Spending time in nature is widely understood to be beneficial to both our mental and physical wellbeing, however for many people in the UK access to green space is a privilege.
Research has shown that 40% of people from Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic (BAME) and Visible minority Ethnic (VME) backgrounds live in places which are the most green space-deprived England.
Environment Journal spoke to Dr Mya-Rose Craig – aka BirdGirl – about her mission to rectify racial-ethnic inequalities in the environmental context by organising conferences and establishing Black2Nature, her organisation which sets-up camps in the Somerset countryside to promote VME teens engaging with nature.
Yet, evidence has shown that children and teens from VME families were nearly 20% less likely to access green space than those from non-VME families. The Covid-19 pandemic has exacerbated these inequalities and further exposed how essential it is to have access to the natural environment.
VME communities in the UK have historically lacked the opportunity to get out into nature and explore the countryside. The countryside has predominantly been populated by white British people who can afford to live there, which has inevitably pulled first-generation VME families to the cities when they first migrated here.
Mya, who is British Bangladeshi, has been long-aware of these social divisions. Mya grew up in the incredibly rural area of Somerset and described growing up with no one else that looked like her out in nature.
She told Environment Journal that as a child she found this lack of diversity to be extremely upsetting.
Mya, herself, has a very strong connection with nature, built from experiences since she was first taken bird-watching at 9-days-old. She strongly believes that people from all ethnicities and backgrounds should have the same opportunities as she has had to be connected with nature.
For Mya, the main inspiration behind Black2Nature was American summer camps for various hobbies, including bird-watching.
‘When I was 13 I decided to run a similar summer camp so that I could hang out with kids my age who were interested in the same things,’ she said.
In the months prior to that summer, Mya had been becoming more conscious about social issues concerning race and ethnicity. So, when she was organising that first camp (Camp Avalon) and only white boys signed-up, she realised that something had to change.
‘The point of the camp was to promote togetherness, meaning VME teenagers must be encouraged to come, along with people from different backgrounds. In the end, I managed to get 5 VME boys from inner-city Bristol to come – success,’ she said.
However, it was not an easy task to encourage VME teens to come to her summer camps.
‘You cannot expect people to suddenly change their minds and want to go outside when there are so many barriers dissuading them’ she said.
The main challenge, Mya explained, was ‘convincing parents that their children should come away for the weekend – and this came down to knowing trusted figures in the VME communities’.
Other things were also important in putting the parents at ease. Back at the ‘Racism in the environment sector’ Green Alliance conference in September, Mya explained that offering ‘halal meals’ was reassuring for Muslim parents, for example.
With nine completed so-far, plus some more family day trips this summer during the pandemic, Black2Nature has been a total success story.
According to Mya, the key has been encouraging teenagers to engage with the wildlife in their own terms – ‘not in the traditional British way’ – by which she meant being too serious or only identifying species with books.
Making wildlife and nature relevant to the teenagers was also crucial. To illustrate this, Mya said ‘at one camp a volunteer was chatting to some of the boys about Peregrine Falcons and compared their speed to Formula 1 race-cars’.
‘A light bulb went off,’ she explained. ‘It turned out the thing we were trying to introduce was so alien to them and their life experiences that they were counting themselves out before they had even given it a chance’.
But why is wildlife an alien concept to many VME teenagers?
For one, the countryside tends to be the only place people can get access to green space and yet, getting there from the inner-city on public transport can be expensive. Cities, in general, lack green spaces for locals to access, and poorer areas (oftentimes populated with VME communities) tend only to offer very run-down parks.
In environmental organisations, too, systemic discrimination against VME people prevails. Mya explained that a lot of organisations can get defensive about this, claiming that they ‘are not stopping….them (VME people), and it is not our fault they are not going into nature’.
However, Mya added ‘whilst this may technically be true, it does not recognise that there are barriers and how to solve them’.
Ignorance in the environmental sector has also provided its own set of difficulties for Mya in running Black2Nature.
She is currently waiting to transition to charity status to attract new funders in order to expand the organisation and appeal to VME teenagers from other cities. However, she told Environment Journal that this has been a journey of bewildering paperwork and frustrations with the Charity Commission.
According to Mya, the commission hesitated to grant Black2Nature charity status.
She said they asked Mya ‘what benefit would there be in running a charity that runs nature camps for VME teenagers when statistics show VME people do not go out into nature?’
So, what must we do to rectify discrimination and inequality in the environmental context?
‘The thing I feel most strongly about is that the conversations people ask to have with me versus the amount of output I see at the other end is massively unbalanced,’ she replied.
‘There has been positive action come out of some conversations and that’s good – that’s what I want to see more of.’
Photo Credit – Mya-Rose Craig (Supplied)