Birdwatching and diversity: Audubon groups promise change
BOSTON (AP) – When Boston socialites Minna Hall and Harriet Hemenway sought to end the killing of birds in the name of 19th-century haute couture, they chose a logical namesake for their cause: John James Audubon, a naturalist famous for his superb watercolors of American birds.
Today, 125 years after the founding of the Massachusetts Audubon Society for the Protection of Birds, the organization and the nearly 500 nationwide Audubon Chapters it helped inspire rely on a different side of life. d’Audubon: he was also a slave owner and a staunch opponent of abolition.
In the more than a year since George Floyd was killed by Minneapolis Police, sections of Audubon have pledged to do more to atone for the past, including by diversifying their staff and finding ways to make natural spaces more welcoming to people of color. It’s part of a larger account within the larger environmental movement, which has been criticized for years for its racist origins and lack of diversity.
“At this point, if people aren’t part of what they’re trying to protect, that’s a problem,” said Debbie Njai, an Illinois resident who founded the outdoor group BlackPeopleWhoHike.
Mass Audubon published an essay last fall, recognizing that much of the Audubon family’s wealth came from running a sugar cane plantation in the Caribbean. He is also committed to having people of color make up 25% of his board and hopes to open more wildlife sanctuaries in communities of color.
The New York-based National Audubon Society separate from the Mass Audubon has also looked at the legacy of its namesake in a series of essays.
And the Sierra Club has apologized publicly last July for the racist views of its founder, John Muir, who openly called American Indians dirty savages. The Oakland-based group also pledged $ 5 million to bolster its environmental justice work and recently expressed support for black reparations..
Environmental groups understand that the future of their movement depends on changing their white elitist reputation, said David O’Neill, president of Mass Audubon.
“If we don’t get younger and become more diverse, we won’t have people standing up for nature, and that’s not good for anyone,” he said on a recent visit to Boston. Nature Center, an urban wildlife sanctuary in a predominantly black neighborhood that he hopes to replicate in other communities of color in Massachusetts.
Green organizations appear to be making progress in improving staff diversity, but their leadership remains predominantly white, said Andres Jimenez, head of Green 2.0, a Washington, DC group that publishes an annual diversity report. in the environmental sector.
In its most recent report, Green 2.0 found that the country’s largest green groups added, on average, six people of color to their staff, two to their senior management, and one to their board of directors between 2017 and 2020. .
“We have to see this change at the top to move the ball in an accelerated fashion,” Jimenez said.
Bird conservation brought the country’s last racial calculation at the gates of the environmental movement and, in many ways, this is where the calls for change are felt most.
There is a growing campaign, for example, to ditch eponymous birds that honor slave owners and white supremacists – Bird Names for Birds.
The catalyst was a dispute between a black bird watcher and a white woman with her dog in New York’s Central Park that went viral last summer, sparking #BlackBirdersWeek and other similar efforts to highlight black nature enthusiasts and the discrimination and other challenges they face in the outdoors.
Christian Cooper, the ornithologist at the center of this controversy, pointed out that organizations like Audubon had taken steps to tackle diversity long before it went viral, although some have yielded mixed results.
A board member of the New York City Audubon Society, Cooper said his chapter had tried to attract more diverse members through modest events like bird watching and the picnic share last month. .
“The most successful organizations are the ones that are trying new things,” Cooper said. “The reality is that fixing centuries of ingrained racial prejudice as manifested in the environmental movement is difficult and uncomfortable work.”
At the National Audubon Society, racial calculus has turned into staff turmoil.
Stimulated by complaints from a toxic workplace, an external audit concluded in April that a “culture of retaliation, fear and antagonism against women and people of color” existed within the organization. Longtime CEO David Yarnold quickly resigned.
Tykee James, who serves as the organization’s government affairs official in Washington, is among the staff pushing to form a union to tackle diversity and other workplace issues. He also wants Audubon to make itself heard by advocating publicly for the causes of environmental justice.
“The culture that we had in this organization has not been that of workers of color, has not been that of women, has not been that of non-binary people,” said James.
Matt Smelser, spokesperson for the Audubon Society, referred to a statement from May from the group, who said “bullying and other bad behavior” will no longer be tolerated in the future. The organization also continues to seek a permanent CEO and is committed to remaining neutral in organizing efforts, he added.
Returning to Audubon’s Mass, O’Neill says the organization’s board has added new members so that 17% of them are people of color. The staff of over 950 are approximately 65% white.
Harvard ornithologist Scott Edwards said the jury was still out on whether those first steps were enough. Some green groups will have to re-imagine their mission and shift towards more urban populations, he said.
“Organizations will need to think creatively about how to bring communities of color closer to nature,” said Edwards, who is black. “Show them that their voices are needed and wanted. Make them feel included in the larger conservation effort.
Mamie Parker, who worked for decades at the US Fish and Wildlife Service and was its first black regional director, advises environmental groups to approach racial equity as a conservation challenge.
“When you plant a tree to restore a forest or care for bald eagles to rebuild their population,” said the retired biologist from Dulles, Va., “It takes years before these efforts bear fruit.” .