How does racial inequality manifest within public greenspaces? The accessibility of natural spaces is not just a matter of social status; race matters too. Our CEO and Operations Director reflect on how race matters within greenspaces and remind us that diversity always wins in the natural world. – By Kath Rosen and Ella Hashemi.
As we write, the world faces a time of extraordinary crises; we are emerging from lockdown with insubstantial plans for a green recovery, climate-induced ecosystem collapse is less than a decade away and we are still facing severe discrimination and entrenched racism in our societies.
One of the cornerstones of The Orchard Project’s mission is addressing inequality; within food systems, in access to quality green spaces and in access to training and employment opportunities. We work primarily in cities, – the most racially diverse parts of the UK, where we aim for every household to be within walking distance of a community orchard. – Around 98% of the UK’s Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic populations live in urban areas (UK Census 2011). Yet a study in 2017 found that only 26% of black people and 25% of Asian participants visited ‘the natural environment’ in a given week compared to 44% of white people and 39% for mixed race inhabitants (Natural England, 2017).
Manual workers accessed greenspace over 20% less than their higher managerial counterparts, with just 32% white and 22.6% of non-white manual workers accessing greenspace in the week measured. People living in deprived urban areas appreciate greenspaces, but their local greenspaces are often poor quality and feel unsafe (CABE, 2010).
All Welcome: Orchards as inclusive spaces
“We’re a real mix of ethnic backgrounds, from all over the world, but we all love gardening and that’s what’s unites us.”
These are the words of a resident on the Wenlock Barn estate in Hackney, where we planted an orchard back in 2012. She strongly feels that the orchard provides a space for people from different races and backgrounds to feel comfortable, safe and equal.
We have a responsibility at TOP to ensure the orchard training sessions and events we create with community groups are psychologically safe and inclusive spaces. We focus our orchard work where there is the most need. Over three quarters of the orchards we plant are in parts of the UK which have the highest indices of deprivation. We work with these communities to improve the local environment and create bountiful orchards together. It is life-affirming work. Those involved get more opportunities to meet their neighbours, contribute to their local area in a tangible way, learn new skills, slow down and connect with nature. It’s worth noting that the UK’s rich history of orchards stems from racially diverse beginnings. It is only thanks to the work of indigenous farming communities across the world that traditional orchards exist: Apples themselves originate from Kazakhstan, the skill of grafting came from China; our modern and heritage UK fruit varieties are the product of generations of observations, tending, and stewardship from growers in the UK and beyond.
Orchards that reflect local diversity
We are passionate about celebrating local distinctiveness and diversity. Every orchard is unique as is every community that it supports. When we design a new orchard with a local group, we choose varieties and species of fruit that both reflect local history, like the Hounslow Wonder that was developed in that area, others that reflect the people who live there now. A great example of this is the Ashburton Estate orchard in South London, planted a few years ago in partnership with in conjunction with Putney Community Gardens, the Ashmead Care Home, Boyd Court Community Centre and the local Ahmadiyya group: in amongst the more traditional apples and pears, we have a pomegranate, an almond, grape and passion fruit vines and – perhaps most experimental of all – an avocado!
There is huge strength in diversity, both for people and for wildlife. It is curious how many of the ecological benefits we often talk about in regards to community orchards, are often mirrored in the communities who benefit from them. The underground network of mycorrhizal fungi that connect all the trees above them, sharing nutrients and providing mutual protection are like the network of people connecting around the trees, stronger by working and being together.
How are we welcoming diversity and inclusivity within TOP?
We know as an environmental charity, we have a long way to go. We are a predominately white, middle-class staff and trustee team. How do we address white privilege and ensure our organisation is doing everything we can to deliver on diversity, equity and inclusion? We are thinking a lot about this, including:
- Paths to employment:
- We deliver funded training programmes to help people get into jobs in the environment sector. For example, the current cohorts of our Orchard “A” level (our Certificate in Community Orcharding) are free to economically inactive and unemployed people. We have had a huge success rate with these courses, with an amazing third of participants progressing into work or further training.
- Paid internships: we do not use unpaid interns; all our interns are paid the living wage
- Our job requirements don’t stipulate higher education. This means we focus more on skills rather than formal education
- We introduced blind recruitment last year to overcome our unconscious biases. We track diversity data through each recruitment round to identify where we can improve our process with each recruitment.
- At work:
- Reasonable adjustments: we are committed to flexible working and supporting the wellbeing of our staff through our wellbeing programme, supportive line management and a collaborative team culture. Staff are encouraged to work in ways that work for them.
We still have a lot of work to do and are still learning. Our next steps are to have a full organisational review, to reflect on areas we need to prioritise next. This is life-long work, and it calls for sensitivity and awareness as we engage with the trauma of historic and present inequalities. We will be following recommendations in the excellent Home Truths Report, ‘Undoing racism and delivering real diversity in the charity sector’ by ACEVO and Voice4Change. All of these steps form part of our commitments to help drive the shift to an equitable society and to ensure The Orchard Project has a rich and diverse mix of expertise and perspectives.
Just as a biodiverse orchard system teaming with wildlife is much more resilient so are diverse organisations. We need everyone’s voices, strengths and solutions to help create the equitable, resilient sustainable societies we desperately need.