Article about Akashi, written for Lucid Magazine in 2010

By Shilpa

This article was published by Lucid Magazine in January 2010. Shilpa wrote it in response to this article in the Guardian. It gives some background and detail about the Akashi project, which was running in Phase 2 at the time.

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I’m a second generation immigrant woman, with Indian and Kenyan family heritage. I’m 27 years old. I first started campaigning on environmental issues in 2003. I attended speaker meetings and protests, collected petition signatures and lobbied my MP. Alongside this frenetic activity, I quietly pondered the questions Sylvia asks about inclusion and diversity. The spoken message of campaigners around me always boiled down to ‘our environment is for everyone, our movement is for everyone’. But, apart from in the photographs of those struck by floods and droughts, where were the faces who looked like me, my family and friends? And was this all-pervasive monoculture impeding our efforts to create the transformational movement we dreamed of?

As an ‘outsider within’, I observed. And I continue to do so. The larger campaigning organisations are known for their technical and policy expertise. They grab media attention to help drive changes in legislation. Smaller organisations focussed on behaviour change have significant reach and commitment to help people reduce their carbon footprints. There are pockets of excellent work tackling environmental injustice, working with communities locally and internationally.

But the framing of the issues can be heavy on technical information and big abstract concepts, or preaching behaviour changes which seem too small to be significant (wash your clothes at 30 degrees and save the world). Or too difficult, expensive or downright inconvenient. Supporters of big campaigning organisations have increasingly become cannon fodder, signing postcards to put pressure on decision makers at pre-planned moments. The language can alienate and the reliance on impersonal written and online forms of communication work only for some – usually those who are already active on the issues and confident of the contribution their voice can make to influencing change. When I started to unpack this I began to understand why the ‘white, middle class’ image of ‘green’ people is so pervasive.

I encountered stereotypes amongst activists about Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic (BAME) people not caring about environmental issues or anything outside their own sphere of activity. But this seemed to be a convenient myth, masking the inability of many of them to connect across race and class.

The recent focus on climate justice, working together with the social justice charities and campaigners from the global South, has humanised the climate change debate somewhat. During the UN summit in Copenhagen last month, the media focus was often on the present and future impacts of climate change on the lives of people in the majority world. Some in the movement think this angle will engage people from BAME backgrounds automatically – ‘hey, you’re from Bangladesh. Climate change is going to devastate your country, you should support us’.

I myself am petrified by changes in the monsoon patterns in India and the impact that floods have had on my family and friends there. But I care about the impacts in other countries too. I also feel this view of BAME people does not understand who I am – a person immersed in British life, even though I have strong roots and connections in India. I am much more than my self-interest about my ‘home’ country.

Things can be different. There is a wealth of wisdom about nature and respect for water, food and other natural resources within different faith teachings and cultural traditions. Humans are seen as stewards or ‘al khalifa’ for the earth and interconnected with all living beings, and reducing waste is an automatic part of day to day life for those who remember a childhood growing up with little material wealth. ‘Don’t you tell me about recycling,’ says my Gran. ‘Our people have been recycling for centuries before you came along.’ And many BAME people (and others) suffer direct impacts of environmental injustice in their local environment. And people who have been marginalised by mainstream society for decades are much more than passive cannon fodder. There are often are skilled and dedicated changemakers – look at the power of anti-racism, disability rights, labour, gay and women’s movements.

Environmental organisations could do far more to meet people where they are at, on what they care about and the struggles they face – instead of evangelising only on issues and in ways within their own comfort zones.

Together with environmental charity Cambridge Carbon Footprint (CCF), I created Akashi to do something about this. Akashi began in 2005 as an action research project, engaging BAME and faith groups in Cambridge and the Eastern region in personal and political action on climate change and climate justice. Ro, founder of CCF, is a psychotherapist. Her expertise is in getting groups of people to have productive conversations and work creatively together to achieve change. This underpins CCF’s approach to helping people reduce their environmental impact. Akashi adds learning from community development and equality fields, together with a good dose of fun, cultural activities to inspire.

As part of its outreach programme, Akashi delivers activity sessions such as henna painting, hip hop dancing, inter-faith conversation circles and story-telling, all with a climate justice theme and tailored to a faith or cultural group. People can share knowledge and learn about the environment in a way that doesn’t feel like a chore. Participants have gone on to take actions like starting up community allotment groups, helping each other with energy-saving DIY jobs or writing to their MP about environmental legislation. The result is a unique network of BAME and faith groups tackling environmental issues on their own terms.

