Removing barriers to increased diversity in the environmental sector through education - Earthwatch

Removing barriers to increased diversity in the environmental sector through education

There are many barriers causing a lack of diversity in the environmental sector. Our Learning and Engagement Coordinator, Emilija Rudzinskaite, explores them and shares how Earthwatch is working towards removing them.

Some of our earliest experiences define what we identify with and imagine possible for ourselves. For many people from ethnic minority backgrounds, the environmental sector is not the most welcoming destination.

This sector is the second least ethnically diverse, with employees identifying as ethnic minority representing only 4.8% of the workforce in 2021. How does it start, and how can we fix this divide?

Primary experiences

It starts at primary school, if not before. The most well-known names connected with the environment – David Attenborough, Jane Goodall, Greta Thunberg – do not look like the global majority.

While many classrooms represent the diversity of Britain, the teaching workforce in state-funded nurseries and primaries is still overwhelmingly white British (88.4% in 2021). This contributes to one of the core barriers in gaining science capital, the life experience that supports a child to identify that ‘science is for me’.

Students are not seeing people who look or speak like them in inspiring environmental roles. This lack of representation, and a curriculum that is not decolonised, creates the first hurdle. Primary-aged pupils might have already identified that environmental science is not for them.

Apart from ‘who we know’, science capital is also formed by taking into consideration ‘what we know’, ‘what we do’ and ‘how we think’. While we might be able to give children the same experiences within the classroom, their experiences outside school also have an impact.

Free to roam?

With 84.4% of the UK’s population living in urban areas in 2022,  chances to explore, connect with and build fondness towards the natural environment are rare. This is particularly an issue for children and adults from diverse backgrounds.

While white British adults might spend 38% of their time in green spaces roaming the countryside, that number falls to 15% for adults from diverse backgrounds.

Of the visits that children get to make to green spaces, 20% of ethnic minority children visit the countryside, compared to 40% of white children. The pattern continues with every hurdle, with more ethnic minority children missing out.

The recognition that greenspaces are dominated by white people and previous experiences of racism can deter minority groups from enjoying natural spaces. Neelam Tailor, writing in The Guardian, says that minority groups trying to enjoy the views and fresh air might feel “excluded and hyper-visible”, as well as facing “fears of going alone”, which creates an unwelcoming environment.

Haroon Mota, who founded a hiking group for Muslims, feels that “not having the outdoors embedded within… cultural and lifestyle norms…is the biggest contributor to the lack of representation” in greenspaces. This can in turn lead minority groups to feel that the countryside is not for them.

We all have moments when we seek solitude, mental clarity or when we wish to be able to let our guard down. Access to green space is crucial because it gives us the opportunity to do this. It is unacceptable that ethnic minority groups face barriers that make them feel that they do not have this opportunity

In the classroom, only half of the ethnic minority pupils have the opportunity to leave the city and enjoy the natural environment compared to their peers. They also have on average 11 times less access to greenspace. We are failing to help children from ethnic minority backgrounds become excited about the natural world.

They are not being enthused by the life-long opportunities that open up when we are able to connect with nature. There is no certainty that they will be welcome and guided on this journey to bring their views, experiences and passions to the future workplace.

Muddled path forward

Let’s imagine a pupil who, despite having gone through the school experience without seeing themselves represented and welcome, was still feeling passionate about the environment.

Students who identify as coming from an ethnic minority background make up 26% of all those in higher education. But across environmental subjects it ranges only from 14% to 6% (RDEP 2022).

If this pupil becomes an environmental student on a course dominated by 94% white students, it can further deepen the overwhelming lack of belonging.

They might also struggle to see a path forward. Only 2% of professionals from an ethnic minority background could say that they can easily find a role model who looks like them within their organisation, compared to 78% of their white counterparts.

Supporting, connecting and advocating for diversity

Clearly, all these hurdles have a compounding effect of dissuading talented, passionate and enthusiastic people from joining the environmental sector.

Their STEM skills and diverse life experiences are more important now than ever before. Society is building the actions, solutions and innovations it needs to tackle the climate crisis and restore balance with nature. This cause cannot afford to lose any more dedicated minds.

For us at Earthwatch, it’s about raising science capital. We do this by working with schools in their local communities, connecting them with the right resources, building children’s connection to nature and advocating for their right to access it. We also support early career environmental scientists to pursue projects and research that make a positive difference.

Almost 40% of people of Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic backgrounds (BAME) live in England’s most green space-deprived neighbourhoods. Ethnic minority groups are twice as likely to live in nature-poor neighbourhoods. We urgently need to redress the balance and bring nature back into underserved communities in the UK.

Earthwatch works towards achieving this through our Nature in Cities programmes. We seek to embed nature into early educational experiences across school settings and create feelings of belonging and connection to nature for all pupils.

As an organisation, we ensure that we are accountable for and to our Equality, Diversity and Inclusion (EDI) strategy. We are also a member of the Diverse Sustainability Initiative. Having committed to Wildlife and Countryside Link’s Ethnic Diversity Route Map, we aim to play our part in building a more diverse and welcoming environmental sector.

These changes are needed at every level to drive progress in increasing access to nature and diversity in the environmental sector.

About the author

Emilija Rudzinskaite is a Learning & Engagement Coordinator in the Earthwatch Education team. As a qualified teacher, she leads learning design for education and teacher training programmes and is passionate about all things future-proof climate education and the best practice of implementing it in schools.

Find out more about our work connecting young people with nature here.

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