A message from a working class academic

Still a working draft, but thought I’d share anyway:

Friends, I think it is long past time for those of us from working class backgrounds but have been lucky enough to find success to start sharing our stories.

All of us have witnessed tragedy after tragedy after tragedy, with the poor always being most impacted. We know that most if not all of these tragedies could have been prevented.  And we know that prior to these tragedies, the concerns of the poor were ignored or mocked. From the lead-contaminated drinking water of Flint to the Grenfell fire to the devastation of Puerto Rico by Hurricane Maria, poor suffer our society’s greatest tragedies not just because they have fewer resources to escape these conditions but because society has systematically ignored their concerns and actively failed them.

These examples are the norm not the exception, and in one form or another they impact every single person living in poverty – or trying to escape from it.

Those who have not experienced poverty do not understand the numerous ways in society holds back the poor.  How our systems exacerbate rather than ameliorate this inequality.  How talent and beauty thrives amongst all parts of society but is only uplifted for some, is marginalised for others and for many is ultimately snuffed out.

And when the poor go onto success in academia, industry, the media or politics we too often hide it.  Or we are held up as examples that ‘the system works.’

So I am going to share some of my own experiences with you.

I grew up on a farm and we were poor. We had third-hand clothes, second-hand cars and periods without hot water. To make ends meet, my dad also had a part-time job and my mom had a full time job. But – and this is so very very important – we had it better than most people living in poverty. On a farm, you have food. And long-term housing. We had some relatives who were better off financially and that helped (My Aunt Barb and Uncle Roy got my brother and me wonderful and essential winter coats one year…)

Also: I’m white.  And a male.  And straight. And grew up in the wealthiest nation on Earth.

In other words, these examples only scratch the surface of the challenges faced by many in poverty.  I had it relatively easy, had a lot of luck, a huge amount of support – and I barely made it.  And this is what I learned on the way.

 

Poor lives are expendable

Farming is one of the most dangerous occupations in America.  While I was growing up, I knew an Amish kid who suffocated in a silo.  A family friend lost his hand.  The father of a friend lost his arm.  One of my brother’s friends died when his arms were torn out, caught in a silage shredder.

And once.

My mom’s hair was caught in the tractor’s power take off shaft.  She was working alone.  In a field.  A mile from home.  It pulled out all of her hair and separated her scalp from her skull.  It was a miracle she survived. I remember coming home from School and finding her alone in bed, the lights off, the window shades drawn… a bag of her hair on the dresser.  I made sure she was okay. And then I went to do my homework.

Small family farming is not a great career from which to draw examples of worker’s rights – on a small farm, you are CEO, foreman and labourer.  (But industrial farming certainly is – it is profoundly exploitative and hides behind the family farm myth to justify it.) But it illustrates that when you are poor, you live on a more dangerous edge.  You compromise on safety because if you don’t, you cannot pay your mortgage.

So when wealthy landlords or employers or city councils or politicians cut corners, exploit their workers, ignore contaminated water, or burn up health and safety regulations, I see people who put profit above lives.

Of course, they can only get away so much.  They can only get away with putting profit above some lives. Over poor lives, nomadic lives, black lives.  But trust me my privileged friends, they’d do the same to all of us if they could.

 

Health Care

Health care in the United States is a disgrace. But the government does have schemes to help farmers purchase health insurance, a small sacrifice to ‘big government’ in order to feed your population.  My Dad also had Veterans Insurance due to his service in the Army. And that health care was essential for my family to survive those numerous accidents.

That health insurance, however, is associated with large deductibles, large bills, often thousands of dollars, that you have to pay before the health insurance kicks in.  And this means you do not go to the doctor when you are in pain or have a lump.  Of course, you also do not go to the doctor because you cannot get off work or you have to work two jobs or you have to milk the cows. So you wait –  often until it is too late.

My dad waited when he had a sharp abdominal pain.  The family debates the history of that, my dad suggesting he went to the doctor after 2-3 weeks and my mom suggesting it was months.  Regardless, he waited.

He had gall stones.  Or rather his gall bladder had been nearly completely replaced by a single massive gall stone.  And infection had set in.  The doctors said that if he waited another day or so, it would have likely become gangrenous and infected the liver.

Poor people do not go to the doctor until it us sometimes too late. And afterwards live under a cloud of bills, anxiety and harassment.

 

Dental Health

The consequences of poverty on dental health is scandalous.

I had a few cavities as a kid.  Not too many – Mom taught me good habits.  But I had a few and that costs money and there was no health insurance for that.

One day, I was dropped off at the new dentist’s office after school.  I had an appointment at 3:30 to get a filling.  I sat in the office for hours. Patients arrived and left.  I was vaguely aware that the dentist was looking at me, there was a phone call, there seemed to be some tension.  Eventually my dad showed up, told me to come with him and we left.

We had not paid our bills.  We couldn’t afford it. I cannot imagine how difficult it was for my father, the embarrassment and rage, to have to go in there, pick me up, knowing that I would not get the treatment I needed.  At the same time, I knew that the dentist was a young woman, probably just out of school, trying to start a practice. She couldn’t afford to take on patients who could not pay their bills, and I cannot imagine how it felt to her to send away a 12-year old farm kid.  I’ve never felt more powerless and angry.

I never saw her again.  We went back to our older dentist, further away, but more established, more able to be flexible in billing.

I am now very well off financially, but some legacies never go away. My teeth are crooked. I lost a filling.  That led to an infection. Then a root canal. And then a deep extraction and implant. I get headaches most days, where the implant aggravates my sinus.  My second root canal failed, leaving a gap.

My parents lost most of their teeth.

 

Time

Poverty is not just economic, it is time.

One of the few times I saw my mom really angry was when she was called out for not contributing to the school bake sales. My mom, who was working in purchasing at a local factory all day, doing farm chores each night and on the weekend, and cooking, cleaning, doing everything else to keep the house functional did not have the time to bake fucking cookies for your fucking bake sale.

Fuck you for asking that and fuck you for shaming my mother.

Poor people are smart, creative, wise and beautiful.  But we do not have time for your shit. We do not have time for *your agenda*.  When you ask us to contribute, try to engage us, even try to help us, know what you are asking.  We don’t have time for your town halls, your focus groups, baking brownies.

This is also why poor people eat pre-prepared meals. It is why my mom had a crock pot, so she could start something cooking and leave it.  It is why we had mushy vegetables – she would bring them to a boil, turn the temperature to a simmer and then go out to do the evening chores.

Our time is precious and it is ours.

Remember that when you are engaging marginalised communities.

 

Fear

You can’t fuck up when you are poor.

I saw friends sucked into alcoholism and drug abuse (and this was before the current opioid crisis ravaging rural America).  More often, I saw friends, cousins, friends of cousins getting pregnant or knocking a girl up.

When you are poor, an unplanned pregnancy means that your hopes and dreams are fucked.

