Interview with Zarina Ahmad

In our latest interview, Pooja Kishinani talks to Zarina Ahmad on increasing the participation of under-represented groups in the environmental sector and much, much more!

Tell us a little bit about who you are, what you do, and what excites you most about your work.

Currently I’m a PhD researcher at University of Manchester and I also work as a freelance community practitioner, and I would say I am an activist.

My research involves looking at the food practices of British women of Pakistani heritage to see if any of these practises would be considered as being sustainable and if so, how are they acknowledged by mainstream environmental narratives and policy makers. The work I have being doing over the last decade with communities is what led to my PhD. I found that even though there was a plethora of community climate knowledge from the BME sector there was very little, if any data, literature, research or reports about ethnically diverse communities and climate change, sustainability, or any environmental issues.

My role started as a climate communicator /educator working with “BME” communities across Scotland. At times I will use the term “BME”, Black and Minority Ethnics as this is the term used by Scottish Government to label ethnically diverse communities, and therefore the one that I’ve had to use previously. In 2008 Scottish Government (SG) began a national programme enabling communities to tackle climate change and this was funded through SG’s Climate Challenge Fund (CCF) and in 2012 when I joined a race equality organisation from previously managing a CCF project,  I was in a position to challenge SG on how this climate change programme was excluding ethnically diverse communities. The conversations we had with SG came at an opportune time as a review had just been conducted of the Climate Challenge Fund and this review exposed the lack of engagement with BME communities. Hence the creation of my role to support these communities to develop climate change projects, access the funding, provide training and help deliver climate change related activities. Between 2008 and 2012 there were only 3 BME communities that had accessed the Climate challenge Fund and from 2013 I have been directly involved in setting up over 150 BME projects, of different scales from a one off event to 6 year projects, tackling climate change through the CCF.

This work then led to me setting up the Ethnic Minority Environmental Network, a much needed network for both professional and activists from the BME communities who were interested in environmental issues and not just climate change.  The network’s main aims were to ensure the environmental sector has better representation from ethnically diverse communities within their engagement strategies, workforce etc, to engage meaningfully with policy and decision makers beyond just increasing visibility at stakeholder meetings, and to provide a platform for amplifying marginalised voices.

Even though I’m now on my PhD journey I still continue to work with a number of community projects exploring ways to engage collaboratively and creatively, mainly working with those that would be excluded from mainstream discussions on environmental issues.

My excitement and I would also say inspiration always come from the people I meet. I’m fortunate to be involved people from such diverse backgrounds (ethnic, gender, cultural, socio economic, education etc) and I get to hear their climate stories; their climate concerns, their solutions to the climate crisis, their resilience in this ever-changing world, and their passion to make the world a better place for all.

 

When and how did you first realise that climate change is an urgent problem, and one that cannot be fully addressed without gender and racial justice?

This might sound vey corny but I’ve always known instinctively that there was a disconnect between humans and the planet, we live as if one is exclusive of the other. As a child I was brought up in a way, (through education, home life and social environment) that taught me there was a hierarchy in the world and we humans were at the top. Through my life I was always connected to nature and awe of the planet, the natural environment, the vastness of the mountains and forests, the strength of the oceans, the resourcefulness of the soil, providing us humans and the animal kingdom with food and shelter yet we treated the planet as if it was there just to be used by us humans, just to be exploited.  It was clear to me that there is an imbalance, and we just aren’t living in harmony with our planet.

Growing up I also experienced both gender and racial discrimination. Racism, as a child, was overt and I was told this was normal even though it didn’t feel right, this was the way things were and I had to deal with it. We lived in era when Paki bashing day was part of growing up, “character building”. It was acceptable to be openly racist and unfortunately, we were guilty of accepting it was okay to be on the receiving end of racist behaviours; we were different, we had brown skin so racism was what we had to endure to fit into society.

Then there was gender inequality; I remember at 8 arguing with the teachers because girls couldn’t play football and I said how unfair this was and didn’t give up until they allowed me to play. I wasn’t even interested in playing football, I just wanted to be treated fairly and equally have the same privilege as my male peers.  At high school the subject choices for girls and boys were also very gender bias, girls were told to do secretarial studies while the boys got to do physics and computer studies and unless you were able to prove your “worth” you couldn’t take these classes which as I we know unfortunately led to better paid careers.  I also grew up in a very patriarchy culture. The world was such an unfair place if you were born a woman, a thought that often crossed my mind as I was growing up. Interestingly though I never once wanted to be male. I just wanted a fairer equal society for all.

When I first started working on climate change, I noticed how the discussions were very focussed on the science, carbon emissions and behaviour change, however little consideration was given to climate justice and the social impacts of climate change. By this time, I had seen the world change in terms of both gender and racial equality.

I thought naively that there was very little racism in society. The racial aspect of climate injustice was so apparent, the systems that have caused climate change are the same systems that have created structural racism, building on exploitation and extraction and resources of land and people. Conversations with the people I worked with exposed the effects of post-colonial legacy on sustainable behaviours. For instance, generations of Punjabis from North India held a rich knowledge of agriculture and farming practices however the rule of the British Empire left them feeling that this was an uncivilised, dirty and undervalued job to have therefore many aspiring to be doctors, lawyers and engineers turning their back on such practices (ironically these are now classified as sustainable) to the point that many do not want to grow their own produce but want beautiful manicured lawns with rose bushes. This is just example of what I mean by the term post-colonial legacy has had an impact on the lives of those from ethnically diverse communities.

