This week we’re speaking with “Birdgirl,” Dr. Mya-Rose Craig: British Bangladeshi ornithologist, environmentalist and equal rights campaigner about equal access to green spaces and dismantling traditionalist views of nature engagement.
Could you tell us a little about yourself and your work relating to ethnicity and the environment sector?
I’m Mya-Rose, I’m eighteen, and I’ve been doing work around engagement with ethnic minority communities for about six years now. I am half Bangladeshi, and as someone who has always had a really strong connection with nature, became very aware of the lack of other people that looked like me out in green spaces from a relatively young age. So, at thirteen, I organised a nature camp, and the only people that signed up were white teenage boys. I was like, ‘This isn’t really what I wanted from this, I’m going to go and find some kids.’ I got a bunch of kids from inner-city Bristol who were Black or Asian and brought them out onto this camp. That ended up being the first Black2Nature camp. It was really important for various reasons, but mainly because the narrative at the time was definitely like, ‘Oh, these people just don’t want to engage with nature.’ That was my very first step into race engagement activism in the nature sector. Next summer, I organised the ‘Race Equality and Nature’ conference with big organisations like the Wildlife Trust and RSPB. About six months later, I just wasn’t seeing any change or improvement, so I officially set up my charity Black2Nature.
I’m really interested to hear you mention that narrative, the cliché almost, that ethnic minorities are not interested in the environment, because I have encountered some research suggesting ethnic minorities are in fact more concerned about issues like climate change and biodiversity than White British people. Could you tell us more about the Black2Nature initiative? Black2Nature has been running since 2016. We’ve run about twelve camps to bring people out of the city and into the countryside. Historically, we’ve worked in Bristol and the Southwest, but we’re expanding this summer, running a longer camp for kids from London. We do all sorts of grassroots work, connecting people with nature and the outdoors, quite often for the first time, but also campaigning, working with and advising organisations behind-the-scenes. That resonates quite deeply with the research that we’ve been doing at the moment, speaking to environmental organisations; their anxieties around doing or saying the wrong thing on race-related issues… seeking guidance. In your experience, what are the barriers precluding equal access to nature? One of the biggest barriers was the type of person already existing in the sector. It was full of white liberals who felt like they knew best. It’s funny that you mentioned them needing that guiding hand, because when we first started our work, they absolutely didn’t want to listen to us. They felt they knew best on these issues despite being all white. Historically, that’s been a big issue, because even if they had wanted to engage these communities, there was a complete lack of understanding as to how. Many people didn’t feel comfortable having conversations suggesting the sector, or their organisations, might be racist or discriminatory in some way. They felt like it wasn’t on them because they weren’t actively barring people from nature. We uncovered a range of other issues too; that many people just don’t have appropriate clothing for spending time outdoors, or the real cultural fear of dogs in a lot of these communities, alongside broader systemic issues. We had mums not wanting their teenagers hanging out in parks, worried they were going to be racially profiled by the police thinking they were involved in gang activity. A lot of people didn’t want to venture into the countryside because they felt it was white and elitist, and they’re not entirely wrong. It is very white and elitist in a lot of the countryside. These issues are complex and tied in with other issues in the UK, whether that’s racism or class.
And could you speak to why you feel it’s important no-one be excluded from experiencing the natural environment?
In terms of the actual camps we run, it’s really important for the kids because, for a lot of them, it’s the first time they’ve left the city. We also have conversations about school and their future, which is important because a lot of these kids are experiencing racism or discrimination in school and we’re often the first people to help them with that. It’s also incredibly important in terms of both mental and physical wellbeing. Ethnic minority communities in the UK are really struggling with mental illness. They’re highly disproportionately represented in terms of the population being sectioned in the UK. It’s a really big issue. Giving children tools to manage their own wellbeing is really important, so we talk a lot to the kids about how, if they’re sad or stressed, they should go to the local park, because nature has proven mental health benefits. Studies show spending thirty minutes in green spaces once a week could reduce risk of depression by about seven percent. The fact that there are massive sections of the UK population who aren’t engaging with nature has a really negative knock-on effect.