There are exceptions – lots of exceptions.  But in my world, when you got pregnant, that was it.  You tried to finish High School and got a part time job and that was the end of your dreams of college, sports or a band.

Everyone knows you live at the margins.  Don’t get knocked up.  Don’t get in trouble with the law.  Don’t take drugs. Everyone deals with it differently – some steer into the risk, some live large, burn out, burn bright.

I… I lived… I cannot really describe it.  It was a long time ago. Saying I lived in fear is over-stating it. But I just continuously – continuously – tried to avoid any possible mistake that could ruin my life. I was terrified of getting a girl pregnant.  I did not have sex until I was 20.  I followed all the rules.  I did argue – with everyone, all of the time – I’m rather proud of the fact that my desire to walk the straight and narrow did not stifle my activism or values. But I never took risks and I never broke the rules.

[As an aside, I did fuck up once.  And…. it was not the end of the world.  The point is not so much about the consequences but the fear.]

I guess what I am saying here is that when you are poor, you live in fear of fucking up.

Rich people fuck up all the time.

 

Education.

My parents did not go to college but they recognised early on that I was rather smart and studious.  And so they pushed me; Mom pushed me so hard, endlessly.  And then, when those good grades in year 1 stopped being a success story and started becoming the norm, they either got out of my way and let me excel or stepped in to support me.  Farm kids have to do LOTS of chores.  My brother and I had rather modest chores – my parents wanted us to prioritise our homework.  My dad drove me to debate tournaments on Saturday mornings, after milking the cows, before other chores and sometimes through ridiculous Northern Ohio blizzards.

So when I was thirteen and two of my friends persuaded me to apply for an elite private school in the area, my parents supported me.  The school was all about excellence.  They claimed that they were value-driven. They wanted to support the community and the best and brightest.

I had higher standardised test scores than my friends.  I had higher grades.  They went to the school and I did not.  I was admitted.  But when it came to the fees, their values disappeared. No grants.  No loans.  No advice on where one might get loans. They led my parents and me, naively perhaps, down a path suggesting that they would be supportive.  I suspect they never thought some poor kid could get the grades to get in.

Not going there was one of the best things that ever happened to me.  Fuck them.

Fortunately, four years later, I discovered that Universities, despite extortionate tuition fees in the United States, do their best to match financial support to need.  Every university I applied to provided an impressive variety of support.  I attended Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland and they did right by me.

But:

College still cost my parents $3000 a year.  And when my brother also went to college, they had to sell the farm.

And I had to work part-time for my final three years.

And I still finished with $10,000 in loans.

And to get those scholarships, I had to have a 4.0 GPA in High School and the highest SAT scores in its history. (Not bragging; I am test savvy.)

So fuck ‘social mobility,’ where we claim to have an equal society just because a very few lucky, smart, hard-working kids can escape structural poverty, inequity and racism. If a society genuinely wants to excel, to thrive, to innovate, it invests in all forms of education at all levels for everyone.

 

Life Choices

I love the American liberal arts university system.  I went to CWRU to study Physics, aspiring to be an astrophysicist, but also loved politics.  Eventually, I decided to major in Geology, fulfilling my passion for science, but intending to go to Law School afterwards and become an environmental lawyer.

But law school costs money.  And PhD students get paid.  Not a lot – but a lot by my standards.

I do not regret my choice to do a PhD in geology.  I do resent the fact that it was not fully my choice.

At 22, after years of success after success after success. After years of hard work and sacrifice, after excelling in High School and University, after being Presidents of clubs and societies, after continuously working part-time jobs.  After doing everything right, it was not my choice.

 

Poor people do not like cops

Yes, even poor white people. Which is why it is so infuriating that some poor white people seem to “love the blue” when it is Black people protesting their murder by police.

As a teenager, my brother once got busted for blowing up mailboxes. It was a stupid thing to do – the kind of stupid thing that kids do in the boring midwest. But what was really stupid is that he did it in the posh township instead of our own. Cops do not like poor people coming into their towns and causing trouble.  So they did him for everything they could, including charging him with corrupting minors since he had turned 18 a few days before and all of his Senior classmates had not.

I have been pulled over for ‘looking like I was in a hurry.’ Our town set up speed traps to catch late-night commuters, factory workers driving to the night shift. My mom told me to hide my long hair in a hat.

During my Sophomore year at Uni, I got a job. So I needed to use the beat up and old family car that summer.  It was okay; my college did not care and it was in a pretty working class area. However, to drive home, I had to drive through the wealthy Cleveland suburbs.  And the cops always shadowed me in and out of them.  One time, they pulled me over and gave me a ticket for every. single. thing. they. could.  It was $500, more than I made the previous two weeks.  If my professors had not been supporting me with some part-time work, I would have had to drop out of college.

Lots of police are nice.  But the police as an institution exists to keep Black people and Latin people and poor people in their place. It always has. It exists to protect capital.  Police do not harass people because of irrational fears about the threats posed to the safety of those posh communities. That might be part of it. But mainly, they harass Black people and the homeless and those driving rusty cars to protect property values.

They are wealth protectors and they never let you forget it. And some of them will kill Black people because of it.

 

Poor people do not trust you. We especially do not trust the government.

And we have reasons for that. We’ve been let down and betrayed. We have been demeaned.

And until the well meaning left understands that, the far right will weaponise those experiences against the same poor people who need government support.

 

A lot of working class academics are alone

When I first posted this blog, a lot of us talked about this privately.  We talked about our disconnection with the academic world but also the world we have left behind.  We all know that academia makes us move about geographically.  It also causes us to move about culturally and politically.  And emotionally.  And that is not all bad but on some days it hurts more than you can imagine.  And I’m not ready to say any more about this yet.

 

So what do I think we should take from these stories?

First and foremost, I must again caveat this blog with the fact that I had it pretty good. There are so many people, even in my own High School, let alone in poorer parts of the country or from marginalised minorities, who had it and still have it much harder.

And I sure as hell am not looking for pity. I’m doing really well. And once you overcome the barriers that society puts in front of you, your working class upbringing makes you strong.  When my mom had her hair ripped from her scalp, she managed to climb back onto the tractor, drive it home and call the doctor herself. If I have one-tenth of that strength, then I am fine.

And of course, poor white people can get rich. Poor Black people can get rich but will always be black in a structurally racist society. Read up on intersectionality, y’all.

Second: Don’t you dare cast this as a narrative ‘that with a bit of pluck and hard work’ anyone can make it.  Fuck that.  I did not work my ass off because I am such a noble worker; I did it and my family did it to survive.

No, the real point of these stories is that I got lucky.  I am smart.  I am good at my job, have authored or co-authored hundreds of papers and taught thousands of students.  Science is better for having me participating in it.  I was the Director of a world-leading environmentally-facing research institute and am now the Head of one of the top Earth Science departments in the world. And the only reason any of that happened is that I got lucky again and again and again.

