As Nature Center Leaders, It’s Our Responsibility To Be Anti-Racists

by Loren Smith, PhD
Director of Network Development and Strategy, 
National Audubon Society

audubon.org

 

Note: This article was originally published in the Summer 2020 issue of Directions, the ANCA journal. Members can access the full issue via the member portal.

 

Word traveled swiftly: A Black birder named Christian Cooper, well-known in the New York City birding community and a board member of New York City Audubon, had been subjected to racist harassment in Central Park. Within hours, national media was running stories about the incident and the birding world had to reckon with its own challenges as dozens of birders of color came forward with their own stories of being targets of racist bigotry by strangers and fellow birders alike. And then came the video of George Floyd’s murder by four Minneapolis police officers. 

At National Audubon Society, staff, executives, and board members had been prepared to meet this moment by a multi-year journey of training, learning, and action around equity, diversity, and inclusion, including anti-racism. And so very quickly, Audubon coalesced around a public message and made a series of statements and actions in response to Christian Cooper’s experience and George Floyd’s murder.

The first came on May 26, the day after the Central Park incident; another followed shortly thereafter about anti-Black racism and the challenges that people of color face in the conservation and birding communities — with a public commitment to pursuing an anti-racist course of action in everything Audubon does. Audubon also shared a statement in support of recent Supreme Court wins for Dreamers and LGBTQIA+ people during this time. Internally, Audubon has also committed to providing extensive staff trainings and resources, building on years of previous work, to ensure that Audubon meets its stated equity and inclusion goals.

Audubon’s executive and development teams kept up a steady cadence of communications to inform our board and major donors. The message was clear: Audubon is committed to being anti-racist, hopefully with the committed support of each board member and major donor, because it’s what is required of us as humans and conservationists. 

Being a 115-year-old organization whose donor base is overwhelmingly white and affluent, but whose 34 nature centers serve more than one million people in communities that are predominantly not white and not affluent, means that Audubon has a huge opportunity when addressing America’s racist past and present. There is already excellent equity, diversity, and inclusion work happening at our nature centers, and we are investing in new anti-racist and de-escalation training for all of our staff so that they can help manage the necessary conversations around these issues in a way that isn’t harmful to people of color. 

Many of our efforts are built into the day-to-day activities of our center staff and educators across the country. In 2018, we as an organization decided to use the term “community science” instead of “citizen science” to create a more inclusive context for these important projects that help us track bird population health long-term—a change that was championed by one of our nature center directors. Most recently, because of COVID-19, we’ve had to transition all of our education and camps to distance learning. Audubon nature centers, like Debs Park in Los Angeles, have taken to doing live demonstrations and bird watching events on social media. But because many of the communities we serve lack adequate access to broadband Internet, we’ve also had to develop Camp-In-A-Box and at-home learning modules, and we began handing them out at meal distribution points in local schools. We also created an entire at-home English- and Spanish-language learning module called Audubon For Kids/Audubon para niños that adults could use to keep kids occupied. 

Actions like these are not limited to organizations with national scope, teams of communications professionals, and hundreds of employees. Any professional nature center organization can adopt equity, diversity, and inclusion, and anti-racism policies. Free or low-cost resources exist to educate and inform boards, staff, volunteers, and community members so that they can all better participate in the struggle to end racism, including Anti-Racism Resources compiled by Sarah Sophie Flicker, Alyssa Klein (May 2020) and Anti-Racism, Racial Justice, and Abolition Resources, curated and compiled by Sujata Tejwani, Sujata Strategies (May-July 2020). Every center has the responsibility to examine policies and practices that perpetuate racism — even those that manifest within their own organization — and to act to address them.

Support for Audubon’s anti-racist, pro-inclusion and equity stance has been nearly universal — not just at the staff or board level, but from people who had felt alienated from the broader conservation movement (which is also very white). Our statements and actions — partnering with the organizers of Black Birders Week, working alongside communities of color across the country — have invited far more people in than anyone who chose to leave. We are confident that other nature centers around the country can deploy these same actions and tactics and, together, we can make the outdoors welcoming to everyone.

 

Loren Smith, PhD, is the Director of Network Development and Strategy for the National Audubon Society. He works with Audubon’s network of 34 nature centers, 450 chapters, and 120 campus chapters to further programming and activities that promote birds and the places they need. With a diverse background in paleontology and fundraising, Loren feels fortunate to be able to connect his multiple career paths in the service of environmental education and conservation.

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