Lucy McRobert, founder of A Focus On Nature, looks at the journey she has been on working in nature conservation, with suggestions of how we can do better as a sector to diversify
I imagine that this has been a difficult time for many of AFON’s members. One day, students will be sitting their GCSEs and there will be a History question about 2020. Will it be remembered as the worst year, where everything went wrong, or as the year that we rewrote the future for the better?
Many of the societal, health, environmental and economic problems we face globally have been caused by inequality, by racial discrimination. I won’t try to make sense of vast global issues. I would like to talk about how we, the Youth Nature Network in the UK and the wider nature sector, can address some of the wider problems we see today. This has involved a certain amount of self-reflection, self-awareness and soul searching.
There is loads of research highlighting why it’s imperative as a sector that we diversify (see links below). This blog is based on my limited time in the nature sector, explained at times with personal anecdotes and experiences. I’ve tried not to make it about ‘me’, but empathy has been crucial to understanding. I speak only for myself; I don’t represent AFON, its members, supporters or sponsors, and I must reiterate my sincere thanks to them for all that they have done to support both the network and me. There are no accusations; rather, I hope that this can act as a coming together, as we all agree to do significantly more, to try harder.
Apologies for the long read. This is a big topic and I haven’t done it justice. I have made mistakes and I take responsibility for those; the culture accidentally fostered in AFON started with my leadership (which ended in 2016) and I apologise for not doing more to make it an inclusive space for VME communities (see here for an excellent explanation of White Privilege). Much was to do with inexperience. I am still proud of what AFON represents for young voices in the UK; I am deeply aware that to have lasting impact and legacy, it must diversify and be representative of all young people, from all ethnicities.
All the suggestions below are ideas I have recently put into practice in my own work and projects. I am immensely grateful to all those who worked with me, supported me and guided me, and for all those who have believed in AFON. I challenge myself to be better and I challenge you and the conservation movement, too.
1. Challenge outdated or dangerous narratives
For eight years, I have met with senior staff from conservation NGOs and repeatedly heard that “young people aren’t interested in nature.” I still hear it today, when all evidence is to the contrary. One of the biggest organic social movements, Greta Thunberg’s #fridaysforfuture climate strikes, is both environmental and self-directed by young people around the world.
Theories become narratives when they are repeated and unchallenged. I hear the same narratives peddled about VME communities: “they’re not interested in nature!” It is said with regret, with remorse, with the view to making it better, but it is still said. I didn’t challenge these narratives. I heard them from the mouths of people I trusted and admired, so I had no reason to doubt. I learned that organisations are not safe places for constructive criticism. I have often earned the reputation of ‘troublemaker’. Although I can be assertive, I never seek conflict; nonetheless I was sometimes perceived as a threat; I asked questions, gently called out inconsistencies and it wasn’t welcome.
When I started in the conservation sector, I could see that it was predominantly white and this seemed generally accepted; I didn’t challenge the narrative, so inadvertently I perpetuated it. I was so grateful for the support I received from so many individuals, organisations and sponsors it didn’t occur to me to question the framework. To be more diverse is a strategic priority of most environmental NGOs, but they struggle to take this beyond words.
In part thanks to growing friendships and initiatives like #BlackBirdersWeek, I have learned more about groups like the Black Environment Network, POC in Nature, Black Girls Hike, Climate Reframe and Mya-Rose Craig’s Black2Nature – read her thread here. The very existence of these groups shows that mainstream UK conservation isn’t inclusive; if VME communities feel excluded from nature experiences in the UK then that is the fault of the professional organisations and not those communities. We can start by challenging outdated narratives. Question them. Do your own research. Make new contacts.
2. Go the extra mile to start the conversation
A few years ago, I joined my local WI. When I arrived (excited!) I was the youngest in the room by about 30 years, most at least 35 years or more my senior. Initially, it was great fun. However, my friends were all on the committee, so when tea was served, they bustled off. I was left with strangers. I glanced around at the other new starters who were in animated chitchat; those near me suddenly seemed very keen to catch up with friends. I sat smiling and feeling more awkward as each minute passed. This cycle repeated for four meetings. I was even invited to speak to a regional gathering; I accepted enthusiastically, hoping it would lead to assimilation, but I couldn’t escape the uneasiness. After six months I gave up.
