We recently caught up with May McKeith, one of the nature-based facilitators at ecodharma, to find out more about her work back in the UK bringing nature connection to groups of predominantly migrant women and children in urban environments. She tells us why this work matters politically and personally, the challenges they face, and how you can get involved to support the project.
You’ve worked as a nature-based facilitator with Ecodharma for several years, and during that time supported activists to build resilience, self-empowerment and community through connection with the natural world.
Can you tell us a little bit about how you’re bringing that work to urban environments with the Natural Resilience Project (NRP)?
Sure! So NRP works in wild places in cities – we look for spaces where nature is thriving amongst and despite the pressures of city life – where beauty and wildlife flourish, in the belly of the beast.
We wanted to find ways to bring nature closer to people’s everyday lives, and so we chose to keep it urban – helping people to find that connection closer to home so that they can access it more often. Especially because getting out of the city isn’t possible for lots of people who can’t afford it, can’t get time off work or whose lives make it really logistically tough. And for some people it’s disconcerting not to know what to expect. So with NRP we’ve gone for something local, which is embedded in the familiar, and logistically achievable.
In addition it’s based around the fact that it’s often people in cities who feel most disconnected – the hustle and bustle of city life often limit the opportunities for people to feel connected, so in a way it’s those people who most need the chance to remember how it feels!
In those spaces we’re working with people around the same themes that we work on with activists at ecodharma, as you say – resilience, self empowerment and community to name a few.
We look at the interconnection of life around us, and all the time, by being in nature and community, we’re all learning, and reflecting on our experiences, and those of others. As people reconsider how interconnected things are in nature, and hear the similarities between each other’s stories, it gives pause for reflection around the interconnection of their own experiences, and the systemic nature of the challenges they face.
Often this leads to a sense of a collective strength at what has been achieved, appreciation for nature’s capacity to support and provide for us, and a desire to support each other to continue to fight.
Tell us a little bit about the background of the Natural Resilience Project. Who are you working with on this and why was the project set up? How did you identify there was a need for this kind of work?
In 2015 I was running bushcraft weekends, which also drew on themes of resilience and connection with a collective from Co-Resist in Bristol. Anna Rudd, who was to become the co-founder of NRP, came on one of these weekends, and approached me about bringing that work to a wider audience. With a long background in migrant support work, and a job at Hackney Migrant Centre (HMC), she was regularly in contact with people who were really struggling, and didn’t have much access to the sort of support that WildTime Weekends were providing through connection to community, nature and reflective space. I was delighted at her suggestion, because although I enjoyed the work I was doing, I was unsatisfied and uncomfortable that the people who were benefitting were quite privileged people – largely white, middle-class people who were relatively well connected, with opportunities to access support though a range of channels, but also people who benefit from the huge gains that being white / middle class in the Western world brings.
I had a strong sense that there was something missing in the work for me – it wasn’t connecting with my politics in the way that I needed in order to feel deeply inspired to do the work.
And so Anna and I set about developing Natural Resilience Project, to couple her experience of working in Migrant Support, with my experience of facilitating nature based learning, with an aim of creating something for people she came into contact with through her work at HMC.
In the work Anna does she meets a lot of people being brutally affected by the hostile environment, and time and again it’s the women and children who suffer the most. The intersecting of multiple oppressions means that they repeatedly fall to the bottom of the pile, enduring the harshest conditions and experiences of systemic injustices like racism, and patriarchy.
Realising this, we decided these were the people we most wanted to support. So NRP sessions were designed to provide some respite for those women who are enduring so much and childcare for their kids – a necessary provision if we were to support single mums, and a chance to give the kids some nature time too!
With this as a basis, we’ve now run multiple iterations of the project in London, branched out to Bristol, and developed a range of formats for the workshops in response to the changing conditions we’ve been working in.
For the first time this year we developed an event for people supporting those on the front lines – people like case-workers and support workers, whose work is vital to improving the experiences of people being brutally affected by Hostile Environment policies, but who are always overstretched, often volunteers, and frequently on the road to burn out. So 2019 has been about developing the capacity of the project to reach a slightly different audience, as well as working on the much less rewarding but hopefully useful project infrastructure like our website, and a short film which shows what we do.
Why is it a women-only space?
Many of the women we work with are incredibly resilient, and strong, yet they often come holding a lot of shame and low self-worth. Often times, these feelings have evolved through their experiences of abusive men in their lives, and many have survived trafficking, domestic and or sexual abuse. We wanted to create a space where these women could feel safe, but also where they could discover their sisterhood – find alliances and build a support network which wasn’t subject to the destructive forces that are brought in by patriarchy. So by making it a space just for women and kids, we hoped to support those who need it most, and to create a space where they could feel safe to thrive.
What does ‘natural resilience’ mean to you? What does it include? How is it strengthened through NPR on both a personal and political level?
For me it’s about looking to the rhythms of the natural world, and learning from them. Recognising that tides ebb and flow, seasons bloom and thaw, and everything is in constant flux. It’s recognising that nothing is forever, but that if we pause to gather ourselves, we can identify what it is we need to draw up and in, and often, with the help of community, we can help ourselves and each other to find that.
It’s about acknowledging our strengths and weaknesses, and finding the courage to reach beyond our comfort zones to where we learn most, into the places where we can feel most alive. It’s about the fire in our hearts that burns when we feel alive alongside other people.
And it’s learning what it is that makes us feel alive, because if we can identify that, and find ways to do it, then we become powerful, acting in solidarity with life to facilitate a world we want to live in.
NRP is doing exactly that on a personal level for me, but through the project it’s also creating opportunities for other people to do that too, and the politics of NRP are fundamental to that – it wouldn’t be NRP if it wasn’t looking to address the political aspects of our needs for solidarity and connection.
In a world where pausing and reflecting is devalued, and productivity is prized above all else, it’s inherently political to provide opportunities to do just that – to ready ourselves to weather the approaching storms.
As Audre Lorde rightly said:
“Caring for myself is not self indulgence, it is self-preservation, and that is an act of political warfare”
What are some of the challenges/difficulties/obstacles you’ve faced on the project? And some of the highlights?
Anna and I are both very politically active, and finding ways to help the project to thrive while we crack on with all the other stuff we’re involved in has been tricky at times!
I suppose in a way, the politics of the project have been one of our biggest challenges – it’s something which is fundamental to making the project what it is, but because of that, it’s been difficult to bring new people in – we absolutely don’t want the project to lose its politics, but finding people who share that vision, and our understanding of what NRP does and how, hasn’t been easy! Sometimes people get the politics, but aren’t familiar with the resilience work, or the nature based practices that make this project unique – it’s not a gardening project, it’s specifically about nature based practice, and not many people do that kind of work!
Ideas on a postcard for ways to solve this clearly interlinked conundrum!
As for the highlights, probably pulling off the Bristol series with the help of our wonderful crew down there, with Anna’s 3 month old baby in tow (the youngest member of our team!). All this in the middle of my involvement in the Stansted 15 trial was quite an epic achievement.
But much more joyous highlights come literally every session when we see the women breathe deeply and relax for the first time in who knows how long, and their hysterical giggles while they’re playing games like excitable kids!
How might people support the project or get involved?
In simple terms, we always need more money – you can donate to our crowdfunder here:
If you know easy ways to secure more long-term funding with minimal strings attached (our capacity is really limited so applying for funding is not always time effective) we’d love to hear from you.
And beyond that, we’re looking for someone to help with managing our finances, as well as people to help us develop strategically into the longer term. If you can help with any of these, please give us a shout!
May will be co-facilitating on the Roots of Resilience training 21 Sept – 2 Oct.