Why one teenage birder has launched a campaign to encourage more minority ethnic people to get involved in nature and birdwatching
By Mya-Rose Craig
Imagine you are birding on the Somerset Levels in spring. You’re surrounded by lovely scenery and the calls of birds like the Cuckoo and Bittern. You walk past people of all backgrounds, keen birders, old, young families on bicycles and maybe even someone in a wheelchair along the disabled-friendly paths. You think to yourself how great it is that nature organisations make their reserves so inclusive.
However, what you fail to notice is the obvious. Something that you are so used to, you never think about. That is, that those who are out in nature are almost entirely white. Once it’s pointed out, it’s obvious; no debate, the only questions are why is this and what can be done to tackle the issue?
I have set up an organisation called Black2Nature, to campaign and educate on the subject and collaborate with the nature sector and minority ethnic communities to make change so that they are helped to connect with nature.
Fact: minority ethnic people go out into nature less often than the white population. The research is clear that although access is reduced by deprivation, ethnicity has a significant impact. The Natural England Report (dated February 2016) shows that 77% of children from socio-economic groups A and B visited the natural environment frequently, compared to 65% of socio-economic groups D and E and only 56% of minority ethnic children.
Fact: Everyone sees colour, sex, physical disability etc, it’s what we do with that information that is important. We have to educate and train ourselves to not judge or stereotype people based on what we see and what we think we know. Often, we need to ‘level the playing field’, meaning that you have to take positive action to counterbalance people’s racism or their racist stereotyping.
In early 2015, I organised a weekend birding camp, Camp Avalon 2015, on the Somerset Levels, similar to ones in the USA. Ten (white) young birders booked, which was great, but then I had a lightbulb moment. I realised that to make a difference, I needed to find inner city minority ethnic teenagers who would come.
I spoke to people working with minority ethnic communities, including Bristol Multi-Faith Forum. We found five boys whose mothers thought it would be a good experience for them and who were prepared to come. Their parents let them join in because they felt comfortable about the weekend because I was vouched for. I realised that I needed personal contacts in those communities to attract the teenagers.
At the camp, the city boys didn’t know how to enjoy themselves, outdoors. They were not used to seeing wildlife, and were scared of things like moths, butterflies, insects, spiders and birds.
Then, one of our leaders, young photographer Chris Griffin, started talking to them about the speed at which a Peregrine drops before killing, comparing it to the speed of a Formula One car, and got them mesmerised just by relating nature to something they knew and understood.
Over the weekend, the young birders had an amazing time, but also each of the minority ethnic boys engaged with different parts of the weekend such as wildlife photography, bird sketching and bird ringing. It was really moving to see them properly connect with nature.
Although Camp Avalon had been a success, I wanted to make a difference and so I wrote to the heads of the RSPB, The Wildlife Trusts, WWT and the BTO about the lack of ethnic diversity within their organisations, memberships, volunteers on their reserves and how they needed to take action. They all wanted me to visit, which was a problem, as I had school! That then led me to have the idea of holding a conference and for the organisations to come to me.
Improving access to nature
In June 2016, I organised a conference, Race Equality in Nature, which took place at Bristol Zoo and was sponsored by Bristol Zoo, The Wildlife Trusts, WWT, Swarovski and Opticron. The idea of the conference was that it was to be black-led and that we would discuss real issues, so that it was of practical benefit.
Its main speakers included Bill Oddie, Stephen Moss and Kerry McCarthy (shadow environment secretary at the time). The 90 attendees included representatives of national experts in race equality, diversity and inclusion, 20 of Bristol’s minority ethnic communities, nature charities, national parks, universities, BBC Natural History Unit and nature media.
It was inspiring to see those from the nature charities learning so much about minority ethnic communities. It’s impossible to target communities that you do not know anything about.
One speaker, Dr Richard Benwell, from WWT, gave a particularly compelling speech. He talked about the citizens’ right to access nature, in the same way as the right to access education and health service. He said that as minority ethnic people do not have equality of access to nature, steps needed to be taken to improve their access.
This access is a fundamental right that some birders on social media have argued aggressively against. This shows a lack of understanding of the issues and is not acceptable. It is important that where birders see this kind of intolerance taking place, that they challenge it, as it is often motivated by ignorance or racism.