Looking around the Environment sector as a whole was shockingly white, there was little or no representation from BME communities especially BME women yet the environment sector was one that strived for equality and a better world for all…………but I wasn’t sure whose world I was meant be in!

Then there was policy and decision making, and within this sector I often found that inclusive policy meant having one representation from a BME background, treating the BME community as one homogenous group and a tick box exercise. We might be ethnic minorities here in the UK but we certainly aren’t in the rest of the world, we represent the vast majority.

Equally working with women, I learnt how even here in the UK climate change ie a crisis such as flooding or access to affordable fuel has greater impact on the livelihood of women, adding to their already financial and emotional burdens yet these women are so far removed from any spaces that consult them on climate change. The world over women are often the ones showing the most resilience in a crisis and are expected to find solutions without being adequately resourced yet are excluded from decision making. This we see especially when we consider intersectionalities such as gender and race, at a very local level as well as national level.

A lot of my knowledge and understanding has come from people with lived experiences and then seeing how this fits in with policy and research, looking at the overlaps and exploring the gaps.

Moving the focus from climate change to climate justice we can see how intricately linked the climate is to issues of social justice. So going forward we need to ensure that any action or policies tackling climate change do not exasperate any existing inequalities in our society but also actually help to overcome them.

 

You have worked on some fantastic projects to increase the participation and improve the funding access for under-represented groups in the environment sector. Take us through the process of building more inclusive spaces for under-represented communities. What have been the most rewarding and challenging aspects of your work?

The first would be to acknowledge that there are under-represented groups and mainstream narratives and strategies don’t always resonate with all in society. For example, during the pandemic the slogan “we are all in this boat together” received a lot of backlash from different sectors of society, some comparing themselves in a paddle boat while the elite are in a luxury yacht. Therefore, being able to adapt approaches to ensure that no one is left behind is crucial, giving all sectors in society equitable opportunities. With the Climate Challenge Fund, it was not good enough to simply state that the funding is out there open to everyone, we needed to consider how accessible the funding was, what support was needed by BME communities to access the fund and how that support was going to be provided. We also considered if there were any criteria which would exclude certain people or ideologies if so was this intentional or not. Next, we worked on an appropriate outreach engagement strategy ensuring it was adequately resourced.

In addition, understanding and listening to the needs of the different communities was paramount to building these inclusive spaces. Each group I worked with had their own concerns and faced their own unique set of social justice issues. Reframing the outcomes of the CCF so that there was a bottom up approach rather than a top down strategy worked really well, creating a win – win situation for all involved. For example, there was a community group who were struggling to provide their weekly community meal. This meal was about bringing the elderly in the community together to reduce isolation, provide them with a hot meal and to check in on them. Through the CCF they were able to continue this activity by collecting short-dated produce from supermarkets, thus reducing the amount of food waste going to landfill and in turn reducing carbon gas emissions; an outcome for CCF.

The most challenging aspect of my work is that the impact of the work happening in BME communities, where people and organisations groups often giving more than 100%, is overlooked and undervalued, seldom acknowledged and valued.

Most rewarding –  I was told this was going to be a difficult job working, with marginalised, underrepresented, uninterested groups who have other priorities and are not interested in climate change this was certainly not the case and I found that this was the easiest and most rewarding job I have ever had.  Given the right space and context I have met people who are passionate about making changes in the world and in their lives, I’ve heard the most impactful climate stories and learnt about the global connections, the importance of climate justice, the role of culture and religion in climate action.

 

For over a decade, your work has highlighted the importance of gender and racial justice within the climate narrative. What do you think has changed and what still needs to change within the climate movement in the UK to address the climate emergency in a just and fair way?

The biggest issue I feel that is missing in the climate movement is the consideration of intersectionality especially of race but also other social categories to the climate narratives. Equally so there has been a huge push recently following the Black Lives Matter movement towards racial equality yet there is still a disconnect within this movement to environmental issues. Things are changing, especially in the run up to COP26 where all sectors of society were getting involved various debates and actions. I just hope this momentum for change continues and at the same time those that are in decision making places are proactively creating space to have meaningful consultations, better representation and fairer distribution of resources which would then lead to the possibility of truly inclusive  spaces, and fairer, just policies and strategies.

 

What does a climate just future look like to you?

A climate just future would simply be a just and fairer world. We would be living in a world where we recognize our own roles in the ecosystem, a world in which we contribute and flourish in harmony with each other and our natural environment without exploitation, greed and harm. A move from the ego to the eco.

 

Finally, a question on climate emotions. In the last two years, the news on climate change has been nothing short of terrifying… We’re all anxious and worried about the future of our planet. What, if anything, gives you hope or keeps you engaged in your work?

I feel that there is a greater awareness of all the different dimensions to tackling climate change, a greater awareness and consideration to climate justice, the realization that people with different intersectionalities are impacted differently so as we move forward more people are being included and more people are starting to see and recognize that

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