Birdwatching might not be the first thing that many members of Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic communities do with their leisure time, but Ged Cassell has been meeting people from Bristol who are ready to be persuaded.
It was the discussion about perceptions that really caught my attention. ‘What’s your perception of the people who visit a place like Slimbridge?’
The group of fifteen people, all of Asian, African or African-Caribbean heritage, were happy to say how they felt. ‘They’re bird geeks with plenty of time and money.’ ‘Posh and probably retired.’ ‘White and middle class.’
The next question was: ‘How do you think you are perceived by people who go to Slimbridge?’ Again, the group didn’t hold back. ‘I’m one brown face in a sea of white.’ ‘They don’t want me.’ ‘I get funny looks.’
I was at an event organised by Ujima Community Radio and Bristol’s ‘Black and Green Ambassadors’, whose role is to increase participation by Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic (BAME) communities in Bristol City Council’s sustainability agenda. I was looking for an insight into why so few people from BAME communities visit Slimbridge, and what we might do to get them involved with us. Despite the comments above, the session was very positive: the participants were interested in wildlife and conservation, and all said how much they liked being outdoors in green spaces. Those who had been to Slimbridge had enjoyed the experience and been made to feel welcome.
Two days later, the group were walking around Slimbridge on a January morning: gloriously sunny and bitterly cold. ‘Talk to us about the birds from the countries that we come from’ was a message I’d picked up from our Slimbridge 2020 focus groups, so I was ready to do just that. A young man from Sudan was delighted to see a Ruddy Shelduck; a woman whose heritage was Bangladeshi was equally pleased to meet our Bar-headed Geese. As for the Jamaicans, unfortunately the Flamingos were all indoors for the winter, but they still saw plenty of ducks that their parents and grandparents would have recognised ‘from home’.
Back in December, at our ‘Next Steps’ consultation, I spoke to two young British Asian men who had never been to Slimbridge before. They were astonished by their experience of watching birds from the Holden Tower: ‘This is amazing, we never knew you could do this.’ It reminded me that we offer our visitors emotionally powerful experiences. You don’t need to be from a particular background to appreciate the spectacle and be moved by it.
There are things we can’t change overnight. Many local BAME families are on low incomes. We can’t move the wetlands to a more convenient location in the middle of Birmingham or Bristol. And we can’t instantly create a tradition of people from minority communities visiting the countryside and watching birds for pleasure. But we can listen and learn. And we can try to make sure that everyone, whoever they are, feels welcome here and that Slimbridge is a place that’s ‘for them’ and for people like them.