Sian Cuffy-Young, has been picking up other people’s garbage since she knew herself.
“When I was younger, my father, who is still in cub-scouting, taught me the conservation law which is, you always leave a place cleaner than you’ve met it. Because there was no way we were going on a hike, seeing the place nasty and daddy would just let us leave the garbage there.”
From that moment in her life, a seed took root and she continues to practice that philosophy to this day. She was always considered the ‘bright child’ throughout her academic career and after her studies at University of the West Indies (UWI), she returned to the classroom to teach physics.
“I tried my best and because my father is a retired teacher, I got this gift of being able to teach. I did not know I had that until I left teaching! I just thought I was doing the best I could do. Technically, by the ministry’s standards, I can teach physics but I also recognize that not everybody is a teacher. You have the information in your head but to really bring it out in a way which the children can understand, is not a skill that everyone has. I also taught dance while I was there because I love dancing. I have been dancing since I was four years old. I taught Folk dance and Hip Hop dance. When I was in UWI I was in an all girl hip hop dance team. In 2005 we actually made it to the World Hip Hop Dance Championships in LA.”
Breaking through green ceilings
After that experience, she went on to work in the Solid Waste Management Company (SWMCOL) for five years.
“I have worked in two male dominated sectors as the woman in the field, not just the office and I had to assert myself. What I learned is how to encourage people to work with you, not for you.”
“My boss discovered my ability to be a very good waste educator. Any level of school that requested a presentation or lecture, he would send me. I was going on everything, it turned out to be my thing and I’ve been doing it ever since.”
Once her time came to an end, she moved on to National Quarries. “The whole environment department was me, one person.” I took on the responsibility for waste management when I got there in addition to my rehabilitation work and my general environmental work at a quarry. Can you imagine how hard it was to do environmental work at a quarry? Just based on what a quarry does to the natural environment? But the company was also ISO 14001 certified. If a quarry can become ISO 14001 certified, you can’t tell me it’s not possible.”
(ISO 14001 certification shows that an organisation can set up and follow an effective environmental management system.) Whilst working here, she had the unique experience of being in charge of someone much older than her.
“He was old enough to be my father and was working there for 27 years before I came along. I never took his knowledge and experience for granted. There was no way my academic experience could trump his practical experience. I started to incorporate him into the decision making. We often had back and forths between us but at the end of the day there was mutual respect.”
Her stint at National Quarries eventually came to an end and with children to support she quickly made new work of job hunting. However, that was an unsuccessful pursuit.
Setting out on her own
Her husband suggested she start her own business but she wasn’t too keen on the idea at first. Throughout her life she never had any examples of entrepreneurship in her family so the possibility was never initially considered. “I never wanted to be an entrepreneur. My parents both worked till they retired and that was the mindset. You go to school, get a good job, and stay there till you retire.” She asked God for guidance, to reveal what seed was planted in her. That’s when the idea came to her. One of the first versions of SIEL involved “behavior work” that aimed at getting people to change their attitude towards waste in the form of environmental education campaigns. However, when she started, all she heard was crickets.
Her husband always called her a Chinese bamboo tree in reference to a Les Brown motivational speech. Chinese bamboo trees take five years before they even start to grow. In that time you have to fertilize and water the ground even though you see no signs of life. By year five, the tree would grow up to 90 feet tall within six weeks. What contributes to its growth? Is it the years of watering or the care it receives once it sprouts?
Then, after seeing a post on Facebook, she saw some children from Holy Name Convent who wanted help to recycle their plastics and used her connections at SWMCOL to create an opportunity. “I had no truck, no van, just my little car.” And with that she’d take everything and stuff it in her car and take it to SWMCOL. She also established a relationship with then Ace Recycling (now New Age Recycling) to collect paper which she would then sell it to them. That was her first opportunity and experience in running her business
“But the thing that I always enjoyed was education and teaching. I remember somebody that I respected told me, Sian why are you working in waste management, you of all people should know better, you know they are not going to do nothing in waste?! And it stunned me because I couldn’t believe this person was telling me this and I said “If I don’t do it , who would” and I just walked away. I didn’t say anything else and haven’t spoken to that person since. When you believe in you and you know what you want to achieve, in some way shape or form it will happen. It was very difficult, there were a number of challenges, I struggled a lot with my self confidence in the beginning.”
Viola Davis had a small part in helping her realize her own greatness. She gravitated towards her work because well, she’s good at her job but also because she’s a dark-skinned woman of color. It wasn’t a common sight to see someone that looked just like her on the big screen. In following her career over the years she found out they share something a bit more skin deep. They both battle with their experiences of imposter syndrome. In seeing this in someone she held in high regard, she was able to look within herself and come to terms with it and find ways around it. If someone like her can go through this and still come out on top then, who am I?
“Sometimes I don’t allow myself time for it all to sink in. I just move on to the next thing. Doing that does not allow you to celebrate. I am an introvert so I do not necessarily like when people say congratulations but I am getting better at just allowing the blessings to hit me and let it marinate. Allowing those who care about me, to give them the ability to say “Sian, you have done a good job!” SIEL Environmental Services Limited has been up and running since 2015. Their services include waste education, circular economy and waste reduction training and waste project consultancy.
Sian Cuffy-Young is both the Founder and Principal consultant of SIEL Environmental Services Limited, a social enterprise based in Trinidad and Tobago. She is also an Author that recently published her debut children’s book, Ky’s Magical Adventures: Where the Garbage Goes- the first of many to come.