The Urban Bird Collective builds an alternative as mainstream birding world doubles down on its racist past
By: UBC Board of Directors and Leaders
With the National Audubon Society’s recent decision to not change its name, the environmental conservation movement reminds us of the racism it still embodies. Audubon, one of the largest birding organizations in the country with a revenue of nearly $160 million (2020), was named after John James Audubon: a white man of inherited wealth who was a proud slave-owner and vocal, unapologetic proponent of slavery.
Given the deeply entrenched racial inequities embedded in the U.S. conservation movement’s history, changing their name was probably the easiest thing for Audubon to do. A true commitment to justice requires the conservation movement to also look critically at: how their private land holding legacies were derived; how their donors amassed large amounts of wealth; the Indigenous families and lives that were negotiated away in the advocacy and establishment of National Parks; how a birding hierarchy is fashioned to “recreation” for those with expensive gear and resources; and how expertise and knowledge is centered on western ways of knowing embodied in a history of racist scientific research practices and colonized bird names.
It’s no surprise that Black, Indigenous, and Birders of Color feel unwelcome in this multi-faceted entrenched system of white supremacy. While it is deeply disappointing that Audubon didn’t change its name, it is, sadly, not a surprise. Their leadership justified its choice by saying: “the name (Audubon) has come to represent so much more than the work of one person, but a broader love of birds and nature, and a non-partisan approach to conservation.” Here at the Urban Bird Collective (UBC), where we are majority BIPOC, we have seen this doublespeak before. That “non-partisan approach to conservation” comment means “don’t upset the (white) base and open ourselves to criticism that we are becoming ‘too political’. I.e., we are willing to upset, discourage, dismay, and shock any other demographic with our choices, but not our current one.
While the powers that be at Audubon may choose to clothe themselves in the very small fig leaf that the name Audubon represents a broader love of birds and nature, we believe not choosing to remove the Audubon name represents a failure of an organization to understand the true nature of the problem of racism entrenched in it.
It is also not lost on us that the National Audubon Society chose this very moment to trumpet a new diversity and inclusion drive. This talking out of both sides of your mouth fools no one in the BIPOC birding community. If you can’t even let go of the name of a man who actively profited from slavery his entire life, your words of “diversity, inclusion and belonging” are just that, words.
We do ask the chapters in Minnesota and the Midwest that are their own independent nonprofits – are you ready to stand against the racist legacy of your namesake? Others have found the courage to take this one small step toward justice. UBC stands by our brothers and sisters who have the courage to look at this racist history squarely in the eye, and actively work to dismantle legacies of colonialism and racism.
Questions? Contact Monica Bryand – Executive Director UBC – firstname.lastname@example.org
- The stench of colonialism mars these bird names. They must be changed. 2020.
- Birding While Black, By J. Drew Lanham, 2016
- Environmentalism’s Racist History, By Jedediah Purdy, 2015