Like many organisations working for a more just and sustainable society we find ourselves asking some fundamental questions at this moment in time.
What does it mean to be an organisation working for a more just land system in the current moment? How do we work to change something that is the foundation of existing structures of wealth and power, and yet all but invisible in our public and political discourse? What are the stories that we need to tell, and whose voices need to be centred and listened to? How do we ensure Shared Assets isn’t just organisationally ‘inclusive’ or ‘diverse’ but is informed by and addresses the structural inequalities inherent in our land system?
These are not new questions for us, but they have undoubtedly come into sharper focus over the recent years.
Shared Assets was established in 2012 in the wake of the 2008 financial crisis and in the teeth of political austerity. We drew inspiration from the historic resistance of the Diggers and Levellers to the enclosure of common lands and the privatisation of land rights in England, and from the new economic theories of the commons developed by Elinor Ostrom in the 1970s and ’80s. However our immediate focus was on addressing the fact that public spending cuts meant central and local government was withdrawing from managing our forests, waterways and public parks, and was therefore perhaps somewhat technical and practical – dealing with symptoms rather than addressing causes.
Prior to establishing Shared Assets I had many years of professional experience of the environmental sector as an almost exclusively white and middle class space, especially when compared to other social movements or sectors such as housing, health, education or employment. I therefore felt some discomfort at the common framing of land issues in the UK within a very narrow pre colonial English historical context (including the focus on the enclosures that had provided some of our own early inspiration) or in terms of a more modern ‘back to the land movement’ that was frequently characterised as largely white, middle class and hippyish or hobbyist. Interestingly both of these framings would be identified in our recent analysis with Future Narratives Lab exploring why the current land narrative works to inhibit change in the land system.
Our first organisational experience of the tensions that could arise when different social movements came together to explore land issues came with our involvement in Land For What? which Kate describes in more detail in her recent blog on land justice activism.
As we reflected on this experience – and in the context of an ever more aggressive white supremacy within our politics – we recognised that nothing would change within our sector unless we, as an organisation and as a wider movement, began to more explicitly address issues of equity and injustice in relation to the land system.
We also recognised that the first thing we needed to change was ourselves.
From 2018 we started to include an explicit recognition in our promotional and recruitment materials that “the way land is owned and managed, impacts on all of us, whether our experience is of public or private ownership, colonialism, dispossession, or migration”. We also specifically acknowledged that whilst we were reasonably diverse in terms of gender and sexuality, we were “a very white organisation working in a very white sector”, a fact that we wanted to change. These two changes saw a notable increase in the number of applicants from communities of colour, and the straightforward acknowledgment of our whiteness was cited by a number of interviewees as important in their decision to apply.
At the same time we included interview questions that asked candidates how they felt issues such as gender, ethnicity, sexuality, religion and income impact on people’s relationship to land and public space, ensuring that all new members of the organisation were required to demonstrate that they had at least considered these issues and were able to identify the way the land system impacts unequally on different communities and individuals.
These changes were important not to tick some diversity and inclusion boxes, but because patriarchy, white supremacy and colonialism have shaped the society and economy and land system we have today, and we cannot hope to change that system without acknowledging, exploring and addressing this.
Until relatively recently in the history of the UK, and of the countries we colonised, only white, male landowners were able to vote, and the legacies of that concentration of wealth and power continue to resonate today. Our countryside and many of our urban parks are shaped and characterised by landed estates that were created by enclosure, driving the landless into cities to provide cheap labour to the industrial revolution, and sustained and embellished by wealth derived, directly or indirectly, by colonialism and the slave trade.
With migration driven by dispossession, and facing racism and a highly concentrated system of land ownership on arrival, it is unsurprising that Black people and people of colour (BPOC) have the lowest levels of wealth in the UK and are least likely to have access to private outdoor space. These inequalities are compounded by ongoing discrimination and structural inequalities that mean BPOC have less access to public green space, the green spaces they have access to are likely to be of lower quality, and when they are in them are more likely to face racism, bullying or be subject to law enforcement. Furthermore only 3% of the environmental sector workforce and 1.4% of the farming workforce is BPOC.
The extent to which our land system serves to marginalise those who are unable or unwilling to participate in it was laid bare by Matthew Parris in an appalling recent Times article in which he argues for the removal of all rights and protections for Gypsies and Travellers, stating that, “there is no place for the true nomad in modern Britain” because “life here involves having an address” and “accepting responsibility for a defined patch of real estate as proprietor or tenant.”
We can only create a more just land system if our work is informed and shaped by people who understand how the current system exacerbates privilege, marginalisation, inequality and injustice.
We have already taken effective steps to widen the diversity of our staff team, to support the diversification of the wider sector, and to develop new inclusive land narratives. We are now looking to recruit two new board members who have experience of marginalisation with respect to the dominant land system and are interested in using that experience to create systemic change, are passionate about our mission, and can help us develop our organisational and business model.
If you’re interested in joining our board you can find out more about the roles and how to apply here.