Kamala Sen wins the first ever Rehan Siddiqui Award

Posted by Peter Burnside on 21/06/2018
Working hard to look after our mountains at Llyn Padarn. Photo: Chris Gash
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The BMC is proud to announce the opening of the Rehan Siddiqui Award for Exceptional Voluntary Contribution towards promoting Equality and Diversity in the BMC. After years of volunteering, there's finally an award worthy of being presented to the winner: Kamala Sen.

Kamala Sen is a half-Indian, half-German, middle-aged female professional geophysicist/geologist living in North Wales. She’s also an extremely dedicated BMC volunteer, having racked up countless hours of work on the Equity Steering Group and Women’s Development Group, as well as lending a hand to give crags the occasional spruce up.

In recognition of her dedication and support for the BMC, Kamala has been awarded the Rehan Siddiqui Award for Exceptional Voluntary Contribution towards promoting Equality and Diversity in the BMC. We wanted to know a bit more about who Kamala is, why she won the award, and what it is that makes her tick, so we got in contact with her to find out.

Kamala Sen: winner of the first Rehan Siddiqui Award

Hi Kamala, congratulations on being the recipient of the inaugural Rehan Siddiqui Award. Please tell us a bit about yourself:
I don’t get out to the hills as much as I’d like, but when I do, I’m happy pottering around on my own, whether on familiar paths or exploring new ground. On my rare chances to get out climbing, it’s very easy trad these days, though I still harbour hopes of getting back to earlier standards. And you might occasionally spot me at a climbing wall, usually the Beacons.

My interests are numerous and varied, including, in order of time spent: reading (all sorts of subjects, fiction and non-fiction), canoeing/kayaking on the sea and in marathons (slowly), gym sessions, hill walking (very slowly), climbing (cautiously), playing the descant recorder (badly), and ballet (rather like a hippopotamus).

I’ve been a member of the BMC Equity Steering Group (ESG) from the time it was first set up, and about six years ago became Chair. There’s a term limit on chairing the BMC’s specialist committees so, now that my time as Chair is up, I’m just an ordinary member again. As part of that, I’m also on the Women’s Development Group. I occasionally go to BMC area meetings and to local crag clean-up events.

Why did you first volunteer and what made you keep coming back?
Long ago, at the first Tremadog Festival, I turned up to help without a climbing partner. The organiser, Mike Raine, inflicted me on Nick Colton and together we spent the day stripping ivy and brambles off a couple of climbs. Nick must have made a note of me as one of relatively few non-white, non-male faces on the crag, so when he was setting up the ESG he asked me along to the first meeting.

That meeting included a large crowd of keen, knowledgeable climbers and mountaineers from all over the country. Many of them were professional instructors or otherwise involved in encouraging participation in outdoors activities – in short, very well qualified to undertake the tasks the ESG was meant to handle. I must say I felt rather out of place, as my sole qualifications seemed to be my ethnicity and gender. But fairly early on I wrote a short report on the statistics of the latest BMC member survey, which people seemed to find useful, and so I thought that perhaps I could make a contribution after all.

Over the years there’s been an ebb and flow of new people joining and others leaving, as time and other commitments dictated. And suddenly Rehan Siddiqui, our original chair, was the one who was leaving – and I found myself chairing the group. Of course, that meant I felt obliged to stick around for a while! But at least it was easier to feel I really was contributing, once I had that specific, defined role. And that belief that I was helping to do something worthwhile is what’s kept me coming back all these years.

What’s the best thing about being a volunteer?
The best thing is all the people you get to meet and work with. The fact that they’ve got involved means that they are passionate about the hills so we all have something in common, and yet they’ve come from such a wide range of backgrounds that they bring a fascinating variety of skills and knowledge.

Other good things: the sense of satisfaction when something useful is achieved, and the feeling of having put something back into the climbing and hillwalking world. And I’ve learnt a lot about all sorts of climbing (or walking) related subjects that I might never have encountered without being involved.