The most interesting aspect of the conference was that it was the first time those passionate about nature were brought together with those from minority ethnic communities. It was inspiring to see those from the nature charities learning so much about minority ethnic communities and understanding the barriers to minority ethnic people going out into green spaces. It’s impossible to target communities that you do not know anything about.
Individual stories stood out; one woman in her 50s and born in Dhaka, Bangladesh, had come to the UK as a post-graduate. She had worked for many years supporting South Asian children in Bristol primary schools. She talked of her concern for minority ethnic children not being allowed to go on school camps due to parental concern that religious and dietary needs might not be met. She decided to go on a school camp, despite her own anxieties about camping and being outdoors, and persuaded the parents to allow their children to go. It was no surprise to her that the children loved camping, but she was shocked to find that she loved it, too.
The need for role models
At the conference, we identified barriers to minority ethnic people going out into nature, what could be done to overcome the barriers and what needed to be done to create minority ethnic role models within nature conservation and media. Individual voices came together to form a joint voice and determination.
This was crucial, as individual voices are just that; they are not necessarily expert opinion or based on an understanding of race equality or represent any community.
Research from UCL (University College London) has found that many minority ethnic people have negative expectations about visiting places they consider are for white people, such as museums and natural places.
That means that even small negative experiences have the impact of reinforcing those expectations. In two cases, staff acted in ways that the participants interpreted to be racist, that had a detrimental impact. It is therefore really important that staff and volunteers of all levels have training on race equality and cultural awareness.
Examples of good practice include finding volunteers from BAME (black, Asian and ethnic minority) backgrounds and ensuring photographs include BAME people.
The barriers included living in areas of deprivation, lack of role models in mainstream nature media, green spaces being unknown or unsafe and fear of racial attacks. However, positive impact from the conference would only come from attendees persuading their senior managers to prioritise racial diversity.
Ideas for overcoming barriers included setting up a mentoring scheme, educating BAME parents about the careers in conservation, working with children in secondary schools, encouraging parents to visit green spaces in groups so there is a sense of safety and security, and setting up a forum for BAME naturalists online.
Simply telling minority ethnic people or parents that they should just ‘get out into nature’ fails to recognise their hurdles and is at best arrogant and condescending and at worst, racist.
I have set up a Race Equality in Nature LinkedIn Group, enabling professionals from the nature and environmental sectors to collaborate with race equality experts, many of whom are starting to understand the positive impact of nature on their communities’ mental health and wellbeing.
In June 2017, I was the overall winner of the prestigious Royal Bath and West Show Youth Environmental Award for my project.
One challenge in trying to connect BAME people with nature is that there is a white British prescriptive method to ‘engage with nature’ which is to go into a wild place, silently look for wildlife, then identify and record it.
However, engaging with nature can be loudly playing sport on the beach or green space and noticing the sand and sea or view.
Take my mum for example; she grew up in the city and believed that, until she got into nature in her late 20s, she had never engaged with nature. But looking back now, she realised that she had but that it didn’t conform to white British ideas.
Going out into nature should be fun and relaxed. We should be aiming to get the majority of people outside connecting with nature in their normal lives. This is likely to differ between people depending on their heritage.
That is why I think a GCSE in Nature is a bad idea, as it formalises connecting with nature in
a straight-jacketed way.
We need to focus on engaging all parts of society, not on training up a very small elite group who will then have an even bigger headstart in their conservation careers, making the sectors even more white and elite rather then less.
I think the way forward is for all nature conservation and environmental organisations to make diversity a core value. There needs to be monitoring of staff, volunteers and members and diversity needs to be paramount in every project, more than raising money and more than keeping white members happy.
This is what happened in industry when Health and Safety was prioritised above money. All staff and volunteers should be targeted and incentivised to prioritise diversity, for example ensuring that, where possible, jobs are open to all, and advertised where minority ethnic people might see them, which would lead to more racially diverse staff, volunteers and members.
I ask myself, two years after I raised it, why are we still seeing white-only images used
by nature conservation, nature media and environmental organisations and why is nature media almost all white?
Doing nothing is no longer an option. Diversity is an issue for everyone, so when will we start seeing enlightened articles?
Since campaigning on this issue, myself and my mother have been subjected to aggression, racism and Islamaphobia including my mum being shouted down at a Somerset conference.
I would ask readers to stand against racism wherever they see it.