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Go rural, my son!

 

By Dwayne Smith

 

You may think Britain's waterways and countryside are only for white people. You may have never been to the countryside as a child, or you may have grown up in an urban environment like the majority of those from black, Asian and minority ethnic communities in England and Wales.

 

If so, the chance of you popping out for a spot of fishing would be rare.

 

This is something the Environment Agency is keen to remedy. And as part of its Angling 2015 campaign The agency is keen to get 200,000 more anglers out on the English and Welsh waterways and that includes as many from the black, Asian and minority ethnic communities.

 

Richard Wightman, the agency’s angling development manager, says the organisation wants to celebrate the diversity of British waterways and make them as inclusive as possible and to that end the agency is funding some targeted angling projects.

 

Wightman sees an Environment Agency funded Swansea participation campaign as an excellent example of integration and angling. The agency funded a small pilot scheme after consultation with members of the Minority Ethnic Women's Network (MEWN).

 

They started by talking with MEWN and asking them what would make a difference for them as a minority group in terms of accessing the environment, what kind of partnership can be built between MEWN and the Environment Agency and how would they like to go fishing.

 

The MEWN members - many of whom had fished in their countries of origin but none of whom had fished since arriving in Britain said they would be most comfortable being coached by other women.

 

The local fisheries department then tailored a ladies-only day catering to the specific needs of the Minority Ethnic Women's Network, which included Chinese and Bangladeshi women among others.

 

This type of work  sits well with that of the Sheffield Black Environmental Network (SHEBEEN), says its co-ordinator Maxwell Ayambar.

 

The former environmental journalist from Ghana says the type of targeted programmes Shebeen runs, some with the help of the Environment Agency, are ideal for allowing people from all backgrounds "environmental stewardship".

 

The first time people other than native Londoners go out in London they lack that confidence as they don't know where things are or how the city runs.

 

Ayambar believes that's how many Black people who have only ever lived in urban environments can feel when they go fishing or go into the countryside.

 

The environment, Ayambar points out, is for everyone, especially in times where climate change, drought and floods are realities for Black people living in England, as well as those with families in Africa and the Caribbean.

 

Ayambar believes it is important for black people to have a voice in Britain's environmental heritage and future. To this end, Shebeen runs events to connect young Black people with fishing, walking and doing things in areas like the Peak district.

 

Ayambar says young people love these experiences as they really opened up a whole new world for them.

 

“We empowered them by giving them information and awareness,” he says. “What we found is that young people especially noticed the tranquillity and serenity of the water and the countryside, and they also noticed that compared with the urban environment they were the only non-white people there."

 

National organisation the Black Environment Network (BEN) is also trying to widen minorities participation and engagement with the countryside, explains BEN’s heritage officer James Friel.

 

People from Birmingham will drive through miles of gorgeous green British countryside to get to Alton Towers – because the Towers is an experience they are aware of and understand and they know what they are going to get, he points out.

 

He says to engage more ethnic minority communities in the environment they need opportunities to see what is on offer. Providing targeted experiences and the chance to have an experience in the country is a good way of doing this.

 

With first and second-generation communities, finding work and establishing homes were the primary issues, time off was a luxury. Now, as people have more disposable income and are more 'time rich', so family days are on the agenda.

 

Friel says that opportunities are being identified, and accessing the waterways and environment should be one of these.

 

Previously there have not been the opportunities available and many felt unwelcome in the countryside and not a part of the wider British society.

 

Friel agrees there can be prejudice, especially if people in the countryside have had little contact with ethnic minorities and the only experience they have had of them is via the media.

 

“Then they will only have stereotypes to work with,” he says. “Whilst those coming from an urban environment may have very fixed views about what country people are like."

 

However, Friel believes that often the similarities are far greater than previous experience or the media will have led urban and rural groups to believe. In addition, the lack of contact contributes to that ignorance.

 

“What is great about taking groups to the countryside is through providing the chance for that contact and by building relationships, and with that confidence and trust, those stereotypes can be broken down,” he says.

 

The Environment Agency, BEN and SHEBEEN all agree that genuine consultation is the only way to help ethnic minorities access the many positives around being connected to nature.

 

They say there's a need to talk to groups and find our what their specific needs are and target the environmental sector's resources to cater to those needs.

 

"So it could be health or mobility issues, or transport or a lack of awareness. What we are really doing is working with the politics and realities of the disengaged. What we are doing can be applied to working with any disengaged groups," says Friel.

 

Is the British countryside a no-go area for Black people, can you feel at home leaving cities like Birmingham, Manchester, Leeds and London for rural Britain?

 

Please let us know your views on the countryside and Black folks, by

e-mailing comments@thenewblackmagazine.com

 

Readers' comment:

 

Dear Editor,

 

Of course people who have grown up in a completely urban environment are
uncertain 'how it works' when they are suddenly transplanted into the
countryside.  I cannot see how this has anything to do with their skin
colour.

In Word War Two children were evacuated from London and other large cities
to get them away from the risk of bombing.  Preservation of the nation's
children was seen as important.  This was often the first time a child had
seen a green field.  Many didn't know, for example, that milk came from a
cow, and how it arrived on their breakfast cereal.  This had been the case
for many years - Victorian philanthropists would organise day-trips into the
countryside for urban children who had never had the opportunity to run on
grass.

Remember the Victorian poem 'The Song of the Shirt' about child
mill-workers:

'For oh, say the children, we are weary
And we cannot run nor leap
If we cared for any meadows, it were merely
To lie down in them and sleep....'

My husband was evacuated during World War Two from Hackney, London, to rural Norfolk as well as to a mining village in Wales.  Norfolk gave him a deep
love of the countryside.  His grandfather never moved more than a few
streets in any direction in the Bethnal Green/Spitalfields area of London.
His parents moved to South Bucks to escape the bombing.

I am a countrywoman, grew up in rural Yorkshire.  And I found it very
difficult to function in a town or city.  To this day I couldn't survive if
I couldn't look out of the window and see a tree.  I remember urban children
coming to our school, how frightened they were of cows, how noisy the
countryside was with cows lowing and cocks crowing, all those birds singing
early in the mornings so that they couldn't sleep!

We all live much too artificial a life nowadays and we have become separated
from the real things of life.  Our food now travels thousands of miles
instead of being produced and sold locally.  Anything which puts people back
into touch with real things, the earth, living creatures, plants etc has got
to be good news.

Margaret Stoll

 

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