This story is part of Black Ballad’s takeover of HuffPost UK, a week-long series by Black women on parenting, family, and our post-Covid future.
We’ve learned many lessons from the pandemic, but the two that stand out for me are intrinsically linked: the need for us to connect with nature, and the fact the inequalities in our country, particularly around race and class, can no longer be ignored.
During the surreal time where we were confined to our homes, our thirst for the outdoors was heightened. Of course, we’d enjoyed it before this, but suddenly the need for greenery and fresh air felt urgent. I was one of the lucky ones: living in the south west, I could walk down my road and be in fields within minutes. I was grateful my children and grandchildren also live here; I’d often think of families cooped up in city flats for months, of the children unable to run around outside.
We all know nature is good for our mental health, and especially in times of uncertainty. My favourite memories from a difficult youth are of being in the Devon countryside. Being in those vast, beautiful spaces helped me feel grounded. For a mixed-race young person, whose face looked ‘wrong’ against a rural backdrop, this connection with self and land was vital. Later, I spent time in the countryside with my children, and then with my grandchildren.
Now, more than ever before, it’s important for children from all backgrounds to access nature.
At first it seemed we were all affected by the pandemic equally, but it was soon apparent that we weren’t. Class and ethnicity played a huge part in our differing experiences, and the murder of George Floyd by a white police officer woke more people up to inequality. The Black Lives Matter movement rippled across the globe, into the UK and the English countryside, where an unprecedented number of protests took place.
In June, the BBC’s Countryfile included a piece on rural racism, inspired by the DEFRA review of England’s national parks. The 2019 review found that the countryside is seen by both Black, Asian and minority ethnic groups and white people “as very much a ‘white’ environment”. This led to an enormous backlash on Twitter. “The countryside is free!” proclaimed (mostly white) keyboard warriors. “Trees aren’t racist! Of course they can come here.”
The countryside is (largely) free, and in an ideal world, available to everyone. Yet simply announcing it open to all ignores the very real barrier of rural racism – the existence of which was demonstrated beautifully by the backlash to the piece.
Income is also a barrier to the countryside. Even some children who live there don’t have the opportunity to connect with nature – I worked with children in a Somerset school who rarely left their village and had never been to the beach. Children of colour are more likely to live in deprived areas – less able, therefore, to spend time in wild spaces. Everything needs to change: we need to reimagine the relationship between all families and rural England.
This is an historical moment, for many reasons. There is a growing movement to eradicate racism, in all its guises, in all the spaces it exists. We need to keep the momentum going, building on work such as the project run by teenager Mya-Rose Craig which takes Black, Asian and minority ethnic children on nature camps. Some organisations, as well as individuals, seem genuinely committed to change.
The environmental sector could follow the example of CPRE, a countryside charity, that said in their recent statement against racism: “We will listen to, and learn from, Black, Asian and other minority ethnic people who are experiencing barriers to sharing a more inclusive countryside.” And listening to us is key – it will help create an environment that welcomes Black and brown people, whether as visitors or residents.
Now is an opportunity for tangible change; to move into a future where, if nothing else is certain, green spaces are accessible to all. My hope is for all families to feel welcomed in the countryside, for children of colour who live there to feel they belong, and for every child in this country to have a childhood enriched by the gift of nature, regardless of their skin colour, socio-economic background, or where they live.
This article was commissioned for HuffPost UK by Black Ballad, the lifestyle platform that tells stories of human experience through the eyes of Black British women and elevates their voices. If you would like to read more, become a Black Ballad member to get unlimited access to content, events and discounts, and to connect to its community of like-minded women.
This article originally appeared on HuffPost UK and has been updated.