60 miles for 60 years

It turns out that reports of the death of this blog were somewhat exaggerated. I’ve missed having a place to post odd bits of news and pieces of writing, especially about the allotment. What’s really brought me back, though, is a new project that I started on my sixtieth birthday in July.

Given that it was such a landmark birthday, I was hoping to have a big party, preferably a ceilidh. And I wanted to use it to raise money for the Sheffield Environmental Movement (SEM), which works to improve access to the countryside and environmental activities for people from BAMER (black, Asian, minority ethnic and refugee) communities.

However, a ceilidh with lots of sweaty, breathless dancing was clearly never going to happen in a pandemic, and so I decided to raise money by walking instead.

On my GoFundMe page, I wrote this about why I chose to support SEM:

sadacca women

Women from the Sheffield & District African Caribbean Community Association (SADACCA) on a guided walk organised by SEM. Credit: SEM

I’m planning to walk 60 miles for the Sheffield Environmental Movement. Here’s why!

My brother, Simon, was just seven when he died in a road accident. For a long time after that, life for my family was very difficult.

Two things made a difference. One was walking in the Lake District, and the other was birdwatching. I will never forget the thrill of seeing one of only two marsh harriers that were living in England at that time. Or the exhilarating joy of striding out along a mountain ridge, huge sky arching above me, fells and lakes spreading out on all sides, literally as far as I could see.

I think nature saved us. My father in particular, who suffered from severe depression, was transformed when climbing a mountain or sitting in a hide, binoculars pressed to his eyes as he scanned the landscape for birds.

But what if we hadn’t been able to get out into the countryside? What if people had told us we didn’t ‘belong’ on those mountain ridges. What if those bird hides that we experienced as so still and peaceful had instead been places where we felt uncomfortable, unwelcome, judged?

That’s the reality of life for many people from BAMER (black, Asian, minority ethnic and refugee) communities in Britain. The discrimination isn’t always overt but it is pervasive. For example, companies manufacturing outdoor equipment primarily target a white, middle-class audience. In terms of employment, the environmental sector is the second least diverse of all, second only to horticulture.

It’s not surprising that people from BAMER groups visit the natural environment sixty per cent less than the rest of the adult English population. This has knock-on effects for health, social inclusion and educational attainment.

The Sheffield Environmental Movement (SEM) is an amazing organisation that does all kinds of things to make it easier for BAMER people to get involved in environmental activities. These include guided walks, outdoor education for children and young people, and academic research on access to the countryside. A core activity is the monthly Walk4Health group, which has been running since 2004 and inspired the acclaimed play Black Men Walking .

This year I will celebrate my sixtieth birthday, and over the next few months, I want to raise £600 for SEM by walking sixty miles, one for every year of my life. It’s also coming up to fifty years since my brother died, and I feel sure that he too would have been passionate about people having equal access to the countryside.

When we were children, the only thing we worried about when we went on walks was whether it would rain or not. That should be true for everyone.

*****

The response when I launched the campaign was so fantastic that I was able to double my original target of £600. I’m now hoping to raise £1,200 before my next birthday!

 

A time to weep

I had an allotment post planned for today but although I believe with all my heart that growing food well is one of the most important, life-giving and even holy things we can do, now is not the time for me to write about gardening.

Of all the images that have filled our screens during this summer of horrors – and I do not remember a summer like this for horror – the ones that haunt me continually are from Ferguson, Missouri, where black teenager Michael Brown was gunned down by a policeman and his body left untended in the street for four hours.

Michael Brown was unarmed and he was shot at least six times, Eyewitnesses say he had his hands in the air. He was due to start college two days later.

I have a son just one year older than Michael Brown. I am writing this late at night and I know that soon he will be emerging onto the streets of Edinburgh, elated if his show at the Fringe has gone well, perhaps more subdued if it hasn’t.

Either way, he and his university friends may be a bit loud. There’s a lot of tension to release after a show. But they won’t attract attention from the police. (And even if they did, we in the UK do not, thank God, routinely give our police officers firearms.)

How is that one teenager can walk down the street freely with his friends, while another ends up dead in the road?

How is it that I can be rejoicing in my son’s achievements while a mother in Missouri has been robbed of the chance ever again to hug hers and tell him: ‘Well done: I’m so proud of you’?

I have read some powerful posts about Ferguson this week. Two that stood out were Black Bodies, White Souls by Austin Channing and  The Cross and the Molotov Cocktail by Christena Cleveland (links at the bottom of this post).

Both are strongly worded, disturbing challenges to people like me, white people who claim to follow Jesus.

These women – and the pain and anger I have seen in the news from Ferguson – have made me face up to what I know in theory but mostly try not to accept as reality: there are structural injustices built into Western society (let’s not kid ourselves this is just about the US) that work in favour of people like me and my son.

I can’t write about the allotment today  – not because the allotment is unimportant but because to ignore what I have seen these past days would be a form of walking by on the other side, pretending that the people who are bleeding at the edge of the road are somehow nothing to do with me.

In fact it would be worse than that because what I need to think about today is not just that the mother of a boy the same age as my son is grieving, but also my own complicity in the structures that are compounding that grief.

I need to think about how my life might shore up those injustices, and what I am going to do about it.

I highly recommend these posts: Black Bodies, White Souls by Austin Channing; The Cross and the Molotov Cocktail by Christena Cleveland.

There is a very full and thoroughly referenced timeline of the events in Ferguson here.