The environmental sector is institutionally racist.
You are unlikely to hear those words explicitly said, even though it is true, because it is an uncomfortable truth.
The sector has been accused of other things too – sexism and classism – but it is the unmentionable racism that is arguably the largest issue.
Minority ethnic people make up 13 percent of the UK population, according to government figures, yet the 2015 Labour Force Survey shows that a minute 0.6 percent of environmental professionals are non-white.
This makes the environmental sector the least ethnically diverse after gardening (which has 0.2 percent non-white professionals). This is particularly worrying because we are facing a number of environmental crises in the UK and globally, while an entire section of our population has been alienated by the very people who should be engaging with them.
I am half Bangladeshi, and ever since I was a child I have been keenly aware of the lack of people like me out in Nature in Britain. In 2015, when I was 13, I set up Camp Avalon to engage inner-city and minority ethnic children and teenagers with Nature. I decided to run this event, and eight more over the next four years, because I felt that other children and teenagers like me did not have the opportunity to experience and engage with Nature and I wanted to give them the chance to do so.
On the very first day I learnt an important lesson. Five boys who were attending the camp were supposed to be birdwatching, but instead of looking through their binoculars they were chatting and showing very little interest in the ducks.
Then one of our younger volunteers started talking to them about peregrine falcons, describing the speed of one of these birds and comparing it to a Formula One car. The boys instantly perked up. I suddenly realised what should have been blindingly obvious: to engage people with the environment you have to make it relevant to them.
I try to help every single child and teenager attending one of my camps to engage with Nature in their own way.
To do this, I offer a wide range of activities, from wildlife art and photography to bird ringing. Minority ethnic role models are also essential: people who can understand the young people’s backgrounds and experiences, as well as being trusted figures in their communities.
In addition to my sister, my mother and me acting as ethnic minority Nature-loving role models, I try to have others at the camps doing the same.
For example, 23-year-old biologist Sarina Saddiq attended the last camp and was able to demonstrate to the teenagers how young people like them can enjoy and study wildlife. Most of the children have never been to the countryside or a Nature reserve before joining the camp.
Unfortunately, getting funding for our camps has been a struggle, as many funders have little understanding of our work or the communities we work with. The Institute of Fundraisers recognised the lack of ethnic diversity in their sector as a problem in August 2019, when they published their plan for tackling the issue.
I wanted to explore the barriers that discourage minority ethnic people from connecting with Nature, so in 2016 I ran a conference called Race Equality in Nature.
The event brought together people fromhe big Nature NGOs and race experts from minority ethnic communities to find out what the issues were. It highlighted a wide range, from not having appropriate outdoor clothing to a feeling that being in the countryside put visible minority ethnic people at risk of hate crime.
Everyone worked together to find ways to overcome these barriers and produced a list of action points. As a result, I set up the not-for-profit Black2Nature to campaign for visible minority ethnic people to have equal access to Nature – in the same way that we should all have equal access to health care and education.
In October 2019 I ran a second conference, to look at the action needed to get young minority ethnic people working in the sector.
My first proposal was that there should be zero tolerance to racism and that calling it out should be encouraged and supported. My second was that environmentalists need to acknowledge that almost all those in their sector, as white British people, have benefited from racism in our society, because it has given them privileges over minority ethnic people.
It’s a frustrating picture, but things are changing. Some organisations are thinking about diversity and taking action such as training staff.
The next steps are to make diversity a core value, employ visible minority ethnic people to coordinate projects geared towards their demographic, and form mutually respectful partnerships with like-minded organisations that have expertise in their communities.
If the environmental sector fails to become ethnically diverse, it fails to bring on board an increasingly large section of our society.
It will not have the widespread support it needs to stop climate breakdown, create sustainable cities or save the million species that are predicted to become extinct. We have to engage everyone in our society if we are to succeed in turning the tide of the environmental crisis.
Mya-Rose Craig is a naturalist, conservationist and environmentalist. She is president of Black2Nature and blogs as birdgirl. This article was first published in Resurgence & Ecologist magazine.