I got lucky being born white and male, and have benefited from that my entire career. I was adopted by parents who were supportive of my ambitions.  We might have been poor but we had food and shelter and stability. I happened to go to one of the top public schools in Ohio, by dumb luck of geography, and happened to have some of the most amazing teachers. I got lucky during my PhD and Postdoc, who I worked with (amazing supervisors, mentors, colleagues and friends), the lab equipment we had, the discoveries we stumbled on, the grant that barely got funded.

We pretend to live and work in a meritocracy, where everyone has a chance and excellence and hard work is rewarded. We especially believe that myth in academia. And I think we do so because we do work hard but also because we need that story to justify the sacrifices we all make.  But we do not work in a meritocracy. Some people are born into wealth and some into poverty.

And the success of a few poor kids does not change the truth of that injustice.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Engaging Communities

‘The University always has to have its moment in the spotlight.’ Sarcasm dripped from every word, heard by me even though it was whispered only to his neighbour in the audience. His colleague laughed in reply.  I had just given a talk as part of a Conference on Bristol’s Resilience Strategy, on work we had co-produced.

On another occasion, after speaking about the racial impacts of climate change, a person who’s opinion I valued and still value above nearly all others cornered me and said, ‘If you care so much about racial inequality why is your audience all white? Why are your speakers all white?’

Co-production.  Participatory Approaches. Citizen Science. Co-creation.  Shared learning.  We now recognise that our research – maybe all of it and certainly aspects of it – cannot be conducted in the ivory tower but instead must be done in an engaged, equal and constructive partnership with the relevant communities.  Increasingly, however, the nature of that engagement is critiqued.  Who do we engage and why?  What are the implicit and explicit power imbalances and hierarchies? Even when we engage genuinely, are we still centering our agenda through our soft influence and power?

These are not new questions, but as researchers approach community engagement with new enthusiasm, they are re-discovered by new parts of the academic community and university leadership. The lessons have to be learned again. Our partners have to teach us. Again. And are exploited further.

Twenty years ago, it was thought to be enough to simply be seen to be engaging, so desperate were cities and communities for researchers to listen to them.  But engagement can reproduce the same inequities of the past.  In fact, given the greater emotional and labour investment of the partnership, the potential for exploitation is far greater.

Why must we engage?

I was asked this at a recent workshop, not because anyone there thought it was a contested question but rather to stimulate discussion.  Nonetheless, if we are to collaborate with communities with integrity, it is essential to understand not just why we are obliged to engage as researchers but why we choose to engage as people.

When I first started working more closely with communities – those in Tanzania as part of project to study past climate, with Bristol communities to explore local climate action – I was inspired by the classical reasons.  It is fun; I enjoy working with people.  And it is ethical; people have a right to know where and how their taxes, resources, or history are used and have a right to shape that research.

As I increasingly focused on the intersection of my work on past climate change with local and national strategies for climate action and resilience, my motivation became more pragmatic. If we expect our work to make a difference to society, then people need to have not just understanding but buy-in to that research. Where possible, they should be co-creating those solutions and policies, whether via Citizen Assemblies or involvement in technological innovations.  Too often, scientists, engineers and social scientists have envisioned solutions that have been met with apathy, indifference or even hostility by the citizens they’ve been meant to serve: nuclear power, pesticides and genetically modified crops. Vaccines.  And with communities, flood defences, wind farms, hazard resilience strategies, clean air zones, park restoration.  Co-production will never eliminate controversy, but it mitigates it.  And it certainly helps all of society anticipate challenges and create a more constructive path towards the implementation of solutions.  It will be especially important to implement the very challenging changes required to address the Climate and Ecological Emergencies.

Although I still embrace that pragmatic rationale and approach, it is too simplistic.

First, it is not enough to simply engage the usual, expected or obvious stakeholders.  Instead, we must ask challenging questions about who we are engaging and why, viewed through a decolonial lens and in a manner that challenges the prevailing conventions.  Failure to do so in a society with deeply embedded inequities – locally, nationally and globally – will likely replicate or even amplify the structural racism, sexism and classism of our world.

Take as an example the electric car, a critical part of decarbonising transport.  In the news, in policy, and in engagement by researchers, whose voices are privileged, whose have been centered.  Whose have been marginalised. Which communities do we challenge and which do we placate. I would argue that the entire dialogue centres the current car user – how to make electric cars affordable and comfortable.  How to build the enabling infrastucture.  Where to invest in charging stations.  The dialogue frequently fails to consider the non-car user or the impoverished.  It almost always fails to consider the resources to manufacture those cars:  The countries that still suffer from neocolonial exploitation; the people in those countries; the marginalised groups and indigenous communities in those countries.  Every pledge to invest in electrification of transport is a colonial claim to a finite resource, and yet these issues are almost never discussed in the race to innovate and invest.

The act of engagement is not a neutral one.

Second, we must complicate the personal dimension of the ‘why engage’ question by examining motivations and power inequities.  What are your motivations. Why are you doing this?  Was it necessary to the grant?  Is it necessary for your work to have ‘impact’?  Is it because it is what your employer expects of you in order to achieve the previous?  Engagement is necessary for the success of academics and the University, and therefore, it is always an act of institutional privilege, centering our agenda even when it is co-produced.

This is what sits under the simmering resentment of the anecdote I opened with.  That work was some of my most genuine and heartfelt; it was good work of which I am proud and it did involve multiple communities.  But in that moment, in that forum, I was speaking because I was expected to.  I had a platform not because of the work but because of my employer.  I had long ago understood my white and male privilege, but in that moment I understood my institutional privilege.  Just like I had initially resisted the idea of white privilege because I had suffered as a poor working class kid in rural Ohio, I resisted the idea of institutional privilege because I viewed myself as another proud Union member who loved the University of Bristol but still thought of myself as exploited by the neoliberal University machine as anyone else.

But it is not true.  I had and have the privilege of working for an institution that has nearly a billion pound annual turnover, whose decisions shape our city in profound and long-lasting ways, skewing property values, demographics and investment. I have no doubt that our University, as progressive as it is, brings not only income to Bristol but also inequality. I was leveraging that privilege for a spotlight.  And I would later be able to leverage that spotlight for recognition and promotion.

These complicated power dynamics are not an excuse not to engage, however; they are a lesson about recognising the privilege that is embodied in any interaction with our community.  A counter example is my involvement with the Bristol Festival of Nature.  For over ten years, the University and my research group has attended, bringing an interactive display about how molecular fossils can tell us about past climate and past human history.  It is sort of the most rudimentary form of community engagement. There is no co-creation.  It’s just scientists rocking up and talking to the public and answering their questions.  And no one has ever challenged my role in that or the University’s.

That is because this engagement, although it offers little, offers more than it asks.

