Birds of a Feather

words by daphne milner

photographs by elena cremona

Flock Together is the birdwatching collective created by and for people of color. Here, cofounder Nadeem Perera speaks with fellow community members about the urgency of their mission.

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When Nadeem Perera and Ollie Olanipekun first announced the launch of Flock Together—a birdwatching collective created by and for people of color—in June 2020, little could have prepared them for the overwhelming response they would receive. The first walk, which took place in a large nature reserve in east London, saw just eight people show up. Fast forward one year, and Flock Together’s monthly birding walks easily attract crowds of over 80 people.

 

Flock Together offers community members so much more than an opportunity to observe wildlife birds in their natural habitats. The collective is also a support system for people looking to reconnect with nature after months of lockdown; it is an opportunity for creatives to meet and collaborate with like minded people. In Perera’s words, Flock Together walks are acts of “reclaiming space” for communities of color in the natural world. Below, Atmos’ Daphne Milner speaks with Flock Together cofounder Nadeem Perera alongside fellow community members James Corbin, Daniel Yaw, Cameron Aitcheson-Labarr, and Miracle about the rise of Flock Together and the power of a collective mission.

DAPHNE MILNER

Nadeem, let’s start with you—I’ve read a lot about Flock Together over the last few months but curious to hear this from your mouth: how and why did Flock Together come about?

NADEEM PERERA

It started in lockdown last year. I was coaching football and one of the parents was chatting with me after a session. He was one of these guys who always pushes me to do more. He told me to follow this guy Ollie Danger on Instagram; said he’s a bit of a marketing genius. Two days later, I saw on Ollie’s Instagram story that he was posting a series of short clips about birds. So I responded to each one, naming the species of bird. As soon as he read those messages he just responded like, Oh bro, how do you know this stuff? I told him I was an avid bird watcher and he told me he’d had this idea to start a bird watching club for our community. I couldn’t think of anything more suited to who I am than a birdwatching club for Black and Brown people. Two weeks later, we’d put the flyers out. Eight people came to the first walk, which was in the Walthamstow wetlands—and it’s just been growing more and more with each walk from then on.

I couldn’t think of anything more suited to who I am than a birdwatching club for Black and Brown people.

Nadeem Perera

DAPHNE MILNER

Opening it up to the group, when did you all first get interested in birding?

DANIEL YAW

I’ve always enjoyed doing things outside and meeting new people in the most organic way possible. And lockdown took all of that away. I came across the idea of Flock through from my housemate who also comes along for the walks. He knew Ollie, the other cofounder with Nadeem. So, once lockdowns ended, we went along to one of them. We met people who are so friendly, and met Nadeem who facilitates this whole environment where everyone can speak together, everyone can connect. And in general it’s such an interesting group of creative people who come together. I’ve learnt so much, not just about birds, but about all the people around.

CAMERON AITCHESON-LABARR

Similar to Dan, I’ve always enjoyed doing things outside. I used to go to the countryside a lot when I was younger, like camping or hiking. But that stopped as I got older. When the pandemic and lockdowns came around [Flock Together] became a way for us to be a community again—especially considering the fact that the coronavirus and other schisms have continued to devastate our communities for a long time. So being with people in nature was just like, why not? It was the most important thing for my mental health at the time.

JAMES CORBIN

I was actually working on a shoot for Timberland [when I met] the Flock Together group. I was really surprised and a little taken back. I didn’t know much about birdwatching before, but I just saw how peaceful it felt to walk around and actually look at nature. I remember speaking to Nadine and Ollie and I was like, I need to come to the next meeting. It was so much fun, getting to know so many people that look like me that are interested in nature. The network is so great.

NADEEM PERERA

Thank you all for saying these words. To echo what [everyone has already] said, Flock Together stands for and facilitates so much more than birdwatching. What we’re doing is reclaiming space and providing a support network for our community, particularly at a time when we’re under huge duress.

DAPHNE MILNER

Going back to and building on what Cameron said: I wonder if you could expand a bit on the role that the collective—and birding, more broadly—play in your mental, physical, and emotional health?

CAMERON AITCHESON-LABARR

I live in the suburbs and have access to a lot of green spaces. However, my current environment is not one that reflects me or people that look like me. So while being able to go outside has not been that much of an issue for me, there is at the same time that caution that you have when traversing around the U.K., or any postcolonial or like [predominantly] white racist countries. Being able to be together with people from your community, it feels like all of those things wash away and you’re just able to exist without having any worries or feeling that level of hypertension.

This is a space where you can just be and  you don’t have to think about creating something or doing something or working on something.

Daniel Yaw

JAMES CORBIN

It was during lockdown, of course, and the lack of socializing both during and after we came out of the lockdowns. Going on walks and actually just looking at birds and being around nature in open spaces has definitely given me a new perspective and improved my mental health, for sure.

DANIEL YAW

I definitely echo everything that Cameron and James have said. I also wanted to add that when you go on Flock Together walks I find that I haven’t been on my phone once or I haven’t thought about work tomorrow. Nadeem made a good point a couple of weeks ago on our walk in Surrey—he said this is a space where you can just be and  you don’t have to think about creating something or doing something or working on something. It’s a space where you can just be outside with interesting people. And while you’re on the walk, you’re just talking, being yourself and relaxing outside in nature. I think that’s therapeutic in itself.