I was interested to hear that, when you first started these conversations, there was so little interest, especially as, at the moment, there seems to be a sector-wide drive toward diversity and inclusion. So, it’s really interesting to hear from somebody who has been working in this area for quite a while, that that’s actually not always been the case. Do you think adequate effort is currently being made across the nature sector to begin breaking down these barriers?
I think a lot of people forget it took years to have those conversations happen. It was an uphill battle. Where we’re at now is really interesting, because in lockdown people have realised the importance of going outside. There’s been a lot of conversations around access to green spaces and I think the nature sector is very aware of their role there. Also, Black Lives Matter last summer made people think about their organisation’s relationship with race and discrimination and whether they were truly playing their part. We’ll have to wait and see whether or not that turns into effective action.
What do you think the nature sector is doing to address these barriers?
The main thing that I’ve been talking to them about, for years at this point, has been core values, which is basically talking to them about the fact that they can’t, if they truly want to solve this issue, have a single diversity officer for their organisation in the corner. It has to be a core value of their organisation, something that they’re constantly thinking about when giving out funding, when launching new projects. That’s the biggest problem really. It’s very easy to have a single small project somewhere working with kids from inner city areas and be like, ‘Yeah, we are working to solve this issue,’ when in reality it has to be woven into what they’re doing as an organisation.
I think also, things that are relatively small or low level make a massive difference, like the type of imagery that was being used. Imagery is so important in terms of subliminally telling people, especially kids, that this isn’t somewhere they belong. So, that’s been a massive turnaround. Now if I pick up a magazine, it will be incredibly diverse inside. Things like that, that are relatively small, can make a massive difference.
One of the things I’ve taken from what you’ve said, that’s resonated with me given the research we’ve been doing, is this idea that it might seem now, after the most recent wave of Black Lives Matter protests and such, that these organisations are on fire for becoming more inclusive, but actually that’s not always been the case, and years of work has gone into getting us to this point. What else would you ideally like to see happening in the nature sector to make it more inclusive of ethnic minorities and their concerns?
I think there’s lots of different things that are going to be really important going forward. The thing that people forget, is that this isn’t just diversity for the sake of diversity, even though that is important within itself, but that we are going through environmental crises at the moment, and we need everyone on board. Excluding massive sections of our population is never going to be conducive to getting loads of work done. Something that I’ve had to do myself, is to really confront, within the UK, what a privilege it currently is to spend time in the countryside and in green spaces and the way it’s been like that historically. You can only really do it if you have enough time, energy, money and resources. It can get really expensive really quickly, and I think a lot of these conversations are not necessarily tied down to the real world when, at the end of the day, things like time and money make or break things like this for many people.
I think we need to reassess our view of what engaging with nature even is in the first place, because we’ve got, particularly again in the UK, a very narrow, traditionalist view of what engaging with nature is and, in reality, that just doesn’t interest a lot of people, especially people living in urban areas, regardless of race. I think by widening that perspective, you bring a lot of people into the fold immediately. I think also reassessing the environmentalist narrative, because engaging people on environmental issues, there’s always an expectation for people to have the time and the energy to be really caring about an animal they’ve never seen before or something like that when, in reality, people are busy and really struggling within their own lives. So, tying it back to people and the way that it affects them now, not in the future, is such an important way to engage people. A lot of it is to do with shifting the narratives surrounding all of this.
If you could deliver one key message to the conservation and environment sector, wanting to address these inequalities more effectively, what would it be?
That I think that this is the single most important issue within UK environmentalism. People have been talking about this since the 80s, and it’s important for so many reasons; for engaging people in the environmental movement, for their own health and wellbeing, but it also feels like these organisations are shooting themselves in the foot not to want to engage with massive sections of the population. I’d say you’ve got all of these issues going on in the UK like biodiversity loss, like climate change, and people have no reason to care if they’ve never been out to the countryside, if they’ve never experienced UK wildlife for themselves.
You can hear more from Mya-Rose and keep up-to-date with her work at...