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Feature - Issue #13

The Colour of Transformation

Introduction and film by Bryony Benge-Abbott
Photography by Ewelina Ruminska

Through the metaphor of butterfly metamorphosis, a documentary shares new perspectives on nature from seven global majority women pioneers who work in land justice and biodiversity conservation. No longer waiting for a seat at the table, they are building their own.

The environment sector is one of the least ethnically diverse sectors in the UK and The Colour of Transformation emerged out of the frustration with the lack of visibility of Black women and women of colour working in this area. It takes great courage to not only step into such spaces as a minority but to also seek to create change within systems that have a history of exclusion. Yet across the UK, there is an ever-growing number of women of the global majority who are doing just that, working from the grassroots, building outdoor communities, uncovering hidden histories, decolonising nature writing and challenging legal and institutional structures that marginalise Black and people of colour within the worlds of conservation and the outdoors.

Exploring the natural world with scientists, activists and community groups as, a British-Trinidadian artist, my awareness of the absence of those who look like me has heightened the more I work in the public realm. Over the years, I have had some incredibly moving conversations with next-generation global majority artist-activists. I have also had some deeply painful encounters with those who do not think people who look like me belong in the British landscape. These experiences have made me recognise the significance of my visibility as a woman of colour working publicly in the space where art and science meet.

This hasn’t been a comfortable journey, but it has been powerful and from it emerged the concept for The Colour of Transformation - an act of solidarity with other women of colour working in nature and a celebration of those who are creating change. Rather than focusing on putting individuals onto pedestals, however, I wanted to create a film that considers the internal journeys behind the outward achievements. To ask, how can we claim space and raise our voices within the climate and ecological movement while continuing to operate within or alongside systems in which being othered or marginalised is still a reoccurring experience?

The Colour of Transformation was launched at Meanwhile Gardens in north Kensington in October 2022.

‘The Colour of Transformation asks the fundamental question of what it means to be human in the middle of an ecological crisis.’

— Bryony Benge-Abbott

The Colour of Transformation premiered during Black History Month 2022 across a four-storey building overlooking a beautiful, candlelit community garden in west London. Embracing the power of vulnerability, the first part of the film featured seven women working in nature conservation, natural history and land justice who shared their stories of transformation and leadership within sectors that are reluctant or slow to change. They spoke of the boxes, labels and stereotypes that they have had to unravel in the process of taking up space and of how they have protected themselves from tokenism and insidious racism while embracing the power of visibility.

For the next generation of change-makers, they offer soulful and practical advice about how to protect themselves throughout this journey, and through their achievements, they inspire others to engage with the natural world on their own terms in ways that feel authentic, inclusive and safe. From decolonising the world of natural history museums and mobilising Black and people of colour to campaign for the right to roam, and from building a network of groups diversifying the outdoors to inspiring children to support their mental health through gardening, each woman shares different ways of forging your own path towards becoming a change-maker within, alongside or beyond the structures that dominate the UK’s nature sector.

The documentary was then followed by an artist’s film expressing the women’s collective message through poetry, dance, costume and music - it felt important to offer new visuals and mantras embodying the wisdom of these women’s words. Both films are inspired by the metaphor of metamorphosis and explore the pain and potential of releasing internal belief systems and external narratives in order to radically reimagine our relationship with nature.

Ultimately, The Colour of Transformation asks the fundamental question of what it means to be human in the middle of an ecological crisis. The journey to creating the world we want to live in begins inside each of us, in the dreams and the stories we tell ourselves, and while the film was created by and for those whose voices and perspectives are largely marginalised in policy discussions and decision-making, it is also a call for everyone to recognise the truth that we belong in the natural world as much as anyone else. Othering is an illusion.

NADIA SHAIKH
ORNITHOLOGIST, CONSERVATIONIST
AND LAND JUSTICE ACTIVIST

Nadia is a RSPB (The Royal Society for the Protection of Birds) policy officer and campaigner with Right to Roam, which champions the rights of people in England to access rivers, woodland and meadows. Working in one of the least diverse sectors has led Nadia to explore the link between land justice, the UK’s continuing decline of biodiversity and habitat loss and racism.

