Reuben Fakoya-Brooks on navigating race and marginalisation in ecology
This week we are speaking with Reuben Fakoya-Brooks, founder of The REED Ecological Network (formerly the BAME Ecologist Network) about furthering ethnic diversity in ecology and the environment sector.
Reuben, could you tell us a little about yourself and the work of the BAME Ecologist Network?
My name is Reuben Fakoya-Brooks and I’m the founder of the BAME Ecologist Network. I studied zoology at Nottingham University, and did a masters in evolutionary ecology there too. After that, I stepped back from academia and worked in clinical research in the pharmaceutical sector, and I’m currently working in social research. The network is essentially a space; a hub of support for ethnic minorities interested in, studying, or working in ecology. It’s an accommodating space in which you can just be yourself without being stereotyped; without being perceived as any different to anyone else. It also provides academic support through mentorship as a way to retain and nurture ethnic minority talent that would otherwise be lost, excluded, or overlooked. It is a big hurdle to overcome the stresses of academia to pursue a career in ecology. Add being an ethnic minority to that and it becomes almost impossible. So, the network places a strong emphasis on mentorship and, what we call, a route system scheme, where postgraduates provide help to those considering postgraduate study, and then that individual helps an undergraduate who, in turn, helps a college or sixth form pupil considering a career in ecology. Having these mentors also provides opportunities to acquire experience within the sector. I was unfortunate that there was nothing like that available to me. Another strong emphasis is representation. It’s so important for young people to see senior Black or brown faces in ecology to enable them to visualise a career within the field; so they see it can be attainable for them. So, those are our key focal points to-date. However, the BAME Ecologist Network  is relatively new. It’s been in existence for just under 12 months now, so we’re still evolving and laying out exactly what we want to achieve. The name is also being changed.
Has this name change got anything to do with the recent government report?
That was really frustrating actually because minorities have always had issues with the term BAME, so we were already discussing changing the name. Then, unfortunately, the report was released and now the perception may be that we're changing the name to abide by this fundamentally flawed and widely condemned report. It’s sad that the institution has, yet again, erased our voice and taken our power away to make that decision for ourselves, and made it about what they think is appropriate.
I share your feelings about the report and, can relate to the need for a group focusing on the specific experiences of ethnic minorities in the field of ecology. Could you give an overview of the sort of issues you are seeing people of ethnic minority backgrounds struggling with in ecology?
The network was founded on experiences of the environment sector and ecology, especially in the UK, failing to accommodate ethnic minorities; experiences of having to change to make yourself acceptable within that space. The classic perception of an ecologist is the white, male, middle-class, well spoken, David Attenborough type, and if you don't fit those criteria, yes, you can still participate, but you feel incredibly isolated. It's that feeling I want to address, because I realised, through my own experiences, that ecology was almost this impenetrable bubble where, if you didn't fit those ideals, you weren't going to feel like you belonged. Yes, ecology accommodates ethnic minorities, but it isn’t yet accommodating.
For instance, if I were to turn up to an ecology lecture in jogging bottoms and trainers with my hood up, the initial reaction would be, “Why is this person here? He doesn’t look like a zoologist,” or, “Are you sure you’re in the right place?” This idea that I have to wear certain attire that doesn’t perpetuate a stereotype associated with my skin colour. That happened to me all the time. It's something you’re used to, being in the UK, but at university you expect things to be different. Another example would be the experience of a member of the BAME Ecologist Network who went on a field course that didn’t accommodate Black hair. Afro hair just wasn't thought of, and that in itself was some form of policing; subconsciously saying this space isn't for you, but we are allowing you to be in it.
More broadly speaking, how do you think becoming a more diverse, inclusive field would benefit ecology?
Well, you don’t want homogenous thought within any sector. People from different backgrounds can approach things in different ways and find solutions that a more homogenous sector might not necessarily envision. It just doesn’t make sense for everyone in the field to be white males of similar backgrounds, because essentially, they are going to tackle the same problems in very similar ways. So, lack of diversity is detrimental to the sector. It’s beneficial for ecology as a whole to have people from different backgrounds and ethnicities who are approaching real world issues in a variety of ways.
Looking beyond your network and thinking about all the other organisations and groups that are involved in ecology as a discipline. What would you like to see from those groups? What sorts of actions and initiatives do you think would help encourage more diversity in ecology?
