Disability leadership in civil society
By Zara Todd,
It may seem strange for a Churchill Fellow to suggest that the answer to making the UK’s rural landscape more accessible to people from diverse communities isn’t to carry out more research.
“It’s fine getting people out, but it’s not changing the actual system. Less than one per cent of National Parks UK members and board members are non-white."
After all, Mohammed Dhalech, from Cumbria, based his Fellowship on a visit to North America, where he learned much about how to remove barriers which prevent people from ethnically diverse backgrounds from enjoying and connecting with nature.
But, as someone who has spent his entire adult life championing the benefits of the outdoors, he knows what he’s talking about.
In his early days at university in Yorkshire, he took a group of students from an ethnic background up to the Lake District, and he has never looked back. He currently volunteers with Mosaic Outdoors, whose mission is to grow the number of people from ethnically diverse backgrounds who engage with the outdoors. And he is campaigning to make organisations, such as National Parks UK, undertake sustainable change.
Mohammed’s learning and experience has now helped inform the Churchill Fellowship’s Migration report ‘Learning from Living Well Together’. His Fellowship was undertaken in 2019.
Promoting a love of the outdoors
Mohammed, who recently left his job as an Equality Diversity Inclusion Manager in Cumbria Fire and Rescue Service to become a post-graduate student researching race and rurality, heard about the Churchill Fellowship through a friend, who is also a Churchill Fellow.
“I have been interested in the outdoors and engaging ethnically diverse people in the countryside, for over 20 years, but I rarely see people like me, so I have been involved in trying to get issues on rural diversity of the outdoors recognised.
“I’d read about some of the work they were doing in North America, in particular Ranger Shelton Johnson in Yosemite National Park, looking at the history of the African American Buffalo Soldiers, who were really the first rangers. His vision is very much about reconnecting African American communities with these national landscapes.
“National parks, in this country too, are seen as predominantly white spaces. In fact, they’ve been described in the Landscapes Review (2019 DEFRA) as a ‘club’, and not open to people from an ethnic or diverse background.”
Mohammed’s Fellowship explored how to engage ethnically diverse people in the outdoors. He made an eight-week visit to North America, learning about the way different organisations try to break down barriers to the countryside.
For example, he went to see the work being done in Yosemite. He also visited an outdoors cooperative in Vancouver which makes outdoor equipment accessible to people, and an urban national park on the edge of the city of Toronto, which people from the urban area can easily visit.
Mohammed has brought his learning back and is now trying to influence change.
On a local level, he has set up an ‘equipment library’ at Mosaic Outdoors, because he’s identified that lack of gear shouldn’t be a barrier to going out into the countryside.
He also noted simple changes that could make a difference in engaging a more diverse audience. People from minority communities tend to like to go out in extended family groups, so why populate parks with picnic benches where only a handful can sit down? Camping or communal areas often don’t accommodate extended family groups, all wanting to socialise and eat together, but this could change.
The biggest difference Mohammed is making, however, is by sharing his learning. He has given numerous presentations, workshops and talks to organisations like universities, Natural England, National Parks UK and the British Mountaineering Council, highlighting ways that the countryside could be made more inclusive. He’s also made videos on enjoying the outdoors safely as part of Mountain Rescue England and Wales’s Be Adventure Smart initiative.
But it’s not just about what such organisations provide; Mohammed’s message is that their organisational culture and structures needs to change too. If they can bring in a more ethnically diverse team – in the workforce and among the volunteers - they will naturally be more successful in engaging diverse communities.
“It’s fine getting people out, but it’s not changing the actual system. Less than one per cent of National Parks UK members and board members are non-white. We are pushing getting people engaged beyond just visiting the countryside. For me that is a key challenge, and what I am campaigning for.”
And this is why Mohammed – slightly tongue in cheek – says we don’t need more research. “We don’t need to find out what’s going on, we’ve been talking about this since the late ’80s. Let’s stop researching and talking about it. Let’s do something. Let’s get a commitment from entire organisations, not just one individual, and let’s make a sustainable change, to connect people with nature.”
The views and opinions expressed by any Fellow are those of the Fellow and not of the Churchill Fellowship or its partners, which have no responsibility or liability for any part of them.
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