The reason we need more voices in climate and ecological crisis work - because it is work – [is that] there are people in rooms making decisions about how to solve this problem that seemingly feels too much and the voices that are least heard are Black and people of colour and women. In those spaces, it is dominated by white men. When someone says, “we’ve got a problem, how do we solve it?” The ideas that you come up with are only a result of the things that have happened to you in your life - or the things that you’ve been taught. So, if you’ve got a room full of people with exactly the same background coming up with a solution to one of the greatest problems that’s ever hit humanity, they are probably going to be going around in circles, suggesting the same solutions.

I work for the RSPB as an officer in land policy. I also work in land justice and was one of the organisers of Kinder in Colour, which is an event for Black and people of colour to celebrate our existence in nature, and [the] right to be in nature, and outdoors. We wanted to write Black and people of colour in [to] the history books, to say that although we do now have more access to the countryside, Black and people of colour still have less access to the countryside.

I started to notice that working in nature conservation can be problematic. I was zooming out and understanding that it’s also part of the system, which is heartbreaking because it was a deep relationship for me. So, it’s been a series of learning, heartbreak and having to keep re-finding your place. What am I bringing to the nature conservation sector? And how am I helping save nature inside that system?

Audre Lorde put it best: “The master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house.” The way that we’re trying to save nature is by using the same tools, doing the same kind of activities that are destroying it in the first place. Nature conservation is often about taking land and protecting it from people rather than recognising that people need to be in nature as much as possible. Only then will we ever truly be able to save it.

Often you think activism and change is shouting and campaigns and marching in the streets - which it absolutely is - but for any great movement that you’ll ever be a part of, there’s three important elements, which are demanding the change that you want to see and saying, “I want this change”. It’s denying the systems of oppression. It’s rejecting them and trying to bring them down and calling out and saying, “here’s why it’s wrong, here’s why land justice is an issue”. The third and most important thing is healing. Every great movement has involved all those three elements and healing is often forgotten.

JINI REDDY
JOURNALIST AND WRITER

Jini is the author of the critically acclaimed book Wanderland, award-winning guidebook Wild Times and has contributed to anthologies, including Woman on Nature. As a journalist and travel writer she has written widely for national newspapers and magazines, and in 2019 was named a National Geographic Woman of Impact. In her work, she now occupies a cross-genre space where place, spirituality, nature and culture meet.

As a travel writer, I ventured quite widely, and occasionally I had opportunities to meet people from Indigenous cultures, and I was always struck by the way, among those I met, it seemed perfectly natural to enter into this beautiful two-way relationship with the forces of nature - not just physical nature, but the unseen forces of nature, the spirit of nature. I found this fascinating and inspiring. I wanted to know if I might be able to experience a glimpse of the world in this way.

I was also having adventures of my own. I remember wild camping and fasting in the Pyrenean Mountains for five nights, and I did the same in the Sinai Desert in Egypt, sleeping under the stars without a tent, even without a sleeping bag. And in both of these experiences, I found myself deepening spiritually.

I think it’s really important to bring the spiritual into travel and nature writing because it’s about decolonising narratives. It’s about acknowledging that there are ways of being and knowing and perceiving that have long been excluded from mainstream western knowledge bases and dismissed. But this doesn’t make them any less valid or meaningful.

While it has been hugely positive and I’m grateful for all the opportunities I’ve had, I think one of the challenges I’ve have faced is when I am invited to speak at an event and I realise I’m the only person of colour who has been invited and I am asked to speak about inclusion - which is not my specialist subject - and everyone else is invited to speak about what they love and feel passionate about. And I feel that I too deserve to speak about what I love and feel passionate about. As I become more visible as an author and as a speaker, I have found it incredibly empowering and I think it’s about time. I say bring it on.

