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  • Aneira Rose, Charles Ogunbode.

Ethics, faith & collaboration: Zarina Ahmad on enhancing ethnic diversity in the environment sector

This week we are speaking with Zarina Ahmad, former Climate Change Communicator and Trainer with CEMVO Scotland, WEN Advisor, and PhD student with Manchester University's Sustainable Consumption Institute, about keys to enhancing ethnic diversity in the UK environment sector.


Could you tell us a little about yourself and about your work?

My name is Zarina Ahmad, and I started working in the environment sector over a decade ago. I soon found that people of colour were largely excluded and was shocked by the racism that exists in the sector. That led to me working for a race equality organisation, and to begin linking my passion for the environment with race equality and inclusion. Much of my work has been engaging with the Scottish Government and their Climate Challenge Fund (CCF), ensuring ethnic minority communities across Scotland are accessing the funding: helping develop projects, putting funding applications together, providing the relevant training, and supporting them throughout their climate action journey. From 2008-2012, there were actually only three ethnic minority projects funded through the CCF. Since I started working with them, we've had over 150 ethnic minority led projects, so there's been a huge shift.

Following on from that work, I established the Ethnic Minority Environmental Network, because there were so many people of colour interested in environmental issues beyond just climate change. There were also people of colour working within white-majority environmental non-governmental organisations (ENGOs) with no support network, and ENGOs themselves struggling to diversify. For me personally, the network was about not being the only person of colour in stakeholder meetings, working groups, or representing ethnic minorities in policy and decision-making because, critically, there is always diversity within diversity. So, having one solitary Black or brown representative is totally inadequate and creates a potential for misrepresentation of ethnically diverse communities.

More recently, I've begun a PhD researching the sustainable food practices of British Pakistani women, because often ethnic minorities have inherited sustainable practices that go unrecognised, are undervalued, or even suppressed. To me, part of that suppression is the legacy of colonialism. Using an example like growing your own food; many people, especially from South Asia, came from farming backgrounds, but had to move away after the British Empire undervalued that lifestyle. So, they aspired to become like the West, leave agriculture behind to pursue materialistic success and move towards other valued careers; becoming doctors, lawyers, or engineers, for example. It became an embarrassment or sign of poverty to have to grow your own food. I remember as a child going up and down the streets, looking and thinking, that garden belongs to an Asian family because they're growing fruit and veg. Those were the messy gardens, and all I wanted was a neat garden full of rose bushes like the white women had. I believe that there are a number of behaviours that are signs of that post-colonialist legacy which still have an impact on people of colour in this country, which we do not discuss enough and that ENGOs are often totally unaware of.

This is exactly the kind of important knowledge that is just lost without substantial, credible reports and research coming out of the work people like myself have been doing with ethnically diverse communities. In fact, there’s this myth that these communities aren’t engaged, aren’t doing anything, or aren’t interested in the environment, because their efforts and concerns are consistently unacknowledged. I do think funders especially have a responsibility to make reporting and knowledge sharing part of funding requirements, so all this learning doesn’t continue to be wasted or whitewashed. That's why I was so excited by your research, because it was so needed. I'm a huge fan of what you've done.

Thank you very much. And why do you think ethnic minorities are so persistently underrepresented in the UK environment sector?

There are multiple reasons. One of the reasons often given by think tanks, policy makers, and ENGOs is that there just isn't a pool of ethnic minority representatives available to call upon to be involved in strategy or decision-making. I’d challenge that, because I think there is a big enough pool of representatives, but that mainstream organisations don't do the extra legwork or allocate sufficient resources to find out who and where they are. Instead, they have their pet organisations who they continue to go to for information or engagement because that’s what’s easiest. It requires the least effort. It's the low hanging fruit. But if you truly want to engage everybody, particularly typically marginalised or underrepresented groups, you have to go beyond that. You have to be willing to put in that legwork, allocate those resources, and that's where I believe the biggest hurdle is, because if you go beyond that bare minimum approach you can get that information, and tap into a wealth of knowledge.

Secondly, I do think there is structural and systemic racism at the root of ethnic minority underrepresentation on environmental concerns. Often this is played out in whose voices aren’t being heard. Who isn’t round the table? Who isn’t being included? Whose concerns are not reflected in policy making? The perspectives of ethnic minorities working in the sector are often undervalued or dismissed by think tanks and mainstream organisations as these are the views of the minority group and do not fit with the majority narrative. I have seen first-hand how the voices of my colleagues from ethnic backgrounds are rarely heard. Despite their many years of professional experience gained in the sector, their experience and knowledge are often sidestepped and their promotion unthinkable. Their opinions and experience just aren’t as readily taken on board.

From the perspective of ethnic minorities themselves, one challenge is their not knowing enough about different environment sector jobs and career pathways. For many, it’s not a traditional career path to take, particularly as the jobs available tend to be entry level jobs with relatively low pay. They’re just not very attractive jobs, and I think there’s work to be done to make them more appealing and more accessible. I also think the messaging and narratives around environmental issues and climate change are often not relevant to ethnically diverse communities. There’s a lack of communication literacy which takes into account tailored and bespoke messaging suitable for different communities to connect to.

And what would you say to people and organisations who don’t see why this chronic underrepresentation of ethnic minorities in the environment sector is so concerning?

