Holly McElroy interviews Mya-Rose Craig about Black2Nature, an inspiring initiative to provide opportunities for VME communities to access and engage with the natural world.
Mya-Rose Craig, also known as Birdgirl, is a British Bangladeshi ornithologist, campaigner and environmentalist living in the Chew Valley. Through bird-watching with her parents at a young age, Mya became passionate about nature, but also aware of the distinct lack of non-white faces on trips out in the English countryside. It was this observation that led to the creation of Black2Nature in 2015, a set of camps which provide access and education about the natural world to teenagers from VME (Visible Minority Ethnic) backgrounds. Since then more than 200 children have taken part in the camps and Mya’s work has been recognised by the University of Bristol, who awarded her an honorary doctorate in science in 2020, making her the youngest British person to receive such an award.
Holly McElroy: So Mya, how exactly did the idea of Black2Nature come to you?
Mya-Rose Craig: I have been going out birding and into nature since I was very young. As I became a little older, when we were out in nature, I noticed that Visible Minority Ethnic (VME) people were absent from the countryside. I wanted to give VME people the same opportunity as others to enjoy and engage with the natural world around us. I was organising a teenage birding camp in Somerset and I soon realized how large the inequality was and wanted to make a change.
Holly McElroy: And so, why did you choose to specifically focus on VME communities for Black2Nature?
Mya-Rose Craig: I chose to focus Black2Nature on providing equal access to VME communities as being half Bangladeshi and therefore VME myself, I understood the lack of access to nature for our communities. English Nature MENE statistics in 2016 showed that 76% of White middle class children were taken out into green spaces weekly, which was 10% less for lower socio-economic children and down to 56% for VME children. This demonstrates that the lack of access to nature is double for VME communities compared to those from lower socio-economic groups.
Holly McElroy: So far, What has been your proudest or most memorable moment in the history of Black2Nature?
Mya-Rose Craig: My proudest moment is when I had my first five VME boys attend my first nature camp in 2015 and they transformed from being bored and unhappy due to not being able to connect with nature or it being made to be relevant to them, to having a fantastic time after nature was made relevant. We did this by talking to them about the speed of a peregrine as it drops for the kill and comparing it to the speed of a formula one car, which they could relate to.
Holly McElroy: Something I have been researching a lot recently is the cultural and religious barriers that often hinder engagement with environmental issues. These ideas are often derived from colonialism, for example, in South Asian communities a woman riding a bicycle can often be frowned upon or seen as a lack of wealth and therefore is not promoted. I wondered if you have identified or experienced any of these barriers in Black2Nature, and if so how did you tackle such issues?
Mya-Rose Craig: I have found through running my camps that for many VME people, camping is very unknown and many parents and children are worried about taking part. At Black2Nature we talk to the parents about how the opportunities will benefit their children significantly. By running the camps for primary school age children, we have found many mums will join us, putting their worries at ease. From taking part in the camps, we have found that many mums ask for camps specifically for them and other women, as they then see how beneficial they would be for them as well. Many children, when they first arrive are extremely scared of dogs, which stems from a cultural fear of dogs based on dogs being guard dogs rather than being kept as pets. Very quickly we address this, the children let their barriers down and soon learn that dogs can be fun, playful pets as well.
Holly McElroy: Why do you think inclusivity is so important in environmentalism and sustainability?
Mya-Rose Craig: Inclusivity is essential in the environmental and sustainability sectors as people cannot be expected to care and want to save our planet if they do not appreciate our planet and everything on it. I believe if you are given opportunities to connect with the nature and wildlife around us, you are much more likely to care about the environment and want to make positive change.
Holly McElroy: And for those out there that say pointing out racial inequality in environmentalism is not helping the cause and distracting attention, how do you respond?
Mya-Rose Craig: I believe that people that say pointing out racial inequality in environmentalism is a distraction from important work are totally wrong. This attitude is exactly why racism is allowed to continue in the sector. The lack of access to nature for VME people must be highlighted, if we are to make change. Huge sectors of disadvantaged people must be included by the environmental sector, as the countryside should be for everyone to enjoy.
Holly McElroy: You speak a lot about institutional racism in the environment sector, in what ways have you experienced this?
Mya-Rose Craig: I was only 13 years old when I started fighting against the racism and inequality within the environmental sector. My young age did not stop birders, conservationists and environmentalists trolling me. Many will make up reasons for hating me, but I believe almost all are motivation by racism and sexism.
I talk a lot about the systemic racism within the environment sector as it is a serious issue that is being ignored. I have grown up within the world of conservation and the environment, where almost every person is White. When we went out, I only ever saw myself, my mum and my sister who were VME, being half Bangladeshi. That was it. This to me was wrong on many levels. I knew inside that I needed to campaign for change. Back then in 2015, all the images on conservation websites and in magazines were only of White people. When I talked to the NGO’s who were telling me that they were keen to discuss ethnic diversity, the organisations dragged their heels and were unwilling to take real action. I have also seen organisations create job opportunities, where the roles involve someone working on diversity, changes that can be made and how the organization can move forward. They think they are moving forwards but then these jobs are filled by White people, who lack the understanding of VME communities.
Holly McElroy: Since 2015 when you started Black2Nature do you think anything has changed at the organisation/ institutional level?
Mya-Rose Craig: Since I began campaigning, I have seen little has changed on the baseline, that is that only 0.6% of environmental professionals are VME. The main change is that organisations seem more interested in communication. There is a huge issue within the environmental sector of tokenism, where VME people are chosen if they are deemed “co-operative” because they never raise racism or ethnic diversity. In 2019, the State of Nature Report listed a number of young people who were the “UK’s most committed and passionate young conservationists”. I was excluded, I believe this is because I am vocal on racism. I have not had a transparent explanation or apology for any of the seventy organisations that contributed to the report.
Holly McElroy: What do you think is the most important thing that could be done on a national level to help facilitate access to the countryside for VME communities?
Mya-Rose Craig: There are a few important factors that would help facilitate access for VME communities into the natural environment. The most important factors are having affordable and quick transport available. VME communities also need job opportunities for people from within their communities, as seeing people who look like them within an organisation makes them feel welcome.
Holly McElroy: What can you tell us about your up-and-coming memoir and plans for the future?
Mya-Rose Craig: I am excited about my up-and-coming book, Birdgirl, which is to be published, by Penguin Random House and Jonathan Cape in Autumn 2022. It is a memoir about my love for nature, birds and my family.