Published on 3 October 2023
Davide Pettinato – RENEW Theme: 2 Research Fellow
This month we celebrate Black History Month both in the US and here in the UK. People of colour often face barriers in accessing and thriving in natural, academic, and professional ‘green spaces’. RENEW Research Fellow Davide Pettinato discusses this systemic issue and the need for systemic action that involves mutual learning between academia and the environmental sector.
People of colour in the UK face systemic barriers in accessing and thriving in natural, academic, and professional ‘green spaces’.
When it comes to natural green spaces, people of colour are mainly affected by three types of barriers:
Working in synergy, these barriers feed into and are perpetuated by racialised narratives rooted in colonial legacies, which frame UK nature as a ‘white space’ and white people as its ‘true’ custodians, whilst stereotyping people of colour as not being legitimate users of natural spaces or nature enthusiasts.
To compound the problem, these racialised narratives and stereotypes can be internalised by people of colour themselves, as a (self-limiting) mechanism to cope with feelings of loss and alienation (e.g. since people of colour in the UK ‘don’t do nature stuff’, some people in these communities may trivialise doing so, or dismiss it as ‘acting white’).
As a result of these systemic barriers, people of colour in the UK are more likely to spend little time in nature and/or to do so only as an exceptional activity, with the majority in these communities (c.60%; compared to c.30% of white people) doing so less than twice a month. This means that people of colour are effectively deprived of equal opportunities to enjoy the physical and psychological benefits of being in nature.
Additionally, their lack of presence in natural spaces feeds a vicious cycle: it reinforces the aforementioned racialised narratives/stereotypes around ‘out-of-placeness’ and it leads to a generational chain of disconnect which, in turn, sustain disenfranchisement and disengagement with nature in these communities.
This is a systemic issue that requires systemic action.
Above: “People of colour are effectively deprived of equal opportunities to enjoy the physical and psychological benefits of being in nature“.
Part of the solution lies in tackling people of colour’s under-representation in academic and professional ‘green spaces’.
In academia, ethnic minorities are significantly less well represented in the environmental sciences compared to other fields, both as students and as academics. On average, only 10% of students pursuing environment-related degrees are black, Asian or mixed, compared to 26% across all subjects. Reflecting broader trends in UK science, the gap becomes sharper in environment-related academic careers: only 9% of academics working in environmental fields are black, Asian or mixed, compared to 16% across all disciplines. The lack of people of colour is even more evident in the non-academic environmental sector, where only 4.81% of staff are black, Asian or from other ethnic minorities, compared to 12.64% across all UK professions.
The current under-representation of experts and leaders of colour within environment-related sectors contributes to a further vicious cycle: as the existing state of affairs makes existing students and staff of colour feel like environmental courses/careers/organisations are ‘not for them’, there is little incentive for prospective students and staff of colour to pursue these educational/professional paths. In turn, this feeds under-representation at senior levels both in the environmental sciences and in environmental organisations, thus leading to the erasure of the lived experiences, concerns and aspirations of ethnic minority communities from environmental policy- and discourse-making.
Addressing the under-representation of people of colour in academic and professional green spaces is thus key not only to enabling people of colour to enjoy equal opportunities to pursue environment-related educational paths and careers. But also, to ensure that academia and the environmental sector maximise their potential for positive change for both people and the planet.
The systemic nature of the issue and the need for systemic action are increasingly being recognised across these sectors.
Above: “To ensure that academia and the environmental sector maximise their potential for positive change for both people and the planet.”
Within the academia, UK Research and Innovation (UKRI) has committed to approach its work on race and ethnicity from a systems perspective and this has been reflected in initiatives by the Natural Environment Research Council (NERC), such as targeted research funding programmes (e.g. Hidden histories of environmental science: acknowledging legacies of race, social injustice and exclusion to inform the future“), paid research experience and training placements for domestic undergraduate students from the black and Asian communities, and funding to support exploring and addressing issues around diversity and inclusion within wider research projects (such as in the case of NERC’s Changing the Environment programme).
Within the environmental sector, Wildlife and Countryside Link—the largest environment and wildlife coalition in England, with 80 member organisations— has recently launched a sector-wide Route Map Towards Greater Ethnic Diversity, which outlines practical actions that key players at all levels in the sector (including CEOs and senior executive leaders) can/should take to pursue long-term, systemic change.
In the context of this shared momentum, universities can play a key role in enabling people of colour to access and thrive in natural, academic and professional green spaces.
Firstly, because universities can address their internal barriers currently preventing the development of a pipeline of environmental leaders of colour, who can both bring their community’s perspectives to the table and inspire other ethnic minority people to pursue environmental degrees and careers.
Above: “Universities can address their internal barriers currently preventing the development of a pipeline of environmental leaders of colour.”
Secondly, because universities have both the resources and expertise required to develop systemic interventions based on detailed, granular data on their students and staff’s ethnicity, as this data often requires qualified statisticians or analysts to be properly explained and used.
Thirdly, because examples of good practice and key lessons can already be identified in academia, as several universities have already started to implement targeted programmes to address ethnic minority under-representation, including at a sectoral level (e.g., the 100 Black Women Professors NOW).
There is not a one-size-fits-all approach. However, principles of strategic thinking around systemic action can be translated between academia and the environmental sector.
RENEW aims to be at the forefront of this process of mutual learning—particularly, through its Theme 2: Community Action. Recognising that many people of colour feel disconnected from biodiversity renewal activities and its beneﬁts, RENEW aims to co-design effective and fair programmes, and leverage existing programmes, to increase beneﬁcial place-based engagement among these communities. For this reason, RENEW is drawing from the University of Exeter’s work with its students and staff of colour and is collaborating with Wildlife and Countryside Link to translate lessons and experiences around ethnic minority under-representation from academia into actionable programmes to be developed, trialled, and embedded by Link’s members, with a focus on the interface between environmental sciences and the conservation sector.
Dismantling the systemic barriers faced by people of colour across green spaces requires systemic action. Mutual learning between academia and the environmental sector is key to achieving this.
Image credit: Andre Hunter - Unsplash | Image credit: Ashim DSilva - Unsplash | Image credit: Surface V - Unsplash