Outdoor Voices | Interview with Soraya Abdel-Hadi
Soraya Abdel-Hadi, founder of All The Elements CIC, shares her experience of promoting diversity and inclusion in the outdoors.
Together, we discuss where her love for the outdoors first began, and the importance of creating a support network for activists and community leaders through her work with All The Elements.
Soraya: “I'm Soraya Abdel-Hadi, and I am a sustainability professional by trade and that is where most of my work has been focused for the last six, or seven years.
I only really started working in diversity, publicly, from around 2018. And All The Elements came out of that work.
When I'm not working on All The Elements, I am writing about sustainability and mindful travel, and adventure travel. I also help organisations look at their sustainability policies and work with activists and changemakers, helping them to fulfill their potential in their chosen areas.”
EB: “So take us back to the beginning. When did your love for the outdoors first start?”
Soraya: “It's interesting, because people ask variations of this question a lot, and I don't really remember. I think I have pictures of me as a toddler being walked through streams by my granddad, so I've always been outdoorsy.
I learned to ride horses when I was five. I recognise and appreciate my privilege. When you're five, you don't realise how lucky you are to be able to have that opportunity. Beach walks, countryside walks, I lived somewhere where was very easy to access the outdoors. So the answer to the question is I don't remember, but I was pretty young.”
"I got asked in those spaces about diversity, and people would say things to me, like, “How do we get more people like YOU here?” I would say, I don't know, I'm here."
EB: “ Let’s fast forward to now, how is your relationship with the outdoors?”
Soraya: I have worked in outdoor spaces a lot. I worked in the equestrian industry, climbing industry, adventure travel and planning, and in sustainability.
But none of those areas are particularly diverse.
I was asked in those spaces about diversity, and people would say things to me, like, “How do we get more people like YOU here?” I would say, "I don't know, I'm here." So I went and did a lot of my own work. And that's all happened over the same period of time that I've really been working in sustainability; the last six, seven years.
I started looking into what the barriers to the outdoors were, and who the groups of people were that were impacted, because obviously, I was being approached as a woman of colour, but that's not the only group that is excluded from the outdoors. By looking at those intersections, I could at least answer those questions better. Without doing so, I felt like I was doing everyone a disservice because I wasn't being able to respond in an appropriate and useful way.
In 2018, I started writing more publicly about diversity in the outdoors. There were a few people talking about it, but it wasn't as big a topic. Then when Black Lives Matter happened, it exploded as a topic within our industry. I was being asked to write more and being contacted more.
(Photo Credit: This Expansive Adventure)
I realised that I didn't have a support network around me of people who were also doing that work and I knew there were amazing people doing it. I could see them on social media, but I couldn't work out where I could find a list of them or how I could contact them.
So then I started contacting more high-profile people in the space and asking them, "Where's the network?" There has to be a network for everyone working in this area? They said, "Oh, no, there's not one that I'm aware of. But that's a great idea." I was like, oh, no, now, I have to make it.
That was the start of All The Elements. It's been quite a journey from the very beginning. Originally, it was just going to be a newsletter, it's way more than a newsletter now. We do one on one calls with leaders working in the space. They could be researchers, outdoor instructors, working for a national park or for an outdoor brand, or they could be running a community group. The people are incredibly broad in their job roles and in the work they're doing. We also work across all the different diversity areas. Our community works in the areas of ethnicity, religion, sexuality, gender identity, body type, age, limited financial means invisible & visible disabilities, and more.
The community is amazing. We connect them to each other and also to opportunities, funding, training, anything else they need, and help with things like project management if they need it.
We have an online directory, which lists over 200 groups working across different diversity areas, and it's growing all the time.
EB: “Since you've been working in the space, has your definition of what inclusivity means to you changed over time?”
Soraya: “That's an interesting question. I don't think that my opinion of inclusivity has changed. I think it's more nuanced. I think there are so many things that you don't realise you don't know until you're in it.
I felt the same way when I started with sustainability. I went into learning about sustainability thinking that I was a fairly responsible and sustainable person. Then I started learning about it and I was like, "wow, this is a whole can of worms."
I feel similarly about diversity. I think there is a tendency to skim the surface of what inclusivity actually means, and try and find one solution to all of the problems with access when there just isn't one solution.
So I guess inclusivity for me, is lots of different actions that add up to an outdoors that looks representative of UK society.”
(Photo Credit: This Expansive Adventure)
EB: “There has been lots of positive changes in recent years relating to inclusivity, diversity and sustainability within the outdoor sector. What are some of the positive changes that you've seen?
Soraya: “I think that we're seeing more representation, which is great. I feel like there are lots of people who are working within this space that feel comfortable knowing that the outdoors is also for them. I think leaders in the space also feel more like it’s for them now that they have a community of people around them and that they are more supported.
I don't think there's enough deeper change and I think that brands and funding pools are starting to move on a little bit from diversity after it being a really strong focus for a period of time. I think that misses the point of this being a long-term, holistic, all embracing, policy & systemic change that needs to happen. I'm excited by the work that I see happening with the grassroots groups, and the changemakers, and the activists and I'm so happy to know them all as individuals and to see all the amazing work they're doing. But there's still a lot to do and it concerns that people are starting to move on to whatever they think the next thing is.”
EB: “Are there any particular issues that you feel need more visibility and awareness within the inclusivity/diversity conversation?”
Soraya: “There are a lot of challenges around the nuances of particular diversity areas and intersecting barriers, and I feel like a lot of people don't really understand that in a substantial way. There are also challenges with the people who are telling stories and them not being representative of the people whose stories they are telling. A lot of the stories are surface-level.
Who is telling the story? Why are they telling the stories? What's their agenda? Are they covering the nuances? Do they even understand what they are? It can get quite frustrating.
I don't want to read another story that tells me how inspiring somebody is but doesn't tell me anything about their journey. Or it does tell you about their journey because they came from a very stereotypical hero's journey.
"For every demographic, there is a stereotypical hero's journey and those seem to be the only stories that are told. It's amazing they're being told. They need to be told. But there are more stories to deliver."
I have always found it incredibly frustrating that in order for an underrepresented group to have their story told you have to have a tragedy.
It always fits in within the idea of whatever the stereotype is for that underrepresented group. We need to start branching out. I feel like brands and storytellers are really missing a trick.”
(Photo Credit: This Expansive Adventure)
EB: “What can we all do to become a greater inclusivity advocate?”
Soraya: “I think that once you start to understand what's going on, then you are more likely to make inclusive decisions. But until you understand it, you can't see it. I think that's the first step. Hearing people's stories directly from the people is quite helpful.”
Most community groups are on social media. Follow people that you would not normally follow from groups that you don't know. That's how you're going to start getting a better understanding of the work that's going on, and the challenges and barriers that are faced."
"I started All The Elements because it was the community that I was looking for. I'm always searching for the central connections, collaboration and sharing. We are all stronger when we work together and raise each other up.
After discussions with different individuals, groups and organisations working in the outdoors, I realised that there was actually very little sharing between activities and under-represented groups in the UK, despite the fact that they often faced similar barriers and challenges.”
- Soraya Abdel-Hadi, founder All The Elements CIC
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