition but also within All The Elements too.

All The Elements, similarly to eXXpedition, attracts absolutely epic changemakers. Everybody has the ability and their own unique skills to create change if they are passionate about their cause. And everyone’s passionate about something. Going back to my superpower, I feel that that is my purpose and my skill – to help others realise what their superpower is and connect them to the right people and communities.

Picture Credit: Sophie Bolesworth

Everybody has the ability and their own unique skills to create change. Everyone’s passionate about something. And so I believe it’s about figuring out how to unlock that within people.”

How did you first hear about eXXpedition and how did your journey with eXXpedition begin?

My journey to eXXpedition was quite wiggly; in fact, my whole career has been a bit wiggly! I studied law and quickly realised I hated it. And so when I left uni, I worked at an equine hospital because I had been a passionate horse rider since I was five. From there I went to work for an equestrian magazine for four years, which was an amazing job but I felt like I was missing my purpose and I needed something more. I wanted to make a positive impact on the planet, and I knew that included people. I enrolled onto the One Planet MBA at Exeter University, which essentially focused on sustainability for businesses. 

After the course, I booked onto an ‘Exploring Mindset’ canoeing trip on the Mississippi River which was run by the co-founder of eXXpedition – Emily! After the trip I began helping organise the eXXpedition Round Britain 2017 voyages.

What was your onboard experience like?

I really enjoyed coming together with an amazing group of women, who are not just tackling the world’s problems from different perspectives, but also arrive with different lived experiences.

I also learnt that when you’re onboard and  people are tired and sometimes seasick, and way out of their comfort zones, everyone is their true selves. And you pull together to face the challenges in front of you. Having common ground and shared experiences like this naturally brings you together when you might not naturally connect on land, and it creates a mutual respect and camaraderie.

Picture Credit: Nikkey Dawn

“Surround yourself with people who share the same passions, who can both catch you when things don’t go as planned but also celebrate and lift you up when they do and continue to give you joy and hope.”

What keeps you hopeful about the future of the ocean?

What I love the most is just how amazing people in the community are – they are honestly absolutely mind blowing. It’s such an amazing range of people doing the most incredible things. And All The Elements feels so broad because we tackle a range of issues and support each other in doing so. To date, I’ve held over 300 calls with different individuals to support them and offer guidance on their own journey, which can sometimes be connecting them to funding, opportunities or even to other people in the network! Sometimes it can just be talking through people’s ideas and helping them plan their next steps. Seeing all of these people pushing forward creates an unstoppable momentum in this space and I’m so proud that All The Elements can play a role within that!

Picture Credit: Frankie Dewar

For other people interested in starting their own organisation/charity – what “elements” do you think are important and what advice would you give them?

Don’t let yourself burn out, I know people say it all the time and I’m personally not great at it either but you can’t create change if you’re broken and burnout, so remember to take care of yourself first and foremost.

If you could give one message to the world, what would it be?

Find your community and find your people. Surround yourself with the right people. Not everyone’s going to agree with or support you. It’s really important to be with people who understand what you’re going through and why. Surround yourself with people who share the same passions, who can both catch you when things don’t go as planned but also celebrate and lift you up when they do, and continue to give you joy and hope.