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Beyond white middle class environmentalism

Jan Goodey

11th March, 2010

Akashi is a grassroots campaign that gives a bigger voice to black and minority ethnic groups on climate change issues

Shilpa Shah is 'the change she wants to be' to slightly misquote Gandhi.

Winner of the 2009 Sheila McKechnie Foundation Environment Award, she looks at ways to include UK individuals from Black and Minority Ethnic (BME) communities in the debate on climate justice.

Along with her mother, Tina Shah, and co-worker Siobhan Mellon, Shilpa has been working with the Cambridge-based Akashi Project, which she set up and ran until 2008. Now more involved in the national side of things, Tina and Siobhan have taken over the reins and organised Interfaith festivals, 'Carbon Conversations', and climate-friendly cooking courses.

Akashi, (meaning 'sky' in several Asian languages), is a grassroots campaign which started out in 2005 together with environmental charity Cambridge Carbon Footprint (CCF), to achieve more legitimacy for the environmental movement by giving a louder voice to those beyond 'the usual suspects'.

The idea is that minority groups, both diverse and marginalised, feel empowered to take individual and collective action on the biggest global problem facing us all.

'At the moment, the voices that are being heard in the environmental movement are from a narrow sector of the community. We need to be more inclusive and more accessible, and make sure everyone's voices are heard. Not by speaking for people but by working alongside them.'

Shilpa adds: 'We need to meet people on their level, where they're at. The climate change lobby should engage with BMEs and get out of their comfort zone.'

A diversity of voices

This translates into changing white middle-class mindsets. So, for example, rather than holding meetings in pubs where Muslims, Hindus or others may feel uncomfortable, campaigners are encouraged to hold them elsewhere, to rely less on densely written agendas and reports, and to deal with people face-to-face in such a way as to make them feel that they have the floor.

The latest Akashi event takes place in Cambridge on March 21. Funded by international body Faiths in Action, the One World Festival is all about community, faith and carbon emissions reduction. Buddhists, Christians, Muslims, Jews and others plan to come together in a day of traditional dance, song, art, film, talks, displays, hands-on workshops and interfaith dialogue.

 


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'Around 400 people turned up at the last Akashi festival,' Shilpa explains, 'which saw conversation circles, henna painting, hip-hop and signing postcards to MPs as part of the I-Count Campaign. The spin-off from all this was action - people getting involved in community initiatives.'

These have included gardening, helping each other with energy-saving DIY, or writing to MPs about climate change legislation. The climate-friendly cooking course, mentioned earlier, took place in June 2009 when a group of young women visited the Guilden Gate organic smallholding in Bassingbourne. In three sessions they considered how our diet has an impact on the environment, prepared some climate-friendly food and saw how a grey water recovery system works.

Challenging faiths

At the end of last year as part of the first national Inter-Faith week, around 50 Muslims, Christians, Sikhs, Hindus, Jews and Buddhists (in Cambridge 70,000 profess a faith out of a population of around 120,000) got together in Abbey Meadows Primary School to discuss climate change and how faith gives strength to deal with the challenges it presents.

Afterwards, one participant said: 'something very special and magical seems to happen in this sort of gathering.'

Carbon Conversation courses are similarly enticing and have drawn an even wider range of people including three faith-based groups in Cambridge. The course consists of six friendly, practical meetings to help participants halve their carbon footprints, and includes games, discussions and bags of practical information.

Topics covered included 'Why we bother acting on climate change', and ‘How to reduce your energy use in the home', as well as general discussions on faith teachings and the environment.

Shilpa adds: 'I've spent time with Pakistani, Chinese and Jewish communities and learnt so much about nature as a resource, not wasting food, etc. The 'World War' spirit [was] where a lot of stuff we had right.

Not just victims

'The point with these initiatives is that we're not adopting the paternalistic approach to BME, making out people are victims. Yes with climate change there is sometimes a direct link, with BME people having relatives in affected areas. However we are so much more than just self-interested in our 'home' countries.

'It's about showing that people really have something to contribute. And what differentiates this is that it celebrates different perspectives on climate change. It's important people in the climate change lobby think about this more - being inclusive to more people.'

Around 40 'carbon conversation' courses have been run in and around Cambridge since 2007 resulting in 350 people reducing their contribution to climate change.

Waves of action

Having been involved in climate justice since 2003, Shilpa, 27, is now based in London working for a green campaigns group but still delivers training for Akashi with other like-minded environmental organisations.

Recently this has included the Low Carbon Communities network, Transition Towns (a workshop for their 2009 Cities conference led to a project to adapt the Transition model to work better with diverse communities), the World Development Movement (a workshop resulted in building better connections with diaspora groups in their social justice campaigning), and the Climate Camp which now has outreach groups.

There is still a major 'voice issue' however, and one that could be said to apply equally to those with disabilities, the young and other marginalised groups. Akashi isn't alone in tackling it, thanks to Shilpa and committed people like her.

In Surrey for example there's the Woking People of Faith Forum, in the West Midlands the Birmingham Faith and Climate Change Project, and a network of 'Diversity Reps' supported by the student climate justice organisation, People and Planet.

'We don't see the people we work with simply in terms of how many postcards they can sign or how many light-bulbs they can change. We work in equal partnerships and collaborations to bring shifts in attitude and waves of action,' Shilpa concludes. Gandhi couldn't have put it better himself.

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