River crossing in the beautifully scenic Greenland. Photo: Anne-Marie Nuttall

Can you remember any particular highlights of your volunteering career?
It’s hard to pick a favourite moment, because as the non-specialist in the ESG I feel the hardest work has been done by other members and it’s they who should claim the successes. But it’s been a pleasure helping to plan and then hearing their reports of what they’ve achieved: another successful disability climbing competition or training day; another group of Asian women finding the confidence to take their friends out for a walk; another successful women’s climbing event; watching the participants in an equity workshop absorbed in group discussions...

I guess my best personal moments have been quite small: catching a murmur of agreement from the audience when speaking at an equity event or at National Council; or calling one of our meetings to a close with everyone satisfied at the amount of work we’ve covered in the session, and with group members so engrossed in their discussions that they almost forget to go home. I’ve seen the role of ESG chair as enabling everyone else to work to their strengths and interests, while making sure that they get the support they need for their tasks. If the group members feel that has happened, then I can be satisfied. 

On a completely different note, I was recently telling someone about the BMC and what it does, when she unexpectedly said, “Thank you for looking after our mountains.” It’s not really my compliment to accept, but it was a lovely reminder that what the BMC does actually matters, and not only to its members.

What, for you, was the biggest challenge?
The subject of equity is, I think, a particularly tricky one because it can be such an intangible thing. It’s encouraging that the most official parts of the BMC – National Council, Exec, and staff – are fully committed to the idea that everyone should feel equally welcome in the climbing and walking world. The task then is to figure out what prevents this ideal state, and to develop practical, effective ways to overcome those barriers. That’s a whole flock of challenges in itself, but at least there is plenty of pre-existing research and plenty of people who are actively working on the problems. Some of those people are even members of the ESG, luckily for us.

Just as big a challenge, in a way, is winning over those people who equally sincerely believe that all should be welcome – but they’ve never seen or felt the barriers that some groups of people face, and so they resent equity projects as a waste of resources. Because they treat everyone equally, or feel that they do, suggesting that more work is needed comes across to them as rather an insult. Thus we have to find a way to convince them that some groups still experience an inequitable world, and that we can and should take care that our own behaviour isn’t part of the problem. It’s surprising how small a change in speech or deed can sometimes tip the balance between others feeling excluded or included. And unfortunately, as multitudes of social media posts reveal, we still have a long way to go with this.

In my ideal world the ESG would make itself redundant, but we’re nowhere near that yet. In fact, the next key challenge is to actually quantify how much progress we are making in ensuring that under-represented groups don’t remain that way. I believe the current chair of the ESG, Cressida Allwood, has some good ideas on this subject, and we shall see interesting work from the ESG over the next few years.

Why do you think people should volunteer for the BMC?
I certainly wouldn’t say anyone “should” volunteer – we’ve seen that climbers don’t respond terribly well to compulsion! But why might they want to? For some of the reasons I’ve given above: satisfaction at a job well done, giving something back to the wider community of climbers and walkers, and meeting interesting people.

Sometimes volunteering involves attending more meetings than one would wish to. It’s often said that meetings are boring, and I have to confess that can be true. But it’s also pretty interesting to see how the organisation ticks – like seeing the swan’s feet paddling furiously away beneath the serene surface. Although the minutes of meetings such as National Council are publicly available, it’s impossible to capture the whole discussion in a couple of pages of text so actually being there to hear everything can be a revelation. I’d like to think there wouldn’t be so many conspiracy theories around if people could hear the heated arguments that happen before the final decisions!

So if you like vigorous discussion and making sure your opinions are heard, you “should” definitely give volunteering a go: there’s always a shortage of people to represent the areas and their members’ views, as well as plenty of more specialist roles. Even turning up at area meetings, if you can, is a good start.

Alternatively, volunteering might just involve turning up at a crag and pruning invasive vegetation while climbing a few routes, followed by tea and cakes!

What’s next for you?
I’ve only recently started working freelance, so my next main concern will be expanding my professional network. I’m hoping this change will let me balance work projects with more free time, so with any luck there should be lots more paddling, walking, and climbing – and all those other interests – in my future. There might be some BMC area meetings and crag clean-up days on the calendar too...


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