MIRANDA LOWE
PRINCIPAL CURATOR AND MUSEUM SCIENTIST,
NATURAL HISTORY MUSEUM, LONDON, UK

Miranda has over two decades worth of collections management and curatorial experience and in 2018 co-authored Nature Read in Black and White: Decolonial Approaches to Interpreting Natural History Collections. She is a founding member of Museum Detox, an organisation bringing together people of colour who work in the UK heritage sector and is chair of Culture&, an education charity with the aim of opening up who makes and enjoys arts and heritage.

Most people might think about being a curator in terms of art, but in the museum where I work, I look after animal specimens. My Black history tour is not just leading people around the exhibitions and looking at specimens. In many cases, for the first time, people coming on my tour have never met a scientist, and on many levels never met a Black female scientist natural history curator.

It’s their first time to ask what they’ve always wanted to know about the colonial side of the collections or even the scientific side of them. And for the very first time, doing a tour like that, I bring my whole self. I bring my professional self, my cultural insight and also me as a Black woman.

The risk of not telling the stories that I have been telling, makes people feel that they are undervalued, that they’ve nothing to contribute and that they, in terms of their history or their ancestry, didn’t contribute to science. And then it’s only one narrative, a western narrative that is being told. And that it’s only European naturalists that have discovered anything when there was discovery before any naturalists turned up on these islands.

RHIANE FATINIKUN
FOUNDER OF BLACK GIRLS HIKE UK

Rhiane is a community organiser and outdoor advocate, passionate about social inclusion and challenging systemic inequalities. She is the founder of Black Girls Hike UK which provides a safe space for Black women to connect with nature and adventure, whilst challenging the lack of representation and inclusion in the outdoors.

You can come to Black Girls Hike on a weekend. Someone said it was like coming home from shopping and putting your bags down because it’s a load off. I don’t think people realise the importance of human connection, but sometimes when you’re in environments where you don’t actually connect with people for a long time, that can be really detrimental to your mental health. And I think people don’t realise that they aren’t actually connecting on the level that they need to. It’s only when you’re around people that are like-minded that you realise, “this is the soul food - I’ve been starving”. I get loads of people reaching out to me and telling me that Black Girls Hike has absolutely changed their lives. And I’m just like, “How? In what way?” And then they’ll go on to describe it and sometimes it’s really emotional and I just can’t believe that’s from just a little idea that I had. It has been really beneficial in the way it’s transformed people’s mental health, but also their aspirations as well.

In my early childhood, my experiences of nature were just basically going to the local park. Me and my brother used to collect frogs, they might have been toads, from the local canal. I remember I used to make these houses in my back garden out of a mop bucket, and I put it on its side and try and get hedgehogs to come - I’d put slugs in there. So we were always outside doing that kind of stuff but we never really went into exploring the countryside.

I spent a lot of my childhood living in Lancashire, which is right on the West Pennines, but Lancashire is just not a very diverse place. You’d be in the town, but you wouldn’t ever think to go into the countryside. And when we were younger we would go on these car picnics. My grandad was from Jamaica and he had loads of friends in Nottingham. So him, my mum and her brothers and sisters, they’d do the drive from Manchester to Nottingham - “the scenic route”, my mum always calls it - but they’d never get out of the car. So they used to have these car picnics and then when we was growing up we used to have them as well. If you think about the kind of hostility that our grandparents were facing when they first came over, in those generations, into the city, what would make you think you should go into the countryside? And I suppose my mum, looking at somebody that [is] your father figure, someone who’s supposed to be this strong person - and they aren’t comfortable to take you into those spaces. Then obviously you’re going to think that that’s not safe.

CHANTELLE LINDSAY
CONSERVATIONIST AND TELEVISION PRESENTER

Chantelle is a Great North Wood Project Officer at London Wildlife Trust, working on a woodland restoration and community engagement project in south London, as well as the co-host of BBC’s show Chantelle and Rory’s Teeny Tiny Creatures, teaching children about the UK’s smallest animals and inspiring them to look after our planet. She advocates for nature, equality, diversity, inclusion and the empowerment of young people.