Mireia on Twitter: "Paleodetectives ready to uncover the past at @AtBristol #BristolBrightNight @cpe_bristol http://t.co/KoDjvlwCOS"
Megan and Mireia showing the Palaeodetectives at the Bristol Festival of Nature
Deep, meaningful, long-term and honest engagement with communities is not necessarily “better” than rocking up and giving a talk but it is deeper, with greater rewards and also greater obligations.  In any interaction, but especially interactions involving the vast power disparities of Universities with their cities or UK scientists with marginalised communities, it is not enough to fixate only on the most effective mechanism but to understand the privilege we derive from those power differentials, the underlying transactions and the potential for exploitation.
Barriers to Engagement and their Solutions
The Barriers to successful engagement are extensive: finding common cause, a shared language and approach, agreeing mutually beneficial outcomes. There are questions of legitimacy and trust, especially when there has been a history of exploitation. When trust is built, there is the shared frustration of funding, with the options available to all of us limited to months or years, undermining the ability to develop the meaningful relationships to which we aspire.
Prosaically, the solutions are obvious.  Coming from a privileged organisation, can you procure more long-term investment? Given that engagement is part of our jobs, are we willing to transfer some of our academic privilege to our partners by volunteering our time?
But informing and underpinning all of that is the essential need to understand the transactions implicit or explicit in our partnerships.  I don’t want any of us to make our world any more transactional than it already is. But we are obliged to have an understanding of the transactions that are explicit and implicit in our partnerships – for us and our partners – and use that understanding to build a collaboration based on equity, honesty and empathy.
Researchers must be more honest with our partners about what we will get out of it – and sometimes that means being more honest with ourselves. Successful engagement will help us get a PhD. A job. A grant. A paper. A promotion. A pay raise.
Similarly – and in light of history and privilege differentials – we must create the space where our partners can also be honest about their needs, their research priorities, and how they need to have that knowledge returned to them in an actionable way.
And we have an obligation to understand what we are asking of them. Remember this: For a poor person, we can ask for few things more valuable than time. For someone from a marginalised group, we can ask for few things more valuable than their emotional labour, experience and re-lived trauma.
And most of all, understand the source of power imbalances in any interaction. Marginalised groups have power.  Growing up in a working class family, I was acutely aware that we did not have access to much financial, legal or political power; but we had other power that comes from closeness, resilience and lived experience. My community partners would say the same.  The Green and Black Ambassadors are powerful.  Ujima Radio is powerful.  The real question is the intersection of power and privilege.  What power (skills, knowledge, experience) is privileged in society?  And what power do we wield in a civic partnership that arises not from legitimacy but from our institutional and individual privilege.
What I learned about dismantling privilege and building engagement with the Green and Black Ambassadors
In 2015 Bristol was the European Green Capital and it was widely regarded as a successful year.  But it was rightfully critiqued for failing to be inclusive – despite well intentioned efforts to be so. Because of that, I partnered via the Cabot Institute with Ujima Radio, a community radio station, and the Bristol Green Capital Partnership to explore the lack of inclusion during the Green Capital Year and more widely in the environmental movement.  This was the Green and Black Conversation, and through its delivery we learned a lot of things that environmental movement should have known already:
– That the programme was shaped by and favoured the interests of the ‘in-crowd’; its focus and themes, the venues, the types of events all reflected the tastes, interests and convenience of the usual suspects.
– That they were invited to events and even to speak but only after the agenda was set.
– That individuals and groups that represented marginalised groups were being exploited for their time and labour. Moreover, they were not supported in leveraging the Green Capital accolades to win their own funding. It is not the same for the Director of the Cabot Institute for the Environment to sacrifice his day to attend a sustainability workshop than it is for the Director of a racial equity organisation.  Not only are there questions of alignment of responsibilities but also a chasm in resource.   Inviting them to attend was not inclusion.  Expecting them to attend was exploitation.
– That the language was exclusionary.  In particular, language about marginalised groups assumed a lack of interest – ‘How do we get more Black people into nature.’  ‘How can we ensure Black people have access to nature’ – without recognising that they already had their own initiatives and projects. That they had their own sustainability solutions.  That they were engaged just not with the ‘in crowd’s projects.
And so we launched the Green and Black Ambassadors with several goals and values.
– We would always pay our Ambassadors and our partners, compensating them for their labour and experience; and that we would use our privilege to demand the same from all future partners.
– We would invest in a new generation, recognising both the great capacity in Bristol’s African and Caribbean populations but also that this capacity had been undermined by decades of under-investment.
– We would give them a platform to promote initiatives from their own community; and eventually, we would cede our platforms to them.  I would no longer accept the invitations arising from my institutional privilege but pass those invitations to Zakiya and Jazz.
– We would be allies in challenging institutions, including our own. We advocated for their voices in our Board Rooms, classrooms, working parties, One City Plans and more.  We were their voice when they were not present but more importantly, we agreed to open the door and let them come in and have our places instead.
Related image
Roger Griffith and the Inaugural Green and Black Ambassadors, Jasmine Ketibuah-Foley and Zakiya McKenzie
In short, it was a political project to challenge the lack of equity and inclusion in the environmental movement, politics and industry.  And although that might seem far from how you might build engagement into a research proposal, it is not. The principles for all engagement must be the same because all interactions characterised by power differentials are political projects.
But moreso, this type of collaboration enriches and adds value to all of our scholarly endeavours.  Much of the Green and Black Ambassadors Programme was funded by my ERC project on The Greenhouse Earth System.  Centering racial inclusion in the environmental movement might seem rather removed from developing molecular tools to study Earth’s climate 50 million years ago.  Maybe.  But by building trust, relationships and credibility, I have been able to share my research findings with 1000s of people I might not otherwise. The palaeoclimate research was never centred, rarely prominent, usually never mentioned, because that would have undermined the ethos of the Green and Black Programme.  Instead our conversations focused on the air pollution and food poverty issues that our engaged communities had prioritised.
But here is the thing: I’d far rather have my work be a very small part of a large story shared by many than the central part of a small story heard by few. And I think that is a truth of the entire suite of global crises we face.  If we are to address the many environmental and social justice challenges of the future, we must embrace community while rejecting ego.
Addendum.  There is a lot of ‘us’ and ‘them’ in this essay.  Ultimately, we must get away from that.  We must avoid not just the language of we and them but the unconscious view from which that language arises. But I still believe that in the vast majority of partnerships, ‘we’ still need to do better by ‘them’; and pretending we are all in this together, that we all enter into a partnership with equal privilege and capacity is duplicitous.  So my final advice is recognise there is an ‘us’ and ‘them’ arising from differences in privilege, and do everything you can to dismantle that.

Addendum 2: Once you begin to explore power differentials, you unlock a range of challenging questions.  In particular, I find this short article by Farhana Sultana to be illuminating in revealing the power dynamics within the communities we engage.

