Kelly | She/Her
Washington, DC, USA | Chiang Mai, Thailand
Tropical and Subtropical Moist Broadleaf Forests
Session 4: January 30, 2023
You can hear me, but can you see me?
I invite you all to close your eyes, breathe in deeply, hold your breath, and slowly release.
Imagine that as you walk in a garden, the earth caressing your every step like a devoted mother,
You glance about the trees and flowers, observing dust coating their leaves and petals
Their colors dulled to a gray, white, black
Imagine spotting a dragonfly, its diaphanous wings layered in soot
Imagine that the air you just breathed in was so toxic that it causes stillbirths, miscarriages, impaired brain development in children, and can lead to lung cancer, heart attacks, and stroke, and carves out at least two years’ off of your life
Imagine that in Thailand, a country adorned by adulations for Buddhism, you are unable to sit
sukhasana and meditate under a tree as the Buddha did, your core spiritual practice now a risk factor
Imagine being unable to take a full, satisfying breath, unable to feel the words, the letters roll around in your mouth,
Imagine a COVID-free world yet only glimpsing concealed faces of fellow human beings, half covered by N95 masks, at least on those able to afford them
I invite you to open your eyes.
Look around the room. Air pollution is an inherently social issue, latticed across nodes of capitalism, greed, racism, class, caste, and biopower
Where your bodies are not your own, where the privileged hook HEPA filters to their outlets and couple their circadian rhythms with dehumidifiers, connecting one’s refuge to products used to “purify” our air, to “clean” our air, when it was capitalism that drove us to this decrepit state in the first place
Imagine duct-taping the loose windows of your home, terrified your parents will develop lung cancer from repeated exposure to airborne fine particulate matter less than 2.5 microns, or PM2.5
You insulate your loved ones as best as you can
You avoid the outdoor cafeteria at your elementary and high school
You miss the sound of children laughing, of basketballs bouncing, as students aren’t allowed to play on the courts, in the playgrounds, because the air is too toxic for outdoor physical activity
You swathe yourself in a commodified cocoon, aware that you live on pickpocketed time,
That your family is no more deserving of clean, fresh air than the next family
In this land, where capitalism drives the merry go round,
Extraction dictating human action
Existence an afterthought
Ego, the driver
You are maybe seven or eight years old, yelling, “See me, Daddy, see me!”
Eager to present to your father your latest playground choreography
Monkey bar achievements
You pick up the most suitable stick you can find for exploring and walk
Hand-in-hand with your father along your usual path
But what if your father can’t see you anymore?
What if “See me, Daddy, see me!” is a warning sign?
Toxic air rendering your usual path terra incognita
Your skips no longer buoyant
Imagine, though, that the buoy has not yet left your grasp
Still, the Land breathes. A kaleidoscope of wildlife unfolds as the sun rises. Birds talk gleefully between branches, eyeing earthworms that burrow deeper into their sanctuary. The monarch butterfly pays respects to the jasmine, kissing it gently before bidding farewell to visit the hibiscus on its daily royal passage—bees and leaves its entourage. Snails sit on wet barks, camouflaged with neighboring rocks. Beneath the wide sky and messy humus, trees’ roots sink deep into the waterbed. The mahogany, palm, lamyai, jackfruit, and rose apple trees exist in majestic interdependence with the earth, months without rain not dampening efforts to thrive.
Still, the Thailand Clean Air Network puffs and pants, an assuring embrace of values-driven advocacy and activism
Of storytellers, street food vendors, physicians, and lawyers linking arms to slay the slow violence of air pollution
To build a tabula rasa for our air,
Our silent, sine qua non (sin-letter A-qua-known) sanctuary
Bridging data points with persistence, culture and sabai sabai with truth
This is the pulse,
The homage to homes of quiet and cacophonous creatures alike
The circular value system that turns foggy ghosts into sincere smiles
The “See me, Daddy, see me!”
Kelly is a public health researcher and storyteller with demonstrated leadership and diverse experience in healthcare research, academia, and public health nonprofit work. She has studied and worked in the United States, Thailand, Morocco, and South Africa and collaborates with colleagues and organizations across Asia and the Pacific. Kelly is a 2022 Emerging Voices for Global Health fellow, a Wedu board member, a Brown University Information Futures Fellow, and an adjunct professor at UNC Chapel Hill. She holds an MPH from UNC Chapel Hill and a BA from Vanderbilt University.