Naima, aged 26, lives in Cambridge and has been taking part in Akashi activities for three years. Her family and many of her friends are from Bangladesh. She has helped Akashi engage young Bengali women and teenagers on climate change, by organising ‘Eco-warriors’ activities – trips to a local organic farm, a series of seasonal cookery classes and craft sessions making gifts from old saris and salwar khameez. The hope is to build skills and knowledge about climate justice and carbon footprints but also to build skills and confidence which will help the young women as they start their careers.

‘I do this work because I care about all the people from across the world being affected by climate change. But I also think that living an eco-friendly, simpler life can make me happier’, says Naima. She enjoys updating me about her family vegetable garden – they are growing radishes, spinach, cucumbers, tomatoes, marrows and Tenga, a Bengali leafy vegetable. She is trying to eat less meat and more vegetables, which she feels is cheaper and healthier.

With respect to her family in Bangladesh, Naima feels that regular chatty phonecalls mean that she can choose to not fly to see them as often as other people with family abroad seem to. But this view isn’t shared by everyone around her, many of whom feel they need to fly to be with people in person. Also, ‘Some people measure success by what car they drive and how many times they fly,’ says Naima.’ They want to show relatives back home they have done well’.

Akashi meetings often incorporate a discussion about the difficulty of the ‘home and away’ dynamic many BAME people experience when living in the UK – still close enough to traditions which encourage the respect of community and resources yet surrounded by a throwaway culture of materialism and individualism. Like all CCF meetings, ground rules are set together to ensure everyone remains supportive and non-judgemental. Every participant is encouraged to share their story – including barriers they perceive to enjoying a life that is sustainable and makes them happy. The focus is on finding solutions, starting with small actions which build confidence and empower people to take larger steps. I still attend meetings where someone will come up and say ‘Guess what, I’ve swapped my car for a much smaller model’ or ‘I haven’t flown for two years now!’.

When asked for her suggestions for mainstream environmental organisations, Naima is clear – ‘get better at reaching out.’ Akashi wouldn’t work if we simply arranged speaker meetings and expected people to turn up – we get out to community centres, places of worship, cafes, basketball courts and schools and get talking. We use interpreters where necessary and try not to use the written word where pictures, art activities or conversation will do a better job.

The Akashi ‘One World, Many Voices’ exhibition, featuring participants’ climate change stories and photos, is a popular display and training resource. BAME viewers often express delight at seeing stories they identify with on a glossy poster board. People in White-dominated environmental organisations express surprise at subjects dear to them being discussed in unfamiliar ways.

There are an increasing number of environmental projects in the UK with an inspiring empowerment story to tell. ‘Faith and Climate Change’ in Birmingham has successfully built a network of faith groups around the West Midlands engaged in green activity. Events like Organic Iftars (the communal meal that breaks the fast during Ramadan) have led to renewable energy projects for buildings of worship and groups attending the recent ‘Wave’ climate change march in London. Hounslow Race Equality Council teamed up with lawyers from Friends of the Earth’s Rights and Justice Centre to force the UK government to review the health impact on local BME communities of local air pollution from the proposed third runway at Heathrow airport. People and Planet, a student-led campaigning organisation, created an outreach programme targeted at further education colleges, using film making and graffiti to inspire students (addition in April 2015 – which was part of P and P’s journey towards this work). The Women’s Environmental Network has trained women in Tower Hamlets in gardening skills to grow traditional vegetables. Participants in these projects and numerous others are taking action to improve the environment and their lives in ways they enjoy and find meaningful.

The lessons apply when working across class, age and ability, not just race and faith. The result can be a catalyst for change – the empowerment of participants and inspiration for others to do things differently.

‘Identity campaigning’ is a growing concept, advocating better understanding of who we are – our values and deeper motivations. The projects above and other social movements internationally (such as Kenya’s Green Belt Movement and Friends of the Earth International groups) interact with people as a whole, instead of focussing on changing only policies or behaviours.

An investment of time, energy and patience is required to start with. Often comfort zones have to be transcended, as we try different methods of communicating and learn to listen before speaking. The benefits for the organisations are plentiful – organisational learning on other related struggles and discourses, an improved reputation for being more inclusive and higher levels of trust.

We’re in an age of ‘greenwash’ and lacklustre political action and the ghost of climate change scepticism is looming once again. Environmental organisations can and must make the leap create movements which are more diverse and broad-based, in order to remain relevant and effective. Akashi, by the way, means ‘to the sky’ in Sanskrit based languages. It’s also the name of my five-year old niece. Will she be inspired by a strong and diverse environmental movement when she is my age?

That’s up to all of us.

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