Flock Together for the love of nature – and each other.

When Nadeem Perera slid into Ollie Olanipekun’s DMs, they bonded over a shared love of birdwatching, and together turned it into a global phenomenon
A Black man in a stone-coloured raincoat uses one eye to look through the lens of a Canon PowerShot Zoom.
MARIEHEADSHOT_VIEW Marie-Anne Leonard Writer & Editor – Canon VIEW
Slide into the DMs:

Nadeem Perera was a football coach in Hackney, East London when a parent told him he should look up Ollie Olanipekun. “He was like, ‘Nadeem, you’ve got so much potential!’ So, I thought, okay let me follow this guy.” Ollie’s Instagram was immediately appealing – fashion, culture, the kinds of things you’d expect from a Creative Director who works with some of the world’s biggest brands. But then two days later, something unexpected happened. “There are birds on his Instagram stories,” recalls Nadeem incredulously. “So, I responded to each one, naming all the birds because – and I've never actually said this – I'd not seen another Black man interested in birds. That's why I was quick to slide into his DMs. And he just hit me back straight away. ‘Bro, how do you know all this?’ And I was like, ‘this is what I do. I'm an avid birdwatcher.’”

Two weeks later, the pair met for the first time, having already spent a fortnight online, furiously planning their very first Flock Together event, a birdwatching walk, just for people of colour. They talked – properly talked – sharing their stories and ambitions, yes, but also their values. The beliefs that drive them. The change they wanted to see in the world. “And there were so many parallels to what we both, like, relied on nature for,” says Ollie. And hearing these stories, it feels like it could only have been matter of time before their lives intersected. Both came to a love of nature through experiences of feeling out of place. Ollie’s parents, with love and the very best of intentions, enrolled him in Cub Scouts at the age of ten. “And I hated it,” he remembers. “I just couldn't get down with the uniform, the procedures, the language, any of it. I couldn't connect.” Eventually, he was asked to leave, but not before it had given him the ability to picture himself in green spaces. In hindsight, he sees that this experience gave him the confidence to explore the natural world as an adult – something that many people simply cannot see themselves doing.

A laughing Black woman sits on a high wooden platform. She holds up a Canon PowerShot Zoom and looks through it.

“It doesn’t matter if you’re familiar with a camera or not, the PowerShot Zoom is really easy to use,” says Ollie. “You click three times and feel as though you’re right there with the birds. It doesn’t feel awkward or difficult to hold.”

At 15 years old, Nadeem was struggling with school. An intelligent and articulate young man, he felt that it wasn’t helping him to find any clarity or sense of purpose. Coincidentally, at around the same time, the BBC reported a huge increase in racist incidents recorded in UK schools – around 88,000 between 2007 and 2011. “I actually just stopped going,” he says matter-of-factly. “And while all my mates were in school, I would just find myself walking around green spaces. In the forest, I found that I could just be. I didn't feel like I was being watched all the time. I was a young Black man trying to figure things out in this mad world and when I got that calm, I could actually reflect on who I was and what I wanted to achieve from life.” By different means, but through a shared sense of not feeling a part of the ‘system’, they both found themselves drawn to wide open spaces. “I got a taste for that feeling, that freedom, that liberation, that empowerment,” he says. “By the time I met Ollie, I’d been going to forest on my own for 13 years.”

It’s one thing to feel the forest breeze on your skin and take the deep inhale/exhale of nourishing air that mindfulness gurus talk about. The simplicity and calm of being in nature can be transformational and, as Nadeem says, it’s liberating. But the birds? Where did the fascination come from? Simply, where the forest is vast, the birds are a point of focus. Ollie, like so many creatives, was diagnosed with ADHD and Nadeem, while undiagnosed, finds that much of Ollie’s experience resonates with him deeply. Both speak of what they call their ‘origin story’ in much the same way and (taking the comic book analogy further) view neurodivergence as a superpower. Indeed, they each have a moment where a bird entered into their line of sight and changed the way they see the world.

A group of young people of colour, gathered outdoors. They are wearing walking gear and waterproofs and carry binoculars. A young woman faces the camera directly and holds up a Canon PowerShot Zoom.

