– by Shilpa, April 2015
The Akashi Project (phase 1) was a 2-year pilot in 2005-2008 to build a network of BAME* and faith-based communities acting on climate change and climate justice. Akashi was founded by Shilpa Shah and Cambridge Carbon Footprint** founders Ro Randall and Andy Brown. Phase 2 of the project ran between 2009 and 2010, delivered by Siobhan Mellon and Tina Shah.
The Akashi project started in 2005. Ten years later, the participation of marginalised communities in groups seen to be working on environmental issues is an issue which has raised its thorny head ahead of the general election in the UK. The Green party was recently called out for having a lower proportion of ethnic minority candidates than the regressive and racist UKIP.
This blog will share the Akashi project’s work; to record and celebrate its achievements, to analyse the theory behind the work and things we would have done differently to share with people doing similar work in today’s context.
Where did the Akashi idea come from?
Ro and Andy gave a presentation in winter 2005 at CB1 cafe on Mill Road, Cambridge, about Cambridge Carbon Footprint, a new community environmental organisation they had just set up. They spoke about how they were using the Carbon Calculator tool from the Centre of Alternative Technology to engage people in street stalls in talking about climate change. They showed how their approach fused Ro’s background in psychotherapy and adult education and Andy’s in engineering and green technologies. So they could have street conversations about climate change that didn’t scare, bore or guilt people into apathy but also knew their kWh from their ppm.
They then measured the carbon footprints of people in the cafe using Andy’s laptop there and then!
Shilpa, in the audience, was hooked. She was fresh from her masters in International Policy Analysis and some time in India volunteering with SEWA and also with War On Want at the World Social Forum 2004 in Mumbai. She was convinced that we had to ‘Think Global, Act Local’. She was sceptical about the strength and efficacy of the countless public meetings and campaigning stalls she’d been part of since coming back from India. She thought the CCF model had tremendous potential for inpspiring and empowering more and different kinds of people in stronger movements for social change.
And, with Kenyan-born Gujarati-Indian family heritage, she was thoroughly p*&sed off at being, yet again, the only Brown person in the room.
She saw that there was an systemic exclusion of marginalised communities in many middle-class and White-dominated environmental/social change organisations and discourses. The voices and decisions of people worst impacted by the social and environmental justice problems were rarely at the centre of campaigns and projects.
‘What are you doing about talking with people who are usually excluded from this kind of thing – like people of different ethnicities?’ Shilpa asked Ro.
Ro and Andy had seen that so far, it had been mostly middle class, well-educated White people, most of whom already had some knowledge about the issue (CCF had done only a couple of stalls then).
‘Hmm…. Would you like to come over for dinner later this week?’, answered Ro, in a gesture that Shilpa would later realise was typical of her openness and proactivity.
So the first of many meetings around Ro and Andy’s dining table. Their next Carbon Footprinting gig was a stall at the Mill Road Winter Fair, which happened to be in Bharat Bhavan, the then newly acquired centre for the Gujarati Indian Community in Cambridge. Shilpa joined them to use her Gujarati and shameless conversation-starting skills to persuade some other Gujaratis to be carbon-footprinted. It wasn’t our best success that day – but enough to show us this could go somewhere. Next time we met around Ro and Andy’s kitchen table, it was to plan a project that would help us do this work better.
Getting the Akashi project off the ground.
Akashi was funded by DEFRA’S Tomorrow’s Climate is Today’s Challenge fund. Of course we told DEFRA we knew everything about engaging BAME communities on climate change when we applied for the cash. But we knew in our hearts that a large part of this was going to be winging it. This was the whole point for the running the project – it was action research (ie going out and doing it, reflecting on what we did, then going and doing it better, etc) precisely because we couldn’t find any examples who were doing a really good job of it. And we wanted to learn how to do it best so we could share that learning with others.
We applied for two projects – one to work directly running workshops with community groups in Cambridge (and some other places around the East of England) and another to write a fortnightly column about climate change for Asian Voice newspaper. We got the money for both and ran these projects between May 2006 and April 2008.
This blog will share some of what we did, how we did it and what we learnt from our successes and mistakes. Also, the stories of projects that Akashi people have been involved in since, which were shaped by what we learnt through the Akashi work.
If you’re doing community empowerment work alongside marginalised groups on whatever social, environmental or economic justice issues now in 2015 – wherever in the world – we’d love to hear if you found this useful. Shilpa, Ro and Andy are now consultants and speakers in their respective areas. Contact us if you’d like to work with us.
Akashi means ‘of the sky’ in Sanskrit-based languages. It is the name of Shilpa’s niece, who was also born in 2005.
* I use BAME as a shorthand in this blog, meaning ‘Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic’. It’s not an ideal phrase – I use it because it has become familiar to people in the sectors this blog is aimed at. In my community empowerment work, I often use the political solidarity terms of ‘Black’ or ‘People of Colour’. Or ‘minoritised communities’. It gets more complicated as we recognise that we are not just talking about race, but also social class, gender, disability, income, age and other facets of structural oppression and privilege. Future blogs will unpack this more.
**Note that Cambridge Carbon Footprint still operates but with different people running the organisation and a different approach.