 

The Green and Black Ambassadors

Summary: The Green and Black Ambassadors project arose from a series of conversations during and after Bristol’s year as the European Green Capital 2015.  Although the year was lauded for numerous successes, including in public engagement, many (including the organisers) agreed that it failed to overcome barriers to inclusion, especially with marginalised communities. The G/B Conversation revealed many of those barriers and proposed ways forward, one of which was to properly fund members of BME communities to challenge and connect different groups. To achieve that we, launched the Green and Black Ambassadors Programme, to build bridges but also to challenge and provoke. To provide focus, we engaged with the African and Caribbean communities prominent in Bristol.  This work was funded by the Cabot Institute, NERC and the ERC.

NOTE: An inspiring and exhaustive collection of Green and Black Ambassadors multi-media resources are available at the website of our partners, the Bristol Green Capital Partnership.  This project has been an outstanding collaboration, including the University of Bristol, Ujima Radio, the Green Capital Partnership and of course the Ambassadors. Particular acknowledgment must be given to Ujima Radio, who initiated the Green and Black Project which was the foundation for much of what is discussed here.  Please also read the final report:

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Background: In 2013, Bristol was announced as the 6th European Green Capital (for 2015) and the UK’s first. This award acknowledge a wide range of initiatives, success stories and ambitions, including significant waste reduction, widespread cycling, city-owned renewable energy provision, a rapidly growing green economy, and strong university partnership.  The year had a particularly strong focus on climate change, as it occurred during COP21. Crucially, the award itself as well as policy decisions made during and since the end of the Green Capital Year commit the city to a bold plan of leadership and social and technological innovation to become more sustainable and reduce its carbon footprint.  For example, representing Bristol at COP21 Mayor George Ferguson committed Bristol to decarbonisation by 2050, a pledge that his successor Marvin Rees has reiterated. Such an ambition requires widespread buy-in amongst formal and distributed city leaders as well as Bristol’s population.

The year was characterised by a range of Summits, lectures and festivals; a cultural and arts program; new public and private initiatives; and more. However, this engagement was incomplete. Throughout the year, many explored the social justice issues arising from climate change.  Echoing commentary by numerous international political and religious leaders, discussions at Green Capital events frequently focussed on the ethical dimensions of climate change, including those related to class, ethnicity and race. As such it was considered necessary to engage a diverse cross-section of society (and of course, this was also considered necessary to mobilise support for the aforementioned policy objectives). There were many efforts to achieve this.  The Year included a Neighbourhood Arts Progamme and a Primary Schools Programme, both of which were rolled out across the city. The Cabot Institute led several events in the poorest parts of the city, to complement those held on our campus. Nonetheless, poor inclusion was a persistent and legitimate charge (Pancost, 2015), as it has been for other Bristol activities. It was the disconnection between the Green Capital’s ambitions for inclusion and the lack of it that has proven to be particularly frustrating to many.

 There are vital lessons to be learned from this and there is a necessity to resolve it if Bristol – and other similar cities – are to achieve their desired transformations. Ujima Radio, recent winner of the UK’s Best Community Radio Station, initiated this effort in late 2014 and explored it throughout 2015 via the Green and Black Programme.  In late 2015, the Cabot Institute and the BGCP joined Ujima to explore this further via a series of workshops with BME leaders.  Two broad messages emerged, as summarised by our partner Roger Griffiths (Chair of Ujima Radio): ‘To many, the ‘green’ debate has hallmarks of being predominantly understood as a white, middle-class domain; moreover, there is a strong narrative of existing and potential engagement with green issues across BME communities that must be recognised and developed.’ Around these wider issues, a number of specific challenges were identified:

  • There was a widespread perception that formal activities – and especially the higher level decision-making – was led by an ‘in-crowd’ of established green activists, city leaders, and usual suspects (university and industry leaders).
  • Many venues were considered ‘off-limits’ to members of the BME community for a combination of issues related to perceived class bias, reputation or history (bearing in mind the role of slaving in Bristol’s history). Aside from that, many venues in the city centre, Bristol’s traditional focus for events (including the University), are not readily accessible.
  • Participation in events remains difficult for many due to childcare or work responsibilities. This reinforces the ‘in-crowd’ nature of activity and city planning, as many were able to attend as part of their jobs. Events were numerous and often organised at the last-minute, which further disenfranchised those with less flexible personal or working relationships.
  • Similarly, many were able to either volunteer time or were seconded from their businesses to participate; this puts particular stress on community organisations with limited resources.
  • BME leaders who were invited to attend workshops and planning meetings were often asked to attend or even speak but ‘rarely to help set the agenda.’

This is summarised with clarity and purpose by our partner at Ujima Radio, Roger Griffith in the Green and Black Conversation. The Green and Black Conversation 2015-2016-2f0l648

One of this consortium’s main conclusions was to launch a Green and Black Ambassador Programme, to pay, train and support (and learn from) a new generation of leaders who would: 1) foster dialogue among diverse groups, including showcasing examples of sustainability leadership arising from BME communities; 2) serve as a positively ‘disruptive’ participant on strategic boards (i.e. BGCP Board); 3) generate bespoke material on environmental issues and sustainability solutions for BME communities, some of which will be broadcast by Ujima Radio; and 4) conduct further research on the obstacles to BME inclusion in environmental initiatives. Given the diversity of Bristol with at least 91 languages spoken and 45 religions practiced, we have focussed on those communities of African and Caribbean descent, recognising that even that represents a great diversity of cultures, faiths and experience. Crucially, a goal of this initiative, directly identified during community consultations and reiterated by Mayor Marvin Rees, is to invest in the leadership skills of those bridging environmental and social justice ambitions.

 

Our events and networks forged

The Ambassadors have contributed to or led dozens of events, all characterised by their diversity and ambition, connecting people from a range of communities to one another and to natural resources. They have occurred across Bristol and the West of England, either in traditional locations with a specific aim to challenge and disrupt conventional approaches to engagement (i.e. Cabot Institute lecture in the Wills Memorial Building or the BGCP Board Meeting); in communities with large BME or otherwise marginalised communities (i.e. Hamilton House); or by bringing BME citizens out of the city to nature-rich areas (i.e Slimbridge).

Through Festivals, Workshops and Lectures, the Ambassadors have reached over 1000 people, and likely several 1000 more through their monthly radio shows. These events have included classical outreach activities, engaged workshops, field trips and knowledge sharing. Emerging from these activities has been sustained and deeper engagement, outlined below. This is critical.  During one presentation, while discussing the outcomes of the project, the PI was asked: ‘How will you measure how BME communities have adopted more sustainable practices?’ This is a critical misconception of the entire project of engagement and certainly a misunderstanding of the Green and Black Ambassadors Programme. The goal is to constructively change the scientists, the campaigners and the communicators alongside the public participants; the goal is for these leaders to listen to, learn from and better understand the initiatives occurring in and knowledge generated in marginalised communities so that the scientific endeavour becomes richer and stronger – and better connected to a wider variety of the public.  Therefore, the Ambassadors have devoted particular effort to engaging and collaborating with organisations.  These include:

Slimbridge WWT: The Ambassadors brought BME citizens to Slimbridge to stimulate a conversation around engagement with nature; they then collaborated on a workshop to address inclusion and diversity in their nature programme.