“The PowerShot Zoom went down well with the group,” says Ollie. “They had a lot of fun with it. We’ve actually lent a few to the community to use on our upcoming walks. They’re helpful to capture authentic storytelling when we’re out and about.”

“I was on a trip for my brother's stag [bachelor party] and we were on a bus, driving through this country estate,” remembers Ollie. “I looked out of the window as we passed a pinewood forest and saw a barn owl flying towards me. It just felt like the whole world fell away in that moment. I became addicted to that feeling and relied on it for a long time. I realised that birdwatching was the only thing that gave me total peace. It has been one of the biggest contributing factors in giving me clarity and helping me to be creative.” Similarly, a chance encounter with a woodpecker in a graveyard took Nadeem into a new headspace. “It just came and sat down right in front of me. It was so beautiful, bright green, black mask, red cap. I didn't know England could produce stuff like this, because like a lot of people – I just thought pigeons and seagulls,” he laughs. But this moment was something of an epiphany for Nadeem. “When you’re a young person, and you’re having a hard time, you can feel like you don't deserve good things from life, and good things aren't gonna happen to you. That beautiful bird presenting itself to me showed me that beautiful things are out there, and those beautiful things can be for you – and they don't cost you a single thing.”

Together, they have turned a small walk in Walthamstow, attended by 15 people, into a global phenomenon, with Flock Together walks regularly attracting over 200 people of colour. New chapters have since opened in Tokyo, New York and Toronto and Ollie modestly puts this down to Instagram doing “an incredible job to promote Flock Together” and how he “reached out” to trusted friends to see if they’d like to be a part of the community. Nadeem, however, steps in as the voice of truth in the way that only the most beloved of friends can. “This happened so quickly because of all these years of experience this man [Ollie] has in the game,” he says, firmly. “I have a creative streak, I have the community connections, but to be able to watch this guy, it's different levels. And Flock Together wouldn't be what it is without that. I’ve been at the front with him for three years and it wouldn't be what it is without both of us – but especially Ollie and his vision.”

"Every connection you could possibly want is at a Flock Together walk. So, that's what we build it for – for the next generation to come in and just run wild with it and explore the opportunities in the world around them.”

Because when our friends undersell themselves, we step in and become their voice. And this, fundamentally, is what Flock Together is about – creating a huge network of people of colour who come together, breathe deeply of nature, share, support and lift each other up. One of the most powerful aspects of the walks happens during the “sharing moment”, when everyone breaks after a couple of hours of walking and birdwatching to have lunch together, talk openly about what they have going on in their lives, share the things they have written, created or achieved, and sometimes ask for help. “And honestly, we didn't know how important that part of the walk would be,” says Ollie. “As people of colour, we rarely have spaces where we can truly just be and know that when we look to our left and right that the people there will support us. We work in white dominated industries. So, there's a level of paranoia that will constantly be on your shoulder. So, it really is a truly magical element of Flock Together because these spaces are rare.”

Flock Together was also a natural response to the pandemic mental health crisis that Ollie and Nadeem witnessed in their communities, but that first conversation in a park in Hackney has never been far from their thoughts and ambitions. They dream of opening a nature reserve, specifically for people of colour. And the Flock Together Academy visits schools to help children understand the benefits of nature (“kind of a reinvented Cub Scouts,” grins Ollie). After three years, tens of thousands of followers and countless accolades for their work, they are still, essentially, walking in the park. “Me and Nadeem are examples of what's possible when you really truly connect with the natural world,” says Ollie. “Yeah, the love for each other is real and we couldn't have done it without each other. But we know that it’s gonna go on and do things that we couldn't even have dreamt of.”

Flock Together is now a fully-fledged brand in its own right and has grown to such a scale that they have been able to cross the streams of fashion, culture and nature, inviting household names like Gucci and Canon into their world to show young people what a love of nature, responsibility to your community and genuine big-heartedness can look like. “We want kids on estates to be like, ‘Have you seen Ollie and Nadeem? You know, they've got the Gucci collaboration. That Timberland thing. I want to go into this space that they call nature,” says Ollie. “I always say that I get recognised in forests and at parties,” adds Nadeem, with a grin. “And that is Flock Together in a nutshell. It doesn’t have to be just one thing.”

Learn more about Flock Together and join your local walk.

Marie-Anne Leonard Writer & Editor – Canon VIEW

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