“This focus on diversity is good. It is the future of conservation. It is good.”
“There was so much incentive for me to stop birdwatching.”
-John C. Robinson
I spent all day Saturday at the Focus on Diversity: Changing the Face of American Birding conference organized ably by the irrepressible Dave Magpiong and a host of others. Why would I spend a gorgeous autumn Saturday that had birders up and down the east coast searching for migrants and vagrants at a conference? Because birding – my hobby, my pastime, my passion – is too white. Sure, John James Audubon was a person of color, something that no one seems to want to discuss, at least until recently, but birding since him has been largely something that white people do. And I don’t think it is just me that feels uncomfortable about the fact that the people I spend my time birding with, that is to say birders, are almost as white as a klan rally.
In fact, I know that is not the case. The passion and dedication of the other attendees at the conference made that clear. Latinos, African-Americans, Asian-Americans, and a bunch of white folks all shared their stories and experiences and tried to wrap their heads around the enormous issue that race is in the United States and how it can be addressed in the birding world. Of course, any discussion on race, especially with people who are of a different race, can be fraught with hazards, and usually people are too guarded to really share their thoughts. This conference felt like a safe space to have open and honest conversations and the way people spoke and the somewhat taboo subjects that were brought up reinforced that perception.
What did I take away from the conference?
First, I took away a deeper understanding of the barriers, both real and perceived, that keep non-whites from getting into birding in the United States. They can be as simple as a lack of knowledge of what can be seen in local parks or as complex as dealing head-on with racists in the birding world. When you take into account the (sometimes accurate) stereotypes about birders and a popular culture that emphasizes material gain and always wearing the latest fashions is it any wonder that a kid might not want to get involved in birds? And do you think those factors are stronger or weaker for young black and Hispanic kids who rarely, if ever, see images of people that look like them involved in the natural world? Simple things, like seeing non-white faces in birding brochures and publications, can help make people of color feel more comfortable in the birding world.
Second, I took away the idea that if birding organizations – and conservation movements – don’t recruit more people of color than they won’t have much point in the United States of tomorrow. It won’t be long before we are a majority minority country and organizations and activities that attract only white people will rapidly become anachronisms and lose what little muscle they now have. Of course, I was aware of this to some degree before the conference but some of the numbers that were presented really put what I had a vague idea of into stark black and white.
Finally, I took away a renewed commitment to help make the birding world more inclusive, more welcoming, and more like the rest of America, a multicultural society with people from every background. With a more-than-full-time job, a family, and a blog I don’t really have time to do many of the things I would like to do in an attempt to make birding a more multiracial pursuit but I can certainly redouble the efforts Mike and I have already made to make sure that our blog features writers from a variety of cultures, countries and races. It’s not much but it is something. And, who knows? Maybe some kid from Queens will see a bird that piques her interest and she will do some Googling and end up on 10,000 Birds and see a person that looks like her. I think that would make her more likely to become a birder. Don’t you?