I walk into a birding event and feel a room full of old, white, male eyes turn to look at me. It's intimidating. As a young, female birder of mixed Indian heritage, I have often felt uncomfortable and judged within this hobby. It is disheartening to read of cases of active discrimination within our nature community. While the conversation around the lack of diversity in birding is growing, speaking out about these issues is not without its challenges. The backlash of gaslighting that ensues from a tweet, comment or blog post is utterly dispiriting.
"Not sure a problem isn't being invented here."
"Don't bring your politics into birding. Leftie crap."
"Sorry but it all sounds a bit silly, what barriers could there possibly be?"
"Stop virtue signalling."
This Diversity in Nature illustration by Alex Cagan shows some of the barriers experienced by minority groups in nature. It is based on a survey undertaken by Sorrel.
Perhaps I am being naive, but I'm shocked by the number of people who still don't recognise that access to nature is not equal for everyone. To these people I ask: have you ever had to think twice about your safety when you want to visit your local nature reserve? Have you ever worried that you will not be welcome at a birding event? These are frequent concerns for those who don't fit the 'norm' in birding.
After dealing with the onslaught of personal attacks comes the weight of these issues falling on the shoulders of the few people of colour in the sector. It is a draining, unpaid job on top of work or education commitments, with a pressure to have all the answers. It's taken me a while to realise that it is OK to need a break from work like this; we can't fix these things overnight and burnout is all too common.
Yet the pressures, the bigotry and the blatant disregard of other people's lived experiences shows us that this fight is vital. With networks of individuals supporting each other, sharing ideas and taking action within organisations and in the wider public sphere, we will bring about change.
And we are making progress. The RSPB has Equality, Diversity and Inclusion (EDI) Champions, British Trust for Ornithology has a Diversity Working Group, and Wildlife and Countryside Link has an EDI group, to name a few.
Along with initiatives like Flock Together – a birding group for people of colour in London – both community-level and organisational action is increasing. However, we need more action and we need more publicity to enable birding in the UK to fully represent the country's diversity. We need all organisations to join the conversation – some of whom have yet to. From a purely pragmatic perspective, how can any organisation expect to sustain itself in the future if it is not representative and relevant to today's society?
It will take time to address the multitude of barriers that prevent access to nature. It will take time for everyone to feel safe, welcome and valued in the conservation sector. But it starts with changing attitudes, changing our policies and changing the image of birding.