CBeebies has given me that platform to be what I didn’t see when I was younger. And that’s a Black woman naturalist - someone who loves wildlife and someone that is in that wildlife sphere. In the wildlife sector there’s this narrative that I often heard that, “Black people aren’t interested, people of colour aren’t interested in wildlife, they’re hard-to-reach audiences” - I’ve heard that quite a lot. And it’s kind of like flipping that on the head and being like, “Actually, no, we are. I’m a living testament to that”. But you just have to go to people, you have to find what ignites them, you have to find their draw. You have to find our unique connection with nature because it doesn’t all look the same.

What I love about my project (working on a woodland restoration) is that it has an emphasis on bringing under-represented groups into wildlife. With the youth groups, we bring them out into the woodlands and a lot of people haven’t been into the woods before. So young people might come decked out in their tracksuits to begin with, their finest trainers. And you’re kind of like, “Right, we’re going to have to change this around”. But we’re constantly trying to bring down the barriers so we’ll supply shoes that they can change into, maybe waterproof things. And at first, some of the young people are a bit disengaged because it’s a completely new experience for them. As soon as you find that spark and you know, we’re doing practical conservation, we’re doing something that matters, and you’re explaining to them why we’re doing it, and all of a sudden they’re absolutely stuck in.

So we had the first session, they came and they asked us questions and the young people were kind of going, “Why do you do this? I didn’t know you could do a career in this”. And then the second time that they came, they were working on a hedgerow, trying to basically take out any invasive species, and it started to rain and we ran for cover. And I turned around and the young people were just still working because they were so into it. So if you just find that spark there’s absolute magic in that.

SORAYA ABDEL-HADI
FOUNDER OF ALL THE ELEMENTS

Soraya Abdel-Hadi is a writer, artist and advocate for women and diversity in the UK outdoors. She believes in taking a holistic approach to making the world a better place, and her work focuses on sustainability, nature and adventure travel. Soraya is the founder of the All the Elements - a non-profit network for those working on increasing diversity in the UK outdoors.

I wanted All the Elements to represent all different diverse areas of the outdoors - whether that’s invisible and visible disabilities, sexuality and gender identity, race and ethnicity, different body types and age. I realised that people were also working in silos and that the members of all these communities are intersectional - they’re not just one thing. So actually being able to work with or meet people who are running a group that is working on a completely different diversity area to you helps you better serve your community as a whole.

When we think of activists and when we think of changemakers, we often think of people who are standing in the limelight, on stage, making big speeches. And what I’ve learned through this process is that doesn’t necessarily feel authentic to me. And there are different ways to be a changemaker and an activist - and that’s exciting.

When I started this project, I would have never thought I would get so much from it personally. Because it was so much about amplification and helping people work together, but actually, I’ve gained this amazing community full of some of the most wonderful and inspiring people that I’ve ever met and I’m so grateful for that.

DR JADE ADAMS-WHITE
MENTAL HEALTH PRACTITIONER

Working as a mental health practitioner in a secondary school, Jade witnessed first-hand the impacts on mental health as well as the barriers that young people are facing in gaining access to mental health services, and in 2020 she set up The Jadeite Project. Jade has successfully implemented a gardening club pilot in her current school, which has demonstrated a positive impact on the young people who attend.

Having young people come out once a week, do their gardening, it makes them feel relaxed, it helps them be more sociable, they enjoy it, it’s fun. It really allows young people to be present, and that’s where they get the most benefits. They’re not thinking about any future stress. They’re just being completely present, in the moment, and it was just pure joy.

I think sometimes young people lose that sense of playfulness, that kind of joyful element to them, because we live in a society where there’s a lot going on. There’s a lot of negativity around the world and children are consuming that. A lot of them report feeling lonely [and] gardening allows a connection to something wider, something bigger. As a child, I was a selective mute, so I didn’t have that power. I didn’t have a voice. Working with young people and providing them with a voice, providing them with an outlet, has been really powerful.

Edited interviews from The Colour of Transformation - an Arts Council England supported project with partners Butterfly Conservation and the William Morris Gallery.

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Feature - Issue #13

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