Avon Wildlife Trust: The Ambassadors are developing collaborations to address diversity in the AWT programme.

University of West of England and University of Bristol (including the Students Union): The Ambassadors have worked with the Joint University SU Skills Bridge team including advising the team’s inclusivity efforts and featuring individual researchers on their radio show and promotion of Photovoice (Drs Shaun Sobers & Ade Olaiya).

Bristol City Council and Mayor: The Ambassadors have met the Head of the Sustainable Cities Team, engaged with knowledge sharing / interactions with the Mayor on social media, and met with Cllr Asher Craig.  This is serving as the foundation for future projects focussing on air pollution and health.

Numerous connections and outputs have emerged from these events and activities, with highlights being: the embedding of diversity issues, awareness and responsibility across the BGCP network of over 800 organisations; a dramatically raised profile of BME-led initiatives in the city and a stronger dialogue between NERC researchers and marginalised communities; a website containing numerous blogs, commentaries and interviews (http://bristolgreencapital.org/category/green-black/); and a multimedia archive of the Ambassadors’ radio show on Ujima Radio.  These dynamic and interactive shows have featured leading scientists, campaigners and politicians can be found on Soundcloud, i.e.: https://soundcloud.com/ujimagreenandblackradio/green-and-black-radio-002.  Guests and topics have included: Fuel poverty in Bristol – Bristol Energy Network; What happens when you flush your toilet in Bristol – GenEco; Monitoring equality in the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development – Ade Olaiya, UWE; Focus on Guyana’s biodiversity (World Wetlands Day special); Exploring spaces outside the city – Imayla. This network and knowledge building will culminate during the 10th Anniversary celebration of the BGCP on 6 July, where the G/B Ambassadors will showcase their findings to hundreds of industry, civic society, public and political voices in the West of England sustainability movement, a conversation to be broadcast live by Ujima Radio – this will feature environmental research, showcase the need for a far more inclusive approach to outreach activities, and provide critical commentary on how to better engage with marginalised communities.

Other networks that are being developed include those with Black 2 Nature, Resource Futures, GENeco, Sustrans, Journey to Justice, Bristol Food Network, Up Our Street, Bristol Energy Network, Easton Energy and Lifecycle UK.  In doing so, the Ambassadors are facilitating a rich but challenging conversation among some of the city and region’s leading environmental and social justice networks.  Over 20 other organisations have expressed interest in engaging the Ambassadors to explore their own diversity and inclusion challenges with respect to public engagement.

 

The Reception

It is hard to convey the enthusiasm with which this scheme has been received.  Industry, government, civil society and public participants in environmental and sustainability issues are passionate about inclusion for its own sake but also because of its necessity to achieve the profound changes to which Bristol committed when it was the European Green Capital in 2015.  However, those organisations and individuals recognised that well-meaning efforts to engage and include failed because of a lack of common understanding, misplaced or insufficient effort, disparity of resources, and the lack of facilitators that could help navigate interactions among diverse communities.  Against that backdrop, the Green and Black Ambassadors Programme has been hailed by numerous citizens, lauded by some participants as transformative, identified by members of the BGCP as an exemplar project, and celebrated by civic leaders including the Mayor of Bristol, Marvin Rees.  This is evidenced by a strong twitter following, hundreds of retweets, over 30 requests to engage with other organisations and the Ambassadors’ prominent role in the BGCP 10th anniversary celebrations.

Such enthusiasm and engagement must be met with some caution.  The goal of the programme is not to simply better connect environmental researchers and organisations to more diverse communities as a box-ticking exercise.  The programme is meant to be disruptive and challenging – leading to genuine transformation of organisations, practices and relationships. We do not aspire to ‘communicate better’ but to have a shared agenda for making the scientific endeavour, including its participants and users, more diverse. As said by Zakiya: ‘Our task is to build bridges. We are honest about the barriers within our own communities and will hold people to account. We are also here to challenge the environmental and science sectors to co-produce, consult inclusively and step outside of the pervading bubble of whiteness and masculinity as necessary for validity. We have a daunting task that will agitate people on both sides of the divide but as we say in Jamaica “one, one cocoa fill basket”; by using our skills to fill the void in conversation, Jasmine and I are making way for better dialogue and real, inclusive actions.’

There is strong evidence that the organisations involved have been transformed, with both the BGCP and Cabot Institute being recently celebrated for better showcasing BME citizens, putting visible effort into engaging with those citizens, and adopting more rigorous and challenging practices. A crucial research question if the programme continues will be to explore how deep, wide and long-term such transformations have been in those and in other organisations.

 

What was learned

During Bristol 2015, the profile of environmental research was dramatically raised; from climate change scientists to atmospheric chemists to biodiversity experts, our work was showcased at Green Capital Summits, married to arts exhibits, centred in citizen science initiatives (i.e. Urban Pollinators), and integrated to local and regional policy makers (i.e. Pancost was invited to accompany the Mayor and BCC to COP21 and has contributed to developing Bristol’s 50-year trajectory by serving on the Resilience Sounding Board).

This initiative has not raised that profile but changed it.

Through the Green and Black Conversation we facilitated a community-led dialogue about the limitations of previous outreach and engagement activities in Bristol – including our own. The Ambassadors Programme allowed us, our partners and our fellow citizens to put those lessons into practice.

The most important of these lessons was: “Do not assume that different communities are not engaged; assume that they are but are doing it separately or differently.  So ask them what their ideas are.”  Consequently, engagement must be co-designed, with joint agenda setting (‘We are invited but the agenda is already set.’), and a recognition of different forms of knowledge and a shared capacity to contribute.  Within this broader context, five key themes emerged: 1) Change or recognise the constraints of terminology, its culture and ownership; 2) Profile activity beyond that which takes place in white middle-class neighbourhoods; 3) Create a new set of green narratives that relates to different cultural perspectives and experiences; 4) Challenge leadership and decision-making, especially by developing new leaders; and 5) Fund and support active projects that make the difference rather than just well-meaning manifestos and statements of intent.  From these lessons derive some self-evident actions for future events and initiatives: a) engage under-represented marginal communities early and often, funding them as appropriate, while creating the space and open dialogue that encourages all to contribute their ideas; b) host events in a variety of venues and actively ensure that all feel welcome at all venues; c) depoliticise discussions by acknowledging and exposing their political dimensions rather than treating them as apolitical; d) challenge those with influence and position to ensure that BME citizens are given voices within institutions – and to ensure those voices are supported when they provoke and challenge; and e) guarantee representation.