DAPHNE MILNER

Nadeem, earlier you mentioned that part of Flock Together’s mission is to reclaim space and, on the group’s website, it states that Flock Together’s aim is to create a world where “every person of color has the freedom to explore the natural world on their own terms.” Can you talk a bit more to the urgency of the cause? How does the power of a collective help Flock Together realise its mission?

NADEEM PERERA

It’s very important. I’m glad Dan said what he said because it’s good to know people listen when I talk. As an individual, I had been birding for a very long time—since I was a teenager. But I was so overcome by this pressure to constantly produce something, get this grade, meet this deadline. A constant output for the cause of someone else, that alone is taxing. And when it’s compounded with the fact that a peer in your immediate vicinity who is putting an equal amount or perhaps even less energy into their endeavours but is getting further than you because of social circumstances, that can be doubly taxing.

 

When we created Flock Together, it was all about accepting the individual for who they are. When you look around you, you see everyone is a person of color and that these people have been through something similar to you. We share that experience. We share that story. That’s why we’re all here.

 

And as Cameron said, it can be very scary as a young Black man and young Black woman or Brown man or Brown woman to go into rural England. That may be a shock to some people, but it’s the everyday reality for us. But through the numbers of the Flock Together group we can alleviate ourselves of that fear. What we really want to do is instill our community with the confidence and skills necessary to take up space, wherever that space may be.

DANIEL YAW

Just to give an example of what Nadeem is saying, last week I went to the Lake District for a few days. Previously I would have felt hyper-conscious of my difference and I would have felt extremely visible. And that would have played on my mind the whole time I was there. But this time, I got back from the Lake District and realized I hadn’t even thought about not belonging in that kind of space once. I’m from London so those kinds of environments can feel alien to me. But because of everything we’ve spoken about I had that sense of entitlement and belonging to be in that space and own that space as much as the next person.

When we created Flock Together, it was all about accepting the individual for who they are.

Nadeem Perera

DAPHNE MILNER

Part of Flock Together’s mission to reclaim space and instil confidence in members also seems to be carried out through the creative mentorships you offer to the next generation of emerging talent. How do you see the link between exposure to nature and creative empowerment?

NADEEM PERERA

I will definitely begin by saying the whole creative mentorship side of things is definitely Ollie’s expertise. He’s existed in predominantly white work spaces [for a long time] and has historically been blazing a trail for younger generations to come. That ability and that confidence instilled in each of us through the walks to take up space is definitely one of the skills required to pursue the creative career that they want in spite of us not being properly represented inside the office.

JAMES CORBIN

I recently went to one of the creative mentorship walks with [designer] Meme Gold. There was such great energy just in hearing people’s creative schoolings and journeys. She shared how she became a fashion designer and it really gave me insight to how different people’s journeys on finding what is right for them are. It was also really inspiring to see a woman of colour and hear how she’s managed to find her success.

MIRACLE

To add to that, Nadeem you’ve been really great in championing poetry. From the first few walks I went to, I thought it would be really cool if we read some poems during the break when everyone’s sitting down and having some food. They’ve both [Nadeem and Ollie] really pushed that out in terms of branding and in terms of creating a space for poets. A lot of poets come specifically so they can share [their words]. It’s really hard for poets, especially Black poets, to find spaces where they can speak to like-minded people. So in terms of the creative stuff they have also created an avenue for us to also get work and create work with ourselves and our peers.

DAPHNE MILNER

What are the most interesting breeds of bird you’ve scouted on your monthly walks?

MIRACLE

I think you’re underestimating how difficult it is to use the binoculars! But a woodpecker and an owl are both high up on my list.

NADEEM PERERA

One of my highlights took place during the last walk of 2020. We were on the last stretch [of the walk] and we took a turn and all of a sudden I saw this big brown shape in the corner of my eye. There are like 75 people behind me at this point. So I tried to creep around to see this bird and I realised that it was a buzzard—a buzzard is a pretty big eagle-type bird. You would usually see it soaring really high up in the sky or sitting in open fields looking for food, so to see it in dense wood was a first for me. It then [proceeded] to fly over the flock. As the designated birdman, it’s like, great, job done.

DAPHNE MILNER

Back to you Nadeem, I believe Flock Together has recently expanded its walks to a number of other cities. What does that feel like? And what’s next for Flock Together?

NADEEM PERERA

Toronto was the first international chapter to launch, and then we had New York soon after that. At the moment we’re working on [launching regular walks in] Amsterdam, Paris, Berlin, LA and South Africa. A global support network is our ambition. Our priority at the moment is to enact long term, long-lasting change and we believe that can be done by engaging the younger generation. We’re now working towards launching Flock Together Academy, which will focus on underprivileged kids across London and getting them into nature, getting them to learn outside the classroom not just about birds but about the outdoors in general. It’s about them learning to be comfortable within themselves.

AGENCY The Earth Issue IN COLLABORATION WITH Flock Together and Glow Life

 

PRODUCTION Nnena Nwakodo and Sofia Bodger STYLIST AND ART DIRECTION Isabelle Landicho PHOTOGRAPHY ASSISTANT Alex Galloway TALENT Ade Oyejobi, Corey Chuck, Houston X, Kelvin Ayivor, James Corbin, Cameron Aitcheson-Labarr, Af Williams, Miracle, Usman N Rabiu MAKEUP Zoë Moore SKINCARE USED Glithening, 79 Lux HATS Benny Andallo FLOWERS Sage Flowers STUDIO Sabotage Studios

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