Finding Your Flock: Urban Birding with Flock Together

 
A photo of Nadeem Perera and Ollie Olanipekun in birdwatching gear, with hats, gilets and binoculars

Image: Nadeem Perera and Ollie Olanipekun
Credit: Dharmirah Coombes

Throughout our City of Culture year, our Green Futures programme will be working to reconnect people in the city with the natural world around them, developing awareness of environmental issues and empowering communities to build a more sustainable future.

Last month saw the launch of the programme with the opening of Marshmallow Laser Feast’s Observations on Being, an immersive audio-visual experience held in the magnificent London Road Cemetery.

The site has been recently restored by Historic Coventry Trust, which also looks after the Charterhouse Heritage Park, situated just across the road, which will be hosting a range of supporting events across the summer.

Among these are two birdwatching walks, guided by Flock Together, a collective supporting people of colour to engage with and feel welcome in green spaces. It was co-founded by Nadeem Perera, a Youth Sports Coach from North East London, and Ollie Olanipekun, who grew up in Coventry before spreading his wings and settling down to roost in London.

But in true avian style, the summer season has called Ollie back home, prompting some reflections on his childhood in the city. As an alumnus of the nearby Blue Coat School, he was once a regular visitor to the Charterhouse Park, where he and Nadeem led the first of two guided walks on Saturday 3 July.

Two men in caps watch birds in the Charterhouse Heritage Park

Two men watching birds in the Charterhouse Heritage Park
Image credit: Kevin Vagabond

“Growing up in Coventry, I remember being aware that the city had this incredible cultural history with 2-tone and The Specials, and then later a massive club scene with the first 24-hour rave, but there wasn’t really anything like that during my time living here,” he says.

“When I was 19, I started my own clothing shop, and over the next couple of years, it became a real epicentre for youth culture in the city. I was also doing club nights which were really popular, and it was amazing to have all that support from young people and to see how at home they felt in the space.

“Although I don’t think the opportunities were really there for me to build a career here at the time, looking back I think one thing that has always been true about Coventry is the fact that people here seem to have a strange confidence when it comes to creativity. All of the people I’ve met from this city seem to have this real hunger to create, and a real get-up-and-go attitude to making things happen.”

Ollie’s own successes are testament to this. Aged 36, he’s now the founder and Creative Director of an award-winning London agency called Superimpose / Futurimpose, which has social responsibility at its core. On top of this, he’s also a mentor and associate lecturer at UAL, supporting the next generation of “non-traditional creatives” to achieve their goals.

While leading a birdwatching group might seem like a slightly incongruous addition to his CV, it’s all driven by the same desire to bring about change and open doors for those who have traditionally been excluded from certain activities or interests.

“For the last 15 years, I’ve been helping brands to connect with audiences that they don’t really know how to connect with,” he explains. “I do a lot of challenging assumptions around the idea that certain groups of people aren’t interested in certain things.

“While we didn’t really set up Flock Together to talk about racism, the activity of bird-watching has traditionally been presented as an all-white affair, and the brands that operate in that market pretty much exclusively communicate to white people, because they think that’s the only audience which is interested. So it becomes a vicious cycle, and my role with Flock Together is to come in and demonstrate that actually, people of colour are interested in the outdoors, and there is a market for this.”

Nadeem, meanwhile, brings years of birdwatching expertise to the partnership. Described as “a walking Collins Bird Guide”, the 27-year-old has been an avid birdwatcher for over a decade, and has found in nature a much-needed refuge during difficult periods in his life.

“I’ve always loved nature as far back as I can remember, but I guess I really started birdwatching seriously when I was about 15,” he says. “During my teenage years I went through a really turbulent time when I was out of school a lot.

“I remember one day I was sitting on a bench in a graveyard, feeling like the world was caving in around me, and all of a sudden this green woodpecker landed in front of me. It really struck a chord with me, number one because I’d never seen a woodpecker before, other than the cartoon, and number two because it gave me back a sense of perspective.

