Photo credit: MARIA TAN


Meet 26-year-old Maria Tan. She works as a full-time data scientist at a plant-based food and product discovery platform and spends most of her free time advocating for environmentalism and mindfulness.

Upon graduating from college, she started transitioning to a plant-based diet and reducing her waste production. She also volunteers at various organisations, including one she co-founded — Back To Ground Zero.

What is Back To Ground Zero?

Back To Ground Zero (BTGZ)  is a non-profit that started in 2017. With a vision to “build up a generation that lives with compassion for the environment, others, and (themselves),” the organisation runs early education programmes for young children on mindfulness and environmental sustainability.

One such programme, “Mr Mole’s Mindful Magic”, is currently implemented with Public Libraries Singapore and is centred on concepts of slowing down, processing emotions, understanding nature and cultivating self-love.

“We prioritise impact depth over superficial metrics. This is also more sustainable for myself and my team members, as most of us straddle full-time jobs with our volunteering work,” Maria adds as she shares about the seven-woman team behind the cause.

Having discovered that access to mental health and environmental resources were largely limited to more privileged societal groups, they aim to bridge this gap and widen access to under-served children. This not only drives sustainable living but also strengthens their emotional resilience.

Their advocacy stretches beyond this primary demographic. Utilising their following of 2.3K on Instagram, they share environmental tips and facts, as well as  stories of people who have or are currently making a positive impact on the environment through their ‘Bean Dare Done That’ series. They also empower fellow organisations in the fight for a greener and more sustainable future by promoting their giveaways, events and activities.

The success of the team has also seen major collaborative events like Ground Zero Market 2018 and Ground Zero Festival 2019, as well as information talks with educational institutions like NUS and NTU come to fruition.

Maria’s experience with BTGZ

As co-founder, she shares that her responsibilities span multiple pillars, but mainly involves plugging gaps in the organisation — from marketing and design to partnership strategy and recruitment.

This enriching journey she and her team have embarked on has allowed them to grow as individuals and a collective. This has been motivating them to persevere in pursuing their goals, especially when they witness changes in their participants’ perspectives on themselves and the environment.

But it hasn’t always been smooth sailing. The organisation wasn’t spared from the cruelty of the pandemic and they experienced some severe setbacks as a result.

“The pandemic has thrown a huge spanner in our work — it’s more difficult to plan and implement in-person events, even though we believe that the need for such programmes (is) even more pronounced in times of pandemic stress.”

As the events they painstakingly organised get postponed time after time, coupled with the challenge of connecting with partners in that climate, she explains that things gradually got increasingly demoralising for the squad. But they refused to give up.

Against all odds, they rose to the occasion and have since decided to scale up their education programmes, pivoting towards underserved communities in Singapore. They are also now developing mindfulness enrichment sessions to roll out across social community groups at the end of this year and in the following year.

How Maria practices mindfulness and environmental sustainability outside of BTGZ

When asked how she extends these practices to her personal life, she discussed her refrain from consuming animal products. She adopted this habit around 3 years back as a first step to reducing her meat intake.

But with the vast majority of Singaporeans — including some members of her own family — consuming a fair amount of meat, committing to such a diet hasn’t been the easiest for her. As a result, when it isn’t entirely possible to choose plant-based, like in family social settings, Maria  has learnt to practice mindfulness and show compassion to herself.

“Managing my emotional response when I am singled out in social settings for my dietary choice has allowed me to transition in a way that’s healthier, with less friction in my relationships with my loved ones, especially since food is a huge part of Singapore’s culture,” she says.

In August 2020, a post published on Harvard Health Blog shared that plant-based and plant-heavy diets like the Mediterranean diet “has been shown in both large population studies and randomized clinical trials to reduce risk of heart disease, metabolic syndrome, diabetes, colon, breast, and prostate cancers, depression, and in older adults, a decreased risk of frailty, along with better mental and physical function.”

On a deeper level, she’s a lot happier than she used to be and she now celebrates a thriving relationship with herself. Maria explains that this new lifestyle, holistically, has allowed her to gain a deeper understanding of her core life values, strengths and weaknesses. It has also encouraged her to regulate her emotions more skillfully, and manage difficult situations more smoothly.

What she wants people to know

So, what exactly is the correlation between environmental consciousness and mindfulness? To which, she has this to share:

“An appreciation for the environment is embedded in our understanding of ourselves and how we view ourselves in the context of our external surroundings. Concepts like compassion, empathy and resilience are also values learned from interactions in nature and the dynamics between sentient beings. In this aspect, we see significant, meaningful overlap between environmental issues and mental health concepts.”

By advocating for environmentalism with mindfulness at the forefront, she aspires to spark a chain reaction — that by showing compassion and kindness to ourselves, we would then be able to observe and appreciate our external environment more. This in turn allows us to cultivate a genuine and organic interest in environmental efforts.

Maria also shares that it is crucial to be conscientious about our purchasing decisions especially with deciding which organisations and corporations we support. She offered some questions to probe ourselves, including:

“What happiness does it bring me?”

“Am I aware of how that item is produced or made?”

“What impact does that production process have on communities?”

Wrapping things up, she brought up that everyone is on their own journey, and it is important to show empathy when working on environmental change.

We have to validate the struggles of communities under stress by first addressing their concerns. Supporting change to reusable bags has come with individual concerns about cost, and encouraging a reduction in meat consumption would take time.

Being forceful with an agenda can often come off tacky and preachy. While it is important and necessary to put pressure on organisations and even societies to change certain habits that are detrimental to the environment, executing it without empathy will only backfire.

This article was published on Nov 18, 2021

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