Well, research shows the environment sector is the least diverse in the UK second only to agriculture. That is alarming in itself, especially given that environmental issues are among the most important and all-encompassing challenges facing society today. So, the key question really is why is it not a priority for ENGOs? Can they not see they're not diverse? Additionally, and the reason I personally became involved in this work, is because the environment sector talks about equality all the time; about equal spaces, about living together and sustainable lifestyles. There’s this core rhetoric around ethics, but where are the human ethics in all of this? Where is that concern for equality and those ethics when it comes to human beings? They want this world to be harmonious; for humans to live harmoniously with the animal kingdom, with plant life. At times we hear talk about climate justice, the global South and inequalities elsewhere in the world but marginalised people of colour within this country, who are being disproportionately impacted by climate change and other environmental risks, are ignored. So, for me, there's this disconnect between the values portrayed by environmental organisations and what they actually do, what their practices are. That is why it's so important we address ethnic minority underrepresentation on environmental issues.

In the aftermath of, in particular, the 2020 Black Lives Matter protests, there appears to have been a notable increase in many environmental organisations’ efforts to enhance ethnic diversity. How do you think these, currently white-majority organisations, can most effectively diversify?

First of all, it's re-examining their starting points. It’s turning away from their traditional starting point of, “We're here and we want you to join us,” and flipping that around. Saying instead, "Right, okay. You, as ethnic minority communities, are facing social and racial justice issues. How do these connect to environmental justice and to climate justice?" So, I think it’s for ENGOs to flip their initial approach around and begin asking how they can support people of colour with these social and racial justice issues, because these problems are going to be increasingly exacerbated by climate change, just as the unequal impacts of the pandemic have highlighted and exacerbated racial inequalities. I think that acknowledging these various inequalities, and starting from that point of recognition, is essential.

The second thing I would highlight is the importance of collaboration. Collaboration is key. Rather than doing to people, start doing with people. That’s partially about organisations co-developing initiatives and sharing resources, rather than just demonstrating they’re engaging ethnic minorities as a tick box exercise. That’s not enough. You have to be saying, "What can we do together? What can we create together? What can we develop together?" That’s really important.

Another factor impacting why ENGOs sometimes shy away from, or find it difficult to work with, ethnic minority communities is because they are communities of interest, and often these communities of interest are oriented around faith. For many organisations religion and engaging with faith communities becomes this big taboo. I would say, don’t exclude faith groups; linking faith and climate change gets people involved. Faith can help tackle climate change. Get people involved through faith. If you want to be effective and to engage diverse communities, please do not exclude it. I myself am not a person of religion, but over the course of my career, have learnt so much about the significance of faith in the lives of people, ethnic minority communities in particular, and how highly the words of religious leaders are regarded and valued. We should also consider the impact religious institutions can have in addressing climate change by divestment given the vast resources they have at their disposal. Faith can be such a powerful motivation for people and yet it’s so often avoided or ignored by the sector.

If you had to make one key recommendation, if you could highlight one key message for environmental organisations looking to diversify their membership and their campaigns, what would it be?

For me, before environmental organisations diversify their membership and campaigns, they need to look at how they improve diversity internally. They need to examine how can they improve diversity from within before they do the external or outreach work by asking, "Who do we represent? Who have we got round the table? Whose voices are being heard in the organisation’s decision-making? Who is our campaign for and who is included in our campaigns?” This creates a new perspective; a shift in our frame of reference. It can feel daunting, especially with capacities stretched, but we can still bring in people with diverse perspectives by working in partnership, working collaboratively, so that internal workload becomes doable, whilst also bringing a richness of experiences and thoughts. But this work is needed. Those challenging questions need to be asked in order to truly start diversifying.

And finally, one of the concerns ENGAGE project participants have raised is around white-majority ENGOs preparing for success in enhancing ethnic diversity. That when organisations have begun to amplify issues around the intersection of racial and environmental injustices, subsequent challenges have emerged. For example, alienating supporters who didn't agree racial equality should be a core part of ENGOs’ objectives. I wondered if you had any thoughts to share on these concerns.

I think this issue, in particular, relates to the historical compartmentalisation of environmental issues from other concerns. Similarly, when I worked with racial equality organisations, environmental issues were perceived as a separate agenda by them too. Environmental and racial justice are often still treated as separate spheres of concern. We have to make it clear we cannot have one without the other. I believe environmental issues are, in fact, relevant to and should be embedded throughout our response to all societal concerns. If we want to live in a just world, in a just society working toward a just transition, we have to bring everyone along. A sustainable world has to be for everybody.

Part of the problem has been that we’ve not adequately acknowledged the links between racism, capitalism, climate crisis, and colonialism. We’ve failed to recognise the role of capitalism in creating and perpetuating both racism and climate change alike. If we recognise the shared origin of these interrelated crises it becomes much more difficult, makes less sense, to continue to address environmental and racial concerns separately as we strive for solutions. We need to address both issues together, hand in hand. But interrogating capitalism is notoriously controversial. Many people don't really understand what capitalism is or how it influences destruction around the world, because it's persistently portrayed as this positive and progressive force. They don't see the negative side of capitalism, and many believe there’s no alternative anyway. Often, ENGOs tiptoe around issues like these for fear of turning people off, alienating those who disagree, or who aren’t ready to start having the kind of discussions that might make us feel uncomfortable. It is uncomfortable and controversial, but in order to move forward, we need to begin addressing the root causes of these interconnected crises.


You can keep up-to-date with Zarina's work by following her on Twitter: @ZarinaAhmad13. You can also find her here on LinkedIn.

You can find out more about the Women's Environmental Network (WEN) and their team here. And you can find out more about Manchester University's Sustainable Consumption Institute, where Zarina is currently doing her PhD, here. Finally, you can learn more about CEMVO Scotland and The Ethnic Minority Environmental Network here.

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