“In that moment I’d been feeling so consumed by the thought that no one cared how I was feeling, but watching the woodpecker go about its business made me realise that actually, that’s okay. It doesn’t matter whether the woodpecker is having a good day or a bad day, it’s still got to go and eat some ants – life goes on regardless. Somehow that allowed me to step out of the box I’d been feeling like I was trapped in, and it’s been a sanctuary for me ever since.

“With Flock Together, we’ve been able to support a whole community to find sanctuary in nature, and it’s so important in a time where, more often than not, we find ourselves valued based on our productivity, which has a big role to play in creating and reinforcing inequalities. There are so many reasons why two people who work just as hard might not be able to produce the same output , and that’s incredibly demoralising – we always feel like we’re not achieving as much as we ought to be.

“But the beautiful thing about nature is that it expects nothing from you. You can turn up whenever you want and just be. That’s a freedom we want to extend to our whole community.”

Four people in Flock Together t-shirts watch birds in the Charterhouse Heritage Park

Four people in Flock Together t-shirts watch birds in the Charterhouse Heritage Park

Image credit: Kevin Vagabond

Like Nadeem, Ollie had been enjoying birdwatching for a long time before launching Flock Together, but despite the fact that they live within a stone’s throw of each other, it was online, rather than in the great outdoors, where they first met.

“I’d been doing a one-to-one session with one of the kids I coach, and afterwards I was chatting to his dad who was telling me all about this creative genius Ollie who I should follow on Instagram,” says Nadeem.

“So I thought, all right, let’s see what all the fuss is about, and I gave him a follow. Two days later on his Instagram, I saw he’d posted a series of video clips of birds in the park, and I responded naming each of the different species.”

“He slid into my DMs!” laughs Ollie. “Whenever I post pictures or videos of birds I get quite a lot of comments from people trying to show off to me, but it’s almost always middle aged white guys, so when I clicked through to Nadeem’s profile and saw it was this young Black guy, I couldn’t believe it.

Nadeem with a group of birdwatchers in the Charterhouse Heritage Park

Nadeem with a group of birdwatchers in the Charterhouse Heritage Park

Image credit: Kevin Vagabond

“The next thing I asked was where do you live, expecting him to say Scotland or something like that, but it turned out he was just in Stoke Newington, which is like, five minutes from my house. So I told him I’d been wanting to set up a bird watching group for ages, and asked if he wanted to join me.”

“I couldn’t think of an idea more suited to me,” adds Nadeem. “Within two weeks we’d put a poster out, got a group together, and we were ready to go on our first walk. But just the day before the walk itself we realised we hadn’t even met each other yet!”

“I said, ‘Look, Nadeem, we really need to meet before we lead this group because, you know, you could be a psychopath or something,’” laughs Ollie. “So we went out for a beer and we very quickly bonded over similar experiences and a shared understanding of how nature can be a space for healing.”

As for the future of the organisation, the pair are now drawing on their experience of coaching and mentoring to set up a Flock Together Academy, developing a programme to engage children and young adults outside of traditional classroom settings.

“Young people and the next generation have always been at the forefront of my mind – I feel like it’s my duty to ensure they have a smoother pathway into whatever careers or industries they’re interested in than our generation did,” says Ollie. “We want to support them to go on and become the innovators of the future."

“We’ve partnered with the London Wildlife Trust who have been amazing, and offered us their facilities to run sessions,” adds Nadeem. “It’s still early days at the moment, but we’ve started working with schools to deliver workshops as well as some mentorship programmes for young adults, and we’re looking to source funding to expand it further.”

Ollie continues, “We’re hopefully going to be extending our international chapters to Paris, Amsterdam and Copenhagen before the end of the summer, and we’re in conversations with some amazing organisations that will help us offer sessions nationally. But of course we’re just doing this in our spare time at the moment, so if anyone wants to come in with money to help us move things along more quickly, that would be great!”

Flock Together guided birdwatching walks in the Charterhouse Heritage Park have been commissioned by Coventry City of Culture Trust and produced by York Mediale as part of our Green Futures programme. The next walk will take place on Saturday 14 August.

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