We hit the trails with one of mountain biking’s most tireless campaigners for diversity and inclusion: Aneela McKenna.
Words: Julia Hobson, Photos: Finlay Anderson
A Trailblazer is a pioneer, someone willing to take risks and be the first to go down a path that isn’t already there, forging a trail for others to follow and in doing so building a better world for all.
The Black Lives Matter demonstrations of the last year seem to have been a catalyst for a change in the way society, and sports, regard the importance of diversity and inclusion, and it’s on this subject that Aneela McKenna is trailblazing the world of mountain biking.
Aneela is a Scottish Asian rider with Pakistani heritage, based in the Scottish Borders, who for more than 20 years has worked in the Scottish Parliament as a Diversity, Wellbeing and Inclusion manager. She’s also a co-partner in cycle tour company Go-Where Scotland with her husband Andy McKenna, a coach, guide, mentor, advocate and cycling entrepreneur who has immersed herself in a long list of community projects aimed at increasing participation for the last decade. All in all, Aneela is an extraordinary woman on a mission to change things for the better and open up our sport so that people from every walk of life feel they are welcome.
Talk ain’t always easy
We’re in the Tweed Valley, where a short ride from Aneela’s house takes us towards the Southern Upland Way. We leave quiet lanes to head up through the forest on a wide track, enjoying the spring sunlight on our faces filtering through the trees as we climb.
Talk is easy with Aneela. She is one of those people who you instantly warm to, and her open and friendly personality encourages conversation, even about difficult topics.
I admit to Aneela that diversity is a topic I do find difficult to talk about. Not because I don’t care, quite the opposite in fact, but I don’t know how to start the conversation in a sensitive and respectful way, and it’s often too easy to stay silent rather than challenge the status quo. I don’t believe anyone can fail to notice the stark lack of diversity in mountain biking, but many of us have begun to question why that is and what we can do about it. In my own experience, it’s rare to come across overt racism, but that doesn’t mean I don’t get that there are issues surrounding unequal access, and systemic barriers that exist in an industry and sport as traditionally white, male and middle class as ours.
Aneela’s response is positive and enthusiastic. She talks excitedly about how we are at a turning point in our sport, and that the BLM movement has opened up an opportunity. “Acknowledging that there is a problem is the first step so we can then start to talk about it openly in an inclusive way.”
The reasons behind a lack of diversity are often complex involving many different barriers to participation, but as Aneela stresses, “the outdoors is a place for everyone, and everyone should feel welcome. We need to get that message across to groups who maybe feel excluded or don’t yet see it as a place for themselves, we need to change the traditional image of what a mountain biker is, so everyone realises it’s a world they can belong in.”
“Mountain biking is still a young sport, which has grown from being predominantly something for young, white males. But it is evolving and we now need to adapt, welcome and celebrate diversity, and champion it as something that can enrich the experience for all of us involved.”
Times are a’changin
I’m aware I’ve done the classic guide’s trick of giving a fellow rider an open-ended question to answer while we climb a hill, and so we stop for a breather at a natural break in the trees. As we’re taking in the spectacular view of rolling hills, another rider comes past and exchanges a friendly hello, and I ponder that even as a woman in a male-dominated sport, I’ve always found the mountain bike world to be incredibly welcoming.
Aneela explains that we shouldn’t focus on individuals not being welcoming, because on the whole the mountain bike community already is. But this is different to pro-actively encouraging participation and increased diversity. If you aren’t already part of this world, how do you know it exists, or that you’ll be made to feel welcome?
“We are already seeing progress and momentum building, people and organisations are starting to question the way they have always done things. Just look at the increase in numbers of women riding in recent years. Times are changing, but now we need everyone to get behind it. It’s the collective responsibility of individuals, the industry, coaches and leaders, brands, and governing bodies to work towards developing a place where we see everyone have the choice and opportunities to participate and feel like they can belong.”
There’s already a lot to mull over in my head, and further questions arise as we winch up the final steepest part of the climb to the Three Brethren. It’s a beautiful sunny day, but a bitterly cold breeze reminds us that it’s still only March, and dark clouds loom ominously as we briefly find shelter for a snack behind one of the giant stone pillars.
