“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?
I have one African-American couple in my circle of birding of friends, but they are financially well-off and live in a small city that is 97% white. I can’t speak to racism, as I haven’t witnessed it personally in birding, but I have seen intimidation of the financial sort with white people, so it’s not hard to picture how urban non-whites would be turned off. I think one thing we all need to do is a little less bragging about our Swarovskis and a little more preaching that you can be a good birder that enjoys the hobby with a cheap field guide and $60 binoculars. Sure, I cringe now when I look through the bins and scope I used to use, but I got to 200 lifers with those and I loved every minute of it.
I didn’t get a chance to follow the conference, but I’m wondering if gay birders came up. My best birding buddy (other than my wife) is an openly gay man. When we go to a field trip and approach a group of mostly older and potentially highly conservative men (in other words, birders) I admit to always fearing that he might meet with prejudice. It’s not happened yet to my knowledge, and to his credit I think he worries less than I do, but it’s happened in restaurants and other places so I’m just waiting for it to happen at the sewage ponds. I do know of another friend of ours that quit going out with her local Audubon group because she was being openly derided for being out-of-shape. Sickening.
I suppose my point is that it’s not just color. Shape, size, social standing, sexual orientation, gender, etc. are all potential exclusions. Our hobby has the potential to include everyone if we avoid the pitfall that it’s also a very easy hobby from which to exclude anyone we wish.
Thank you for beating the drum and helping to raise awareness of this issue that impacts anyone who enjoys birds. Your post gets the message across beautifully, and I am as moved by the thoughts you express here as I was by the empassioned speakers that day.
This is breaking news (that hasn’t been announced anywhere else yet), but Drew Lanham, Doug Gray, and Anita Guris have all agreed to join us for The Biggest Week In American Birding in 2012! (I’m SO stoked!) We are honored to have them on our conservation team and to be a part of this movement. We’re hoping to expand the diversity of our team even more in the coming weeks! (You should come and be a part of our team, too!)
Great to finally meet you at the conference, and thanks for all that you and the entire 10,000 Birds team do for birds and birders.
The leadership training for the Boy Scouts of America that I attended that last two weekends also had a huge focus on increasing diversity in scouting. I made a goal to increase diversity in scouting and birding simultaneously. I’m going to help teach the Bird Study Merit Badge at the Great Salt Lake Bird Festival in May. The workbook I create will be in both English and Spanish (we have many Hispanic BSA Troops in the Salt Lake area). I’m also going to offer myself to the Spanish-speaking troops to take them on birding and nature walks.
If we all do what we can within our circle of influence lives will be touched.
I have always hoped to see conferences like this not just for birding but in general so more people can see that the commonalities shared with people of other cultures and ethnicities far outweigh the differences. So pleased that this conference took place and hope that there will be more outreach to “non-white” communities, especially for young people who rarely get to experience wild areas.
I’m very happy that these issues are finally becoming more prominent in birderly self-examination. If we truly believe that this hobby of ours matters, then we have to help it matter to others, whatever obstacles they have been confronted with.
A factual quibble: there’s no evidence that Audubon was a person of color. The description of his mother as a Creole was not a racial label but a geographic one; it applied to people of French heritage who happened to be born outre-mer.
@Kirby – I agree about the money thing, birding is a great hobby on the cheap, and while it can be fun to spend a bucketload it isn’t needed.
@Robert – Don’t the scouts actively exclude gays and non-believers?
After reading this article yesterday, I was very interested when I heard on the radio while heading for church the story of how a historic Black community in Mississippi was saved this year by birders. I googled Turkey Creek and found this write up:
“Audubon’s Efforts at Turkey Creek Featured on The Daily Show” I think you could find it by googling that title–Im not too good at pasting addresses.
I esp. recall what one of the Black community leaders said in the broadcast about how the kids were out with binoculars recording birds as part of the effort, and seeing them in a way they never had. The key to it all was that the little community was being overrun and bulldozed by development, and the Sierra Club had been trying to save wetlands there, so the two groups joined forces, then when a big road was proposed right thru it all, that’s when the Audubon Society got involved. It’s a fascinating story, and suggests that birders can be useful and get involved in a lot of situations like this that we might not think of at first. That could change perceptions of birders a lot.
Membership in Changing the face of American Birding.