Meet the Changemaker: Ollie Olanipekun on Birdwatching, Community and How He’d Like to Shake Up the Travel Industry

How did Flock Together start?

I was posting photos of the birds from my local pond on my Instagram. A black classmate started naming the birds. I had never met anyone of color in this space before and had been doing this for 10 years.

I asked where he lived, thinking he would say the South Downs, Scotland or some nice green space. He told me he lived in Stoke Newington, North East London. I was like, ‘Bro, I’m five minutes away. I’m in Clapton!’

I called him and explained my idea for a birdwatching collective to him and he was on board.

We organized our first Walthamstow Wetlands Walk in June 2020. We had 15 people and it was very informal. Then we uploaded the photos and BOOM. The response was, and still is, overwhelming. We had tapped into something the world needed and didn’t know. Our audience was incredibly ready and no one knew about it.

Visibility is the most basic way to encourage people to participate. We are committed to posting photos from day one. We documented the experience and shared it online. Many of us had never seen brown people in the wild. At first it was weird. Two and a half years later, we normalized that. There is still work to do, but we are determined.

How do you disrupt the way the natural world is perceived?

We want to use this collective influence to make an impact in an area where it is desperately needed: conservation.

The shelf space is tired. I hear the same thing that I hear for 20 years, from the same people. They just talk to each other, and they all look alike.

Think about people of color and our relationship with nature. Many of our families at home still live with nature and always have. The knowledge we possess should be something the whole world is desperate to hear. But we are not platformed and profiled.

We’re all so busy talking to the privileged: stop using plastic, stop fast fashion, stop this, stop that. And there are a lot of people we don’t even consider in this conversation. I want Flock Together to focus on these people. How do you make a 17-year-old on the estate who has never considered nature as a space for him happy? Because if I am passionate about nature, he will understand the need to protect it. For now, the conversation is just passing.

What is the next step ?

First, infrastructure. Second, take institutions and reclaim them for a new world. Scouts, for example. It was great for a lot of people, but it’s tired in its offering. Should today’s youth learn to tie a knot in the rain, or will they benefit more from understanding that green spaces will benefit them and their mental health?

Are we giving young people practical skills for the industries they want to get into? Can we put leaders in these industries that these young people can relate to?

It’s not about jumping on board with old and tired formats, but about creating new systems. I’m very much into the coalition, so we find the right organizations that may not have been highlighted.

Who should make nature more accessible?

Guardians! Whether brands or institutions. Do more and do better. The best way for a brand to support a community group is to put some money aside and step aside. It’s essential.

For institutions, representation and visibility are essential. We know your problems trying to attract new audiences. So contact them, bring them into the conference room and listen to them.

Would you ever take trips with Flock Together?

We have ideas for doing a Flock Together tour. The world is clamoring for it, but unfortunately many of these organizations are still just doing the very tired formats serving the same audience. The black pound is vast so get involved and you will see a return.

You just have to look at every space that people of color have been allowed to thrive in and what that has done to those spaces. Fashion, sports, music – why can’t travel see it all? It amazes me that I don’t understand why there is no one there enjoying it.

What’s the best place you’ve been to bird watch?

The Gambia. It is home to over 600 species of birds. Geographically, it is a great migratory stage. My mind was blown. If someone says they are not interested in birds, take them to The Gambia, walk 50 meters and you will see 25 different species of birds. I guarantee they will be hooked up in minutes!

Where would you like to go next?

Mongolia. Going to watch eagles in Mongolia and observe this culture and their relationship with birds… I think I would completely lose it if I had that experience.

I know some people might see this as a problem as these eagles are trained to hunt but culturally these communities depend on it and do it in a respectful way.

What advice would you give to someone new to birdwatching?

Don’t have expectations. It is the experience around bird watching that is so important. Nature. Time for yourself. Not always having your phone in your hand. These are the elements that make birdwatching great. And if you’re good at an observation, then that’s magic. But magic can’t come every day.

Go to your local green space and you will see several species of birds. And the next time you go, you will look for them and you will see others. You will quickly begin to notice yourself looking up into the trees, into the bushes.

You don’t need any equipment, but to get an entry level pair of binoculars you’re looking at around £30. You also need to pick up the Collins Bird Guide. I call it the bible. Me and Nadeem live in this book.

Where do the Flock Together marches take place?

Tokyo is the main one. They have an amazing community there that comes out every month, but we’re in talks with the US and taking it to Africa. We think of Atlanta in the United States. It’s one of the blackest states in the United States and I think if you can make some noise there, it will reach others.

Can you tell me a bit about your book, foreigners?

It was incredibly difficult to set up. It’s very personal: part memory, part manifest. For anyone who has ever felt like a stranger. It’s kind of a manual for using nature to get you through anything. We have big plans to see it in schools. We want young people in nature. This book is about how Nadeem and I – two guys who talk and look like them – use nature to get through tough times.

grouped together organizes monthly nature and birdwatching walks for people of color. Follow them for updates and dates on Instagram.

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About Walter J. Leslie

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