Aneela begins to tell me about her role as recently appointed co-chair of the new British Cycling Diversity and Inclusion Advisory Group. “We’ve got a lot to do when it comes to diversity and our sport. British Cycling recognises that there is serious work to do at all levels, from grass roots sport, through leadership, membership, marketing, and elite athlete programmes, and that as the governing body of the sport, it has a responsibility to be leading the way on this.”
She explains that the advisory group brings together people with different lived experiences, and is there to promote respect and diversity, ultimately working to embed it into the culture of the organisation so that the right questions are being asked in every decision and campaign. Changes need to be made right from the highest levels, and so the group will support the organisation with a new strategic framework for how to move forward. It’s clear Aneela is excited to be on board and offering her expertise to the conversation.
With the chill wind picking up and the dark clouds building and heading our way, we set off down one of the many slithers of singletrack leading back towards the forest. Aneela is a great rider, smooth, controlled and comfortable on the rocky, rooty singletrack I follow her down. Watching her flow down the challenging trail, it would be easy to imagine that mountain biking has always been part of her life, but it wasn’t until her mid-20s, when she met her now husband Andy, that she discovered the sport.
Aneela grew up in urban Glasgow, only a stone’s throw from places like the Tweed Valley, but also a world away. Trips out into the countryside just didn’t form part of her experiences while growing up, and without family or peers to introduce her to rural environments, and no role models to aspire to in the outdoor world, she didn’t even know that riding bikes on mountains was a thing.
This wasn’t her only barrier to the outdoors, there were other challenges too – many that I’m increasingly realising I was fortunate to never have had to face, growing up in a white middle class family.
Aneela grew up with a strict Pakistani father who discouraged his daughters from taking risks or taking part in activities which he perceived as things that were for children or men. Riding a bike wasn’t something a respectable young girl did, and going against cultural expectations and gender stereotypes created by society would bring shame on the family. While Aneela’s brother was given a bike and allowed to learn about practical and technical things, she was encouraged to play with dolls. Hearing this, I can understand where her drive to campaign for inclusivity for all comes from. Her experiences mean she can relate to others who also have barriers to overcome, and work with them to help empower them too. Discovering mountain biking changed Aneela’s life. Her passion for the sport and her determination to share the positive things it has brought to her life with others are clear for all to see.
We’re part way down the trail when it starts to sleet and I quickly throw on another layer. Aneela seems unfazed by the sudden deterioration in conditions. Anyone who’s ridden bikes in Scotland knows that resilience is a useful quality to possess as a rider here when the conditions inevitably get tough, and Aneela cheerfully tells me how using the natural environment as a tool for building resilience and confidence is a key feature of the new business she has just launched.
Mór Diversity is a consultancy business with an aim to improve diversity in the outdoors and encourage positive outdoor experiences for all. “We want to help brands and organisations understand that by being more diverse and inclusive there are benefits to everyone, it’s not just something they should do because they feel morally obliged to.”
Mór is Scots Gaelic for ‘big’ and ‘great’, and it’s the impact the brand strives for and reflects Aneela’s passion for the work she does. Operating as a sister brand to award-winning tour company Go-Where Scotland, the two businesses complement each other perfectly. Through Go-Where and their own experiences, Aneela and Andy have an understanding of the mtb world and the outdoor community, and Aneela’s expertise in the field means she is perfectly placed to advise and offer guidance to others on the topic. It’s clear there’s a need for their services as already the business is receiving daily enquiries. “We’re seeing more and more organisations questioning their practices and what they can do to improve, and that’s where we can help with training, resources and toolkits to help start making changes.”
Equity not equality
With the sun reappearing, our journey out of the bottom of the valley continues. It’s a joy to be back riding the fantastic trails of the Tweed Valley after so long stuck at home over the last few months, and enthused by our conversation, I feel a sense of determination to learn and do more. Mountain biking, the people within it, the places it’s led me to, and the benefits it brings to every part of my life are something I’d love more people from all walks of life to be able to experience. But I’m still not sure as an individual what I can do to help.