This project also reinforced the challenges related to time and capacity to engage. Engaging the public but especially marginalised communities requires time to gain trust; but at the same time, the public can have limited resource or capacity to engage. For poor communities, time and resource issues are compounded. These are difficult barriers to overcome but can be mitigated by: longer lead-in times and earlier invitations; providing child-care support; and having fewer events but delivering them in a way that involves a wider cross-section of the city (including perhaps running the same event several times at multiple locations).

Crucially, it was argued and accepted that privileged leaders, including many in Bristol’s thriving green economy and HEI sectors, must both build structures and cultivate the culture change that allows inclusion to thrive. Liberating the strength of our diversity requires not just good will but the creation of structures that promote inclusion, including training and genuine financial support of community partners. It is illuminating that one of the Green Capital’s strong inclusion stories was the School’s programme, which essentially engaged every primary school child in Bristol.  Tapping into structures or networks – where they exist – can facilitate engagement; but where they do not exist, they must be built.

These issues affect everyone.  Class, race and gender need not be obstacles. This gap needs to addressed and acknowledged and realised by communities and organisations together if we want to move forward as a city.’ Jasmine Ketubah-Foley, Green and Black Ambassador.

Arguably, this investigation has moved into issues far beyond those that are the normal scope of engagement and outreach discussions: how to better communicate to diverse audiences, tailoring messages, choosing diverse venues and format. Nonetheless, valuable lessons were learned – derived from the above – that could be applied to nearly any NERC-based science outreach. The programme reinforced the lesson to connect research findings to the needs and interests of your audience; however, most audiences were quite receptive to a creative connection – linking palaeoclimatic events to air pollution challenges or past biotic change to current migration debates were welcomed. Other lessons were surprising – although not in hindsight.  For example, NERC scientists work all over the world or on samples collected from all over the world; BME audiences, perhaps due to a more recent immigrant past, wanted to hear more about this.  Who were the partners and collaborators?  What was it like working in these countries, especially for communities that have ancestral roots there?  And most critically, are these scientific efforts still informed by colonial biases – have we worked with, respected and co-authored with citizens from those nations?

 

Project Highlights

All of us involved have different thoughts: For some it is the disruptive presence of BME citizens in places that had seemed ‘off limits’ such as the University’s Great Hall; for others, it will have been the excitement of young people taken on a field trip to the wetlands.  More broadly, we argue it is the fact that the language of social justice and inclusion are now ubiquitous in environmental and sustainability conversations, exemplified across the manifestos of all major party candidates for Metro Mayor (we cannot take all credit for that but the Ambassadors Progamme has been a focus and distillation of numerous other conversations).  Personally, the PI of the project thinks that the best outcome has been the unleashing of Jazz’s and Zakiya’s talents.  We have given some training to these exceptional women, but the real benefit has been the commitment of the partners to give them a platform and show city leaders the skills, knowledge and passion they already had.

More fundamentally, it has changed perceptions on engagement between diverse publics, civil society organisations and universities. It is not enough to think about science communication as apolitical and in isolation.  If we want citizens to engage with scientists, then we must show that we have made commitments to their communities, that we are engaged in the challenges those communities face, that we are committed to addressing the flaws within our own institutions.  It is not enough to say ‘we wanted to have a diverse panel but there are very few black climate scientists.’  Of course, scientists should be very cautious about appearing partisan but nor can we ignore the challenges of those we engage, especially where it interfaces with our work.  Engagement is far more than ‘better communication.’ It is becoming constructive partners in our communities, of which science outreach is a small part of a wide portfolio.

 

Reflections

There is much that could not be achieved during a brief pilot project (even extended to 10 months by co-funding).  First, given the key outcome that engagement between researchers and communities must be protracted, allowing for deep, mutual, respectful and trusted collaboration, these types of initiatives must have long-term investment.  Building trust is always important but particularly so for marginalised communities with a history of being excluded. Second, we caution against extrapolation to other marginalised communities; our efforts focussed on BME communities of African or Caribbean descent (already a multitude of different voices) and that means that we have not probed a range of more nuanced issues related to religion, gender or class. Future efforts could widen this exploration; we doubt that the fundamentals will differ (diverse venues, family or worker-friendly times) but nuanced findings almost certainly will.  Third, we aspire to test the long-term changes these interventions have made.  Have AWT or WWT (or UoB and BGCP) embedded diversity in their practices?  Have they adopted new policies or practices?  Do they remain dependant on the initiative of marginalised groups or individuals, such as the Ambassadors, or have they taken on their own responsibility to support inclusive initiatives?  If these changes have occurred then these organisations, in partnership with NERC researchers, will be better poised to connect our research findings to a wide and diverse part of the UK’s population.

We collectively agree that we must challenge/re-imagine models of scientific ‘pubic engagement’ – and that therefore NERC should think about moving away from the kind of measures illustrated in this report (i.e. to be judged on number of events and number of people ‘engaged’) and towards thinking about ‘quality’ of engagement – long term meaningful relationships based on the sharing of knowledge and expertise.  Most importantly, however, the final reflections should belong to our two Ambassadors:

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Holding the green sector to account

Jasmine Ketibuah-Foley, Green and Black Ambassador

Being part of the activist movement in Bristol, something kept picking away at the back of my brain. After some time I realised I could find almost no black or brown role models to look up to. Where were the culturally rich BME communities of Bristol who have so much to say on the environment, environmental racism and sustainability? Why were they not thriving in this supposedly inclusive space?

Bristol’s year as the European Green Capital in 2015 had many successes but it failed to include BME communities. The community radio station Ujima ran a debate about the issue in 2015 and this project has grown from there. The University of Bristol Cabot Institute and the Bristol Green Capital Partnership joined up to continue to fund it along with the public engagement funding from NERC. Together they set up the ambassador programme to pay, train and support a new generation of BME environmental leaders – Zakiya and I.

We are trying to find out why inclusion has failed so far and we’re challenging Bristol’s research and BME communities to work together. We have a radio show on Ujima, we run workshops and we took a group of young BME people to a large wetlands centre outside of Bristol to explore why these nature attractions aren’t attracting diverse communities.

Zakiya and I come from community research backgrounds and worked as radio and TV broadcast journalists. Our passion to tell people’s stories and our brazenness in asking difficult questions with a healthy sense of justice fits well with the role.

 

Tackling inequality in Bristol

Zakiya McKenzie, Green and Black Ambassador

In March 2017, The Sunday Times named Bristol the ‘best place to live in the UK’. As a black woman, single mother and mature student, I cannot help but wince at this misleading accolade. The difference in life expectancy between the city’s wealthy and deprived wards is as much as a decade. I grew up in Jamaica, studied in NYC and worked as a journalist in Johannesburg and I absolutely love ‘ole Brizzle’ – but nothing prepared me for the city’s virtual segregation.

