Diversity in birding: why it matters
BTO's Jamey Redway reflects on diversity in birding, and how organisations like BTO play a role in making birding more inclusive.
Since September 2018 she has worked as part of the Supporter Team as Supporter Assistant, helping support members and Garden BirdWatchers through their journey with BTO.
My deep love for wildlife, especially birds, has been born and nurtured by the landscapes I have grown up with; happy memories of family holidays in Devon, playing in woodlands and hopping over stepping stones nestled amongst babbling streams. When I was nine, my family moved from a small Hertfordshire town up to the Suffolk countryside. With a large garden and unlimited time on a child’s hands, I was unstoppable; turning over every stone, spying on all the creatures that dwelled in the pond, climbing trees, and often coming home far messier than my mum would have liked. I remember seeing animals such as Foxes, Cinnabar Moths and Red Deer for the first time and how magical those encounters were for me.
When the time came to grow up and think about careers, all I wanted to do was to work in nature conservation. However, it was only when I reached university, that I realised … something was different. I began to ask the question: why was I one of the only Black people choosing a career in an environmental subject? There was a noticeable difference between the numbers of white and Black students.
This pattern continued to unfold as I progressed within the conservation sector, as well as when I visited nature reserves or took part in wildlife events. I usually found myself to be the only Black person in attendance. Whilst the atmosphere was generally welcoming at these venues, I could not help but feel slightly isolated and different from my peers, which often led me to feel like I didn’t belong, or perhaps that I had made the wrong decisions when thinking about my career.
To me, there must have been an obvious reason as to why this kept coming up again and again, but I just couldn’t put my finger on the answer. Doing some research, and attending events specifically about diversity in this sector, I realised I was not the only one who had noticed this. It became clear that barriers take shape in many different forms, such as socioeconomic status or location, which can often lead to minorities being unable to experience nature in the same way as a white British, middle-class person may do.
One of the barriers which really stood out to me was representation, which can play a large part in engaging VME (Visually Minority Ethnic) communities. Lack of representation makes it hard for individuals to envisage themselves within that organisation or that they fit in at that event, by not having role models or simply people from the same background as themselves that they can identify with.
Microaggressions and overt prejudice also immediately create an unwelcoming atmosphere, so that even if VME individuals do attend events, join a naturalists club, or visit wildlife reserves, such negative encounters will make it unlikely that they will return. This is something I have experienced many times; often, I get the impression that my presence at a nature reserve is something met with suspicion, despite me holding binoculars and a field guide. I frequently had people stare at me with curiosity and intrigue, which can be unnerving, especially when on my own. I occasionally birdwatch at the weekend with my (white) partner. If we are ever spoken to by any of the surrounding birdwatchers, asking us what we have seen etc., these queries are usually directed towards my partner and it is assumed that I am merely there because he has ‘dragged me along. These are what I consider microaggressions, based on either my skin colour or gender.
It is often said, and quite rightly so, that nature is for everyone. However, I cannot ignore the opportunities my parents presented to me, with encouragement to spend time outdoors, and holidays to Scotland, Devon and Cornwall, which have all fuelled my love for wildlife. In essence, I realised that nature is only for everyone who is privileged enough to access it. And if they can access it, are they made to feel welcome?
Now I have noticed that some people (primarily through Twitter and other social media platforms) “don’t think there is a problem at all”. Or that we are “creating a problem out of thin air”. Or that these subjects have “no place in birdwatching”. Or that they “don’t see colour – everyone is equal, so surely pointing out race causes a further divide..?”. These attitudes, I find, completely dismiss many people's lived experiences. The stories that have been shared from #BlackBirdersWeek alone have highlighted there is a problem, let alone the visible lack of diversity in the conservation sector. Dismissing these stories, or refusing to try and understand, gives a strong sense of belittling which further enhances the problem.
Whilst #BlackBirdersWeek is considered to be more of an American movement, I feel it is important for the UK to recognise that there is still a noticeable lack of representation from VME communities in the conservation sector as well, and that we need to raise awareness of this. Despite the movement coming about from horrible circumstances, in a way, I felt grateful to have that platform to bring this issue to the forefront of people's minds and make these connections with others who can relate.
There are individuals like myself, who are hungry for change and want to make a difference. I have been determined to develop and enhance BTO’s approach about how we tackle the issue of diversity in environmental sciences by setting up the Diversity Working Group to create a more inclusive environment for our staff, members and volunteers.
You may ask that whilst it is all very well me writing this article to raise awareness, what are we actually doing to really enforce change? It is easy for organisations to make empty promises, to tick boxes, or to achieve the “correct” ratio of VME to white employees. This, I feel, is the wrong way of going about the problem, and is clearly tokenistic. Organisations firstly need to be willing to show empathy, and to listen & learn, even if this can sometimes be uncomfortable. They need to actually reach out to minorities and ask what they could be doing to improve diversity and what they could do to be more inclusive. These discussions need to be opened up to the wider community and other NGOs, as opposed to just current supporters. It will need the collective voices of EVERYONE (not just the VME community) to come together and listen, in order to come to a solution.
This includes individuals from within an organisation too – corporate statements and the occasional social media posts are not enough. We need to be strong in our values as an inclusive organisation. These must be applicable to everyone and we should not make any exceptions for unacceptable behaviour.
Organisations firstly need to be willing to show empathy, and to listen & learn, even if this can sometimes be uncomfortable.
I am by no means an expert on the subject of diversity. Most of what I have learnt about discrimination I have had to learn on my own, as I grew up in a predominately white area, and was raised by my white mother. It was hard to really connect with my heritage, and I often had moments where I felt conflicted about my identity. During the recent #BlackBirdersWeek and Black History Month in October, I have felt this overwhelming sense of guilt and grief; I feel like I should be doing more to promote diversity as a mixed-race individual. As I live in rural Suffolk, I feel so distant from Black communities and groups working towards change. However, while this can be quite isolating, I do feel motivated to carry on and encourage others to do better. Whilst my voice is one of many, it is still important to speak out.
I feel proud to work for BTO and to receive the support of my colleagues. I would like to use this opportunity to reach out now and invite your comments or suggestions about what BTO could be doing to improve. We realise that diversity covers many minorities, not just VME, so we want to hear your thoughts on these areas too. Please contact the Diversity Working Group, or leave your thoughts in the comments. We would love to hear from you.
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