Beth Collier, Director of Wild in the City
Wild in the City supports the wellbeing of urban residents through relationships with nature in London and beyond. We offer programmes in woodland living skills, natural history, walks and ecotherapy; using the skills of our ancestors to develop a deeper relationship with the natural world and a sense of belonging to communities past and present. We are a black-led organisation with a focus on health and supporting Black and Minority Ethnic (BAME) communities in accessing nature and the countryside, addressing the widely acknowledged lack of representation and lower levels of involvement of people of colour in nature-based activity.
People of colour currently spend less time in nature in the UK than white people. Whilst we are often very connected to nature in countries of heritage, several factors contribute to a disconnection in the west. For example, the pressure to build new lives, experience of racism and hostility from white communities, feeling more exposed and vulnerable in areas where there aren’t other people of colour, not having generational knowledge from parents or grandparents who can teach us about the nature here and the experience of being ‘othered’ and patronised or disregarded by environmental organisations whose membership is often predominantly white middle class.
Many people of colour are left feeling that they don’t belong in natural settings, that they are unwelcome or that nature has no use to them.
Nature Connectors and Nature Guides
Our work rebuilds a relational bridge to learning about nature that many people of colour have lost in not having grandparents and parents who could tell us about wildlife in the UK, and in doing so reinstating an oral tradition for learning about nature.
Our six week Nature Connectors programme supports reconnection with nature by exploring wilder local green spaces through walks, woodland living skills and wildlife identification. We spend time around the fire reflecting on our relationship with nature as people of colour, considering the emotional and social benefits and any barriers that there have been. We learn relationally, through spending time together in conversation, rather than formal teaching – we call this the ‘grandparent model’. For some attendees it will be their first steps into wilder areas, others are experienced hikers, but what we all tend to have in common is the experience of being ‘the only one’ in nature groups and there is healing in being part of a group of BAME people.
A select number of Nature Connectors go on to train as Nature Guides: an in-depth programme supporting black, Asian and minority ethnic volunteers to lead others in nature, creating greater representation and skills within BAME communities.
Our style of ‘teaching’ is conversational and relational. People learn through the repetition of sharing, rather than through a cerebral, handout style. Our grandparent model is not about age but the manner of sharing knowledge about nature, which is person centred, allowing self-paced learning and attuned directive sharing where a person may not be aware of what there is to know. As a child on a walk with an ‘ideal’ grandparent, you explore, feeling safe and enjoying the company. If you find something interesting you may come and show your grandparent and they will tell you what it is and something about it. If your grandparent sees something of interest they may point it out and tell you about it. At the end of the walk you’re aware that you know more than you did starting out, but at no point did you feel you had a ‘lesson’. We aim to create a therapeutic space which replicates an ideal grandparent’s attentiveness; enjoying a relationship with someone interested in sharing their knowledge and who engenders a sense of emotional and physical safety; facilitating with perspective that the experience is about the attendees’ own exploration and not the passive, guide-directed information sharing that can be very off-putting to many people.
Bridge back into nature
We embrace the organic ebb and flow of relationships with nature and people; it means being able to sit with intimacy, a phenomenon that is becoming rarer in the social media age.
We’ve built a bridge into knowledge about nature in the UK, reinstating an oral tradition as participants share what they’ve learnt with their family and friends, bringing them out into nature too. Nature Connectors has helped to nurture a sense of belonging within people who had felt disenfranchised; this has positively impacted wellbeing and created friendships and intimacy with others and nature. Nature Guides now lead our Natural Health Service sessions supporting others to explore and enjoy time in our parks and woods.
Beth Collier is a nature-based psychotherapist and anthropologist who teaches natural history and woodland living skills.
This article was first published in 2019 in Vol 122 of the NAEE journal which is available free to members. This edition was an Urban Environmental & Sustainability Education special, written with London Environmental Educators’ Forum (LEEF).