In one of our workshops people told us they found it difficult to get the time to attend research events, particularly if they worked for small organisations with limited funds. Participants also found that they might be invited to events, but not to help set the agenda.

Our task is to build bridges. We are honest about the barriers within our own communities and hold people to account. We are also here to challenge the environmental and science sectors to step outside of the pervading bubble of whiteness and masculinity as necessary for validity.

We have a daunting task but as we say in Jamaica “one, one cocoa fill basket”. By using our skills to fill the void in conversation, Jasmine and I are making way for better dialogue and real, inclusive actions.

 

 

The Green and Black Conversation – Exclusion and the Environmental Movement

This is a report from the very first event in the Green and Black partnership between Ujima Radio, Bristol Green Capital Partnership and the Cabot Institute.  Ujima had been leading on the Conversation for the previous year, and  this particular event was the catalyst for a three-year (and growing) partnership that was the foundation for the award-winning and celebrated Green and Black Ambassadors.

This Green and Black Conversation involved several members of Bristol’s Black and Minority Ethnic (BME) community and organisations. It was held in partnership with Bristol Green Capital Partnership (Gary Topp), University of Bristol (Hayley Shaw, Cabot Institute & Kat Wall, Policy Institute) and sponsored by the Cabot Institute whose Director Professor Rich Pancost addressed the group. The campaign has political support from Mayor George Ferguson and also Marvin Rees who attended the forum with European Member of European Parliament Claire Moody.  

Our new volunteer Helly Dudley, Broadcast Assistant on Ujima’s Old Skool Cruising Show (Monday 4-6) with Roger Griffith who was co-facilitator with Julz attended her first community engagement event and here is her blog. 

The Report of the Green and Black Conversation, written by Roger, can be read here.
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The Green and Black Conversation

Arriving at St Werburgh’s community centre I knew I was going to be getting involved in discussions about being ‘Green/Environmental’ and how this is linked to the BME community in Bristol. However, I wasn’t sure what would be discussed, how they would be viewed and spoken about.

From the get-go I realised that this is extremely important to many members of the BME community as there was enthusiasm for living in an environmentally beneficial lifestyle and also a feeling of a lack of support which members of the BME community feel they are receiving from the campaign. Although Bristol is European Green capital, there is a divide occurring within the city and certain communities feel they are being excluded by Bristol European Green Capital from this campaign.

We first looked at the use of language and the ways in which this can be limiting to people of all ages and ethnicities. Not only do language barriers prevent certain communities from getting involved but it also prevents them from knowing how to help and giving them a sense of self-responsibility. When one member of the group declared they didn’t know what ‘buying organic’ meant this created a murmur of agreement throughout the rest of the group as few of us were able to define what ‘organic’ meant. If you, like me, are unsure of the term ‘organic’ then the definition is – ‘(of food or farming methods) produced or involving production without the use of chemical fertilizers, pesticides, or other artificial chemicals.’

If the Green agenda wants to get all of Bristol’s residents on board to help the environment then they need to change the way in which they portray their methods of being sustainable and as we explored language is just one of those methods.

Another issue raised throughout the day was there was a belief that it was seen as an elitist campaign which directs its messages mainly to a white middle-class demographic. One attendee pointed out that, Gloucester Road is covered with Green campaign posters, Stapleton Road was left untouched. Why is it that the campaign is just aiming their agendas at the central zone of Bristol and neglecting the rest of its communities?

Kat Wall, who works with the University of Bristol and helped set up this discussion, mentioned that she had been to an environmental meeting and was shocked by the lack of BME members present. When she questioned the organiser of the event why this was the case they just replied that they had sent out the necessary invites but no one turned up. When this was put to the rest of the group there was an immediate response that the main reason they don’t attend these events is because they are tired of time and time again going to the same talks and making their input but never actually being heard or have their opinions taken on board.

There seems to be a lack of conversations between communities and those in power. To quote a member of Bristol’s Bus Boycott and activist and former farmer Roy Hackett ‘nobody ever asks me’ so if Bristol City Council and others don’t start listening to the ideas and needs of their own citizens  then how are we as tax-paying citizens  supposed to be able to get involved . One attendee mentioned that if her house was better insulated then she would be able to use less gas and her bills would decrease and she would be able to find the money to buy organic foods.

How can our city expect to stay regarded as a great city when we are cutting out members of our society from joining this campaign and others? We need to change our way of approaching the environmental issues and instead of forcing change onto communities we need to ask the residences of Bristol what they need for change.

We need to carry on having these discussions with each other, and those in power on what the people need in all communities not just the city centre. With the United Nations COP21 meeting taking place over the next 10 days in Paris, discussing climate change we need to now, more than ever, change our way of approaching this subject; and this can be done by including all members of our communities and tackling environmental issues together.

I really enjoyed attending this event and, by the enthusiasm and energy in the room, so did the other participants I believe that it was a conversation that was desperately needed so communities understand that this isn’t just an environmental issue but a social one that needs tackling. It is essential we work together and listen to one another to create new ideas of how to better enhance Bristol’s sustainability.

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This event took place at St Werburgh’s Community Centre in Bristol on 30 November 2015.

This blog was written by Helly Dudley, follow on Twitter @helena_dudley
Follow @ujimaradio.com @julzbrizzle and Roger Griffith @rogerg44.

The Green and Black initiative is a campaign ran by Ujima Radio to raise awareness within the Black & Minority Ethnic (BME) community about the environment and includes Bristol European Green Capital 2015 and beyond. The campaign has been led by Ujima presenter Julz Davis AKA Mistri and has included live broadcasts, debates, featured radio shows and ideas and brings people from marginalised communities into the discussions. This can include cooking tips, exercise and health, climate change across the African and Asian diaspora or heavy air-pollution from the M32 corridor that divides St Pauls and Easton.

Read more about how the Cabot Institute is working with the BME communities around the legacy of the European Green Capital year – see project Green and Black- An alternative green capital.

Most importantly, follow @ketibuahfoley @ZakiyaMedia, the Green and Black Ambassadors.  The issues raised by the Green and Black initiative and conversation led to a coordinate effort to create a new form of collaborative partnership and to procure funding to support our community partners (from the ERC and NERC).  It has been profiled by NERC and the final report from the Ambassadors pilot phase can be downloaded here.

Montage of some of the Green & Black Ambassadors

Welcome to the Uncertain World

On the first of August 2018 I will switch from being Director of the University of Bristol Cabot Institute for the Environment to Head of UoB Earth Sciences.  Looking forward to sharing lessons learned from both of those roles, from working in a thriving interdisciplinary context and lessons learned from colleagues across the University to engaging with city, national and international leaders on climate change, sustainability, resilience and social justice.

And maybe some more personal reflections arising from growing up on a farm in Ohio.

Check out Bristol Blogs for reflections from colleagues across the University and of course the Cabot Institute blog.

And follow all of us on twitter: @rpancost @UoBEarthScience @cabotinstitute