Meet the changemaker: Ollie Olanipekun on bird-watching, community and how he’d like to shake up the travel industry

Ollie Olanipekun is the co-founder of Flock Together and a disrupter and innovator by nature. We talk to him about what his bird-watching collective does for POC communities, how big they’re aiming to go, and what you need to embark on your own bird-watch

Ollie Olanipekun, co-founder of Flock Together

Photograph by Flock Together
By Josephine Price
Published 7 Nov 2022, 15:00 GMT

How did Flock Together start?

I was posting pictures of the birds at my local pond on my Instagram. A fellow black guy started naming the birds. I had never met anyone of colour in this space before and I’d been doing this for 10 years.

I asked where he lived, thinking he’d say the South Downs, Scotland or some beautiful vast green space. He told me that 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 bird-watching collective and he was on board.

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

Visibility is the most basic way to encourage people to participate. We committed to posting photos from day one. We documented the experience and shared it online. A lot of us had never seen brown people in nature. At the start it was weird. Two-and-a-half years later we’ve normalised that. There’s still work to do, but we’re committed.

How are you disrupting the way the natural world is seen?

We want to use this collective influence to have impact in a space where it’s desperately needed: conservation.

The conservation space is tired. I’m hearing the same thing that I’ve been hearing for 20 years, from the same people. They’re just talking to each other, and they all look the same.

Think about people of colour and our relationship to nature. A lot of our families back home still live with nature and always have done. The knowledge we possess should be something the whole world is desperate to hear. But we’re not being platformed and profiled.

We’re all so busy talking to the privileged: stop using plastic, stop fast fashion, stop this, stop that. And there’s a lot of people that we’re not even considering in this conversation. I want Flock Together to focus on those people. How do I get a 17-year-old kid on the estate who has never considered nature a space for them, to be excited about it? Because if I get him or her excited about nature, they are going to understand the need to protect it. At the moment the conversation is just passing them by.

What is the next stage?

First, infrastructure. Second, taking institutions and reappropriating them for a new world. The Scouts, as an example. It was great for a lot of people, but it’s tired in its offering. Do young people today need to learn how to tie a knot in the rain, or will they get more benefit from understanding that green spaces will benefit them and their mental health?

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

We’re not about jumping on board with old, tired formats, but creating new systems. I’m very much about coalition, so we’re finding the right organisations which might not have had a light shone on them.

Who needs to be making nature more accessible?

Gatekeepers! Whether that’s the brands or the institutions. Do more and do better. The best way a brand can support a community group is to put up the money and get out of the way. That’s the crux of it.

For institutions, representation and visibility are essential. We know your issues about trying to bring new audiences in. So reach out and get them in the boardroom and listen to them.

Would you ever want to do trips with Flock Together? 

We’ve got ideas to do a Flock Together tour. The world is crying out for it but unfortunately a lot of these organisations are still just doing the very tired formats serving the very same audience. The black pound is extensive so commit and you will see a return.   

You’ve got to just look at every space that people of colour have been allowed to flourish in and what that’s done to those spaces. Fashion, sport, music - why can’t travel see all this? It boggles my mind to not understand why there’s no one out there who is capitalising on that. 

Where’s the best place you’ve been for bird-watching?

The Gambia. It’s home to more than 600 bird species. Geographically, it’s a big migration stop-off point. My mind was blown. If anyone says they’re not interested in birds, take them to The Gambia, walk 50 metres and you’ll see 25 different bird species. I guarantee they’ll be hooked in minutes!

Where would you like to go next? 

Mongolia. To go and watch the eagles in Mongolia and watch that culture and their relationship with the birds... I think I would lose it completely if I had that experience.  

I know some people might see it as problematic because these eagles are trained to hunt but from a cultural point of view, these communities rely on that and they do it in a respectful way.  

What advice would you give to someone just starting out in bird-watching?

Don’t have expectations. It’s the experience around bird-watching which is so important. The nature. The time to yourself. Not having your phone in your hand constantly. Those are the elements that make bird-watching great. And if you’re gifted a sighting, then that’s the magic. But magic can’t come every day.

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

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

Where else are the Flock Together walks happening?

Tokyo is the main one. They’ve got an amazing community there who goes out every month, but we’re in talks with the US and taking it to Africa. We’re thinking Atlanta in the US. It’s one of the blackest states in the US and I think if you can make a noise there, it will reach others.  

Can you tell me a little about your book, Outsiders?

It was incredibly hard to put together. It’s very personal: part memoir, part manifesto. For anyone who’s ever felt like an outsider. It’s a kind of manual to use nature to help you get through anything. We’ve got big plans to see it in schools. We want young people in nature. This book has stories of how myself and Nadeem — two guys who talk and look like them — use nature to get through difficult times.

Flock Together organises monthly nature and bird-watching walks for people of colour. Follow them for updates and dates on Instagram.

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