I share this with Aneela, who urges me to not be afraid to get it wrong to start with. The training she offers through Mór Diversity focuses on this, helping people understand how they can be an ally. “There can be a fear of backlash, of saying something that might cause offence, and this can often be a barrier, but being prepared for this can help. It’s vital to remember that you can’t be silent and wait for change to happen on its own.”
“We need to step out of our bubbles, open our minds, think about who is visible and who isn’t, and what we can do to help them become more visible and get their voices heard.”
We chat about how it’s OK to focus on individual groups. Equality doesn’t mean treating everyone the same. A history of discrimination and barriers created by systems which reinforce privilege mean that many groups aren’t starting from the same place. We need to recognise that some groups of people are held back, so it’s OK to elevate and amplify their voices more than others. Those voices then become role models for the next generation.
“People in a privileged position (as in those who maybe haven’t faced some of the cultural, gender or societal barriers that others do), can use this in a positive way, reach out and use that privilege, speak out for other groups on social media, call out hostility and stand up to it. We can and should all be champions of diversity and inclusion. Diversity enriches life for all of us.”
Aneela is right. One of the best parts of my job as a guide is the variety of people I get to meet from different backgrounds. Each with their own stories and experiences that individually contribute to make the group more interesting. More diversity can only enrich that experience further.
It’s not just individuals that can help though, Aneela believes it’s time for the media to step up and do more. To work with groups to diversify magazine covers, adverts and stories, to make an effort to show a wider range of mountain bikers so that everyone can see themselves represented and feel like the mountain bike world truly is an inclusive space.
Brands need to engage with under- represented groups and include them in their advertising too. If you can’t see it, you can’t be it. Visibility is vital to encouraging increased participation.
In addition there needs to be a drive to encourage more women and people of colour to become leaders, who can then work within different communities and focus on engagement within minority groups to address the barriers they face.
Of course this isn’t all going to happen overnight, but positive changes are already occurring. Aneela’s message throughout our conversation has been that we should celebrate where we are at but continue to question how we can bring everyone on the journey. In her own words, the goal is to “leave no one behind”.
Back in the garden after our ride, armed with down jackets and hot coffee, I’m more in awe of this incredible woman and the work she is doing then ever. When I look at Aneela, I see a force of nature. A strong, independent, confident woman, a leader who I look up to and admire greatly. It’s a shock to hear that someone so experienced and well- qualified struggles with imposter syndrome, a symptom of her upbringing that makes her feel like she isn’t qualified enough to do what she is doing.
I can’t begin to imagine what it feels like to have felt discrimination your whole life, to have had to fight to feel part of society and to have been judged for your skin colour rather than have your opinions valued. But championing diversity and inclusion has helped her fight these internal issues too. Through all her work, she is finally talking about herself as a woman of colour for the first time. Recognising that she can openly express her own identity rather than shy away or be ashamed of it because she is in a minority. She can celebrate it, be proud of it, and acknowledge that her diversity brings something different to the worlds she inhabits than those who don’t have the same backgrounds. “I downplayed my ethnicity for so long, but now recognising it is liberating and empowering, I finally feel comfortable in my own skin. My vulnerability has become my strength.”
The day passes far too quickly for me. I feel like I could listen to Aneela sharing her stories and tapping into her knowledge on this subject for many more hours, and I leave feeling motivated and determined to become a better ally. The sign of a true trailblazer is that not only do they forge new paths forward, but they motivate and persuade others to join them on that journey into new territory, ensuring the whole community is on board, and most importantly, leaving no one behind.
With people like Aneela steering our sport forwards, we can only be headed for better, more inclusive and richly diverse times ahead, and that can only be a positive thing for all of us.
Words: Julia Hobson, Photos: Finlay Anderson
About this series
One of the most exciting things about mountain biking is that it’s always changing. From the bikes we ride to how and where we ride them, things never stand still for long. And here at mbr we’re convinced things are getting better.
The Trailblazers series is our look at the people, places and events that are behind these changes; helping to define and improve riding in the UK right now. From behind-the-scenes volunteers out digging trails in their spare time; people lobbying for more access to trails; those working to get more people from all backgrounds out riding; grassroots race organisers making events happen, through to the riders who are changing how and what mountain bikers ride; we want to tell the stories and give recognition to the people who are changing mountain biking and making riding better for all of us.