No one in the group was unfriendly or unwelcoming. They smiled politely, but not once did anyone ask where I lived, where I worked, or about my family. At the first opportunity, they buried themselves into personal conversations and I wasn’t confident enough to force myself on them. I am sure many breathed a sigh of relief when I stopped coming. The only barrier to unreserved conversation was my age; we were all women and we were all white. But it was clear, that some (maybe a minority) could not understand why I was there; what’s worse, they didn’t attempt to ask.
It is hard to walk into any community as a stranger; we rely on our own self-confidence and the proactive goodwill and welcome of others. When you feel like the outsider, it should be the job of the insiders to make you welcome. I recognise this feeling from being a woman, from being younger than colleagues at times; I can’t imagine what it’s like to walk into an entirely white room as a VME. The self-doubt I have felt can be summed up: is this a safe space for me to be myself?
It should not rest on the shoulders of anyone to sit quietly at the back of the room and work gradually to be accepted. This applies to any office, local wildlife group, discussion forum and online communities. It’s too easy for people to hide behind friendships and cliques. As a predominantly white community we need to be better at proactively engaging VMEs in conservation and nature; inviting them to the conversation, asking their opinions and empowering them to lead.
3. Get the right people on your bus
A team is always most effective when the right people are doing the right jobs: the right people on a metaphorical bus. The current employment system is designed to minimise discrimination; however, it can also cover it up. The system is obsessed with professional experience and examples of your work, and I understand why. Faced with 120 job applications you need to be able to compare them fairly. To change this will require a wholesale re-evaluation of how we employ people.
I have read around 400 job applications and virtually none were from VME backgrounds. I have never interviewed a VME. We must stop hiding behind false narratives to justify this; if black people aren’t applying for jobs in nature conservation, that is the fault of the employer. We must look at who is writing the job description; what job we actually want doing; where it is advertised; what skillsets we expect and whether these are fair, achievable and representative for all; who was consulted on the role; who is conducting the interviews; fostering internal cultures that accommodate change; and making sure that our outward appearances are safe spaces. Is flexible or home working an option? Are we asking for unnecessary qualifications? Do we truly accommodate childcare? This is for starters, before we even go near the issue of making sure all young people have equal opportunities to access to nature from an early age.
I have recently seen roles advertised by the NGOs specifically working in diversity. If part of your role is to actively engage with women, then it makes sense to favour employing a woman. A young person could well do better at youth engagement. This isn’t discrimination – it is common sense based on natural empathy. What about VME communities? I believe that many white employers are nervous about employing a VME to this role (or even other jobs); they might say things that make staff feel uncomfortable, call out institutional racism, challenge workplace culture, push for change.
In addition to the skills and knowledge, VMEs bring different experiences to a workplace. It is hard to say, “I’ve experienced racism and know how to call it out” on a CV or in an interview. This language is perceived as threatening, it might upset the apple cart and so employers hide behind processes and give the job to the ‘best’ person that they can reasonably justify. To confront this, CEOs need to do more than send staff on courses; they need to take personal responsibility for making sure that their people, especially in HR, are anti-racist and anti-discriminatory to their core; that they recognise talent, knowledge and experiences beyond those on paper; and that they are unafraid to be challenged and to change.
4. Go beyond listening – learning and action
There are different kinds of listening – attentive, emphatic, active and critical – and we must be self-aware of the kinds of ways that we are listening to people from VME communities when they explain their experiences. There’s a big difference between inviting someone to the table as a gesture and being able to self-critically reflect on what they’re telling you. When it comes to institutional racism, as a white person true listening is probably going to make you feel uncomfortable. I have felt it, deeply. People react in different ways – defensively, dismissively, awkwardly, apologetically, aggressively; keep the conversation focused on the issue and not about how you’re feeling. You can examine your feelings later; focus on listening and what you’re going to take away from the conversation by way of positive, meaningful actions.
There are organisations in the UK that give a voice and representation to VME nature communities. I wonder how often the traditional conservation organisations have made a point of inviting those organisations to the table, in issues other than those of race. Have they been included in discussions on rewilding or health and wellbeing? What about landscape-scale partnership projects? Or local or national advocacy campaigns? Or topics like a Natural History GCSE? Have we ever provided a platform to promote VME community campaigns or included them as equal partners?