I would like to see more STEM outreach projects targeting individuals from different backgrounds. The British Ecological Society, for example, have really good schemes. They run summer camps and go into schools speaking about ecology. Especially since the BLM protests last summer, schemes aimed at getting more ethnic minorities into the field are increasing. We haven’t seen the full effects of those yet, but hopefully we will. I would also like to see more grants available. It’s the norm in ecology to require extensive voluntary experience. Unfortunately, especially in the UK, many ethnic minorities are disproportionately from lower socioeconomic backgrounds, and they just can’t cater to that financially. It’s a huge barrier, especially as ecology isn’t seen as a financially stable career choice. However, if there were grants, more people could actually reach the stage where they are being financially rewarded for their work. It wouldn’t have to be a huge amount of money; but enough for people to live off whilst volunteering and acquiring the necessary experience. The time and work needed to get into a career in ecology without any financial reward becomes a wall excluding people from disadvantaged backgrounds. So, I would definitely like to see more outreach and more grants. Those are the two main things I feel would encourage greater diversity in ecology.
I think that’s a really good point about monetary support for people from disadvantaged backgrounds. So often, programmes are put in place to support people financially, but the applicants, whilst they may be Black or brown, are still economically well off. Ethnic minorities from lower socioeconomic status backgrounds are still not getting in. Is this something you’ve encountered at all?
100 per cent. I am from a middle-class background. My parents weren’t. My grandparents were immigrants from the Windrush generation. They lived in council houses. So, my parents were told, "Okay, you need a profession. You have to become a doctor, lawyer, etc." So, they did and then I, because I'm second generation, am a middle-class ethnic minority in the UK. But, as you said, most schemes equate being an ethnic minority with being disadvantaged. Until they realise not all ethnic minorities fall into this category, these schemes will continue to support primarily middle-class individuals who have more access to them than people from disadvantaged backgrounds. So, because all ethnic minorities are being lumped wholesale into this big bubble, issues like these, around class, arise. There are racist undertones to the assumption that, just because you are ethnic minority, you must be from a lower socioeconomic background. This is a perception within many fields, but especially ecology. Statistically, the vast majority of ethnic minorities are from lower socioeconomic backgrounds, but these schemes tend not to reach them. It’s understanding that, for example, many live in urban areas, so additional steps need to be taken, such as promoting these schemes in inner city schools. That's why the network includes individuals from working-class backgrounds and we’re so passionate about our mentorship scheme; about going into inner city schools and places where young people aren’t necessarily exposed to the environment sector, where it’s not historically been promoted as much.
I agree with you, I come up against these stereotypes and assumptions often. It is really frustrating and relates to another common preconception that ethnic minorities can’t really appreciate environmental issues because they are too busy struggling with basic needs and trying to survive. As an ethnic minority working in ecology, do you get any sense that other ethnic minority friends and colleagues just don't care because they have other things on their mind?
No. I think it's a complete fallacy that, if you're from a deprived background, you don’t care about the environment. However, unfortunately, many people believe it. In reality, for many ethnic minorities, the environment is incredibly important. A strong connection with and concern for nature is synonymous with many of their cultures. For example, in West-African and Southern-Eastern cultures there is a strong emphasis on the preservation of nature, and that doesn’t just disappear because you are from a less affluent background. It is still promoted. For instance, my Grandma, who lives in a council house, is a botanist. That's where I fundamentally got my love for ecology from. If you go to her garden, it's concrete. She doesn't have grass, but she has pots full of plants. She's adapted her love of nature to the environment that's around her. I also spent a lot of time in parks growing up, and people from those inner city “deprived” neighbourhoods were always out in these environments interacting with nature. So, the assumption that ethnic minorities don’t care about nature is a fundamental misunderstanding of people who haven’t taken the time to speak to those individuals about how they see and value the environment.
There are multiple factors at play as to why the environment and ecology sector lack ethnic diversity; racism, socio-economic status, class issues and underrepresentation. It’s complex and there isn’t one single solution. If there were, it would’ve already been enacted. If you an ethnic minority individual with a career in ecology, you can feel very isolated, and that can discourage certain individuals from continuing in the field. I know a lot of individuals who don’t see it as a ‘Black or Asian’ career path because they’ve encountered almost no-one else who looks like them in the sector. Hopefully, the BAME Ecologist Network will help people make those connections, across different universities, and locations, and feel less alone. That is the beauty of the network and that is the initial goal; to connect everyone together as one big ship moving forwards, instead of secluded individuals each on their own sailboats.
So, I’d definitely encourage any ethnic minorities reading this article to join the BAME Ecologist Network. We have monthly or bi-monthly calls and it’s a fantastic experience to be connected with others like yourself with such similar interests. It was something that, after my negative experiences and feeling so isolated in the sector, I had to acclimatise myself to, like, “Oh there's another Black boy from South London who is a bit like me! I literally thought I was the only one in the sector in the whole of the UK!” It’s such a supportive, accommodating space and I’d warmly invite any interested ethnic minority individuals to join.
 The BAME Ecologist Network is now called the The Racial and Ethnic Equality and Diversity (REED) Ecological Network
To learn more about, join, and keep up-to-date with The Racial and Ethnic Equality and Diversity (REED) Ecological Network visit https://www.britishecologicalsociety.org/membership-community/reednetwork/