An Interview with Polar Explorer Ann Bancroft
Ann Bancroft is one of the world’s preeminent polar explorers and an internationally recognized leader. Ann has held many roles in her life: explorer, educator, speaker and philanthropist. She is also part of Access Water and works to amplify the urgency for clean water & share solutions for a sustainable future.
Note: This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity and brevity.
How do you define advocacy and what does it mean to you? Do you consider yourself to be an advocate?
I do consider myself to be an advocate. An advocate is somebody who feels that they can raise their voice or has a platform, and utilizes that for those who maybe don’t have the same level of access. There were times when I was a young teacher in which, looking back, I was an advocate and I didn’t even realize it. For example, standing up for a student, or helping a child out. Advocacy can be bold, but it can also be subtle and discreet.
As my life became more public, my advocacy scope has broadened. The work that I’ve been doing the last 20 years is really about trying to encourage others to raise their voices and to feel courageous enough in community to speak their truth. It’s fundamentally about encouraging others to be deeply engaged in the world. Once they’re engaged, they’ll find the right path that works for them. That, at the core, is advocacy.
What role do you think education and teachers can play when it comes to climate advocacy?
Education is constant. It’s ongoing. I can get very impatient! My work brings me into a lot of settings, from classrooms to corporations, from rotaries to church groups. When you think about climate change, we’re constantly being educated far beyond the classroom. Students are usually the easier population to reach, because school is a place equipped to discuss and ferret out truth and facts, to be embedded in science, and to be exposed to more than just opinion. Formal education, I think can play a really important role because, whether it’s climate change, or women’s issues, the sooner in a life that we are able to begin unfolding the layers of a topic, the greater the impact this can have.
I find myself frustrated with the older population. They can sometimes be slower learners, be less open and more recalcitrant it seems!
We have an opportunity to move the boulder forward. It’s big work, it’s ongoing, and it’s not going to be done in my lifetime. We’ve been talking about it for decades already and we’ve got a long way to go.
“Explorer” is a very rare title to hold! Is there anything from your experience visiting hard-to-reach places that has impacted how you think about the change you might want to see and how you deliver your message?
In 1986, the year I went to the North Pole, I was working as a teacher. My principal gave me a year off, which was unprecedented. When I came back, it was May, I still had frostbite on my cheeks, and school was still in session. I went back to the elementary school I worked at in Minneapolis and was in awe when I saw what my colleagues had done while I was on the expedition. They had brought the Arctic absolutely alive for the students.
Our expedition was woven into art, music, science, math, history, literature — in every topic and for every age, from kindergarten to the eighth grade. The extraordinary part of this was that we had no internet, we had no GPS, we had no real way of communicating easily. My colleagues somehow would glean bits and pieces, and then create — as teachers do — a way to use everything they gathered in a magical way to bring the artic alive in this little brick building. I just gave myself goosebumps!
For me, visiting that afternoon with my retired husky, the two of us sitting there feeling very uncomfortable in the early spring heat… this was my moment of epiphany. I realized I could be a teacher outside of the walls of the classroom. I made myself a promise that if I ever did another expedition, it would have to be about something bigger than my own personal ambition.
For the next expedition, I put together an all women’s team and we traveled across Greenland to the South Pole. We made good on our promise. We created multidisciplinary curriculum, covering every topic we could think of that goes on in a classroom. I was a teacher, and was very conscious not to burden my fellow teachers who may be already burdened with a full schedule. We worked to design the curriculum to be flexible, to allow teachers to take pieces or the entirety and extract what made sense for them. The essence of it was to bring to life what it is like to live at 75 below zero for four months and utilize that sort of spark of curiosity and interest and unlock another level of learning. For example, in elementary math class, students were following us across the South Pole and they’d see that we made it 10 miles in 14 hours by laboring hard, pushing and pulling sleds with the dogs — and then, as we slept, the currents drifted us back and we lost 10 miles. It was a zero sum game! So students started learning about the currents, wind and how those forces interact to move ice caps around.
What sparked your awareness about climate change and your work as an advocate on this issue?
One day, I was visiting a classroom talking about my expeditions. I had my PowerPoint, my gear, my usual dog and pony show. We were doing a question and answer session, and a realization struck me that brought me to my knees. One of those kids had the same dream that I had as a 10 year old girl.
I had to say it out loud to these kids that they couldn’t achieve that dream. I had spent my whole career telling kids to live their dreams. I almost just burst into tears.
Maybe they could get to the North Pole — but to do a big expedition with five dog teams pulling heavy sleds? That was no longer possible. It broke my heart and brought the issue into stark focus for me.
This was the moment in which I understood the advocacy opportunity: I could talk about truly being a witness to the changes in climate over decades. I have seen it firsthand in the most remote regions of the world.
I understood that my job is to be an explorer, like all explorers throughout history: you come home with your findings, with your stories, and you tell your community what you found.
What challenges have you faced while pushing for change? What has the emotional side of the experience been like for you?
It’s an ongoing struggle for me, because my personality is to want everybody in the room to like me. I’m a people pleaser. When I first was brought to the global stage and became a public figure I faced an incredibly difficult few years as I worked at getting comfortable with it all. It was a long process and I struggled. I’d wonder, “why did this happen to me?” When I became a public figure, everything was suddenly different. I wasn’t just a face in the crowd, I was up at the podium. This was really hard. Some of that hardness was because I’m a pretty deep introvert — this is why I go on a hundred day expeditions away from the world! There was a true sacrifice involved.
I think about this all the time even now when I’m feeling exhausted. The demands keep coming, and I don’t want to say “no” to them. I am given awesome opportunities to do things I care about, or speak about things I care about, but I’m always in conflict because introversion gets in the way of my advocacy. I’ve talked to my polar explorer colleagues about this, Will Steger and others. People who are mountain climbers — they go up to the summit, then they come back down and go to the bar. Polar people, we willingly choose to go incredibly long distances, for months at a time, slogging along, so much daily repetition — is it a surprise we’re all introverted?
I feel a huge responsibility to share my story, to be an advocate, and to speak for the places I love which are under assault.
Among us “polar people,” we feel a camaraderie, we feel the same tug to speak publicly, to serve as advocates — and yet we share an understanding of the sacrifice we make in making ourselves do it. We choose to make ourselves vulnerable by sharing so publicly, and we can face vitriol when doing so.
We feel a responsibility to use the platform that was gifted to us, and we do it out of passion, because we somehow found ourselves onstage and don’t want to squander that opportunity.
It’s just like an expedition — it’s not always fun, but it doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t do it.
You push on.
About Cri de Cœur: The Cri de Cœur Interview Series focuses on how advocacy manifests at the intersection of community, business, policy, finance, academia and the arts in order to explore tactics and approaches that will help build a more sustainable future. Cri de Cœur aims to demonstrate how a layer of climate advocacy can and must be a part of everything we do as a society in order to reach our goals.