Not only should we reach out beyond our own bubbles to include VME communities, but that metaphorical table needs to be a level playing ground. It’s no good inviting one person from that organisation and then have ten of your own (white) staff attend; the dynamic changes too drastically. Here’s a thought – you could even pay for their time, expertise and knowledge. When you’ve had those conversations, you should walk away knowing that things must change and that this is the start of your journey; with ideas for how to make change happen; and knowing that this is just the first conversation of many. Partnership working is key.
5. Give profile and voice to VME communicators
I have heard it said about VME television broadcasters and communicators, “they’re only on because they’re black.” The same goes for women. This is discrimination, brought about by closed-mindedness. As a nature-loving community, we constantly search for “experts”. The nature takes centre stage, and the mouthpiece, the presenter, is seen to many white viewers as irrelevant. We need to break this self-perpetuating cycle. We look for people like ourselves as role models and are discouraged by people perceived as unlike us. I would never go into politics looking at the UK government, but when I look to New Zealand, Finland, Iceland, Taiwan, with their outstanding, empathetic female leaders, I do wonder.
There’s a trend for finding ‘experts’ and broadcasters using social media channels; a television producer looking for an expert in, say, marine biology, puts a call out on Twitter and 300 ‘aspiring marine biologists’ quickly jump on board. I’ve seen the same method used for sourcing speakers, lecturers, presenters. It’s perceived as being ‘fair’, as anyone can respond if they want to. Two problems emerge: first, it produces a pile-on effect; you now have 300 people, 299 of whom are going to be disappointed. What self-appointed power you have! The more confident will revel in this new method of recruitment, whilst others (equally talented and capable) will be put off. Secondly, the chances of reaching beyond your bubble are very slim.
This process stems from laziness. People can’t be bothered to do the research, so they ask the masses to flock to them. It’s as far from fair as you can get. It rewards shouting, supreme self-confidence, a minor addiction to social media. The chances of a VME voice being heard is slim. Rather than sorting through 300 Twitter applications, plan your projects from the start and think about all the above. Do your research, don’t ask a group of self-selecting strangers to do it for you. Who should be on your bus? What will they bring to your table? Are you happy to listen to them, adapt, change and edit accordingly? What message are you sending the world? Do your research and proactively approach people, even if you don’t know them. Accept that they may challenge you, and that’s okay. Will you acknowledge their criticisms and grow as a person? Challenge yourself to go beyond your own bubble and think about someone else’s experiences. Seek expertise and guidance and input at every stage.
We are getting better as a nature community at profiling VME nature lovers, but we have such a long way to go. As I near my graduation from AFON (30 in November!), I feel it has achieved some amazing things. I fell foul, accidentally, of so much of the above. We can all change that. Thank you to all of you for your ongoing support of AFON; together we have achieved something amazing, and together we have so much more yet to achieve.
Further reading and research – there’s lots more!
Black Environment Network – http://www.ben-network.org.uk/
POC in Nature – https://www.facebook.com/pocinnature/
Black2Nature - http://www.birdgirluk.com/2020/01/black2nature.html
Climate Reframe - https://climatereframe.co.uk/
Black Girls Hike - https://www.facebook.com/bghmcr/
Black Lives Matter – Resources for the outdoor community - https://www.ukhillwalking.com/articles/features/black_lives_matter_-_resources_for_the_outdoor_community-12826?fbclid=IwAR0oKX3vH6Ty4eEJwm9JuHHjvJ1ug24zPaQFAOQ0JWd3S-bX6cdr4flGlUk
Sheffield Environment Network - http://www.semcharity.org.uk/
Does Nature Conservation Represent Society? - https://www.discoverwildlife.com/people/diverse-nature/
Why every environmentalist should be anti-racist - https://www.vogue.com/article/why-every-environmentalist-should-be-anti-racist
The anxiety of hiking in the woods: https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2018/jul/13/hiking-african-american-racism-nature
Ensuring equal access to the outdoors for black and ethnic minority communities - https://adventureuncovered.com/stories/ensuring-equal-outdoor-access-for-the-uk-s-black-and-ethnic-minority-communities/
Sorrel Lyall’s SurveyMonkey on making nature more inclusive - https://twitter.com/SorrelLyall/status/1271345459941031939