Flock Together

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The under-representation of Black, Brown and POC people in nature is an unsettling truth of the British countryside.

Those with ‘non-white’ heritage are far more likely to be stopped by the police in rural areas; an ignorance pervades in some rustic communities. A deficiency in representation of ethnic minority groups has been acknowledged by many, but the issue of accessibility persists. A blindness extends to our education of non-white stories that have unfolded in our rural areas over centuries. It is presumed that the lived experience of people of colour unfolds in the urban environment, little has been done to challenge this.

Notions of rurality are damaged for many. The image of rural centres and their communities is the antithesis of that associated with cities and towns. Over generations, the understanding has been simplified; the city denotes noise and danger, whilst rural areas are quaint and peaceful. This watered down rendering of the complexities of urban and rural living has contributed to the continuation of discrimination towards people of colour. ‘Urban’ has continually been used to simplify and degrade Black communities, creating an association with the stereotypes of the ghetto. Sometimes through choice, but often through a lack of opportunity, ethnic minority groups have not been granted access to rural spaces due to fears stoked by tropes such as this. For decades government bodies have acknowledged this under-representation, but have failed to improve accessibility in the British countryside. Recent studies have shown that people from Black and Asian backgrounds experienced high levels of depression and anxiety in their lives. The inability to provide opportunity and recreational activity for these groups within the rural setting is an exacerbating factor.

Pastoral Interlude by Ingrid Pollard (Lake District, 1987)

‘A visit to the countryside is always accompanied by a feeling of unease, dread…’ from Pastoral Interlude by Ingrid Pollard.

Photographer Ingrid Pollard (b.1953) released ‘Pastoral Interlude’ in 1987. The body of work challenges the traditional notions of British identity and has retained its poignancy for over three decades. Within it, Pollard confronts the suggestion that the Black experience must be lived in an urban environment. In this assumption, the English landscape - green and pastured land - is exclusively owned and utilised by white people.

‘Pastoral Interlude’ analyses the English involvement and profiteering in the Atlantic slave trade. It looks at elements such as land ownership and economic development and the role these play in characterising the rural idyll as an exclusive setting. Traditional romanticism is profoundly challenged by the images and words of Ingrid Pollard. Solitary figures appear in the work, ‘challenging assumptions of identity and ownership’. Sentiments shared by Pollard still trouble concerned groups today. The 1992 work ‘Wordsworth’s Heritage’ transforms the ‘romantic’ British landscape with images of contemporary black walkers. A precursor and inspiration to modern groups of naturalists seeking to establish their presence in green spaces. With the passing of time, feelings of unease and anxiety toward rurality persist for ethnic minorities. Since Ingrid Pollard’s seminal work, cities have developed. Increasing populations and vast, exclusionary redevelopment projects have squeezed out people of colour. The consumption of cities by ravenous property developers has most often affected people of colour. Gentrification that has defined the decades since ‘Pastoral Interludes’, has not only pushed ethnic minority communities out of the city’s inner rings, but failed to accommodate their presence elsewhere.

The founders of Flock Together, Ollie Olanipekun (centre) and Nadeem Perera (left).

‘We wanted the underrepresentation of Black, Brown and people of colour in nature to be challenged. Why is this not normal? Nature is free, so the barrier to entry is very low’.

The negative experience of rurality for many non-white people has been lifelong. A monoculture still thrives in most villages in Britain; mere miles from diverse urban areas, a demographic shift takes place. Microaggressions that are common in the city are not escaped within the rural setting. These hostilities generate feelings of self-consciousness; the green and pleasant land, a place to marvel at nature, is covert in its exclusion. Some hold the opinion that the countryside is the last bastion of ‘old-fashioned English values’, exhibiting a vocal disdain for the presence of non-white people in their communities. The government is aware of the issue of under representation and has noted that ‘ethnic minorities should be encouraged to visit national parks and other areas of outstanding natural beauty’. Though they acknowledge the ‘whiteness’ of rural England, no recommendation has been made to quash the discomfort felt by people of colour when present in green spaces. For change to be made, it must occur at the grassroots.

Flock Together is one example of an organisation taking action to build shared strength; the birdwatching collective is promoting a safe space for people of colour to enjoy outdoor landscapes. Their presence in the countryside, whilst mastering the art of birding, is a profound and welcome shift from the traditional images of ‘twitchers'. Founders Ollie Olanipekun and Nadeem Perera have experienced the exclusionary stares and comments; they are aware of the social barriers to accessing green spaces that are more prevalent in non-white communities. Their passion for bird-watching is the means with which they are seeking to create enduring change.

The underrepresentation of people of colour within green spaces is the motivation for Flock Together. Their principles, as they develop into a deep support network for people of colour, have established their presence as a trusted collective. Striving to create different ways of being for non-white people, Ollie and Nadeem understand the physical and mental benefits of being present in the natural world. Those benefits are most significant to mental health. Access to green spaces from a young age can reduce the risk of developing a plethora of mental illnesses. People of colour have been starved of the opportunity to alleviate the strains and stresses of city life; to harness the psychiatric benefits of nature in a challenging social climate. The regular outings of the Flock have been spaces of discussion and shared experience. As the worldwide movement grows, Ollie and Nadeem are seeking to champion mental health and understand what the term means to the Black and Brown community.

Mere months into their conception, Flock Together has migrated. A number of international chapters have been established; from Toronto (now onto their third gathering) to New York (who will meet for the first time in March), those who frequent the gatherings have been able to connect and create within a global family. The diverse professional experience of those who attend the walks has contributed to the haste at which the movement has grown. Collaboration across industries has opened up ventures with outdoor clothing brands and encouraged the support of birding organisations.. The manifesto remains the same across time zones. The ambitious founders are striving to embed the tenets of the #BIRDGANG in communities across the world. Their success is guaranteed. The issue of rural representation for people of colour is a prevalent issue across borders. Black, Brown and POC people have a unique opportunity to meet with other people who have similar lived experiences; ‘you can have a safe space for encouragement and support’.

Flock Together have an ecological focus, with the group making a concerted effort to document the wildlife they witness on their outings. Thus challenging the racialised assumptions that people of colour are ‘ill equipped to contribute to conservation and exploration’. Ollie and Nadeem’s passion will change lives. Their love of birding and green spaces will shape the futures of many young people of colour. As a key stakeholder in the conversation of representation, Flock Together is committed to increasing awareness of careers and activities in nature. Young people of colour of past generations have been dissuaded from participating in nature, but the members of Flock Together are altering futures. In decades to come, young people of colour will be well placed to challenge the conventional thought of policy makers thanks to the action of groups such as Flock Together. Communities who are often spoken for within environmentalism will represent themselves, manifesting lasting and positive global change.

Members of Flock Together walking through forest, alert to noises above.

Photographs for this article have been contributed by photographer and filmmaker Will Carr, a member of Flock Together.

If you are interested in joining Flock Together, follow their Instagram for updates of walks in your area!